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UK University Researchers Must Make Data Available 352

Posted by timothy
from the time-to-pay-the-public-piper dept.
Sara Chan writes "In a landmark ruling, the UK's Information Commissioner's Office has decided that researchers at a university must make all their data available to the public. The decision follows from a three-year battle by mathematician Douglas J. Keenan, who wants the data to do his own analysis on it. The university researchers have had the data for many years, and have published several papers using the data, but had refused to make the data available. The data in this case pertains to global warming, but the decision is believed to apply to any field: scientists at universities, which are all public in the UK, can now not claim data from publicly-funded research as their private property." There's more at the BBC, at Nature Climate Feedback, and at Keenan's site.
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UK University Researchers Must Make Data Available

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  • Re:Publicly funded (Score:3, Informative)

    by Monkey-Man2000 (603495) on Wednesday April 21, 2010 @06:30PM (#31932568)
    Free if you pay your TV tax or pirate I believe
  • by nacturation (646836) * <nacturation@[ ]il.com ['gma' in gap]> on Wednesday April 21, 2010 @06:35PM (#31932646) Journal

    Now if only the same rules were applied to the fraudsters who promote evolutionism...

    Responding to a troll, I know... but if you really want the data on evolution (as opposed to foaming at the mouth and making up words to make yourself feel better about the mythology you chose that tells you that faith is when you blindly believe while being unable to show any data [Hebrews 11:1, bitches]): http://talkorigins.org/ [talkorigins.org]

  • Re:Publicly funded (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday April 21, 2010 @06:41PM (#31932696)

    You can sit in the pub to watch the football if you prefer.....

  • by xilmaril (573709) on Wednesday April 21, 2010 @06:43PM (#31932726)

    Does this mean every biology, chemistry, physics, and engineering research group (I'm talking about grad students and postdocs, here) would have to open their lab notebooks to anyone who asked?

    Researchers who ply their trade on the cutting edge of science live in perpetual fear of being "scooped" by another group who publishes their discovery first. These are sometimes literally "races." So now a group at one university could demand access to the notebooks of a group at another university? And vice versa?

    Not at all.

    It means they have access to each others results and source data when published (once the group is done researching this phase, and is ready to publish). There's no "opening notebooks", simply because that's a terrible metaphor for how data is collected these days.

  • by sourcerror (1718066) on Wednesday April 21, 2010 @06:44PM (#31932732)

    You only have to publish your data after publishing your article, which means "you won". You don't have to publish data for a research in progress.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday April 21, 2010 @06:45PM (#31932740)

    We can agree that the whole scientific process does not make much sense if we have to believe in the interpretations without seeing the actual data. From this perspective it is crucial for all scientific data to be open.

    The other perspective comes from the individual scientist. It might take years to put together a complete data set of a particular phenomenon via experiments, literature review, digging in the ground or looking at the stars. So after looking for something special you finally discover something new and write a small article about it. This will just be something along the lines of: "hey, there is something interesting going on here." Now you go back and look carefully at all your data for similar events, filter out noise because you have a better idea what to look for and then hopefully publish more about. So the next article will not only contain more information but also some analysis about the possible origins of the phenomenon and so forth.

    Imagine you had to open your carefully put together data right the second after you recorded it. Other people might grab your stuff and your research might not even be cited because they just looked at all the steps that you took that were not successful and repeated the experiments or used other available data.

    This interest in keeping your data private cannot be avoided with the current system of judging a scientist by his or her publications.

  • Re:NSF (Score:3, Informative)

    by guruevi (827432) <evi.smokingcube@be> on Wednesday April 21, 2010 @07:00PM (#31932954) Homepage

    Yes it does, kinda. Thanks to our publishing overlords however these 'making available' issues are more difficult than just publishing it online or so. The data cannot be made available as long as a publishing house has copyrights on it and the publishing house usually takes copyright for all work for years including data that is not directly published by them especially when the work is or becomes popular. However NSF/NIH grants usually have the requirement to release all data to the public a couple of years (usually around 10 or 25 years depending on the grant) after collection or publishing. But if you don't publish through one of the big names, your career as a scientist usually doesn't go much of anywhere. Also, a lot of machinery can't be afforded on any grant but a governments' (multi-million dollar machines), the device that collects the data could be funded by the NIH and the grant has the requirements to release data 10 years after collection. However in order to make money to keep the system running, the institution needs other funds from other sources each with their own constraints.

