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Home > Publications > ICSU Position Statements > Access to databases : A set of principles for science in the internet era (June 2000)

Access to databases : A set of principles for science in the internet era (June 2000)

ICSU, CODATA and their member organizations have become increasingly concerned about proposals to the World Intellectual Property Organization and various national legislatures to introduce a new form of intellectual property protection for the contents of databases.

This protection would fall outside traditional patent and copyright regimes. To address these issues from the perspective of working scientists, ICSU and CODATA have established a joint ad hoc Group on Data and Information. The Group believes that the database proposals will have a deleterious effect over time on the progress of science and on the translation of scientific advances into new technology and enhanced economic development. The Group does recognize that the threat of piracy could become a potential disincentive to the creation of new value-added scientific databases. However, the proposed solutions to a problem that has not been clearly identified would have a serious negative impact on science and on society at large.

This document proposes a core set of principles to support full and open access to data needed for scientific research and education. The needs of science must harmoniously co-exist with the burgeoning information industry. A balance between the two is needed. A healthy research community is critical for society to prosper, for research generates the information commodities of the future. At the same time, information as an economic activity has spawned countless new companies and businesses worldwide. ICSU and CODATA believe that full awareness of these principles by scientists, businessmen, legislators, and regulators can foster a working partnership in which everyone gains. Comments on the document are welcome.

Principles for dissemination of scientific data Prepared by the ICSU-CODATA Ad Hoc Group on Data and Information

Scientists are both users and producers of databases. However, scientific databases are seldom static; in the course of their research, scientists frequently draw on several existing databases to create a new database tailored to specific research objectives. The synthesis of data from different sources to provide new insights and advance our understanding of nature is an essential part of the scientific process. The history of science is rich with examples of data collections that played a crucial part in a scientific revolution which in turn had a major impact on society. It may truly be said that data are the lifeblood of science.

The Group proposes the following set of principles for organizations and individuals to evaluate legislative proposals that affect the use of scientific databases.

  1. Science is an investment in the public interest. Through research and education, scientists foster the creation and dissemination of knowledge. This can have profound effects on the well being of people and the economies of the world. Science is a critical public investment in our future, a resource with extraordinary dividends.
  2. Scientific advances rely on full and open access to data. Both science and the public are well served by a system of scholarly research and communication with minimal constraints on the availability of data for further analysis. The tradition of full and open access to data has led to breakthroughs in scientific understanding, as well as to later economic and public policy benefits. The idea that an individual or organization can control access to or claim ownership of the facts of nature is foreign to science.
  3. A market model for access to data is unsuitable for research and education. Science is a cooperative, rather than a competitive, enterprise. No individual, institution, or country can collect all the data it needs to address important scientific issues. Thus, practices that encourage data sharing are necessary to advance science and to achieve the resulting social benefits. Such data sharing is possible within tight research budgets only when data are affordable. If data are formally made available for scientific access, but the prices charged for such access are prohibitively high, the negative impact on science is the same as if access had been legally denied. This is especially the case for scientists in developing countries.
  4. Publication of data is essential to scientific research and the dissemination of knowledge. The credibility of research results depends on the publication of data that back them up and permit reproduction of the results by colleagues. A restriction on data publication or a requirement that colleagues recompile a database from original sources compromises the ability of scientists to advance knowledge.
  5. The interests of database owners must be balanced with society’s need for open exchange of ideas. Given the substantial investment in data collection and its importance to society, it is equally important that data are used to the maximum extent possible. Data that were collected for a variety of purposes may be useful to science. Legal foundations and societal attitudes should foster a balance between individual rights to data and the public good of shared data.
  6. Legislators should take into account the impact intellectual property laws may have on research and education. The balance achieved in the current copyright laws, while imperfect, has allowed science to flourish. It has also supported a successful publishing industry. Any new legislation should strike a balance while continuing to ensure full and open access to data needed for scientific research and education.

June 2000


About this statement

This statement was prepared by the ICSU-CODATA Ad Hoc Group on Data and Information. CODATA, the Committee on Data for Science and Technology, is an interdisciplinary scientific committee of ICSU, which works to improve the quality, reliability, management, and accessibility of data of importance to all fields of science and technology.

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