Open data: Royal Society report examines opportunities and challenges

Article dated: 4 July 2012

The UK Data Archive is prominent in a new report from the Royal Society, Science as an Open Enterprise.

The 105-page report culminates in a major study on the use of scientific information as it affects both scientists and society. Produced by a working group of distinguished leaders and thinkers from across disciplines, the report not only identifies the opportunities and challenges of sharing and disclosing scientific information, but also asks how it should be managed in order to support innovative and productive research in society's best interests.

open data

The report acknowledges the critical benefits of open access to research data, then considers the specific conditions under which 'openness' most benefits the research community, policy and the larger society. In the report summary:

"Realising the benefits of open data requires effective communication through a more intelligent openness: data must be accessible and readily located; they must be intelligible to those who wish to scrutinise them; data must be assessable so that judgments can be made about their reliability and the competence of those who created them; and they must be usable by others. For data to meet these requirements it must be supported by explanatory metadata (data about data). As a first step towards this intelligent openness, data that underpin a journal article should be made concurrently available in an accessible database. We are now on the brink of an achievable aim: for all science literature to be online, for all of the data to be online and for the two to be interoperable."

Archive an exemplar

The UK Data Archive is highlighted as an example of a Tier 2 digital repository which includes data centres and resources managed by UK research councils or other prominent research funders (pages 60 and 93). Funding from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) allows the Archive to host the UK's largest collection of digital research data in the social sciences and humanities. It also manages the ESRC's flagship portal for research resources, the Economic and Social Data Service (ESDS), along with other data services including the Census portal and the Secure Data Service.

"I very much welcome the Royal Society's report and its key recommendations, particularly surrounding the necessity for greater rewards and recognition to data creators," says Matthew Woollard, Director of the UK Data Archive and ESDS. "The report is also clear that the costs to preserve digital materials over time are non-trivial, and significant investment needs to be made on a long-term basis to maximise the science-rewards of open data."

As an outcome of the report, the Royal Society identifies six key areas for action:

  • scientists need to be more open among themselves and with the public and media
  • greater recognition needs to be given to the value of data gathering, analysis and communication
  • common standards for sharing information are required to make it widely usable
  • publishing data in a reusable form to support findings must be mandatory
  • more experts in managing and supporting the use of digital data are required
  • new software tools need to be developed to analyse the growing amount of data being gathered

The complete report can be downloaded from the Royal Society website at the links below.