We are … researchers!

Prior to the public kick-off event ‘Shaping digitalisation’ on January 14, 2021, the four PhD students of the platform Governance of Digital Practices organised a workshop that revolved around their research projects.

by Paul Dunshirn, Seliem El-Sayed, Elisabeth Steindl, Rasmus Kvaal Wardemann

This workshop was an exciting yet somewhat intimidating challenge for the four of us, as we presented our projects to an external audience of experts for the first time. Whilst we were certainly nervous at the start, our guests turned out to show a lot of interest in our projects and provided many thought-provoking inputs that have guided our research since. 

In this blog post we want to take you through the core aspects of our projects and highlight the most important points of discussion that came up during our workshop. Although the discussions were somewhat specific to our individual projects, we do highlight some of the overlaps that have emerged throughout.


Digital health care governance and privacy (Elisabeth Steindl)

Within the vast field of digital health care governance Elisabeth focuses on e-mental health. Her project explores e-mental health applications from a legal perspective. As a topic this is timely and relevant in a multitude of ways: Not only is public mental health care chronically underfunded, but this situation is further exacerbated by the current COVID-19 pandemic (particularly through increase in demand and disruption of services). In this context, e-mental health promises to mitigate and add to the limited available services. As is the case in many other areas, however, the availability and usage of new technologies establishes new challenges for existing legal frameworks. 

Elisabeth and her guests Filip Paspalj and Ziga Skorjanc used the workshop as a setting to explore these challenges in more detail. Points of discussion were the types of legal instruments in general that allow for the enforcement of data protection and security, the current legal framework governing the specific field of e-mental health, and how the existing framework could be complemented to better serve the needs of users, developers and public health care institutions. The discussion reflected on advantages and disadvantages of hard law versus soft law and also touched upon concepts such as self-regulation and social licensing.


Ethics & Computational Social Science (Seliem El-Sayed) 

Seliem’s PhD project is about ethics and Computational Social Sciences (CSS). CSS should not only be understood as a trend within the social sciences, but as a more general transformation of knowledge production practices towards an increased use of computational techniques. Similarly to Elisabeth’s case, these transformations open up a variety of challenges related to legal and ethical aspects of producing social scientific knowledge. Seliem seeks to adopt a two-fold approach to explore these challenges: From a critical theoretical perspective, he first asks how the nature of knowledge (including its effects and our perceptions thereof) changes if we increasingly rely on computational methods in the social sciences. In addition, Seliem will do research on how particular ethical questions are being viewed from the perspective of practitioners of CSS, as well as from the public. This second angle should add empirical depth to the first part of his project. 

During the workshop, Seliem and his guests Wei-Jill Toh, Joe Noteboom and Sage Cammers-Goodwin focused particularly on the tricky question of how to define and delineate CSS in the first place. Workshop participants dove into philosophical questions about whether disciplines such as CSS have a ‘real core’ at all, based on which they may be defined. Indeed, the participants discussed whether studying the discursive construction of CSS may be more fruitful than confining the research project to a predefined set of digital practices. Another important discussion point concerned the relation between academic and industry research. This discussion entails many questions of relevance for the ‘critical’ part of Seliem’s project: Who drives CSS? Who owns the data? Where is this research actually being conducted? What counts as relevant knowledge in CSS? What does CSS’s overall focus on quantitative methods contribute to general trends towards quantification of knowledge? ­


Knowledge intense work in the age of digital transformation (Rasmus Kvaal Wardemann) 

Rasmus’ PhD project is located in the field of Science and Technology Studies (STS). His topic of research are the FAIR data principles - FAIR being the acronym for ‘Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, Reusable’. While these principles are supported by representatives across academia, funding agencies, and scholarly publishers, their implementation into practice is accompanied by a range of technical, social, and legal tensions and challenges. Rasmus explores these multifaceted issues in an effort to understand how the FAIR principles and other open science frameworks move towards realization. 

In our workshop, Rasmus and his guests Ulrike Felt, Nikolaus Forgo, Virginia Vargolska and Sofie Kronberger discussed how to approach this problem empirically. They focused on the question of how to observe a large phenomenon (such as transformations of knowledge production practices related to principles of open science) by looking at concrete ‘small’ places. Rasmus’ idea is to focus on the figure of the ‘data steward’ in knowledge producing organizations. Data stewards are responsible for the mediation between principles and practices when working with data. His guests suggested looking at how small actors use their cognitive capacities to translate principles into practice on a local level, and to compare differences in similar repositories.


Global commons governance of genetic sequence data (Paul Dunshirn) 

Paul’s PhD project connects various research fields - most prominently Science and Technology Studies, International Relations, and Information Studies. It explores information flows related to the creation, processing and usage of genetic sequence data from marine environments. Besides the importance of genetic sequence data for scientific discovery and for monitoring natural environments, these data bear a lot of potential value for the development of industrial products, such as medicines or chemicals. Ownership and access to these digital genetic sequences have thus become one of the central themes of global biodiversity governance in the past years (see the Nagoya Protocol and the currently ongoing BBNJ negotiations). In this context, Paul seeks to explore the global pathways these digital sequences travel from the moment of genetic sampling to the point of commercialization in the form of patents. Whilst this is primarily an empirical research agenda, this project also seeks to use its findings to address the many salient questions related to the global governance of these information flows. 

During the workshop, Paul discussed with his guests Julia Tschersich, Christian Haddad, Arne Langlet, and Alice Vadrot how practices of creating, processing, and using digital sequences differ across contexts, such as health applications or plant cultivation. Similarly to the discussions in Seliem’s working group, a key theme that emerged was the relation between (open) science and industrial research using genetic sequences. Whilst within science it is common practice to upload sequences and their metadata to openly accessible international databases (such as NCBI, EMBL, or DDBJ), there are generally little incentives for private companies to share their data and to facilitate traceability. It may be argued that a certain level of informational gatekeeping is a necessary component of efficient innovation systems. However, some commentators argue that recent events (not at least the COVID-19 pandemic) have uncovered serious flaws of this system in terms of providing much needed innovations rapidly, as well as in re-producing global inequalities in access to these innovations. As we discussed during the workshop, similar consequences of informational gatekeeping can be observed in plant cultivation, as privatization has led to a loss of seed diversity and accessibility in a variety of local contexts


Safe to say that we had an afternoon of highly valuable insights into many different digital practices and associated governance challenges. Besides the substantive inputs we received for our projects, the workshop was also a nice opportunity for us as PhDs and for the platform as a whole to build connections to other researchers in our fields. We thank all our guests very much for their participation and are hoping to cultivate these contacts moving forward!