IDCC11 Session 2A: Policy and legal

This session gave us four fascinating presentations covering areas as diverse as developments in funder data policies, applying the KRDS benefits analysis toolkit, FoI and its implications for research in the HE sector, and the ethics and legalities of gathering tweets for research.


Kerry Miller | 09 December 2011

Sarah Jones from the DCC began by discussing recent developments in research funder data policies, especially the Research Councils UK Common Principles on Data Policy and the EPSRC Policy Framework on Research Data which have been published during 2011.

The RCUK Common Principles has led to both the updating of existing policies and the creation of new ones by funders. The focus of these policies has shifted with access and sharing of data now being the principle concern.

The EPSRC framework with its exacting requirements and tight timescale has created a real spur for research organisations to begin creating their own data policies. Once the policies are in place they will need to ensure that they provide the appropriate infrastructure, support, and training to their researchers to ensure that the policy is actually successful.

Neil Beagrie focused on some recent applications of the KRDS Benefits Analysis toolkit in the fields of Archaeology, Social Sciences, Biology, and Health Sciences. There are two parts to the toolkit, the Benefits Framework and the Value Chain & Benefits Impact.

The Benefits Framework provides a clear overview of the benefits to be gained from appropriate and targeted investment in data curation activities. The Value Chain allows an assessment to be made of those benefits in terms of their value and impact. Neil emphasised that quantitative impact must be measurable and that qualitative impact can be used to create case studies, but should always be supported by good quantitative data.

The four applications identified ways in which the analysis had been beneficial to them in providing a “light touch to help persuade stakeholders of benefits or for deeper insight into project planning decisions”. The full reports give full details.

Ellen Collins stepped into replace Michael Jubb in talking about the implications of FoI legislation on research in HEIs. Universities are defined as ‘Public Authorities’ within FoI legislation and it is important to remember that while some exemptions may exist the presumption must always be in favour of releasing requested data.

So, what is the problem? Many researchers are unfamiliar with the requirements and may not respond appropriately. Researchers are also concerned that if they release data it may be used in a way they do not approve of, unfortunately for them this is not grounds to refuse to release that data. They are also worried that their professional position and IPR may be undermined by being compelled to release data before they are ready to do so.

Good support and training for researchers by their institutions may help to alleviate some of these concerns. It is also possible that FoI legislation may be changed to allow data to be withheld if there are already plans in place to release it at a future date, for example, after research papers based on it are published.

The final presentation of this session was by Kristine Kasianovitz and discussed the issues surrounding gathering and archiving tweets for the purposes of research. In 2011 Lala Sheree Sakr collected and analysed public tweets about the Arab Spring, without any form of consent from the Tweeters concerned.

So, although this sort of research is going on right now many of the legal and ethical issues around it remain to be resolved. There is particular concern about the right to privacy of twitter users based on just how much data can be extracted from a person’s tweets, especially when combined with data from Google and other forms of social media. Researchers using data sets derived from social media need to consider if their work constitutes research on a human subject, or is simply an analysis of a body of text.

A serious question that remains to be answered is “Just because we can, should we?” She also discussed the role of libraries or data repositories may take in preserving this data and concluded by discussing the recommendations to libraries made by Andrew Charlesworth. Kristine asked participants to tweet about their views on the issue at #twitterprivacy, all of which would be archived for future study.