Henry Farrell at SSRC: “The politics of social science access to data are shifting rapidly in the United States as in other developed countries. It used to be that states were the most important source of data on their citizens, economy, and society. States needed to collect and aggregate large amounts of information for their own purposes. They gathered this directly—e.g., through censuses of individuals and firms—and also constructed relevant indicators. Sometimes state agencies helped to fund social science projects in data gathering, such as the National Science Foundation’s funding of the American National Election Survey over decades. While scholars such as James Scott and John Brewer disagreed about the benefits of state data gathering, they recognized the state’s primary role.
In this world, the politics of access to data were often the politics of engaging with the state. Sometimes the state was reluctant to provide information, either for ethical reasons (e.g. the privacy of its citizens) or self-interest. However, democratic states did typically provide access to standard statistical series and the like, and where they did not, scholars could bring pressure to bear on them. This led to well-understood rules about the common availability of standard data for many research questions and built the foundations for standard academic practices. It was relatively easy for scholars to criticize each other’s work when they were drawing on common sources. This had costs—scholars tended to ask the kinds of questions that readily available data allowed them to ask—but also significant benefits. In particular, it made research more easily reproducible.
We are now moving to a very different world. On the one hand, open data initiatives in government are making more data available than in the past (albeit often without much in the way of background resources or documentation).The new universe of private data is reshaping social science research in some ways that are still poorly understood. On the other, for many research purposes, large firms such as Google or Facebook (or even Apple) have much better data than the government. The new universe of private data is reshaping social science research in some ways that are still poorly understood. Here are some of the issues that we need to think about:…(More)”