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Ensuring the Integrity, Accessibility, and Stewardship of Research Data in the Digital Age
According to one definition, “being assured of data’s integrity means having confidence that the data are complete, verified, and remain unaltered.”22 This is possible only if researchers adhere to professional and ethical standards of their fields. In some research fields, these standards are written, but in many areas they exist as tacit knowledge that is passed from senior researchers to beginning researchers over the course of a research apprenticeship. These professional standards, in turn, describe the methods, procedures, and tools that researchers are expected to employ to minimize error and bias in their work. Consequently, integrity in research has both an individual and a communal meaning. Researchers maintain the integrity of research data by adhering to the professional standards of their fields.
Researchers are expected to describe their methods and tools to others in sufficient detail that the data can be checked and the results verified. Completely and accurately describing the conditions under which data are collected, characterizing the equipment used and its response, and recording anything that was done to the data thereafter are critical to ensuring data integrity. Thus, for experimental data, integrity implies that the data can be reproduced in a test or experiment that repeats the conditions of the original test or experiment. For observational data, data of high “quality” (a term that we sometimes will use as a synonym for data integrity) have been validated through comparison with data whose quality is known or by being generated with an instrument that has been adequately calibrated or tested.
In this report, accessibility refers to the availability of research data to researchers other than those who generated the data. Accessibility is a critical element of integrity, because data must be available to others in order for the validity of those data to be verified. However, in some cases an investigator may not be able to make data available to the public. For example, in private companies, data may need to be restricted for commercial reasons. In such cases, data are frequently made available within the company to evaluate their integrity.
In this report, the term “accessibility” generally implies public access as well as availability to other researchers upon request. Accessibility does not necessarily imply free access, because providing access to data entails financial costs that must be met. Also, access does not necessarily imply that researchers must provide inquirers with the training and expertise they would need to understand or use data. However, data should be accompanied by sufficient metadata for colleagues to assess the integrity of those data.