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Neelie Kroes meets K.T. zu Guttenberg: No dream team for European academia

Faithful readers of PolSciEU will know that I’ve blogged about EU open data, useful EU websites and the proper use of sources in the past. And so faithful readers will understand that EU Commissioner Neelie Kroes was kind of at the heart of this blogger yesterday with her delicate balance act between greatness and failure – and both relevant for European academia, whether in political science or beyond.

On the positive side, Kroes presented the Commission’s open data and open access strategy in the form of a Communication (PDF), a revision of the Public Sector Information (PSI) directive (PDF) and a draft Commission decision (PDF) regarding access to Commission documents and information.

Here are some relevant quotes for those of us in favour of more open access to EU institutions’ data and documents as well as a more open science and academia:

A) From the Open Data Communication (link added):

Open data strategy, key measures

[…]

Portal giving access to Commission data and data from other EU institutions and agencies, spring 2012;

Launch of a pan-European data portal, giving access to datasets from across the EU, spring 2013, following preparatory work with Member States from 2011;

[…]

Expansion of the open access pilot for scientific publications to the whole of Horizon2020 + pilot with open access to research data

[…]

Research and innovation projects relevant for open data […] with funding for research infrastructures supporting open access to research articles and data;

B) From the PSI revision:

Member States shall ensure that practical arrangements facilitating the crosslingual search for documents available for re-use are in place, such as asset lists of main documents with relevant metadata, accessible preferably online and in machine-readable format, and portal sites that are linked to decentralised assetlists

C) From the draft Commission decision:

Documents shall be made available for re-use without application unless otherwise specified and without restrictions or, where appropriate, an open licence or disclaimer setting out conditions explaining the rights of re-users.

Documents shall be made available in any existing format or language version, in machine-readable format where possible and appropriate.

Now these were on the positive side, especially for academics like me who need EU documents and information, who can work with open data and who are in favour of publishing our data and research as open as possible. If you like to stay on the positive side, you can also read a bit more on Kroes’ blog.

On the negative side, Neelie Kroes today used the dubious Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg to promote her open internet strategy.

Her argument why she chose this former German minister, first for the economy and then for defence, who lost his job because he plagiarised an overwhelming part of his PhD thesis – which made him lose his title – was that she was “looking for talent, not saints.

Now, fellow academic Kosmopolit has said all that needs to be said why this choice is dubious, not just because of the academic failure of Guttenberg but because there are reasonable doubts he can actually be expected to be a good advocate of an open internet.

However, as an academic who is directly affected by the misconduct of Guttenberg – in Germany, not a single conversation on my academic work with non-academics goes without a reference to plagiarism and Guttenberg today – I cannot stand this downplaying of Guttenberg’s personal and professional failure by Neelie Kroes. Until yesterday, I thought her to be one of the best – or best-advised – EU Commissioners, but with Guttenberg she has shown a lack of judgement that goes beyond what I want to stand.

Calling someone like Guttenberg “talented”, someone who either deliberately cheated on a large scale or is incapable of doing proper research and offering him the stage, applauding him in public less than a year after he had to leave office is really hard to stand. Doing this soon after he published a book in Germany where he still defends his plagiarism as a simple lack of oversight over his material – which is close to impossible if you look into the case – and pretending that he might have changed is naïve at best.

In a heavy Twitter discussion, Kroes’ spokesperson tried to downplay this as a matter as just an issue of “German public opinion”, calling me “100% wrong” when criticising the choice and afterwards “a liar” although all I did was basing my argument on Kroes’ blog post and summarising arguments that had been widely discussed in the German social media and press during the day. But this is not a matter of German public opinion, it is a matter of the credibility of useful policies that EU institutions promote. It’s a matter of ethics and values, especially when you are an academic – no matter where you are in the Union.

In addition, there’s even a link between both topics of this post. In the draft Commission decision on the re-use of EU documents, one of the possible conditions for re-use is said to be:

the obligation for the re-user to acknowledge the source of the documents

In academia as in good blogging, this obligation is considered the standard. We’ve all more or less managed to learn this, as academics and as bloggers, and misconduct is usually sanctioned with the different mechanisms those social systems provide.

