Yesterday we posted on our strong support for open access publishing of tax payer supported research. We are taxpayer supported scientists (at least our NIH grants are) and we consider our work to be the property of the public, who paid for it. Whenever possible (which is most of the time) we do publish in freely accessible journals. Making data freely accessible is more controversial, but we also support this, perhaps with a reasonable grace period to allow scientists to have priority for data they expended effort to collect and with reasonable safeguards for confidentiality and privacy when human subjects are involved (we are, after all, epidemiologists). Adhering to this principle can be uncomfortable and inconvenient and sometimes aids and abets those with whom we have substantial differences over matters of importance, but a principle is a principle and violating it has to be well justified. We were put in mind of this recently when Queens University Belfast was ordered by British authorities to turn over tree ring data bearing on climate change to a climate change skeptic:
The climate data wars have taken a new turn. A leading British university has been told it must release data on tree rings dating back more than 7000 years to an amateur climate analyst and climate sceptic.
The ruling, which could have important repercussions for environmental research in the UK, comes from the government’s deputy information commissioner Graham Smith. In January he caused consternation at the height of the “climategate” affair by criticising the way that the University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK, handled sceptics’ requests for data from its Climatic Research Unit.
Now, following a three-year dispute between banker and climate sceptic Doug Keenan and Queens University Belfast, Smith has told the university to hand over to Keenan the results of its 40-year investigation of Irish oak-tree growth rings.
The ruling sends a strong signal that scientists at public institutions such as universities cannot claim their data is their or their university’s private property. (Fred Pearce, New Scientist)
I am not in the least skeptical about anthropogenic global warming and have no particular sympathy for those who are. That’s only the backdrop to this problem, however. I can see both sides of this dispute, but it does seem that scientific data used to justify important conclusions, either for policy or science or both, should be open to public inspection and verification. That’s a reasonable principle. I can imagine there would be instances when it shouldn’t hold, but this doesn’t seem to me to be one of them. Since this is an administrative ruling it isn’t clear that it creates any kind of precedent in Common Law (although I am not a lawyer either in the US or the UK), this is the kind of case that if it were precedent setting is one where we might rightly speak of “bad facts making bad law.” I don’t know on what grounds scientists have for not sharing their data, even if they believe the person they are giving it to is up to mischief.
Instead of giving it to this person as an individual, why not just put it up on the internet for all to see? I think that should be the default, whether it is a controversial topic or not.