Big and open data are prompting a reform of scientific governance

Sabina Leonelli in Times Higher Education: “Big data are widely seen as a game-changer in scientific research, promising new and efficient ways to produce knowledge. And yet, large and diverse data collections are nothing new – they have long existed in fields such as meteorology, astronomy and natural history.

What, then, is all the fuss about? In my recent book, I argue that the true revolution is in the status accorded to data as research outputs in their own right. Along with this has come an emphasis on open data as crucial to excellent and reliable science.

Previously – ever since scientific journals emerged in the 17th century – data were private tools, owned by the scientists who produced them and scrutinised by a small circle of experts. Their usefulness lay in their function as evidence for a given hypothesis. This perception has shifted dramatically in the past decade. Increasingly, data are research components that can and should be made publicly available and usable.

Rather than the birth of a data-driven epistemology, we are thus witnessing the rise of a data-centric approach in which efforts to mobilise, integrate and visualise data become contributions to discovery, not just a by-product of hypothesis testing.

The rise of data-centrism highlights the challenges involved in gathering, classifying and interpreting data, and the concepts, technologies and social structures that surround these processes. This has implications for how research is conducted, organised, governed and assessed.

Data-centric science requires shifts in the rewards and incentives provided to those who produce, curate and analyse data. This challenges established hierarchies: laboratory technicians, librarians and database managers turn out to have crucial skills, subverting the common view of their jobs as marginal to knowledge production. Ideas of research excellence are also being challenged. Data management is increasingly recognised as crucial to the sustainability and impact of research, and national funders are moving away from citation counts and impact factors in evaluations.

New uses of data are forcing publishers to re-assess their business models and dissemination procedures, and research institutions are struggling to adapt their management and administration.

Data-centric science is emerging in concert with calls for increased openness in research….(More)”