    Disclaimer: I am not a scientist but I manage about 60TB of collected data owned or funded by a combination of private/individual funds, internal funds, corporate funds, publishing houses, NIH, NSF and other grants which should or should not be made available to the public.

  • by maxume (22995) on Wednesday April 21, 2010 @07:21PM (#31933210)

    Even worse, some hack might shove the data through some perl code:

    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/article7028418.ece [timesonline.co.uk]

  • Re:Good and bad (Score:3, Informative)

    by Areyoukiddingme (1289470) on Wednesday April 21, 2010 @07:57PM (#31933634)

    If I'm -not- evil though, this could hurt me. If I looked at say 3000 cells, and 10 were doing a thing that I thought was significant, I could have my reasons. Maybe the other 2990 were the wrong cell type or something.

    Of course you would. And if you truly did find such a strange sample set, you would document those reasons with just such a sentence. Maybe they WERE the wrong cell type, and in your paper you would be expected to say precisely that. Odds are fairly good you would have a citation concerning why those cells are the wrong type, if not several, since any such assertion that 99.7% of your sample set is junk would be unusual enough to require justification of your methodology. Perhaps no better cell culture or separation method is available. This should be easy enough to document and explain. It took me just one sentence fragment, after all.

    Most likely, if there really isn't any better method, there have been multiple papers describing what the limitations are and why, in an effort to formulate a better method. There is probably also active, ongoing research into creating a better method, since any line of inquiry with such poor sources is bound to attract attention. To paraphrase Heinlein: To score an academic coup, find out what everyone agrees is impossible. Then do it.

    Yes, you're probably going to experience an uptick in the noise floor if you're a UK researcher. The timecube guys are out there, and audible now. But complying with the UK directive is easy. Provide the data. You're not required to address specific demands of every crank who claims your data proves the existence of aliens. The people who control your tenure/salary/book deals/whatever read your paper, saw your cite, and moved on. The guy worried about aliens doesn't affect much of your life. Just your inbox.

  • by michaelwv (1371157) on Wednesday April 21, 2010 @08:17PM (#31933856)
    Science makes progress through experiments. You design an experiment; you figure out what measurements you need to make; you make those measurements according to the requirements and specifications of your experiment; what do you need to control for? what calibrations are important? how much data do you need for a statistically significant sample? The answers to all of these questions are different depending on the experiment you want to do. Using data from someone else experiment means you have to go through all of these steps and then try to account for that fact that they way the data were gathered isn't quite right for what you want to do, you need to control for different things than the original experimenters, etc. This takes generally takes expertise in both the original scientific question and the new one. I get enough citations and questions from good-intentioned, responsible astronomers who use our data in published papers in subtly, but significantly, incorrect ways. I try to deal with such occurrences helpfully, but if often takes a long time to guide the interested fellow astronomer through the relevant literature explaining why what they did isn't quite right. When I write about something in a field that's new to me, I'm quite sensitive to this and try to check extensively that I'm not making a classic 1st-year graduate student mistake in that field. Don't even get me started on all of the email I get with re-analyses of our data by retired engineers.
  • Re:Good and bad (Score:3, Informative)

    by martin-boundary (547041) on Wednesday April 21, 2010 @08:53PM (#31934186)

    That doesn't matter. The important thing is that the attacks are made. Even if every one is shown to be completely wrong, people will still remember all those (erroneous) anti-global warming reports.

    People don't matter. Science doesn't advance by asking what Aunt Rosie from Ohio thinks about a particular result. Those who matter are scientists, and scientists read peer reviewed journals. Peer review is all about filtering out all those attacks so that nobody who matters needs to read them.

  • Re:Awful summary (Score:4, Informative)

    by pkphilip (6861) on Wednesday April 21, 2010 @09:40PM (#31934612)

    Michael Mann used the same tree ring data as temperature proxies for his studies and has published papers on this. But now the very same scientists who collected the tree ring data claim that data cannot be used as a temperature proxies - even though they haven't mentioned a word about how this would invalidate Michael Mann's work.

    http://climateaudit.org/2010/04/21/mann-of-oak/#more-10811 [climateaudit.org]

  • by Rockoon (1252108) on Thursday April 22, 2010 @01:49AM (#31935922)

    That is indeed an issue. Presumably the methodology is already published, as is the rule for scientific papers.

