Open Data, Open Access & What They Mean for Applied Sociology

Via Flickr
Via Flickr

Data are necessary for robust social science but very expensive to collect. Current regulations limit the ability for public servants and researchers sharing their data with the public. What does the open data movement mean for applied sociologists? Here’s two brief case studies on what’s happening in the European Union and in the USA.

Open Data in the EU

Towards the end of last year, The European Union unveiled new policies to make  public service data freely available. In December, Jonathan Gray wrote in The Guardian:

The announcement contained some very strong language in support of open data. Open data is the new gold, the fertile soil out of which a new generation of applications and services will grow. In a networked age, we all depend on data, and opening it up is the best way to realise its value, to maximise its potential.

There was little ambiguity about the Commissioner’s support for an “open by default” position for public sector information, nor for her support for the open data movement, for “those of us who believe that the best way to get value from data is to give it away”.

Gray raises several thorny issues about how the Open Data project will be administrated, including the legalities, all of which will take a long time to negotiate. I see other issues regarding research ethics, confidentiality, intellectual property and the misuse of data by people who may not be properly trained to handle it. What type of long-term effects will this project have on how research is funded in the future? Will it limit alternative data collection processes in any way? These questions require scientific input and consultation.

Navigating these issues will be tricky, but there is great potential with the Open Data project. As Gray notes, making public service data openly available will help expand cultural heritage, it will encourage collaboration and it will make the public service more transparent and accountable. Various organisations around the world are already working towards the Open Data project, such as the World Bank Group. They have sought input from researchers on seven Open Data projects, including how the project might be enacted in Kenya, the impact of technology development and civic engagement in developing nations, crowd-sourcing in fragile states, and the Open Government Data project. (Read more and share your opinions via the World Bank website.)

Collaboration between researchers, public servants and other practitioners is generally hampered as different stakeholders spend a lot of time, effort and grant money in building databases and collecting data that is already housed elsewhere. Academics and public servants do collaborate, but this process is often limited because data is held by one party and it is not able to be shared with the other. Making some data openly available will facilitate and likely enhance social policy generation. The problems, as I’ve mentioned, such as what types of data should be protected and issues of ethical use, are not easily resolved. I will keep an eye on these developments with great enthusiasm.

While the Open Data project is about making raw datasets available to the public, the related but distinct issue of open access is about making published articles available to the public. This process is currently limited due to the academic publishing industry, which hordes research papers behind a user-pay system. Open access advocates argue that this system is inequitable because the research is often paid for by public funds, yet the public is unable to access the findings without paying for it (again). It also means that scientific innovation is stifled as the academic publishing system is painfully slow.

Open Access in the USA

Michael Eisen is an evolutionary biologist and a strong supporter of keeping scientific research open to the public. He is a co-founder of the Public Library of Science (PLoS). In January, Eisen reported that the Public Access Policy of scientific papers was under threat in the USA as New York Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney sought end to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Public Access Policy. Maloney apparently obtained contributions for her political campaign via the publishing industry and so it seems that her repeated attempts to challenge the NIH open access movement was driven by her support of publishers, rather than public good. Many of the large academic publishers see open access initiatives as a threat to their business. A couple of weeks a go, Eisen reported that while the open access campaign is gaining considerable support from the public, the policies remain weak. Eisen reports that a petition to the Obama Administration to extend the NIH open access policies to other government agencies has gained over 25,000 signatures and the University of California San Francisco has also introduced its own open access policies. Eisen argues that both of events do not go far enough as open access is presented as a an option, meaning that academics are still feeling the pressure to publish in mainstream journals, which generally put a one year embargo on publicly sharing research papers.

Open access is a pivotal issue for all researchers, but it has particular resonance for applied sociologists and other practitioners outside academia.

The Impact for Applied Researchers

Many workplaces cannot afford to pay the exorbitant publisher’s fees to access journals. People without access to an institutional or personal subscription to journals have to pay at least AUD$25-$40  PER RESEARCH PAPER. I know this personally as in a strange twist of fate last year, I needed swift access to one of my own publications and I had to purchase it for around $40. (Don’t even ask – it was ridiculous!) Back in August, the UK sociologist George Monbiot wrote in The Guardian:

The average cost of an annual subscription to a chemistry journal is $3,792… Some journals cost $10,000 a year or more to stock. The most expensive I’ve seen, Elsevier’s Biochimica et Biophysica Acta, is $20,930… Though academic libraries have been frantically cutting subscriptions to make ends meet, journals now consume 65% of their budgets… which means they have had to reduce the number of books they buy. Journal fees account for a significant component of universities’ costs, which are being passed to their students…
The returns are astronomical: in the past financial year, for example, Elsevier’s operating-profit margin was 36% (£724m on revenues of £2 billion)… They result from a stranglehold on the market. Elsevier, Springer and Wiley, who have bought up many of their competitors, now publish 42% of journal articles…

Heather Piwowar (Research Mix) puts out great posts on the fear and bully tactics being used to push researchers away from making their content publicly available. Piwowar, Eisen and others argue that there is an alternative business model for scientific publishers that does not preclude open access. Scientific publications can and should be shared with the public. Yet the open access bargain goes both ways. Researchers remain reticent to share their work with the public. Australian Historian Jo Hawkins wrote an excellent post on the reasons why academics don’t share their research publicly – probably due to the fear that other people will steal their ideas, fear of public critique, and the lack of time. Hawkins pish-poshes these excuses and instead focuses on the benefits of open access, including engaging with an outside audience, strengthening your writing, and reclaiming power over public ideas away from the domain of academic publishers. Hawkins writes:

While a terrifying prospect at first, sharing your research across disciplines and non academic audiences offers several benefits. Engaging in a public forum means you are accountable for your ideas. Responding to challenges and feedback can help you strengthen arguments, refine ideas and even inspire new ones.

The exponential value of scientific research is diminished if it can’t be accessed by communities, organisations and not-for-profit groups that apply our knowledge to real life problems. The fear of engaging with broader publics is understandable for non-academics who may have limited experience with writing for broad audiences. After all, applied sociologists often engage in activism or research for small, very specific community groups or organisations. Publications are not necessarily our primary mode of communication. Time is a definite issue. While academics are equally swamped for time, their careers are centrally focused on publishing (with positive and negative effects). Generally, applied researchers are not expected to publish in academic journals routinely and so there is not the same professional urgency to publish. Within the Australian Applied Sociology group, most members note that publishing is also daunting because it is so time intensive. Nevertheless, applied researchers have a wealth of knowledge and experience that would greatly benefit different audiences. We also rely on external data. The Open Access movement has great potential benefit for applied and academic researchers alike, particularly by making diverse data sources available from the public service, academia and other organisations. Where does sociology fit in? PLoS is a great initiative, but it has no dedicated stream for social science or sociology papers. So where does the open access movement leave us?

What do you think?

Let our Sociology at Work members know if there are any open data processes in your country and how it works. Otherwise share with us your ideas about how the Open Data movement might impact on applied sociology. How can our discipline help navigate the open data movement in different nations?


Image via ronbigler31 on Flicr (CC).


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