Data Lockdown

CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 by Tom Lin via flickr
CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 by Tom Lin via flickr

As a PhD student, Amelia spent a lot of her time digging through fisheries data from around the world.

With travel funds available, Amelia set off for a chain of islands off the coast of Italy. Three months – that was all the time she would have to analyze local fisheries survey data. To get the most out of it, Amelia knew she would need to work quickly in getting to know the data and some of the scientists collecting it. Stepping into a new country with unfamiliar cultural customs and an infamous reputation for personal politics didn’t much concern Amelia; in her years of research, she had learned how to step into a new situation and adjust to the surroundings, however competitive or formidable they might appear.

But this journey posed a particular challenge that Amelia had not yet encountered: the language barrier. Though fluent in several languages, Amelia unfortunately could not speak a word of Italian. Using a travel dictionary and online phrasebook, Amelia had managed to capture some of the language’s basics for her own wielding. This useful and admittedly limited vocabulary prepared her for finding her way around the island and making small talk with the people living there, but restricted her usual conversational prowess. Amelia foresaw several tongue-tied months ahead of her.

At her arrival, everyone greeted Amelia warmly and in surprisingly clear English. What a relief! As she exchanged pleasantries and got down to the business of datasets, her concerns began to melt. Once at her island office, Amelia began sifting through data from local fisheries surveys. The information was all there and the numbers seemed to add up, but something was missing. Without intimate knowledge of the ecosystem in question, Amelia struggled to appreciate the relationships between all the layers of data before her. Was her superficial knowledge of the area’s fisheries preventing her from interpreting all that the data had to offer? Could some essential elements remain obscured from her view? Amelia decided she would ask around and get a better feel for the ecosystem described in the dataset.

Many of the area’s fishermen knew the ins and outs of the island ecosystem, but the twin barriers of language and the already ticking clock of Amelia’s stay made this option an unproductive one. Unpublished and locked away in layers of memory and personal experience, the fishermen’s knowledge was simply unavailable to her without adequate time to build rapport (and her Italian vocabulary).

After asking around, Amelia discovered a local researcher who had the information she was looking for. The researcher, Dr. Cristo, had been collecting data for decades on precisely the marine habitat Amelia was interested in. But as coordinator of the data collection at her marine institute, Dr. Cristo had taken to thinking of the data as her own. Despite being publicly funded and collected by a number of researchers, the data remained under Dr. Cristo’s control. In her years as coordinator, she refused to allow publishing on the data. When Amelia first heard this, she suspected Dr. Cristo had selfish motives in keeping the data out of print. As it turned out, there were no records of Dr. Cristo herself using the data in any way. Her reasons for protecting the data under lock and key were unclear, confounding Amelia all the more. If the data remained untouchable, what was the point of its collection in the first place?

Determined to contact the elusive Dr. Cristo, Amelia turned to local research liaison Michaela Fortunato for help. Michaela had encountered Dr. Cristo here and there at various conferences, where they had developed something of a friendly relationship over the years – but it was not enough to budge Dr. Cristo from her determined stranglehold on the data. Dr. Cristo’s reputation as ruthless watchdog of the data had already been cast, and her subordinates at the institute feared questioning her judgment or motives. The data would remain under her command for the foreseeable future, and there was nothing anyone could do about it.

If Amelia could just find another copy of the data, maybe she could navigate around Dr. Cristo’s barricades. But if other copies did exist, the researchers holding them would likely be unable or unwilling to publish them or share with Amelia; crossing the powerful, easily rattled data coordinator could spell disastrous results for the career of anyone who dared question her, and any use of the data would require authorization from the institute – something that could only be handed down through Dr. Cristo herself.

Amelia was used to the cautious way in which researchers handled their data and data sharing. But she found herself wholly unprepared to untangle the mess of hierarchal rules and assumed ownership separating her from the marine habitat data her own research required. Most frustrating of all, Amelia could not imagine why Dr. Cristo acted so selfishly. Did Dr. Cristo hope to publish the data herself, or reserve the right to do so in the future? Did she have a different understanding of the obligations of publicly funded data? Was she afraid that other researchers, if given the chance to access the data, might criticize her research program? Oh, Amelia had plenty of theories that might explain Dr. Cristo’s controlling behavior, but no evidence to support these suspicions or help her strategize a way forward.

Amelia was forced to face facts – as a visiting researcher, a stranger to both the language and the hierarchal system ruling the island institute, she had no way to contend with the authoritative data coordinator. As long as Dr. Cristo prowled the institute’s upper ranks, a PhD student, however well-intentioned, would be barred from so much as stealing a glimpse of the data.

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