    There is at least one case in =two climate research papers where what the methodologies claimed was impossible because the data to do it didn't even exist. This didn't come out for 16 years, and was only discovered because a FOI request was finally honored.

    In this case, the authors of the papers had claimed that the station data that they used was from stations that had "few, if any, changes in instrumentation, location or observation times." (quote from one paper) and "selected stations have relatively few, if any, changes in instrumentation, location, or observation times" (quote from the other paper)

    "Hey! We only used great data!"

    Now, these two authors used the same data, and one of these authors was actually a co-author of the other paper. These authors are Jones (hello climate gate) and Wang.

    Now, they finally sourced the data as being from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, which coincedentally had co-published a report with the US Department of Energy at about the same time as those two research papers, stating quite specifically that DATA OF THAT QUALITY DID NOT EXIST. The report was specifically about the quality of the Chinese climate record.

    Both papers concluded that the Urban Heat Island effect was minimal. Too bad that they didn't actually have data good enough to draw that conclusion. They said they did, tho.

    None of this would have come out if it wasn't for the Freedom of Information Act. Jones and Wang both obstructed the release of the data (denying FOI requests, etc) for nearly 2 decades.

    This all came out several years ago, but the media didnt give a fuck. They did care about hacked emails tho. Go figure. Now, as it turns out it probably wasn't Jones who was lying his ass off. Wang was a co-author on Jones's paper and supplied the "data." Jones gets credit for having his email hacked.

  • More details (Score:3, Informative)

    by Sara Chan (138144) on Thursday April 22, 2010 @03:57AM (#31936424)
    I am the story's submitter. My original submission included a link to the mathematician's web page about this [informath.org]; the page has many more details. There have also been other news stories, e.g. at the BBC [bbc.co.uk].

    The UK Freedom of Information Act [ico.gov.uk] has exemptions for data that has not yet been used in publications, vexatious requests, etc.
  • by qc_dk (734452) on Thursday April 22, 2010 @04:09AM (#31936466)

    I don't think you understand how scientific funding works. I am not given a lump sum and then told to go figure something out. This is how it works in the EU:

    I am given a sum of money. This has to be accounted for. There are a number predefined areas where I can spend this money. During this project I will have to fill in time sheets detailing what I'm spending my time doing. All the different work areas will have spending limits. I.e. I can't just put some more time into community outreach(like preparing data) at the cost of Research and development time. There will be a number of milestones I have to reach along with something called deliverables. Deliverables can be reports or code or raw data if the EU has decided it was of interest. At the same time I also have to prepare papers and so on to keep my position at the university.

    Where do I account for the time spent on giving out data because some random person wants it? Answer: I can't so it will have to come out of my own pocket or I could commit fraud and put my time down into one of the projects and newsflash I'm not going to risk jailtime.

    The fact is that while the public is funding the science, what they are funding is SPECIFICALLY not the data distribution. You don't believe you should have access to Pfizers raw data even though it is funded by the public(through the purchase of medicine), do you? Because what you paid for was a pill and not the data.

    If you believe in this so strongly, please lobby research grant givers to always include funding for public data dissemination, no matter whether the grant giver thinks the data will be of use and has included it as an accountable deliverable.

  • by Xest (935314) on Thursday April 22, 2010 @05:05AM (#31936680)

    The issue with the FoIA in the UK is that there is a clause requiring bodies to only have to comply with the request if the cost of fulfilling it is not more than around £450.

    I've seen first hand local government abuse this by claiming that collation of the data would take 18 hours and that their FoI officer is paid £25 an hour, and hence the cost of providing the data is too high. Quite why it requires someone paid £50k a year to collate some basic data that they should already have collated anyway I've no idea, but still, they use this excuse, and the information commissioner allows such abuse of it.

    So although as you say it's a great theoretical win, I believe it'll make no difference in practice either way due to the ease of which public bodies are able to sidestep FoI requests.

Practical people would be more practical if they would take a little more time for dreaming. -- J. P. McEvoy

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