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How can universities address digital and academic sovereignty through jointly coordinated actions in education, research and research assessment? VSNU’s Darco Jansen outlines the Dutch example, providing food for thought for other European universities interested in devising a similar approach at the national and international level.

Sovereignty is generally associated with territory and jurisdiction. Digital sovereignty is the ability to autonomously take decisions and act according to crucial digital aspects of a long-term future in economy, society and democracy. Academic sovereignty is about the protection of an independent academic community in the interest of transparent and reliable knowledge creation, and the safeguarding of academic contributions to economy, society and democracy - including public values.

Universities have always been public institutions. Based on public values and academic sovereignty, universities ensure broad access to higher education and scientific research. Digital services contribute to further improving this access through innovation. At the same time, however, there is an increasing dependence on a limited number of dominant market players. Potentially (or in some cases even actually) essential public and academic values such as privacy, security, reliability, transparency, autonomy and democratic control are under increased pressure.

The Dutch universities recently decided to address digital and academic sovereignty through jointly coordinated actions in education, research and research assessment - including in business management systems. These actions encompass collective negotiations with national and global providers of digital services and supportive legislation and regulations. Moreover, the universities agreed that such actions should be aligned at the international level.

In early 2020, two taskforces at the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU) started working on public values and academic sovereignty. One taskforce focused on public value in education, the other on Responsible Management of Research Information and Data (RMRID).The RMRID taskforce specifically dealt with research information and research assessment, which has become urgent as big publishers are moving from a content-provision to a data analytics business. The products that they are selling to higher education institutions are expanding beyond journals and textbooks to include research assessment systems and productivity tools. Research information and analyses underpin decision-making processes in many aspects of university life. To ensure fair and accountable decision making, the origin of scholarly information needs to be public. This provides accountability to all stakeholders affected by such decision-making processes.

The corpus of science and scholarship is a common good, and access to it is a universal right. As part of this corpus, the infrastructures for research (meta)data and research assessment should serve the community and be designed, used and maintained according to scholarly values. Services and infrastructures should be community steered, transparent, democratic, open, inclusive and enabling. They should increase opportunity and choice for all stakeholders, rather than close down options. They should allow for inclusive innovation and allow others to build on the work of the academic community; and give others the right to do so rather than restrict rights and create scarcity. They should enable expansion of the knowledge commons.

A crucial first step is to establish principles that open up research (meta)data and data analytics, and to ensure that the research community understands what is at stake and agrees on the principles. To this end, the taskforce developed “Guiding Principles for Open Research Information”. These principles provide inspiration for drafting principles in other important public fields as well. They are trusted and transparent provenance, openness of metadata, openness of algorithms, enduring access and availability, open standards and interoperability, open collaboration with third parties and academic sovereignty through governance. A previous version of these principles was applied in the contract with Elsevier in 2020 as the publisher wanted to go beyond a Read&Publish agreement and include research information, assessment and Open Science practices in the contract.

Based on the final advice of the RMRID taskforce, the Dutch universities decided to adopt these principles and will start to apply them to in-house, as well as commercial systems, including setting up a corresponding governance structure. Based on a feasibility study carried out by Dialogic, the public institutions decided to explore the development of a so-called “Open Knowledge Base” for the most essential or critical research information and analytics. Such an Open Knowledge Base will provide a richer database for all public stakeholders. It will separate services from metadata. The latter would create a level playing field for service providers. During the autumn of 2021, a business case will be developed. Next, advocacy efforts will start with the objective of supportive European legislation to recognise the public value of universities as instrumental in guaranteeing academic independence in the age of platforms and algorithms.

Finally, the work of both taskforces share a common approach according to the six steps already mentioned. To recap:

  • First, translate public values and academic sovereignty into principles, frameworks, and standards.
  • Second, jointly endorse these principles and frameworks and have all knowledge organisations adopt them.
  • Third, apply these principles and frameworks to the commercial systems and in-house systems to be purchased.
  • Fourth, set up a nationwide governance structure overseeing and reporting on this, ensuring the continued development of principles and frameworks, reinforcing the position of public institutions, and working on innovation with commercial parties-
  • Fifth, have the knowledge organisations invest jointly in the systems most essential to the functioning of higher education and scientific research.
  • And sixth, additionally relevant legislation and regulations might be needed in order to safeguard public values and strengthen the position of universities.

VSNU has stated that concerted action to maintain academic sovereignty is a necessity as we will become more dependent on commercial providers and their terms of use. Joint understanding of principles and frameworks is needed, as are collective actions for implementing those principles in our own  systems as well as commercial ones. We should assess which data and services are critical and must be publicly steered to safeguard academic sovereignty. This might imply that some services should be developed by universities themselves. Supportive legislation might be needed.


Darco Jansen
Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU)

Darco Jansen is Manager of Open Access & Open Science at the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU). He focuses on the transition towards a new and more open and participatory way to conduct, publish and evaluate scientific research. More specifically, he works towards making scientific output available in open access and as FAIR data - including in negotiations with scientific publishers and other stakeholders.

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