Data Sharing as Science's "Unobtainium"
Standardized, open data sets, like the "linked data" championed by World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee, could enhance research in ecology and earth systems science (see: "Data Management, Ontology and Ecoinformatics").
It is sobering, then, to read David Carlson's Nature commentary on the ongoing challenges to data sharing ("A Lesson in Sharing," sub req.):
Long before the film Avatar popularized it, I learned from engineering colleagues the whimsical but useful term 'unobtainium' — used to describe something perfect but elusive. A perfect data-sharing system is science's unobtainium.
Carlson was programme office director with the International Polar Year (IPY), which wrapped up activities in September 2010. According to the IPY website, its research included over 200 projects and thousands of scientists from over 60 countries.
We have come out of the IPY with a rich burst of data, but the information uses the jargon and units of specialities from anthropology to astronomy, referenced to everything from Cartesian coordinates to postal codes. And despite the best efforts of the IPY Data and Information Service, we cannot say how users might discover or access IPY data five years hence. Indeed, it emerged just last week that an upcoming report from the US National Academy of Sciences in Washington DC identifies the lack of data sharing as a barrier to understanding rapid changes in polar ecosystems.
What caused these failures? Technical impediments exist relating to formats, permissions, bandwidth and so on, but the real problem is behaviour. The Earth sciences, like the science community as a whole, lack incentives for widespread data exchange. ...
All IPY projects opted in to an explicit free and open data-sharing policy. But many researchers do not recognize, much less comply with, this policy, and few national funding organizations have the motivation or means to enforce it.
Carlson describes two projects he co-developed to encourage data sharing: the Polar Information Commons data label and repository, and the Earth System Science Data journal, which publishes peer-reviewed data sets under a Creative Commons license.
- A discussion of the Polar Information Commons by David Bollier
- Nature special issue on data sharing (2009, sub. req.)
- Research Media interview with David Carlson about the IPY.
(Hat tip: Cathy K.)