Open Access to Data

The exchange of scientific information and results is crucial for the development of research today. This is equally true for the sharing of social science data. Data availability and the possibility to utilise and combine various publicly available databases contribute to the work of numerous research projects.

  • Data sharing practices provide an important basis for international comparisons and the study of developments over time.
  • Knowledge of prior projects’ data outcomes facilitates the formulation of new research projects and reduces the need to repeatedly conduct empirical surveys; archived databases and their documentation are widely used in preparing the research instruments and the design of new surveys.
  • The availability of data services increases the quality of education at universities by making it possible to use real research data in teaching and students works. Such data can otherwise only be obtained with significant financial investment.
  • Data availability increases the verifiability of results and the transparency of scientific research.

Data are often produced at considerable expense for the public resources. However, the general public receives value in return not immediately after the construction of the database, but only when it is analysed and new knowledge is generated. At the same time, the informational value of data usually goes beyond an individual project’s research intent. Therefore, it is logical to ask researchers who are recipients of public funding to make further use of their databases possible. In other words, when they are done utilising the dataset within their own research project, they should make it available for secondary analysis whenever this is not precluded by the nature of the data or any other specific circumstance.

In the academic environment of universities and public or governmental institutions, and when research receives public funding for the purposes of creating publicly available results and knowledge, it is possible to organise the wide and effective sharing of research data on the basis of ‘open access’ data repositories. In the social sciences this practice has become a general standard, whenever open access is not prevented by the nature of the data or specific circumstances of its production.

Principles and Guidelines

According to OECD-defined principles, openness in this context means ‘access on equal terms for the international research community at the lowest possible cost, preferably at no more than the marginal cost of dissemination. Open access to research data from public funding should be easy, timely, user-friendly and preferably Internet-based.’ (OECD Principles and Guidelines for Access to Research Data from Public Funding 2007: 15)

The 13 principles outlined by the OECD are as follows:

  • Openness, Flexibility (in terms of the development of IT, research systems, legal systems etc.),
  • Transparency (availability of relevant documentation),
  • Legal Conformity (legal and legitimate protection of rights and interests, including personal data, trade secrets, national security etc.),
  • Protection of Intellectual Property,
  • Formal Responsibility (formal arrangements for ensuring access),
  • Professionalism (conformity with professional standards),
  • Interoperability (technological compatibility and international standardisation),
  • Quality (data and metadata quality, verifiability),
  • Security (guaranteeing the integrity of datasets, protection of information against loss),
  • Efficiency (efficiency of data access, utilisation, management etc.),
  • Accountability (data evaluation, monitoring of utilisation), and
  • Sustainability (long-term preservation and access).

The principles only apply to data produced with public funding and for the purposes of creating publicly available results and evidence. Thus, for example, open access is not required for research projects funded by means of public procurement or conducted for commercial purposes. Access can be further restricted for the reasons of specific ownership arrangements, protection of personal data, protection of intellectual property, national security, trade secret or interference with legal processes. Further legitimate reasons include technical barriers to open access, international commitments etc.

Policies of Open Access to research data from public funding

Current practices of organisation of social science research based on data sharing are also gradually institutionalised on the level of international and national science policies. For example, in 2004, OECD members and several other countries signed the ‘Declaration on Access to Research Data from Public Funding’ (OECD 2004), which commits parties to implementing a set of basic goals of access to research data. Subsequently, the OECD (OECD Principles and Guidelines for Access to Research Data from Public Funding, 2007) codified a set of basic principles underlying contemporary data policies.

These principles have also been adopted by the European Union, among others. The European Commission formulated an action plan in its Communication on Scientific Information in the Digital Age: Access, Dissemination and Preservation (European Commission 2007). Tasks for the member states and the European Commission are summarised in the European Council’s Conclusions on Scientific Information in the Digital Age: Access, Dissemination and Preservation (Council of the European Union 2007), which includes a requirement to ‘reinforce national strategies and structures for access to and preservation and dissemination of scientific information’ in EU member states. In 2012, the European Commission outlined measures to improve access to scientific information in a Communication (European Commission 2012) and a Recommendation (European Commission 2012) to Member States.

Specific measures encouraging researchers to share data have been implemented by many EU member states and other developed countries, primarily at the level of public funding agencies. Numerous grant agencies apply highly precise and strict rules of access to data. For example, the US National Science Foundation stipulates the requirement of data sharing in its General Grant Conditions (NSF 2006: 27, par. 38) and simultaneously defines detailed sets of specific requirements for different scientific disciplines and programmes. Seven scientific councils covering different disciplines in the UK have a shared set of general principles and, based on this set, each of them defines its own data policy for its area of funding (see Funders' data policies at the Data Curation Centre).

The conditions for data sharing are determined not only by the requirements of governments and funding agencies, but also by the existence of an adequate research infrastructure for depositing and distributing data.

Prepared by: Jindrich Krejci, 2013