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Data without the doubts: the climategate furore has galvanised the scientific information community to make data more open, transparent and accessible than ever, as archana Venkatraman reports.

Climategate has rocked the scientific information community. The name refers to the immense conspiracy theory that became big news after computers at the University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit (CRU) were hacked last November, and more than a 1,000 confidential emails posted on the internet.

The documents showed, or so it was claimed, that CRU's scientists were involved in a massive information fraud. They stood accused of exaggerating the data about anthropogenic global warming, illegally destroying embarrassing information (CRU no longer had the raw data on which it had based its global warming predictions), manipulating research results and suppressing evidence.

Three separate independent inquiries were set up to investigate the allegations. And by the beginning of this summer, they had all reported, exonerating the CRU researchers of scientific dishonesty and concluding that their integrity was not in question.

However, the House of Commons' science and technology committee called on climate scientists to make more efforts than ever to make available all their supporting data - right down to the computer codes they use - to allow their findings to be properly verified and thus avoid a repeat of Climategate's data tampering allegations. The committee also called for more openness from the scientific information community to help science emerge stronger from the controversy.

Understanding the urgency to regain public confidence following the media storm, academics, scientists and scientific institutions are working towards the common goal of opening up access to research data and making information more easily available, as recommended by the Climategate reviews. They are also determined to improve scientific research, pledging to collaborate more with other researchers, share information on climate science, use cutting-edge tools to find updated information, and honour any freedom of information requests that relate to climate science.


So as the climate science community gets back on track, is it a case of back to business as usual? No, say academic institutions, research support committees and environmental info pros, who claim they are going the extra mile to implement open data strategies. Responding to authorities' calls for greater transparency, JISC has extended its support and cooperation for more openness in environmental research information.

Malcolm Read, executive secretary of JISC, the IT in further and higher education body, says: "We fully support openness between researchers in sharing information, processes and outputs. We need to move away from a culture of secrecy and towards a world where researchers can benefit from sharing expertise throughout the research lifecycle.

"Digital technologies like social networking sites, online open access repositories and the use of virtual research environments are cost-efficient and time-saving ways for universities to promote this kind of collaboration and get more for their money when it comes to research."

The organisation is launching a number of projects to improve the way UK university researchers manage their data. It has started working on up-to-date guidance for researchers and universities on freedom of information and how it affects the way people manage research data. The guidance will be released later this year.

JISC programme manager Simon Hodson, says: "Climate scientists have been under the spotlight recently. There have been technical and cultural challenges to making data and methods openly available, and a perception of failure to do so has been taken by critics of mainstream climate science as an indication of unsound science.

"Clearly, confidence in research findings - among scientists and the general public - depends on the underpinning data and methods being open, reusable and verifiable. What is more, researchers aren't just producers of data; they are also consumers. By funding projects that will improve practice and give climate scientists and others better guidance on research data management, JISC aims to help them make that data more usable and valuable."

JISC's managing research data project is designed to help researchers present complex datasets - like those used by CRU at UEA - in a more open and accessible way.

Also acting quickly on the advice are the climate scientists at UEA. They are planning to demonstrate new methods of providing open access to research data. In partnership with the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) e-science centre, CRU is embarking on a JISC-funded project that will address this recommendation.

Professor Trevor Davies, pro-vice-chancellor for research enterprise and engagement at UEA, says: "Climate research data now plays a pivotal role in understanding our planet and shaping the political response to change. We are already one of the major providers of climate data in the UK, but want to go further."

The project will examine how best to expose climate data for reuse, make it easier for researchers to cite the data and to understand its validity. The results will be exploited by the British Atmospheric Data Centre, which is providing access to a significant proportion of the climate data output of the UK research community.

CRU aims to improve the scientific understanding of past climate history and its impact on humanity, and the course and causes of climate change.

Davies says: "The results of this project will provide an exemplar to climate researchers across the academic and government sectors as they seek to respond to demands for even more open access to data."

