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The paradox of academia’s reluctancy to share data

02.12.2020
Raymonde Weyzen
Opinion

In reading a recent practice example on The Support Centre for Data Sharing: “Social Science One and the Facebook URLs dataset” I came across a notion that was entirely new to me. It came from this quote, put forward by Prof. Gary King, one of the initiators of Social Science One and connected to Harvard University:

“The ivory tower (of governments and academia as custodian of data) has to be broken down. We actually have to integrate more into the rest of society, understand what it is they're doing, why they're doing it, showing them that they can make a big difference in the world.”1

“The ivory tower of academia as custodian of data”. From my personal experience in university, I can see that individual researchers pride themselves on the data they have collected and the analyses they conduct on the basis of them. In light of the publishing pressure researchers are under, they might feel protective over their work and show reluctancy to share it. This seems very understandable on an individual basis. Considering universities as institutions though, it seems like a stretch to say they are acting as keepers of the data and – are perhaps – barring others from using and re-using data. Aren’t universities by definition places where knowledge and ideas are exchanged, and learning is fostered precisely because of that?

Still, the quote put forward here does not reflect just one person’s opinion. Looking at the European Data Portals Analytical Report 17: “From regulation to adoption: The drivers of data sharing it seems that the reluctancy to share data is well-documented in academia. Surveys repeatedly show that scientists do not share data often and if they do at all, they typically do so in a format that is not suitable for the type of data or not widely used (Berghmans et al., 2017)2. This has nothing to do with researchers being unaware of the benefits of data sharing, or lack of commitment on their part. Rather, the difficulty lies is knowing when and how to share research findings. In other words: the practical side of things. This is further underlined by the finding that data sharing regulations proposed by those agencies that fund studies do not inspire researchers to share data either (Berghmans et al., 2017)3.

If there is any point to academic research it is to discover, gain new insights, help explain the world around us, and inspire innovative ideas. If we do not collaborate and share our findings, none of these things are possible. Perhaps doing so seems utopian given the “publish or perish” situation academia finds itself in4, but if we are not careful research becomes an elitist topic, serving only a niche part of our society.