Open Access News

News from the open access movement

Thursday, July 17, 2008

More on the difficulties of opening access to data

Ethan Zuckerman, The Complexity of Sharing Scientific Databases, WorldChanging, July 16, 2008.  Excerpt:

...[The use of open licenses by scientists is] the research interest of my colleague Melanie Dulong de Rosnay. She’s using her time as a Berkman fellow to study alternative copyright systems and their usage and relevance within academic and library communities. Yesterday, Melanie presented research on the licensing of scientific databases and the obstacles such licensing presents to collaboration between scientists around the world....

For a couple of years, [Science Commons] offered a wonderfully complex FAQ on applying Creative Commons licenses to databases - the first question read “Can a Creative Commons license be applied to a database?” After a six paragraph answer to that question, the third question read, “So, a Creative Commons license can be applied to a database?”

The approach Science Commons is taking now is a different one - they’re now recommending use of a protocol that specifies how data can be made Open Access - the FAQ on that protocol explains that the complexities of asking scientists to release their data under Creative Commons licenses was so severe that Science Commons has ended up advocating for data to be released public domain, under the auspices of their protocol, instead.

This question of complexity is what Melanie’s research has focused on. She looked at the terms of use for roughly 200 databases necessary for work in the life sciences. Evaluating the terms on all those databases, she discovered that only seven met her stringent definitions of Open Access to data - these databases could be accessed without registration; they could be downloaded for local use; they could be incorporated into other works; they had clear, understandable terms of use. This last factor proved to be the most challenging. She spent hours reading these terms with other experts in the field and discovered that, a great deal of time, the experts disagreed on what was permitted under a specific agreement.

The reason this is important, Melanie explains, is that scientific research proceeds more quickly when researchers can share resources. But with databases encumbered by different, confusing legal protections, it can become a legal nightmare for researchers to do complex work building new tools that combine information from two databases in a novel way, for instance. And databases that are protected by access restrictions can be out of reach to scientists in developing nations who might not have the financial or technical resources to access them....