CHALLENGES POSED BY RESEARCH DATA IN A DIGITAL AGE

Rapid advances in computing and communication technologies have changed the professional responsibilities, interpersonal interactions, and daily practices of researchers. Many of these changes have strengthened the research enterprise, both by enabling researchers to ask new questions of nature and by providing new means of achieving research objectives. At the same time, some changes have raised important issues involving researchers, research institutions, sponsors, and journals.16 These issues are the focus of this report on the integrity, accessibility, and stewardship of research data.

As discussed in Chapter 2, although advances in digital technologies allow phenomena and objects to be described more comprehensively and accurately, they also can complicate the process of verifying the accuracy and validity of the data (see Box 1-3 for an example). Digital technologies require the translation of phenomena and objects into digital representations, which can introduce inaccuracies into the data. Digital data often undergo several layers of complex processing as they move from an instrument or sensor to the point of being reviewed by a researcher. If this processing is not properly done or is misunderstood, the results can be misleading. In some cases, researchers may intentionally or unintentionally distort data in a misguided attempt to emphasize particular features and downplay others. In the worst cases, researchers can falsify or fabricate data, thereby violating both the ethical and methodological standards of research integrity. Many of these considerations apply as well to data that are not generated or stored digitally, but digital technologies both expand and intensify the challenge of maintaining the integrity of data.

Chapter 3 describes the challenges that researchers face in maintaining the traditional openness of research in a digital age. Electronic technologies provide researchers with many new ways of communicating data to others, but providing other researchers with access to large databases can be difficult and expensive. With smaller, heterogeneous databases, where quality control and documentation tend to be less formal, sociological and technological factors can restrict data sharing. Also, an increasing range of restrictions are being placed on research data as this information becomes more valuable for commercial uses, which can limit the distribution and utilization of data within and beyond the research community.

Even as more research data are being created, their value for future uses is increasing. Chapter 4 describes the need to preserve many research data for long-term use, even in situations where those uses cannot be currently envisioned. Digital storage technologies, application environments, and operating systems change every few years, which means that digital bits must continually

16

National Research Council. 2001. Issues for Science and Engineering Researchers in the Digital Age, Washington, DC: National Academy Press.



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