Best practice for data availability – the debate starts…well over there really
The issue of licensing arrangements and best practice for making data available has been brewing for some time but has just recently come to a head. John Wilbanks and Science Commons have a reasonably well established line that they have been developing for some time. Michael Nielsen has a recent blog post and Rufus Pollock, of the Open Knowledge Foundation, has also just synthesised his thoughts in response into a blog essay. I highly recommend reading John’s article on licensing at Nature Precedings, Michael’s blog post, and Rufus’ essay before proceeding. Another important document is the discussion of the license that Victoria Stodden is working to develop. Actually if you’ve read them go and read them again anyway – it will refresh the argument.
To crudely summarize, Rufus makes a cogent argument for the use of explicit licenses applied to collections of data, and feels that share-alike provisions in licenses or otherwise do not cause major problems and that the benefit that arises from enforcing re-use outweighs the problem. John’s position is that it far better for standards to be applied through social pressure (“community norms”) rather than licensing arrangements. He also believes that share-alike provisions are bad because they break interoperability between different types of objects and domains. One point that I think is very important and (I think) is a point of agreement is that some form of license or at dedication to the public domain will be crucial to developing best practice. Even if the final outcome of debate is that everything will go in the public domain it should be part of best practice to make that explicit.
Broadly speaking I belong to John’s camp but I don’t want to argue that case with this post. What is important in my view is that the debate takes place and that we are clear about what the aims of that debate are. What is it we are trying to achieve in the process of coming to (hopefully) some consensus of what best practice should look like?
It is important to remember that anyone can assert a license (or lack thereof) on any object that they (assert they) own or have rights over. We will never be able to impose a specific protocol on all researchers, all funders. Therefore what we are looking for is not the perfect arrangement but a balance between what is desired, what can be practically achieved, and what is politically feasible. We do need a coherent consensus view that can be presented to research communities and research funders. That is why the debate is important. We also need something that works, and is extensible into the future, where it will stand up to the development of new types of research, new types of data, new ways of making that data available, and perhaps new types of researchers altogether.
I think we agree that the minimal aim is to enable, encourage, and protect into the future the ability to re-use and re-purpose the publicly published products of publicly funded research. Arguments about personal or commercial work are much harder and much more subtle. Restricting the argument to publicly funded researchers makes it possible to open a discussion with a defined number of funders who have a public service and public engagement agenda. It also makes the moral arguments much clearer.
In focussing on research that is being made public we short circuit the contentious issue of timing. The right, or the responsibility, to commercially exploit research outputs and the limitations this can place on data availability is a complex and difficult area and one in which agreement is unlikely any time soon. I would also avoid the word “Open”. This is becoming a badly overloaded term with both political and emotional overtones, positive and negative. Focussing on what should happen after the decision has been to go public reduces the argument to “what is best practice for making research outputs available”. The question of when to make them available can then be kept separate. The key question for the current debate is not when but how.
So what I believe the debate should be about is the establishment, if possible, of a consensus protocol or standard or license for enabling and ensuring the availability of the research outputs associated with publicly published, publicly funded research. Along side this is the question of establishing mechanisms, for researchers to implement and be supported to observe these standards, as well as for “enforcement”. These might be trademarks, community standards, or legal or contractual approaches as well as systems and software to make all of this work, including trackbacks, citation aggregators, and effective data repositories. In addition we need to consider the public relations issue of selling such standards to disparate research funders and research communities.
Perhaps a good starting point would be to pinpoint the issues where there is general agreement and map around those. If we agree some central principles then we can take an empirical approach to the mechanisms. We’re scientists after all aren’t we?