Thursday, 23 August 2012

Frustrated: I have no way to make my data open access!

Open access in science publishing is a big deal nowdays. I recently discovered a new RCUK policy which says that I must make my data publically accessible, or freely accessible on request. The only problem is; I can't.

If I told you exactly where I work, it should lead you to being able to find out all sorts of things about me, my research, my colleagues and my published papers. But it won't let you find any of my data or experiments that those papers are based on.

I recently enquired about this. First it involved me informing people of the RCUK policy above, as they weren't aware. I've asked for personal webspace where I might be able to setup a URL for each paper I publish that contains the data used in the paper. Or where I can put some talks that are too big to email. The outcome? I was told I can't have personal webspace, or at least I couldn't have any webspace which I had any kind of control over.

On digging deeper and explaining the issue I was told I could have access to an FTP server in a different department to my own. But when I said 'OK' it went no further. I still don't have credentials.

My workplace has to comply with all kinds of government guidelines, which includes encrypting laptops and so on. This seems to mean that the computing is run perfectly for administrators, but far-from-perfect for scientists like myself. It means that the IT group don't support me if I choose to use Linux or Mac systems, although I don't know of many scientists who use Windows for anything other that documents and spreadsheets. This means my computing is almost entirely unsupported. It also means that when it comes to things like data sharing, there are seemingly impassable boundaries.

In fact I'm not even sure the 'administrators' have any idea what kind of 'data' I'm talking about.

Here are the provisions I'm told are in place for me to share my data:
Now, unless my data is in the form of a Microsoft document it isn't going to work on Sharepoint, and my guess is it's probably not accessible to 'outsiders' anyway.
  • Upload it to my website profile as a link. 
For this to work the current system requires it to be in PDF or jpeg format and it has to be checked at a number of different levels to make sure it meets the 'style guide'. Trust me, it's not going to meet your damn 'style guide'.
  • There 'used to be' an ftp server. 
...No-one quite knows what happened to it though. It doesn't seem to exist anymore.

That's it. Those are the only ways I've discovered that I could share my data. Not to beat around the bush here, but that's f*ing useless to me. I can't even share the slides I give at a conference with the world because they are too big to email and again, I can't upload them anywhere. This is simply not acceptable and I'm not sure how I can be expected to function efficiently as a scientist under these conditions.

Perhaps there is a fear that I shouldn't share my data without someone 'checking it' because that might lead me to missing out on a piece of 'Intellectual Property' which could have been packaged up and sold to someone. I did point out to them that as an independently funded research fellow [at the time of this post] they actually have no right to my IP. Never mind the fact that the work is already published so simply providing the background data doesn't change anything. Based on the facts, I think I can ignore this point for now.

This has turned into rather a big rant, but this seems ludicrous to me. I'll happily be corrected if my assumptions are wrong, or if the answers I've repeated to questions I've asked above are wrong. I've simply written this because I want the situation to be improved and I have no way of improving it within the organisation. 

By the way, I don't want to be told to use Dropbox or Google Docs or any other number of filesharing web apps which I'm already using. I want the organisation who are meant to provision this facility as part of agreeing to host my research to actually do it. That is the only outcome I will be happy with. 

It looks like only 1 in 10 people who publish in open access journals actually make their data accessible anyway. With barriers like the one I've come up against, I'm hardly surprised!

Does your workplace have a policy that you must be able to share data, but give you no way to do it?
Do you think the provisions I've been given are acceptable?

UPDATE 6/9/2012:
Today I met with a member of the Scientific Computing department who picked up on this post, thought they could help us and set up a meeting to discuss. I'm pleased to report that I think we're going to move forward and try to implement something for our group which will rectify this issue and hopefully provide a better data management and sharing system going into the future. I'm very grateful to them for their response and quick action to try to help with this situation, and kind-of glad I wrote this post after all! Next steps are to discuss with my group exactly what we need and how it should function, and we should see some progress and hopefully implementation after that. Win for the blogosphere!

UPDATE 10/12/2013:
This post has been slightly edited from it's original format. While we still don't have a solution in place, at least this post has led to some discussion and offers from a number of quarters to help solve it. 


  1. To be fair, the new policy only comes into effect on 1 April 2013. So they've a few months to set something up. Also, is SharePoint publically accessible? (Not that I wish to use it - it's awful even if you have Windows.)

    1. Yes you're right, and it seems STFC still haven't decided how to 'deal' with this yet, but the general lack of things like personal webspace is an awful hindrance and the lack of comprehension of the organisation as to 'why we need' things like this is not acceptable. I'm in discussions with the Scientific Computing Department about how to move forward to set something up. They are also the ones working on the STFC policy so there should be some improvement on this in the future.