Not seeing these mechanisms function in politics confronts me with severe cognitive dissonance. I see the same Neelie Kroes talking about making science better, respecting open licenses etc. and then promoting an open internet strategy with someone who wouldn’t even respect these principles and who doesn’t have any kind of track record on internet-related things.

As an academic I see therein disrespect for proper academic work, and as a blogger I see someone who’s got no credibility – not just in my eyes but in the eyes of many others – to defend internet freedom and openness.

In other words, Commissioner Kroes may have presented two very interesting and useful initiatives – one on open data and one on support for an open internet for those suppressed by their regimes (remark: often with US or European technology that may even be sponsored by EU research funds) – both relevant for European and non-European academics and internet activists, but as an academic and blogger I have hard times taking these serious if the Commission thinks it needs someone like Guttenberg to get part of these initiatives done.

Or, to say it with title of this post: Kroes and Guttenberg are definitely no dream team for European academia. Let’s thus hope Kroes will still be able to free public data and support a free internet throughout the world, ideally without Guttenberg!



6 Responses to Neelie Kroes meets K.T. zu Guttenberg: No dream team for European academia

  1. avatar Ryan Heath says:

    Thanks for your post Ron, it’s a thoughtful contribution.
    Things did get a bit heavy in our Twitter exchange last night – I regret pushing it so hard at the end of that long day.

    But let me say that I didn’t think you are “100% wrong” in general terms. What I meant was that your assessment of why Neelie Kroes invited KTzG was wrong, at least in the way it was Twitter-summarised. I conceded your blog point already.

    Let me elaborate a little more. Neelie did not choose KTzG for any single reason. What she is willing to do is accept that the man’s public life shouldn’t be over forever because of his past mistakes.

    And right now we have an issue that he’s qualified to help with, help which he agrees to offer for free, and for which we can’t wait around for 1 or 2 or 3 years in order allow the German public to be more accepting of the idea.

    Which brings me to why I find so much of the commentary on Neelie’s choice so annoying or wrong. This choice is about helping others and using KTzG to help others. It’s not about how one person, one community or one nation feels about KTzG’s past mistakes. To think in those terms is too self-centred.

    Neelie is essentially saying that she wants talented people to contribute ideas. One element of that is people who understand the security and foreign affairs world, and therefore KTzG is relevant. Not because of any one view or action he took as Minister, but because only a few people in the world have that experience in order to help us make interet freedom a more prominent, better resourced, and effectively policy value.

    So there’s room for everyone in this effort. And it’s just one of many efforts Neelie is undertaking to help us be more digital, and one of several efforts about freedom of expression both here in EU and abread. All we want is for people to ask themselves: have I checked all the facts before judging? will this help people on the ground in places like Syria and Iran? What other things is Neelie Kroes saying and doing, so I can judge if she is crazy or generally trying to do good things?

    I think when rational people ask themselves those questions, it leaves room to disagree, but to at least see why Neelie made the choice she did. And that even in disagreeing, it both possible and reasonable for others to still work with her for the important goals of the No Disconnect Strategy and the overal Digital Agenda.

  2. avatar Ryan Heath says:

    (And I am glad you find the Open Data Strategy interesting – it’s truly significant and a great sign that the Commission can listen to activists and help enable change without needing to regulate heavily or pay a large sum)

  3. avatar النبي says:

    الاتحاد الاوروبي “لا توجد استراتيجية اتصال” : لا تثق به، انها وعاء العسل الخدمة السرية.

  4. avatar Migeru says:

    Guttenberg clearly believes in open data – where “open” means “used without attribution”.

  5. avatar Klaus L says:

    “This choice is about helping others and using KTzG to help others” (Ryan Heath)

    Can it get more absurd or more cynical?

    I’d like to make a clear statement here: even without his plagiarism case, Baron zu Guttenberg wouldn’t be qualified to do what he’s (allegedly) being asked to do.
    Professional expertise & personal integrity: both are needed to successfully support the good cause of the Open Data Strategy and Baron zu Guttenberg is compeletely lacking both of it!

    Do some fact checking on his political career and you will find out, that he always (“always” is such a big word, I know) put himself and his image above the job he was supposed to do.
    More importantly: his stances on the topics in question have always been a complete contradiction to what the Commission is aiming for.

    The decsion to use him here is a big mistake. Especially based on his credentials.

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