Auburn University releases findings of a report on universities’ open access, open data policies and practices

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Auburn University, the founding institution for Presidents United to Solve Hunger, or PUSH, has partnered with the Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition, or GODAN, initiative to investigate the progress of 99 universities in the PUSH consortium on the development, promotion and use of open access and open data.

Open access refers to the free online availability of research findings and open data allows for the sharing, analyzing and re-use of that data by other researchers.

In the words of André Laperrière, executive director of GODAN, and Catherine Woteki, former USDA Under Secretary for Research, Education and Economics, “The research that universities perform is essential for solving some of the world’s most urgent concerns. Unfortunately, a significant part of this data is lost, misplaced or locked in closed repositories kept within the walls of universities.”

Anne Adrian, project manager for the Hunger Solutions Institute at Auburn, led the exploratory study and found that only 15 of the 99 PUSH universities surveyed had open access policies posted on their websites, and none had specific open data policies. This absence is despite the fact that many federal agencies and private funders, such as the Gates Foundation, are often requiring research data to be publicly accessible.

To examine the challenges, benefits and recommendations for promoting open access and open data, Adrian and her team conducted in-depth interviews with personnel from nine PUSH universities who had advanced knowledge about their institution’s open access and open data policies.

Challenges cited from the interviews included privacy issues, misuse of data, ambiguity about data ownership, insufficient resources and lack of alignment regarding expectations and capabilities between funders and universities. Many, however, did acknowledge that public institutions have a responsibility to work toward the greater good, and acceleration of innovation and research through open access and open data is a way to achieve that goal. More tangible benefits identified were increased research collaboration, greater data transparency, increased number of author citations and wider recognition for faculty and their respective universities.

Because university open data policies and practices are not well defined, the study offers several recommendations for moving toward a culture of openness. Among them are implementation of an effective communication plan; development of advanced data management standards and protocols; compliance training for faculty and graduate students; adequate funding for personnel and infrastructures and alignment of funders’ expectations with the capabilities of universities.

In line with the recommendations of this study, as well as those recently put forth in a joint report by the American Association of Universities and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities calling for greater access to research findings and other data to accelerate scientific advancements, PUSH presidents are starting to acknowledge the urgency of open data and are taking action to move forward.

“Auburn University is becoming increasingly cognizant of the role that public access and the use of open data play in accelerating innovation and research, ultimately leading to solutions for pressing global challenges,” said Auburn President Steven Leath. “We are forming a working group that will begin outlining detailed standards, protocols and platforms needed to implement open data management plans, not only related to agriculture and nutrition as called for by GODAN, but across all disciplines.”

Likewise, Mississippi State University President Mark Keenum, who also serves as chairman of both the PUSH Steering Committee and the Board for International Food and Agriculture Development, added, “As we face the daunting challenge of feeding nearly 10 billion people by 2050, universities are being called upon to develop best practices and infrastructure to promote the sharing and use of open data to advance agriculture and nutrition research. At Mississippi State, we are working diligently to leverage the power of open access and data sharing to meet this challenge, and I encourage my fellow presidents and chancellors to join us.”

The full report, “Open Access & Open Data at PUSH Universities,” is available.

Auburn University is a nationally ranked land grant institution recognized for its commitment to world-class scholarship, interdisciplinary research with an elite, top-tier Carnegie R1 classification, life-changing outreach with Carnegie’s Community Engagement designation and an undergraduate education experience second to none. Auburn is home to more than 30,000 students, and its faculty and research partners collaborate to develop and deliver meaningful scholarship, science and technology-based advancements that meet pressing regional, national and global needs. Auburn’s commitment to active student engagement, professional success and public/private partnership drives a growing reputation for outreach and extension that delivers broad economic, health and societal impact.