According to the STFC's Dr Andrew Woolf, the programme comes at an exciting time as technical innovations in web science converge with an expectation of greater access to publicly funded data. He hopes that by applying these emerging developments to the challenges of climate research, it will be possible to provide standardised access to processed data, linked both to raw observations and meaningful descriptions of intermediate processing.


The UEA team is one of eight university departments around the country that will be working towards models of better data management practice and making data more openly available for reuse by universities and other interested parties.

The other universities involved are Bath, Cambridge, Manchester, Newcastle, Oxford, Southampton and King's College London; subject areas include materials science, freshwater biology, epidemiology and data intensive modelling to predict disease. All the projects are exploring ways of making data and the code used for computer-assisted analysis more openly available, in some cases by linking them to publications.

Hodson says: "Climate science is by no means unique in the need for researchers to analyse complex data from a number of different sources. The aim of this investment is to improve the way research data is managed in UK universities. By showing how it can be made more open, these projects will help achieve proper recognition for the essential place of data creation and management in the research process."

The British Library has also stepped forward to assist scientific information professionals in overcoming some of the barriers to sharing, discovering and reusing data by providing the infrastructure and tools. To start, its Growing Knowledge exhibition is showcasing a number of technologies that will make analysis, collaboration and networking easier.

Lee-Ann Coleman, head of science, technology and medicine at the British Library, says: "The British Library provides access to a wide range of scientific information and we have been reviewing how we can better support researchers by ensuring we understand the issues facing them."

The British Library is working in three areas to address these issues. The first is the assignment of a unique identifier - the digital object identifier (DOI) - to an article or a dataset to make discovery and citation easy. While DOIs are used by publishers of electronic journal articles, they have not been used as widely for other types of digital objects. DataCite is an international initiative that assigns DOIs to datasets and brings libraries, datacentres and publishers together to ensure data can be made available.

Coleman says: "The British Library, as one of the founding members, will become the UK registration agency. We are working on collaborative projects to pilot the scheme, some of which are funded under JISC's managing research data programme."


The British Library is also working with the British Atmospheric Data Centre to improve the accessibility of its datasets. Some of the publications based on the data they gather together will underlie the 2013 International Panel on Climate Change report.

The second area of the British Library's focus is in terms of helping discovery. The organisation is piloting a service that helps users locate environmental science datasets through its Search Our Catalogue service. Coleman says: "Many people will say: 'Why not just use Google?' The advantage of involving libraries is that we have selected these resources based on a set of criteria and supplemented the metadata to ensure there is useful information accompanying the datasets, which provides users with context. Another plus is that a search can return a range of other, more traditional resources."

Finally the British Library is participating in a project, led by Dr David Shotton from the University of Oxford and funded by JISC's programme, that will explore the issue of providing a home for datasets. DataDryad is an open repository for datasets that underlie published articles in ecology and evolutionary biology. The Dryad team works closely with the publishing community to ensure that data from published articles can be added easily to the repository. In the process, it is building a rich resource for others to use and re-use.

Also pledging their support are Nature Publishing Group and Mendeley, which are co-hosting the 2010 Science Online London meeting. One of the themes is about data and how the internet is changing the way scientists work with it.

Separately, the Journal of Agricultural Science has launched a special topic on climate change and agriculture, insisting that there is "little doubt that the global climate is changing, in part due to natural factors, and partly due to human activities".

Papers will be included in a number of issues of the journal. The first in the series are now available online in FirstView. In its editorial, the authors express optimism that the papers will provide some evidence to help dispel the clouds of ignorance and misinformation that exist.

Experts hope that greater openness about the origin of data and the way in which it has been analysed will permit new and innovative research based on existing results. Their collaborative initiatives may well help burst the bubble of lingering cynicism and scepticism of the past 10 months.
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Title Annotation:FEATURE
Publication:Information World Review
Date:Sep 1, 2010
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