Aug 082011

My apologies to the Duke of Wellington for mutating his often quoted call to a jilted mistress about his intimate letters, but the sentiments in the original statement do suggest the power of the publication process to give information a life of its own. 

If geospatial data were published in a similar way to research findings (or even to letters from the rich and famous to their mistresses) then data management and the academic spatial data infrastructure (SDI) would be an even more  rapidly developing entity, that had the commitment of every academic researcher that generates such data.  OK so a sweeping unrealistic statement but this is how I came to the thought…. 

One of the pillars of modern day science is the peer review process. It takes a piece of original research and, through the  publication process, many stages of refinement are applied to it until the researcher is satisfied that it stands a chance of acceptance by an appropriate journal. During this process it will be proof read, checked for errors and formatted in the appropriate way. Then after input from independent referees it will be further improved and finally, if judged acceptable, the research is published where it can be accessed, seen and discussed by the wider scientific community (or any community that wishes). 

After publication it is archived and catalogued so that it can be found on-line or in hard copy and can be used and quoted by anybody who wishes. There may be a network of people and libraries that will have subscriptions to the journals and they will see the newly published articles appear on their shelves, desks or screens every few months. Finally if the research is worthy it may be used as a component of more research and go on to help develop the knowledge base. 

Concomitant with this process is the recognition given to the researcher and to the associated Institution that can result in promotion for the former and extra funding for the latter. This rather idealised description of the peer review process is something that the majority of academic staff and postgraduate students are fully engaged with and committed to. You might have to forgive my simplistic view but all I wish to establish is the principle that the publication process and the recognition it attracts drives the quality, accessibility and reuse of research findings. 

Now let’s consider how geospatial data is managed. It’s not so easy to simplify the process as there will be much greater variation. Some important data will be lodged with data centres where it may have a guaranteed 10 year life span (if its lucky) or maybe the metadata will be put in a discoverable place with a series of hurdles to cross before anybody can get access to the data itself. Quite often the data will never leave the IT systems of the Institution that it was created in; rather it will take second place to the research publications and may not be made accessible at all. This has been shown to be through worries over intellectual property, through a lack of awareness of a suitable data management and publication methods and a lack of recognition for such activities.  One thing is for sure, that most data will not have the same exposure to the science community as the research findings it supported. 

The long term life expectancy of such data is also likely to be shorter than its wordy cousin the research paper.  In fact it may not even exist after its collector has moved posts or retired or suffered a serious IT problem. It is very unlikely to be archived as well as the printed word and its creator is much less likely to have received credit for collecting it and the institution she/he works for is unlikely to receive improved research ratings or extra funding for generating it. 

Now imagine a word where data is King (or at least Queen alongside the research paper King) and research funding and University Chairs are partially reliant on the proper publication of peer reviewed data sets. I think that a fully functional academic SDI with all the bells and whistles that you could want would be a reality within the next decade. In the same way that JANET has, and continues to develop in the UK with its fast speeds and links to other country networks so would the SDI. 

Obviously this isn’t an original idea, there are a few journals dedicated only to data publication and there are strong policy statements all the way from Government through the publicly funded research councils and even to a few Universities that make the publication and accessibility of data a priority. What is missing are real incentives for researchers to treat data in the same way as research findings and until this gulf is filled then data will be the poor relation of the academic publication World. If the translation of the INSPIRE (see my previous post)   directive into European Governments’ actions includes Universities then maybe it will provide some significant infill for this gulf and move the discussion from “why should I?” to “how do I?”


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