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UK University Researchers Must Make Data Available 352

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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  • by nescientist ( 1770702 ) on Wednesday April 21, 2010 @06:24PM (#31932492)
    More data in more hands is a good thing. It sounds like this specific case was driven primarily by the nonsensical quackings of a global-warming denialist, but whatever; information is beautiful and the more we share the love the better off we all are.
  • Re:Publicly funded (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday April 21, 2010 @06:34PM (#31932640)

    I personally agree. they collect a huge amount of information about program availability, trends, and many other data services that are not the broadcasted portion of their TV that SHOULD be made available to the public.

  • NSF (Score:3, Interesting)

    by martas ( 1439879 ) on Wednesday April 21, 2010 @06:38PM (#31932676)
    does anyone know if the NSF has similar requirements?
  • by Sparr0 ( 451780 ) <> on Wednesday April 21, 2010 @06:43PM (#31932720) Homepage Journal

    Yes, yes, and yes. What is the problem? If they are racing, there is obviously something worth racing TO. If both teams have all the data, that goal will be reached no later, probably sooner.

  • Re:NSF (Score:4, Interesting)

    by imidan ( 559239 ) on Wednesday April 21, 2010 @06:51PM (#31932836)

    The NSF has recently taken more of an interest in research data management. They're definitely starting to make it a requirement of grant funding that the research data be digitally stored, backed up, and, after a cooling-off period to allow the principal researchers to publish, made available to the public. I'm working on a research data management group at my university, and the researchers generally seem open to the idea, though they're loathe to put in any extra effort to make it work.

  • Teaching? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by jfw ( 2291 ) on Wednesday April 21, 2010 @07:13PM (#31933104)
    OK, why does this argument not also apply to teaching? I am paid to teach and do research from the public purse. My teaching is available to any one who meets certain standards and pays a user fee. Access to data should be the same.
  • So a non expert (Score:3, Interesting)

    by geekoid ( 135745 ) <> on Wednesday April 21, 2010 @07:15PM (#31933136) Homepage Journal

    wants to use data that wasn't used for climate change and models in order to prove that the studies that didn't use them are flawed.

    Add to that a reporter who continually overstates anything the climate change denilist say, I'm sure it will confuse even more people.
    This should be fun.

  • Re:Awful summary (Score:3, Interesting)

    by blair1q ( 305137 ) on Wednesday April 21, 2010 @07:17PM (#31933152) Journal

    Now Queen's University researchers must compile the data for release because of the (UK) Freedom of Information Act.

    Seems unreasonable. They should charge the requester for any effort needed to "compile" or transmit the data. No reason the public should foot the bill for any particular formatting or delivery.

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

    by geekoid ( 135745 ) <> on Wednesday April 21, 2010 @07:32PM (#31933354) Homepage Journal

    Scientists are always concerned when people who have no idea what they are doing try to interpret data. It has nothing to do with being scared.
    For example:
    Lets say this guy cherry picks some data to support his belief and Opera finds out about his 'findings' and puts him on the air. Suddenly 25 million people who aren't qualified to judge his assessment is not hounding politician over incorrect data.
    I just spent about 10 years watch this very thing happen to Vaccines. Some idiots bad study gets on Opera, and a year later people are dying.

    It's a real and serious problem, and the people causing it(media) are doing nothing to fix it.

  • by El Fantasmo ( 1057616 ) on Wednesday April 21, 2010 @07:49PM (#31933538)
    I believe that all public universities (in the US) that cannot prove public money was not used on research, should be required to release the findings/data to the public shortly after it is published. Of course there are exceptions for things involving national security and what not.
  • Conflicting Laws? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Sir Mal Fet ( 1402403 ) on Wednesday April 21, 2010 @07:49PM (#31933542)
    I wonder how this conflicts with the laws about Privacy of Data. For example, if a company shares a dataset that contains sensible information with a University (this CAN be done, at least in my country, with a contract. We compromise to safeguard the data and to not violate Privacy laws, consultants also do this everywhere) for the purpose of developing a model or some other application that needs the data. The professor then publishes a paper with the main (non-corporate secret) results, and uses public funds for an undergrad or something. Does this mean the professor can be sued into giving the information away? Doing this clearly violates the laws on privacy, but would conflict directly with the Freedom of Information Act. Compelling with one law contradicts the other... I do not think that this can be upheld in court for EVERY case, instead it would have to be analyzed in a case-by-case basis using (possible costly) lawsuits. Then again, IANAL, so maybe I'm wrong... (Full disclosure: I am a researcher in data mining)
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday April 21, 2010 @07:51PM (#31933560)

    Creationists regularly mangle papers, taking quotes out of context and all.

    Would you *really* expect anything else? They do the same thing to the Bible, and they LIKE the Bible.

    Personally, I'm not of the opinion that anyone who seriously believes the planet was instantly created 6000 years ago should be permitted to SPEAK in the debate on climate change. How can you argue about the interpretation of 20k year old ice core data with someone who believes that core was put there by THE DEVIL to confuse people?

