What do you think of e-ScienceCity? Click here!

Data freedoms

The development of the personal computer – the desktops and laptops familiar to us, and the mobile devices that followed – owes a lot to the atmosphere of the 1960s, which formed the backdrop to the technological advances heralded by the developing semiconductor industry. Profound social changes epitomised by the civil rights movement, growing pressure for gender equality and the influence of the counterculture in academic research environments all impacted on the technologies being developed. Stuart Brand, publisher of the ‘Whole Earth Catalog’, noticed a peculiar duality of data in electronic systems: ‘Information wants to be free. And Information wants to be very expensive’. Free, because duplicating data on a computer is so easy – but expensive, because data is worth so much to whoever can legally lay claim to it.

In publicly-funded academic research, researchers would typically get a grant to perform scientific experiments, or conduct investigations or interviews in the social sciences, which they would then interpret, publishing their findings in prestigious academic journals. The journals themselves had a vested interest in controlling the copyrights of the papers (and therefore the data they contain), and often required the scientists, who generated the data, to sign over copyrights to the publisher. High subscription fees meant that most members of the public, who had funded the research, or scientists in poorer countries who could not afford the fees, were locked out of access to that data.
The growth of the web as a main communications tool meant that global distribution of information was becoming easier, but scientists often couldn’t legally place digital versions of their published papers on their own websites. This called for a change in the way academic publishing operated, and so the Open Access movement was born. In this model, scientists pay a one-time fee to publish their findings as an online paper – but this time its free to distribute and copy the paper, and host it on any website you please, so long as you give credit to the publisher (a so-called attribution licence, usually Creative Commons CC-BY).

Researchers working with large datasets (‘big data’) believe the next step is open data. But combining data from lots of sources and then having to include attribution alongside it could slow things down. The Panton Principles, which have been formulated to cover open data, recommend that the data be made public domain (equivalent to Creative Commons ‘0’ licence). Researchers can still be sure of receiving credit for their work thanks to the system of citation.