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Ensuring the Integrity, Accessibility, and Stewardship of Research Data in the Digital Age
access today than have ever been before. Many fields of research have moved toward more open data-sharing policies as the value of data has increased and as digital technologies have enabled information to be disseminated more broadly. At the same time, heightened interest in the commercial applications of research data has caused some forms of data to be more restricted.
As described earlier in this chapter, there are legitimate reasons why some research data are not made publicly available, ranging from privacy concerns to technical barriers. Yet the basic principle that should guide decisions involving research data supporting publicly reported research results is clear:
Data Access and Sharing Principle: Research data, methods, and other information integral to publicly reported results should be publicly accessible.
This principle applies throughout research, but in some cases the open dissemination of research data may not be possible or advisable when viewed from the perspective of enhancing research in science, engineering, or medicine. Access to research data prior to reporting results based on those data might undermine the incentives to pursue the research. There might also be technical barriers, such as the sheer size of datasets, that make sharing problematic, or legal restrictions on sharing as discussed in the section on “Legal and Policy Requirements for Access to Data.” Also, “accessible” does not necessarily imply that data should be disseminated for free, though free or marginally priced distribution is the ideal. Nor are researchers responsible for providing data users with instruction or training in the use of their data, though they do have a responsibility to provide metadata, analysis software, models (including code and input data) and other information necessary for practitioners to validate and build on the results. Where researchers have proprietary interests in such tools, they have the option of protecting those interests through applying for patents and/or asserting copyright, as appropriate, in advance of publicly reporting results.
This principle is a standard that is not currently being met in some areas of research. Yet it provides a yardstick against which to measure current initiatives and future plans. Researchers know that the information they generate should be available to others to advance the frontiers of knowledge. The objective therefore must be to implement policies and promote practices that allow this principle to be realized as fully as possible.
This principle may seem to apply only to publicly funded research, but a strong case can be made that much data from privately funded research should be made publicly available as well. In many cases, making such data available can produce societal benefits while not threatening the commercial opportunities that led to the data’s generation. Note that this principle covers data underlying publicly reported results. When a researcher working at a corporate lab seeks to publish results, patent applications can be filed in advance