Good news stories about data sharing?

We have been speaking to researchers around the University recently to discuss the expectations of their funders in relation to data management. This has raised the issue of how best to convince people this is a process that benefits society rather than a waste of time or just yet another thing they are being ‘forced to do’ – which is the perspective of some that we have spoken with.

Policy requirements

In general most funders require a Research Data Management Plan to be developed at the beginning of the project – and then adhered to. But the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) have upped the ante by introducing a policy requiring that papers published from May 2015 onwards resulting from funded research include a statement about where the supporting research data may be accessed. The data needs to be available in a secure storage facility with a persistent URL, and that it must be available for 10 years from the last time it was accessed.

Carrot or stick?

While having a policy from funders does make researchers sit up and listen, there is a perception in the UK research community that this is yet another impost on time-poor researchers. This is not surprising. There has recently been an acceleration of new rules about sharing and assessing research.

The Research Excellence Framework (REF) occurred last year, and many researchers are still ‘recuperating’. Now the Higher Education Funding Council of England (HEFCE) is introducing  a policy in April 2016 that any peer reviewed article or conference paper that is to be included in the post-2014 REF must have been deposited to their institution’s repository within three months of acceptance or it cannot be counted.  This policy is a ‘green’ open access policy.

The Research Councils UK (RCUK) have had an open access policy in place for two years, introduced in 1 April 2013, a result of the 2012 Finch Report. The RCUK policy states that funded research outputs must be available open access, and it is permitted to make them available through deposit into a repository. At first glance this seems to align with the HEFCE policy, however, restrictions on the allowed embargo periods mean that in practice most articles must be made available gold open access – usually with the payment of an accompanying article processing charge. While these charges are supported by a block grant fund, there is considerable impost on the institutions to manage these.

There is also considerable confusion amongst researchers about what all these policies mean and how they relate to each other.

Data as a system

We are trying to find some examples about how making research data available can help research and society. It is unrealistic to hope for something along the lines of Jack Akandra‘s breakthrough for a diagnostic test for pancreatic cancer using only open access research.

That’s why I was pleased when Nicholas Gruen pointed me to a report he co-authored: Open for Business: How Open Data Can Help Achieve the G20 Growth Target – A Lateral Economics report commissioned by Omidyar Network – published in June 2014.

This report is looking primarily at government data but does consider access to data generated in publicly funded research. It makes some interesting observations about what can happen when data is made available. The consideration is that data can have properties at the system level, not just the individual  level of a particular data set.

The point is that if data does behave in this way, once a collection of data becomes sufficiently large then the addition of one more set of data could cause the “entire network to jump to a new state in which the connections and the payoffs change dramatically, perhaps by several orders of magnitude”.

Benefits of sharing data

The report also refers to a 2014 report The Value and Impact of Data Sharing and Curation: A synthesis of three recent studies of UK research data centres. This work explored the value and impact of curating and sharing research data through three well-established UK research data centres – the Archaeological Data Service, the Economic and Social Data Services, and the British Atmospheric Data Centre.

In summarising the results, Beagrie and Houghton noted that their economic analysis indicated that:

  • Very significant increases in research, teaching and studying efficiency were realised by the users as a result of their use of the data centres;
  • The value to users exceeds the investment made in data sharing and curation via the centres in all three cases; and
  • By facilitating additional use, the data centres significantly increase the measurable returns on investment in the creation/collection of the data hosted.
So clearly there are good stories out there.

If you know of any good news stories that have arisen from sharing UK research output data we would love to hear them. Email us or leave a comment!

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