CHANS-Net Blog: How can we ensure good data stewardship?

Becky Fuda's picture

Becky Fuda is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Environmental and Forest Biology at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF) in Syracuse, NY.

Now that virtually all research data is archived in digital formats, it has become increasingly feasible to share data with vast networks of people. Additionally, many journals and funding organizations require that researchers have data management plans that allow other scientists to access their data.

While this new accessibility creates exciting opportunities to validate and expand on existing studies, the ease with which researchers can now share data raises important ethical questions, particularly when the data is spatially explicit and pertains to human subjects. A new paper, Spatially Explicit Data: Stewardship and Ethical Challenges in Science,” written by faculty members and researchers at UNH, SUNY-ESF, McGill University, Arizona State University and the California Digital Library examines these ethical issues and suggests potential strategies for encouraging good data stewardship.

Sharing digital scientific data raises technical, socio-cultural and ethical challenges that must be addressed across disciplines. For example, re-analysis of environmental and social data can be problematic because of the variety of methods and data types used in these fields. Therefore, it is important that metadata standards be developed in order to ensure that data is interpreted properly.

Additionally, a scientific culture that encourages openness rather than competition should be fostered in order to facilitate willingness to share data in the name of scientific advancement.  However, spatially explicit data collected on human subjects require special considerations, as researchers must fulfill their obligation to the scientific community while still protecting the confidentiality of their research participants.

Now that fine resolution aerial and satellite imagery is widely available, the challenges faced by researchers working with sensitive data are increasingly complicated. In order to promote good data stewardship practices, the authors recommend that new standards and laws be established that are appropriate and reflect the current state of technology. Training programs in ethics and data management, synthesis, analysis and preservation should be made available to educate researchers at universities and scientific institutions. Lastly, researchers should foster a more open scientific culture by encouraging data sharing, while simultaneously ensuring that shared datasets have explicitly outlined rules and protections.