  • Re:good news (Score:3, Interesting)

    by zz5555 ( 998945 ) on Wednesday April 21, 2010 @08:03PM (#31933686)

    I don't know. The USA (and a lot of other countries) might not be too happy since it means releasing the UK is saying it's OK for these scientists to release the USA's proprietary data. So I guess, you're right in that those jerks like the USA (and a lot of other countries) that wanted to profit from this data will get their comeuppance, but I wonder if we now need to increase taxes in order to pay for these services that used to make a profit. So that means that we all need to pay more money because of this.

    I also wonder what it means for the university to release data that is illegal for them to release. I mean, on one side the court says they need to release it, but on the other side other courts say it's illegal to release it. Should be interesting in the UK for a while.

  • by Rogerborg ( 306625 ) on Wednesday April 21, 2010 @08:17PM (#31933850) Homepage

    If a lab has spent a long time, let's say 10 years, accumulating some hard fought data

    If a lab has been spending my tax money for 10 years, I want my employees to give me my data right Goddamn now.

    The "reward" for doing publicly funded research is that you keep getting funded. I don't care one whit what you think you're entitled to: if you're taking my money, you work for me.

  • by the gnat ( 153162 ) on Wednesday April 21, 2010 @08:36PM (#31934050)

    If a lab has been spending my tax money for 10 years, I want my employees to give me my data right Goddamn now.

    Okay, but does that mean you should get to see the data before they're done analyzing it, before they can write a paper on their results? If we instituted such a rule, there would be nothing to stop scientists from bombarding their competitors with FOIA requests, and using the released data to scoop them. At the very least we'd need embargo rules, but even that won't entirely prevent abuses of the system. Most basic research isn't just a system of data factories, careful analysis by experts is essential for interpreting the results, and if scientists don't have some assurance that they'll be permitted to publish these analyses before their competitors stomp all over them, the academic system would simply break down. (Or is that what you want?)

  • by martin-boundary ( 547041 ) on Wednesday April 21, 2010 @09:14PM (#31934370)

    The downside to free and open access to all data is that research groups get grants to collect AND process the data to come up with results. Opening the data up for free access means that other groups, who have more interest in scooping than being right, have more ability to do that scooping. That leaves the people who did the work in the cold. There is good reason to delay opening the data until the group being paid to collect it has a chance to use it.

    Why do you think that delaying is necessarily the correct solution to the scooping problem? There are plenty of alternatives that could solve the problem.

    For example, the lab could license the data to anyone on the condition that someone in the lab (or the lab itself) is listed as a co-author of any paper that uses its data. That way, no scooping is possible, and outside researchers could still analyse the data as soon as they want.

  • by melikamp ( 631205 ) on Wednesday April 21, 2010 @10:02PM (#31934776) Homepage Journal

    This is still an overestimate, I think. The Wiki says there are 5758 higher education institutions in the US alone. The entire budget of the Wikimedia foundation hovers around $10000000 a year, which is ~ $1736 per year per institution. We can have a project that costs 10 times as much as Wikipedia, containing, most likely, more than hundred times more data, for measly $17360 per year per institution. This is about as much as one lucky teaching fellow gets paid. This is such a trivial sum of money for the academia as a whole, Harvard alone could afford it for several decades if they wished so, although it would make a quite a blip on their balance sheet.

    Whatever, Wikimedia is already doing it with textbooks, so that part is taken care of. It would be nice, though, do have a big ass research exchange, kind of like famed JSTOR, but where everything comes with the source attached (original LaTeX, raw media, raw data, etc), and everything is available to everyone (public domain or, better yet, copyleft).

  • by Roger W Moore ( 538166 ) on Wednesday April 21, 2010 @10:50PM (#31935030) Journal

    Opening the data up for free access means that other groups, who have more interest in scooping than being right, have more ability to do that scooping. That leaves the people who did the work in the cold.

    That is not hard to achieve: someone has to make an FoI request, the cost to prepare the data has to be estimated, someone has to get hired to collect and format the data and then the data is released. That can take a considerable amount of time.....but that's not the only issue. In my field of particle physics raw data is generally useless unless you understand how it was collected and how to analyse it.

    Even assuming that you had several petabytes of disk/tape available to store it, raw data from ATLAS would be completely useless to you unless you really understand the detector "warts and all". Trying to understand this data without access to the detector itself and the ability to test and cross-check ideas looking at (and sometimes carefully tweaking) the hardware is literally impossible....and that is before you get into the thorny international issues about who did what and so whether it falls under any one country's laws.

    These issues were discussed on a previous experiment I worked on in the US and the conclusion was that it did not serve the public to have data released in just about any form: the raw data was useless and even the processed data still had considerable "quirks" which required understanding (e.g. acceptance drops at detector boundaries etc.). This was aptly demonstrated by a pilot project which resulted in no interest at all from the public but which worryingly attracted a few nutters who were more interested in proving their pet theory than in doing science.

    So while I am very sympathetic to the "the public paid for it the public should be able to access it" argument I do not think that the public's interest is best served by releasing raw data in all (most?) cases. The best way to serve the public interest is to ensure that results and ideas arising from that research are freely available to all and allow the public to build on that.

