The sociology of data sharing

Added by Stephane Goldstein on 03 July 2008 16:24

I attended a very interesting workshop last week, hosted by the e-Science Institute in Edinburgh, on sociological perspectives of data sharing in the biosciences. In the event, there wasn’t quite as much sociology as I expected, but the discussion provided lots of insights into varied practices regarding the management and sharing of data, and the cultural factors that  underpin this.

In this vein, the meeting explored the relationship between research culture and technology. It was attended by about 25 participants from various perspectives: biomedical researchers (biologists, geneticists and proteomicists especially), sociologists, bioinformaticians, research funders… There were presentations highlighting data sharing practices in genetics and proteomics, citing examples from the RNAi Global Consortium and the European Bioinformatics Institute. I was particularly interested in a talk from Sabina Leonelli, from the London School of Economics, who pointed to the tensions that make the effective sharing of data so challenging; for instance, behavioural tensions between protectionism and the need to share resources with regard to dissemination, and the different sorts of tensions between the stability of classification categories and the dynamism/diversity of research practices.

It was also keen to take part in the session that covered the issue of rewards and incentives for researchers who create and disseminate data (a key issue, incidentally, in the RIN’s recent report on publication and quality assurance of research data outputs). There was an understandable consensus that data are an important research output in their own right, but that conventional methods of reward and recognition do not properly address data creation. There was less agreement, however, about the best means of incentivising researchers: carrot or stick? One way or the other, the role of research funders is crucial.

The workshop reflected a significant level of activity in this area. In addition to our own aforementioned report, there is - to name but a few initiatives - the nearly-completed, JISC-commissioned study on the skills, role and career structure of data scientists and curators, the recent JISC report on the costs to HEIs of data preservation, the work of the new Research Data Management Forum, and more localised initiatives such as another workshop that I took part in recently at the University of Oxford on research data management. Lots going on then, so it’s important to ensure that there is a degree of co-ordination between such valuable activities.

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