Data interoperability is a state of mind

Author: Rob Baxter
Posted: 9 Sep 2013 | 09:58

The research data tsunami is firmly upon us. Open access to data is very much on the agenda. One of the hopes for capturing and preserving all these data is that reuse and recombination may yield new science. Improving the interoperability of data from different domains is key to making this a reality.

Now, data interoperability is not technically hard, so why are we not further on?

Culture.

In these days of digital research, the paper is an increasingly insufficient giant's shoulder to stand upon; easily re-usable, re-combinable data are ever more important, but unless the culture of research changes to recognise this, to laud it even, then all the automated metadata creation tools in the world are not going to save us.

Researchers currently have neither time nor incentive to make their data reusable; science funding is so much more competitive (some would say cut-throat) that indeed the counter argument is strong. The politics of individualism run deep in research culture - couple this with lack of recognition (in both reputational terms and hard cash) for the truly altruistic data-sharer, and real progress is difficult. Culture, as Henry Ford observed, eats strategy for breakfast.

Forums in which to discuss the issues of data interoperability are not new, but perhaps there should be a new urgency in their activities, and a new global consensus. The emergant Research Data Alliance is to be applauded for taking a global position on data interoperability and for creating an open forum in which initiatives old and new can come together to hammer out this consensus, but its success will come not from its secretariat but from its grass-roots working groups.

Achieving interoperability is a matter of conversation and compromise, not technology. It's about bringing researchers together in a spirit of cooperation, leaving the politics of individualism at the door. And let's not just blame the researchers here: everyone in the game, researchers, funders, research-infrastructure providers, need to recognise that any compromise means moving away from where we start. But if we all move a little, we can all get to where we need to be with much less pain than we might expect.

Contact

Rob Baxter, EPCC