November 30, 2015

Entering an era of open access data


By Dr. Wendy Powers, ASAS Public Policy Committee

November 30, 2015 – I don’t know about you, but I am still in the process of thinking through open data and all of its attributes. On the one hand, it is exciting to think about accessing and using publically available data for innovative purposes! On the other hand, I am cautious about data ownership and misuse of data (even for scientific purposes), its consequences, and liability.

Federal agencies have bought into the concept of Open Data, and certainly it offers an opportunity for greater impact as a result of data collected using public funds. The National Institutes of Health has partnered with Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Wellcome Trust to create an Open Science Prize that supports biomedical research. In a press release from NIH, Director Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D. says he “expects the Open Science Prize to generate innovative ideas to improve data access and establish new international collaborations that will illustrate the transformative power of sharing research data.” Open data is not just a topic for NIH. Recently U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack spoke to agriculture business leaders about the role the USDA should play in big data and led a roundtable discussion on the topic at October’s Borlaug Dialogue.

The process whereby data are moved to an open platform is where I get hung up. How does this happen in the absence of an Open Science Prize award? And how does one ensure that the data are explained properly to ensure appropriate interpretation and use? I have countless datasets that I like to think have a greater purpose than just the publications, grant applications and dissertations for which they have been used, if only a mind greater than mine had access to them. A number of those datasets were funded from federal sources. Should I expect in the future that I will need to attach datasets with my CRIS report?

I may not be the only one still working through this topic. Recently, USDA announced that it will hold listening sessions and take public comment through December 9, 2015 on public access to scholarly publications and digital scientific data.

I will continue to ask questions and seek answers. Who knows, I may even be one of 6 recipients of a phase 1 prize from NIH! Given all of the Big Data generated, I suspect Open Data is around for a while and conversations about ‘why’ and ‘how’ will continue.