The long journey of the research penny

National governments and ministries of research and education have an interest to see their money travel far, and not only as far as the unexplored edges of science. The real target is eternity. To achieve eternity, research funding bodies across the globe show an increased awareness of the importance of sustainable research, including data management, data sharing and open access. Among the benefits of these practices we count that data are preserved “for ever”, research is conducted in a transparent way, has high quality standards, and therefore allows for future discoveries to be built on it. As close to scientific eternity as it gets. Thus, the main motivation is to ensure the availability of scientifically collected data for secondary use.

Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV) during the Apollo 15 mission, July, 1971 (CC0)

Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV) during the Apollo 15 mission, July, 1971 (CC0)

The increased number of data collected by researchers across disciplines together with the development of research methodology boosts the possible levels of interdisciplinary work. Old data can be used in many new different ways helping to increase the value tax payers get for their money, an argument increasing the impact of research funding for many governments.

National research funders have responded to this trend by putting together data policies. The International Federation of Data Organizations (IFDO), consisting of data archives and infrastructure institutes in the social sciences, surveyed their own members in 2013 with the purpose of collecting information on current national data policies. The survey focused mainly on data policies of key social sciences research funders in the respondents’ country of operation. Information was collected through a web survey to which 43 individuals from 32 countries responded, of which 18 are European and 10 ‘non-Western’ countries.

The results show that there is a distinctive movement towards formalizing the above described developments in clearly formulated data policies. These policies vary across countries in strength, precision, level of obligation, and support for implementation. In most countries there is a general data sharing requirement in place, while some take a step further and oblige researchers to follow open data and data preservation standards.

These developments are certainly moving in the right direction. However, what also became clear from the IFDO web-survey is that these data policies do not always come with a detailed explanation of their expectations or how they should be fulfilled. They remain vague, leaving it to the researchers to interpret the policy and act accordingly. Even in cases where data sharing is stated as obligatory it is not always coupled with data management support throughout the research cycle. Only very few countries seem to offer the full service, namely, USA, UK, Canada, Australia Finland and Switzerland. To ensure success of such policies, research infrastructures must be in place to take the load off the researchers’ shoulders.

Most European countries that do not oblige their researchers to adhere to their data policies offer established data infrastructure institutions and a long tradition in data sharing and secondary data use. The ministries of research and education have invested in data sharing to bring data sharing infrastructures to a high standard – however, without developing the policy side of things. On the operative level, they do all it takes to ensure high quality data management and secondary use, but on the policy level they are not there yet. Thus, even though the infrastructure is there, the policy side is missing. This is a discrepancy, which does not allow for optimization as it does not ensure the survival of all research data. Only those researchers already convinced of the value of data sharing use the infrastructures.

To achieve the longest journey of tax payers’ money in research we need to have both things in place: supporting and enforcing institutions and high-level data policies. As the IFDO summary report concludes:

“The future success of efforts in this area relies on the ability of policy makers and funders to move from high-policy statements to policy enforcements and monitoring and from short-term funding to long-term funding and institutional models that build trust and confidence” [1].

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[1] Kvalheim, V. & Kvamme, T., 2014. Policies for Sharing Research Data in Social Sciences and Humanities. A survey about research funders’ data policies, p. 36. Available at: