To free data or not to …

In some countries downloaders and uploaders are regarded as criminals: in the US you can expect litigation by record companies and artists when you share your music. In France your Internet connection wil be cut off when you’ve been downloading music and/or video’s. This shows that the Internet isn’t a safe haven for people that want to freely share information.

This is totally opposite to what the founding father of the World Wide Web Tim Berners-Lee thinks it should be. Berners-Lee is the advocate for free data. Organizations, in particular governments, should open their databases on-line, creating a level playing field for all. It also allows for members of the general public to contribute to datasets. Also, people can, if they have the expertise, to analyse these data and share the results in a numerical or visual style. This can be risky because as is possible with numerical information, visualizations can be deceiving. The proverb “there are lies, damn lies and statistics” should be “there are lies, damn lies, statistics and visualizations”.

A few initiatives are the US government, the UK government, and the Guardian. The sharing of data is, or it should be, common practice in scientific circles. In the Netherlands DANS archives scientific data and grants access (however, not for all). In academics, unfortunately, it doesn’t¬†always pay to share your data for an important reason. Increasingly academics are told by university management to publish in ISI-ranked journals. That’s OK. But archiving data, which is important for secondary analyses and enabling others to check your work, takes a lot of time but is not rewarded by management. The time it takes to prepare the data and report for archiving could also be spent on new research articles and data collection. So, given the choice between a time consuming unrewarded archiving and writing new manuscripts, the choice will often be the latter. Unfortunately, this can only change when universities reward archiving the same as journal publications. I feel this is unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future.

Below are two videos where Tim Berners-Lee explains the idea and shows some examples.

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Maurice Vergeer

I am Maurice Vergeer, working at Communication Science department of the Radboud University Nijmegen, in the Netherlands.