Editorial 2/2014

Open Access to Research Data

Sami Borg

This issue focuses on policies relating to open access to research data. Existing or forthcoming policies are presented, both from Finland and from abroad. We also invited researchers to have their say on data sharing.

Research data may be any kind of digital data that can be used for research. In many cases, the data have been collected specifically for research purposes. Established norms of science, general efficiency requirements and particularly the new possibilities brought by the Internet emphasise the need for open access to research data. Basically, the primary goal of data management is to ensure that data will be easily available to the research community on a long-term basis.

Access to research data is not a clear-cut distinction between open and closed access. There may be different degrees of access, and the use of some data may require permission. The main thing is to provide access at least to some degree, whenever possible.

On the whole, Open Access is a broad issue covering open access to information and science in general. Open access to research publications and research data, possibilities to link data and publications, and open research methods will instigate significant changes in scientific practices.

Soon it will be common, regardless of discipline, to be able to learn about research results through research data made available online. We are near the point in Finland where opening access to data and publications truly constitutes a merit to the researcher. Open data and open publications will presumably soon be included in the funding criteria of research organisations.

The strong support offered by the Finnish government to open science will probably influence key research funders to reinforce and specify their open access policies. Ministries will start recommending that research organisations establish data policies and take measures to provide access to their data. This is positive development indeed – as long as everyone remembers that policy recommendations are not enough in themselves. It is essential to monitor implementation.

To be implementable, data policies need to be sufficiently concise and exact. Challenges of and support available for data sharing differ from discipline to discipline. If open access to data is required, there should also be functional models and tools available.

Last October, I contacted Finnish universities to ask whether they have taken steps to establish research data policies. One university had an established data policy, two were preparing policies and a few had published more general guidelines for data management. Most Finnish universities had not taken any concrete steps yet.

Universities and research organisations should establish research data policies and the policies should flexible enough. A research team or organisation may want to make their data available through their own measures. However, this may not be a good long-term solution, at least for data which require data service expertise to describe, protect, and preserve it and to guarantee continued access to it.

Making use of national data service providers is often the most functional model. Established national level data services ensure long-term preservation, documentation according to international standards, and availability for other researchers without too much extra work for the creators of data.

The Finnish Social Science Data Archive provides these services for social sciences, health research and humanities. Other service providers in Finland include CLARIN (Common Language Resources and Technology Infrastructure) and CSC (IT Center for Science). The Academy of Finland recommends the use of these national level services in its recently amended open access guidelines.

Sami Borg