Should Data Collected For Academic Research Get Intellectual Property Protection?

from the the-big-questions dept

Michael Scott points us to a blog post by a political science professor, Jeff Yates, who in a previous life had been a lawyer. In the blog post, he discusses the social norm within academic circles of freely sharing data used in research, and wonders if there shouldn’t be some sort of intellectual property protection on the data. He isn’t claiming that there definitely should be — he’s just exploring the topic, and questioning whether or not it makes sense.

Of course, as many proponents of open research and open education systems will tell you, it’s difficult to see why such data should get any sort of protection or how that actually helps towards the goal of the pursuit of knowledge. Countless studies have shown that having more folks examine and analyze the data is a much better way of speeding up the process of getting to more interesting findings. Slowing down that process seems quite counterproductive to everyone involved. If some of the issue is that it’s “unfair” for others to do research on data they did not collect, that can and should be mitigated by giving credit where credit is due. In academic circles, citations and giving credit is a lot more standard (and respected). It doesn’t always work, but it certainly can mitigate any “downside” to sharing data. If someone else makes a giant breakthrough with the data you collected, there’s no reason the original data collector can’t use that fact to his or her advantage — especially in getting future grants or publicity.

The other claim, of course, would be that without such protectionism, there is less incentive to collect that data. On that subject, we actually have quite a bit of empirical data that suggests this claim is simply incorrect. The US does not have database rights, while Europe does (such rights are loosely similar to what is being asked for here — providing some sort of protectionism for “sweat of the brow” collection of data, rather than any creativity put on top of it), and yet when you compare similar database industries in the US to Europe you quickly discover that they’re much bigger in the US than in Europe.

The reasoning makes sense, once you think it through. Because the data are not locked down and can be used in many more ways, the data become a lot more valuable, and open up many more opportunities for lots of companies to benefit. That leads to more experimentation and more innovation… and greater demand for the data itself. From that there are plenty of incentives to make sure the collection of the data is continually enhanced, because it benefits so many people downstream (in economic terms, it’s an example of the Coase Theorem at work).

Now, while the economic setup in the academic world may seem to be slightly different (researchers aren’t necessarily trying to maximize revenue), the overall incentive structure remains effectively the same (and money is still a part of it all). Freeing up your data so that more people can analyze it increases the overall value of the data and is more likely to lead to additional breakthroughs or interesting findings from that data. In turn, that can lead back to more interest for the original data collector and more opportunities to do more or to be involved in more relevant projects. Locking up the data, on the other hand, takes away many of those incentives for no clear benefit.

Filed Under: , ,

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “Should Data Collected For Academic Research Get Intellectual Property Protection?”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
Andrew F (profile) says:

Relative Scarcity

What’s harder to find — good data or good researchers willing to go over that data? If it’s the latter, in-demand researchers may have better things to do with their time than try to negotiate a price for locked up or otherwise restricted data.

It’d be very similar to how obscurity is a bigger threat to musicians than copying.

Andrew F (profile) says:

Re: Relative Scarcity

As a corollary, researchers seem to be engaged in a big popularity contest. Your primary source of income is grant money from institutions and the government. The way you get more money is to increase your credibility. The way you increase your credibility is to get more citations. And you get more citations by freeing up your data.

:) says:


Protection from a lawyers means barriers.

It can really slow down progress and the speed of analysis of anything.

But I’m biased as I use databases to construct things.

Like I’m using data from Free Maps to recreate scenarios from ancient china and some other illustrations for the “The Art of War”(I’m using Quantum GIS too that is a GUI for GRASS)

Or like some guy used the dataset from medical research to do a realtime manipulation of that data using Blender for navigating the human body.

I wouldn’t be fooling around with paid datasets(that are gigabytes in size) and probably many others would stop using those too and it would force people to create their own datasets like openstreetmaps, crime maps, cellphone tower maps, TV shows listings and more.

I think that in an age where crowdsourcing is real, datasets protections is just foolish and offers even less incentive to do something like that.

Anonymous Coward says:

“Should Data Collected For Academic Research Get Intellectual Property Protection?”

No, because the public should get double scammed. They should get scammed once by paying for the research through their tax dollars and then they should get scammed again when they have to pay for access to the very research they already funded through their tax dollars. That’s how it should work.

chris (profile) says:

Re: wtf

3. seems cut and dried

there is a lot of legal wrangling over databases. companies like lexisnexis, westlaw and others are constantly suing each other for some sort of infringement or violation of agreements to protect their data. granted, these lawsuits are often breach of contract (non-competes in particular) a fair number surround trademark violations as well.

signalsnatcher (profile) says:

Compare Apples with Oranges

There is no argument, surely, that researcher should not make their data freely available for peer review or for other esearchers? Free access to data is a fundamental precondition of taking research seriously. But given that don’t be surprised if it does get IP rights:

1) from the original article:
>>>and yet when you compare similar database industries in the US to Europe you quickly discover that they’re much bigger in the US than in Europe.

One reason is that the European Community has much stricter protection of privacy so business opportunities are fewer.

2)unlike the US, in Europe there is no expectation that if government money was used to collect the data, then it should be publicly available.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Compare Apples with Oranges

“unlike the US, in Europe there is no expectation that if government money was used to collect the data, then it should be publicly available.”

Just because such an expectation does not exist within the European government and businesses does not mean that such an expectation doesn’t exist. It makes intuitive sense that, no matter where you live, if taxpayers pay for the research taxpayers should have access to that research, regardless of what the government or businesses expect.

K. Chapman (user link) says:

more incentives to share

More immediate barriers to data sharing (more immediate than applied IPRs for example) include performance measurement instruments that don’t recognise open access or lack of budget planning for making data available at proposal stage.
As one of the comments on Jeff’s post said “Just don’t share it if you don’t want to” – no doubt this locks in far more data than formal IPRs would even if it were agreed that academic research could be protected. To encourage data sharing more incentives to do so are required.

Colin (profile) says:

I dropped by the blog and read the post. It is a pretty fair discussion, but it srikes me as being a similar type of issue to that of open access to academic journal articles. That being:

1. Was the income earned by the researcher provided in part (in whole?) by the public?
2 Was the research itself funded by the public in any way?

If you can answer yes to either question then the data should be public.

On the claim of protections leading to more research. There seems to be an awful lot of research going on now without protections, so why change anything.

Sinan Unur (profile) says:

What does the Coase Theorem have to do with this?

The Coase theorem states that, in the absence of transactions costs (e.g. (and possibly i.e.) lawyers), the assignment of property rights (so long as they are well defined) does not matter in terms of the market leading to an efficient level of provision of the good which is the source of the externality.

Except for those intrinsically motivated to investigate some issue, the goal of academics is to get published and get cited. The more frequently cited you are, the better your chances at getting published at better journals and the better your chances of getting cited.

However, in the presence of large amounts of public monies being allocated to an individual discipline, the temptation of forming a monopsony can prove overwhelming. See

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...