Openness is good for your career

Dr Aleksandar Zaklan talks about his experience with Open Science

Photo of Dr Aleksandar Zaklan

Three key learnings:

  • “Openness is good for your career. If you want your name to be known quickly, do interesting stuff that’s useful for many people.”
  • To be an Early Adopter of new developments such as Open Science can be conducive to your career.
  • The replication guidelines of the AEA Journals are a great training for structuring and documenting your own data.

How did you become aware of Open Science?

AZ: I was brought to the Open Science issue by Denny Ellerman at the European University Institute (EUI) in Florence, who was my mentor when I did a Jean Monnet Fellowship there. He is a grandee of climate economics. He had worked previously at MIT, and in Florence he was working on a data project for the European Commission, among other things. He asked me to coordinate the project.

What was that about?

AZ: It was – and often still is – unclear, which factory in European emissions trading belongs to which company. For us researchers it’s important to know which energy corporation runs which power station or which factory. Just having a list of factories is pointless, the connections were important. And that’s exactly what we made publicly available.

What reactions did you get?

AZ: The dataset is still in use although it’s almost ten years old by now. And as far as I know it’s still the only publicly available dataset that allows researchers to look at EU emissions trading at the corporate level. People still contact me about this dataset. I published several papers myself with it, other people have published with it, and the papers have been well-cited. It was my introduction to Open Science and it has paid off very well. You raise your profile, get known. I met a few people from the Commission. And I have been asked to collaborate in research projects because I had this knowledge. It was a success all round.

Did you publish the dataset in a repository for research data?

AZ: Yes, in Cadmus, that’s a library service of the EUI. Of course the dataset is dated now. But many early career researchers still use it to this day.

What other experience do you have with the publishing of data?

AZ: Recently I could publish a paper in one of the AEA journals and had to use the AEA replication guidelines for the first time. I learned a lot in this process: How do I structure code so that it can be replicated better? How do I write up the supporting document so that colleagues can understand how these datasets came together, what they’re good for, etc.? The AEA has its own Data & Code Repository at the Interuniversity Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR) at Michigan University. The data are permanently stored there. As I understand it, it’s a publicly funded platform that provides persistent electronic storage, so that data don’t just vanish if researchers quit academia or if scientists no longer use private services after a while. Right now it’s totally uncontrolled. Some scientists do their documentation better than others, too. There are no unified standards yet. In my opinioin, it would be very good if an institute such as the DIW had a standard operating procedure for all employees who publish something, so that data are still available years later.

Why are early career researchers right now more open for transparency? What’s your assessment?

AZ: I see here growing intrinsic motivation. Young researchers have grown up more closely with virtual networking. When I did my PhD, the web was much younger and there just wasn’t room enough to keep such large amounts of data as is feasible now. I also get the impression that the young generation is much more open in many other things, such as communication.

How can young researchers learn to communicate better?

AZ: It is already the case that early career researchers focus a lot on how to do successful science communication. And it’s not that easy. Which part of my findings is important for others who don’t work in my subdiscipline? Why should anybody who has nothing to do with economics be interested in what I have found out – or not, as the case may be. Communication is something you need to learn. The graduate programme of the DIW offers courses that address exactly this issue. It’s also a central focus of INSIGHTS.

About the focus of INSIGHTS: is it more on contextualising the research question into the grand scheme of things, or rather to explain things clearly?

AZ: We do different things. We don’t really take such a strong position on what’s most important; instead we offer a portfolio where people can select elements that interest them. Popular courses are for instance Social Media, how can I do interesting tweets. Then we have Basics of Science Communication. Meet the Press is a course I attended myself. It teaches how the interplay with journalists works: what do they want from me? What do I want from them? There are other formats, such as Policy Fellowships, where people from policy institutions give talks at Berlin research institutions. We also offer internships at media companies such as Spiegel or Die ZEIT. We offer these and other things, but we do not require participation.

Do you take away Open Data Skills, Open Science Skills, that are needed outside the academic world?

AZ: To be structured is a great skill, I think, no matter what you do. You need to write up your codes in a structured way and to document them properly. These skills are extremely important in other fields, too.

You’re leaving academia and you’ll leave behind the academic infrastructures with their access to literature, data, etc. How do you get literature and data in your new job?

AZ: For the time being I’m a guest at the DIW, so I am lucky and things will continue as they are. But it is a problem that access to journals and co. is so restricted if you’re not employed in a research institution.

What would be your ideal of organising exchange at the material and communicative level between researchers with different access possibilities?

AZ: This is a difficult issue. It’s very difficult for an NGO that wants to keep up with current research but doesn’t have the money to pay thousands of Euros every year for a journal. There are conferences, for example the Annual Meeting of the German Economic Association, that aren’t expensive and offer different formats, some of them very practice-oriented. Another positive development is that the economics associations, who act as non-profits and whose formats are rather inexpensive, are moving into the journal sphere. There are several new journals published by the associations. These are already the good ones, or will be good journals in the near term. This will help organisations and readers who have only limited resources.

What would you like to tell younger colleagues regarding openness, transparency, replicability?

AZ: Openness is good for your career. If you want your name to be known quickly, do interesting stuff that’s useful for many people. Do it and talk about it. Be generous with your time and document things properly. It takes a lot of effort but this shows others that you are really trying to be open. Be an Early Adopter of things, like the NFDI consortia, for example. This can be part of your brand essence.

Thank you!

Dr Doreen Siegfried conducted this interview on 27 October 2022.

About Dr Aleksandar Zaklan

Dr Aleksandar Zaklan is interested in topics in environmental economics. In his research, he currently focuses on assessing the (cost-)effectiveness and distributional impacts of policy instruments designed to mitigate environmental externalities; understanding impacts of pollution externalities on individuals; and analysing indirect effects of environmental policy.
Aleksandar Zaklan has been a research associate in the Energy, Transportation, Environment Department of the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW) since 2014. Since 2016, he has been a research associate at the Berlin School of Economics, and since 2018 a fellow at the Berlin Centre for Consumer Policies.





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