Helping depositors share data: negotiating away difficult licence conditions


Karen Dennison, the UK Data Service’s Collections Development Manager, discusses a new initiative to free data in our collection from overly-restrictive access conditions. As the data storage and archiving sector has developed, the UK Data Service has been instrumental in voicing the benefits of less restrictive access to the data community, helping maximise the re-use of data and ensure that historic data deposited with us remains available for research practice in years to come.

The Collections Development team at the UK Data Service undertook an initial three-month programme of renegotiation of access conditions for some of our data collections, helping to open up data to more users by encouraging depositors to move away from restrictive conditions towards more open access.

In the past, restrictive conditions of access were offered more freely, partly because future requirements were not anticipated and partly to encourage data owners to make their data available at a time when there were fewer incentives to share data more widely. However, the Collections Development team is now working closely with data depositors to maximise the re-use of data and ensure that it remains accessible in the future.

The first step was for the Collections Development team to identify data which required depositor permission for access, or where access was limited to particular users such as researchers in UK higher education. The application of usage and access conditions by data depositors has been more typical in the past and many of these conditions are no longer necessary, because the risks associated with disclosure and sensitivity tend to decrease over time. Karen and the team are working with depositors to re-negotiate the terms of access to meet the most open category possible for their data.

Future-proofing access 

For data that specify permission for every user, renegotiating depositor permission is not only time consuming, it can also be problematic — particularly where the depositor has moved on, retired, or, sadly, died. Even where the depositor is no longer contactable it’s often the case that the data are the intellectual property of the institution for which the data depositor worked at the time. If that institution still exists, then it’s possible to obtain permission to enable access. A potential complication arises where there are multiple rights holders – best efforts need to be made to contact each individual.

Karen and the team also discovered that access, often unnecessarily, has been limited to particular users, and may be simply down to a data owner being overly risk-averse. Some of these data collections date back 20 years when open access was not even discussed and academic depositors could request a range of barriers.

Over the past five years or so, the Collections Development team encourages data depositors to see the benefits of making their data available with less restriction and, where possible, opening their data. Some data cannot be open due to disclosure risk and an embargo period is always available for those who desire unique access to their data for analysis and publication.  However there is little evidence to suggest that ‘scoops’ happen in the social sciences – in fact, publishing your data brings more opportunities than threats.

Programme of renegotiation

During our programme of renegotiation, held during the summer of 2014, the Collections Development team attempted to contact the relevant data depositors, rights holders and their institutions, for over 250 datasets. The team successfully removed the requirement for depositor permission for 32 datasets, removed the requirement for access to be limited to certain users for 8 datasets and removed the requirement for users to register to access data for 47 datasets. The latter are now open and include datasets such as Changes in the Structure of General Practice: the Patient’s Viewpoint, 1977, Management of Productivity, 1984, Civil Rights in Schools : School Students’ Views, 1997-1998 and Prison Reading Survey, 1997.

Many of those we contacted did not respond and a few refused so unfortunately these remain with their restrictions but, where appropriate, we will be following these up. In some of the cases, depositors were no longer contactable or their institution no longer existed, and this only serves to highlight the problems for repository managers that agree to apply access conditions based on an individual’s say-so. The UK Data Service has tackled this issue by putting in place a clearly defined and simple to understand Data access policy that each depositor is required to follow.

In some cases the depositor wanted to retain permission to access in order to know how their data were being used. In those instances, we will offer the data owner the option to obtain usage reports upon request as an alternative to giving their permission for each request; something which is available to all depositors.

As an initial short-term project we consider the programme to have been a success and we will be conducting similar reviews on an annual basis. On balance, the amount of time this process takes should not be underestimated!

Open data licences – what are the options?

Data licences come in a variety of guises. Open data licences are suitable for non-personal data and we recommend that the Open Government Licence be adopted, where this is applicable, or the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International licence.  Under these licences users are free to copy, adapt and redistribute the material for any purpose, even commercially, provided that appropriate credit is given. This licence encourages the widest use possible for the data and doesn’t exclude data being used in publications such as books that are sold but benefit the public good. We now have over 90 datasets in our collection that are available under an open licence – you can find these by entering a search for open data in our Discover catalogue. The latest datasets to be made open include the British Election Study series and a number of key historical and qualitative datasets including The Edwardians.

Streamlining access conditions

The Collections Development team has streamlined and standardised the access conditions that apply to new datasets, so that they can easily fit into three broad categories – Open (no registration required), Safeguarded (registration required) or Controlled (secure remote access only). While in special circumstances additional conditions can be negotiated, we do not offer these under the standard terms of our Licence Agreement and work with depositors to avoid unnecessary conditions by ensuring that access conditions are appropriate to the level of detail and / or sensitivity of the data. Where additional conditions are necessary, for example where the data are particularly detailed or sensitive, we also recommend that these are time-limited or reviewed after a specific period of time. When it comes to re-contacting depositors, our new depositor licence agreement places greater onus on the depositor to ensure that their contact details are up-to-date and gives us more freedom to alter access conditions in the event of the depositor becoming uncontactable. This ensures that the access conditions applied to data remain fit for purpose through the passage of time and ensure that these data are accessible for maximum re-use to future generations of data researchers.

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