Open Access for Public Data – Reality or Wishful Thinking?

Terms like open source software, open access journals and public data have recently been much discussed in scientific communities and are in fact buzzwords. In the last few months I happened to get involved in issues of data transparency and of the availability of raw data. As part of this involvement I had to learn that open access to public data, i.e. data collected on the expense of tax-payers’ money, is not taken for granted everywhere in Europe. This came to me as a surprise, since many scientific journals, particularly in ecology, have adopted the policy of making the public availability of data (and often also of R scripts) a pre-requisite for publishing.

To cast light into this, I grabbed the phone and got in contact with a specialised lawyer from the Deutsche Hochschulverband in Bonn. He confirmed that European laws do indeed require data collected by public institutions to be publicly available. Such data are in fact not subject to intellectual property rights. Similar laws are apparently also in place in countries outside the EU, in North America and in Australia. In the UK and in the US these laws are referred to as the Freedom of Information Act. The purpose of these laws is to ensure the transparency and the reuse of data, particularly those that are gathered in a university context. Such raw data are generally free and Simon Hoggart adds that the British Ecological Society explicitly encourage data reuse through the open data policy they have adopted for their journals. The national research councils in every country are charged with the task to watch over the open-data legislation. Open access to data is also an important principle of the European Horizon 2020 research programme.

Given these trends and the clear legislation it is difficult to understand that research groups in some countries still try to sneak their way into good publications by making the use of their data dependent on a co-authorship without contributing to neither the analysis nor the text. It is usually weak research groups that try to enforce such practices, which constitute a clear breach of international authorship agreements such as the Vancouver protocol. Other groups try to raise money by arguing the data provision creates chargeable costs.

These practices are attempts not to comply with the current international legislation and with the requirements of the respective funding bodies. The OECD paper on “Principles and Guidelines for Access to Research Data from Public Funding” cite the US National Research Council: “The value of data lies in their use. Full and open access to scientific data should be adopted as the international norm for the exchange of scientific data derived from publicly funded research.” This is a very good expression for a vision that many of us share. In my view open data and methods (in the form of, for example R or SAS scripts) stimulate research cooperation and build trust in research results. Open access to research data is a fundamental principle of the international research community similar to human rights and democracy. We should all live up to this ethos and remind others to do the same.

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