7 questions for Jacquelijn Ringersma

‘What really helps? An incident in which you lose your data’

Photography: Judith Jockel

Jacquelijn Ringersma (58) is the Data Management Coordinator at WUR. She talks to us about the purpose and necessity of sound data management. “You won’t achieve that goal without some level of compulsion.”

How serious are you about data?

“I’m not a researcher so I don’t produce research data myself, but I have worked as a researcher in the past. I often carried out studies in far-off countries such as Mali, Turkmenistan and Burkina Faso. A lot was invested in collecting that data but now it is languishing on old floppy disks or diskettes in formats no one can read any more. Personally, I think that’s a real pity. The data I collected could be used now to provide more supporting evidence for insights into climate change, for example.”

You are the WUR data coordinator. How important is data management in your field of work?

“My job involves formulating the policy on data at WUR and helping researchers get more out of their data.”

“My motivation for working on data management as a topic is first of all that if taxpayers pay for data to be collected, I think it’s only logical that they should get something back in return. Secondly, the university benefits from good data management, not just in terms of research continuity but also in terms of integrity and verifiability. Thirdly, researchers have a greater impact if they publish their data along with their article.”

‘The university benefits from good data management in terms of research continuity’

Name

Jacquelijn Ringersma

Career

From 1992 to 2000, worked in the Irrigation and Soil & Water Conservation chair groups.

Datamanagement

Since 2005, initially at a Max Planck Institute and from 2010 at WUR

What do you see as the most important contribution of data to science?

“At the moment, there is no science at all without data. Data provides the evidence for almost every scientific discovery. Of course, you also have research that isn’t based on data, but that is rare at WUR. In my field of work, we often mean digital data when we speak of data. The chemistry chair groups and some Agrotechnology and Food Science Group departments also have physical data, for example products that undergo chemical processes. We don’t yet have good solutions for that.”

What problems do you encounter when developing or introducing guidelines for data usage and what goes well?

“The introduction of a data policy for WUR went quite smoothly because the initiative had the support of the graduate schools and the Dean of Research, Wouter Hendriks. He is insisting that we develop this policy further and publicize it. It’s good that we have the Wageningen Data Competence Center and that we have such a positive working relationship with the Library and the IT and Legal departments. The data stewardship programme developments are another nice result and evidence that the organization’s management wants to make progress.”

“However, it’s still difficult to get the message across to researchers in a way that makes them enthusiastic or feel an incentive to put sound data management into practice. I can understand that because everyone is always busy with so many things and data management is seen as an extra overhead. What’s more, it often seems as if the people who benefit most from your data management are the ones who come after you and not you personally.”

‘Engagement among researchers is the most urgent issue for sound data management’

“I estimate that researchers are managing the data properly in a good 50 per cent of studies. But there is still not much of an incentive to practice good data management. It is mainly important for the organization as a whole, but the individual scientist does not get any extra credit for it. Sometimes I think you need an incident where it goes badly wrong before things can change. The fact that data management is being taken seriously now is linked directly to the affair in 2011 in which Diederik Stapel, the former professor of Psychology at Tilburg University, was exposed as a scientific fraud. He had fabricated data and of course you can still do that nowadays, but there is a somewhat greater chance that you will be caught.”

“I think you should be able to penalize researchers who haven’t got their data management properly sorted out, for example by not allowing them to obtain their doctorate. You won’t achieve your goal without some level of compulsion. Although I personally am more in favour of rewards. I hope that more and more researchers will realize how important sound data management is. It helps if data management is included in the evaluation of a research project. That will undoubtedly influence researchers’ behaviour. What really helps is if a researcher loses their data for whatever reason, however painful and unfortunate that might be. That might be a disaster for them but it is eventually for the greater good. There is no better proof of why we need a data management policy.”

‘It seems as if the people who benefit most from your data management are the ones who come after you, not you personally’

What is the key book on data for you at the moment and why?

“I mainly get my knowledge of data management from conferences and networks. I find books interesting that discuss the more philosophical aspects of data and artificial intelligence. An old favourite is Gödel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter. It talks about how you can take an algorithm — which is just a line of program text you put in the computer — and create what seems to be a thinking and self-controlling object. I believe the book came out in the early 1980s but it is still fantastic. A more recent example is a book by the Dutch author Maxim Februari (Klont) about a scientist who claims a clump of data in the net has been given a life of its own.”

“Artificial intelligence is about building a computer in such a way that it starts thinking like a human. I have been fascinated by that for a long time, the idea that we can create something living from something lifeless. I studied artificial intelligence when I turned 40.”

Do you think restrictions should be placed on companies like Facebook and Google?

“Well, that’s certainly not part of my job. However, I do often get asked that question. People should decide for themselves whether they want to hand over their data to these giant companies. Gmail, Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp: you hand over everything but you get nice features in return. The data giants are becoming more and more powerful, however, and I do see that as a problem.”

What do you see as the key developments in terms of using data?

“In the field of data management and data science, interoperability — or the ability to exchange data — is seen as the main technical issue still to be resolved. Engagement among researchers is the most urgent issue for sound data management.”

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