Open data: technology and culture

Last week I attended an informal dinner at Royal Society of Chemistry to discuss their plans for enabling better data management and sharing in the chemical sciences. It was a private discussion, so I won't share the details, but a thread ran through the conversation that crops up regularly in the context of open data discussions. What are the barriers for researchers to better manage and share their data?

One barrier is a technological one. Researchers lack the systems they need to share data in ways that are discoverable and usable by other researchers. The technological barrier has many forms. It could be about the infrastructure, or standards for interoperability, or a lack of money to operate the systems.

The second barrier is cultural. Even if the technology were perfect, would researchers in sufficient numbers actually us the systems and share data? This often depends on norms within disciplines, on the relative value that is placed on collecting or interpreting data. Policy instruments – incentives and sanctions – are often cited as the solution to this barrier.

The reality is that both of these barriers and real, and need to be tackled. The biggest challenge is that these two barriers are linked to one another. It's too easy to develop wonderful tools that don't fit with the culture of a discipline, or to believe that a policy instrument will bring about change in the absence of appropriate infrastructure. Debating which barrier is more important, or expecting action on one alone to bring about change, are unlikely to achieve the open data revolution.