  • by budgenator ( 254554 ) on Wednesday April 21, 2010 @11:52PM (#31935472) Journal

    What if group B notices that a temperature station one day reports the temperature is -12.4C one day and 10 minutes later it's +12.4 C the next? On 2010-Apr-21 22:10, Drifting buoy 48534 [] did just that and that's an automated report, imagine the fun and games when human error gets added in! The data is bad, there is a lot of bad data points in the records and the records were never intended for the purpose they are being used for so quality control is even more critical. We really need a large number of human eyeballs looking at the data to find these problems.

  • by TapeCutter ( 624760 ) * on Thursday April 22, 2010 @03:47AM (#31936392) Journal
    "This hubbub all came about because of the difficulty in prying the source data out of the hands of the guy who produced the "hockey stick" figures. It's covered in the book "Broken Consensus" I think it's called. The "hockey stick" is not the "source data", the source data is all of the individual readings from all the instruments, prior to corrections for sampling errors or known issues. One cannot verify the quality of the "hockey stick" result without having the source data and being able to verify the processing steps that were done to it."

    I threw away some mod points because it irks me how unskeptical the garden variety climate skeptic actually is when it comes to accepting the hockey stick has been discredited. Here are a few points you should consider with your skeptics hat on...

    1. Mann's original hockey stick was published in the jounal Nature, they are not well known for publishing shoddy work.

    2. A senate inquisition was held on Mann's paper in which the National Acedemies of science were called in to give expert testimony [] on the veracity of Mann's paper. As you will no doubt learn when reading the testimony the NAS came down firmly in favour of Mann although they did highlight some minor technical problems.

    3. Given that the NAS were able to agree with Mann's conclusions under oath at a hostile inquisition, how did they do so without access to the data?

    4. The journal science is also not well known for publishing shoddy work. So why did NAS then publish a follow up study by Mann in their journal Science if they were not satisfied he had no only addressed the minor technical problems in the original but also greatly increaed the robustness of the findings?

    5. Why can't I find a listing for a book called "broken consensus" which you cite as a source? Shouldn't you at least adhere to your own standards of evidence?

    6. How do you explain the links to the data and methods found in an article called Dummies guide to the hockey stick [] on Mann's website?

    7. Why do people belive that some difficult to obtain data (ie: time consuming) from a few nations means that the other 99.99999% of the raw data [] available on the web is insuffitient to recreate the hockey stick?

    8. Why is McIntrye only interested in "auditing" climate science that disagrees with his opinion? Could this be because his own paper did not stand up to the traditional auditing method called "the test of time"?

    If the above points do not at least cause you to question your sources then I can only conclude your sketics hat must have slipped down over your eyes...
  • How's this for bad? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Roger W Moore ( 538166 ) on Thursday April 22, 2010 @04:45AM (#31936620) Journal

    But you haven't given a reason why it's actually bad

    It wastes scientists' time that would be better spent analysing the data rather than releasing it, it wastes money collecting and disseminating the data, it pollutes the real scientific results with those of nutters trying to prove their pet theory and, in the case of commercially useful data, it risks having companies use the data to develop something commercially useful that will then be locked away behind patents and the public will be charged through the nose for.

    There is also the more subjective, human issue that if you don't let people who have worked like crazy to get the data have at least the first shot at analysis then recruiting scientists is going to become extremely hard and motivating them to perform large-scale experiments will be even harder if they just have to give the data away - why would you bother if you can just sit around and get the data as soon as it is collected?

    Is that bad enough? There are ways you could mitigate some of the above but the bottom line is that nothing is free: it will cost more money to make the data publically available and, as a taxpayer myself, I see no real benefit from doing it and some serious potential pitfalls.

  • by finarfinjge ( 612748 ) on Thursday April 22, 2010 @01:49PM (#31942442)
    Point 1, Nature. Was still publishing articles supporting Piltdown man within 2 years of it being finally accepted as a hoax. They have been fooled before
    Point 2, Senate "inquisition" slammed Mann (if you are talking about Wegman, he called Mann's work obscure and incomplete with conclusions not supported by the data)
    Point 3, Not sure how you came to the conclusion that calling the conclusions unsupported by the data "agreeing"
    Point 4, See point 1,
    Point 5, guess you didn't try too hard []

    Point 6, Given that this article is about the FIRST, RELUCTANT, release of some of the very data that Mann used in constructing the hockey stick, I find it a bit rich that you are willing to claim that the raw data is all available
    The temperature data is available, but the 'hidden decline' tree ring data . . . Not so much
    Point 7, McIntyre's site is quite well known for being especially hard on skeptics who post idiotic comments. Of course, Steve is not advocating a point of view that requires the expenditure of billions of dollars. He is just asking for some discipline in the work being done.
    In his real job, he is required to audit data under rules that would make climate scientists crap. In mining you have to publish your data (drill records) as soon as practicable. Competition?? Tough. Don't show your raw numbers and interpretation methods?? Go to jail. McIntyre audits a lot of data other than climate scientists data. Under rules that people like Jones and Mann would whine miserably about.

    Maybe you might want to take off your own blinders and find a sight in addition to realclimate for information.

"Let every man teach his son, teach his daughter, that labor is honorable." -- Robert G. Ingersoll