Australia has been a signatory to the OECD Recommendation on Access to Research Data from Public Funding since 2006 when it was first adopted by the OECD Council. The purpose of the recommendation is to offer guidance to the OECD’s 37 member countries on enhancing access to research data that has been created through public funding.
In January this year, in response to technological and policy advances, the OECD published a revised recommendation, which 40 countries, including Australia, have agreed to adopt.
With this new version, the OECD recognises that publicly funded research data is “a public good that can create value for society” and that sharing it openly and widely can help researchers tackle global challenges, such as pandemics and climate change, more quickly and more efficiently.
FAIR, open and free
In summary, the scope of the 2021 recommendation is greatly expanded from that of its predecessor and in certain areas the guidance is more explicit.
Importantly, data from research that is partially funded by public funds is now included (previously it covered only research that was fully funded by public funds). Also covered now are ‘digital objects’—metadata, bespoke algorithms, workflows, models, and software (including code)—resulting from the research, as well as the research data.
Both research data and associated digital objects must be FAIR.
Openness remains an important principle. The 2021 recommendation states that open access to both research data and digital objects should be the default, and, “to the greatest extent possible”, access should be free of charge. It encourages the use of open licences and supports the development of open technical standards and open (non-proprietary) indicators to measure the impact of research data, including through citation tracking.
While acknowledging that data access may need to be restricted “to conform with legal rights, ethical principles and/or to protect legitimate private, public, or community interests”, the ultimate objective is to facilitate access which is “as open as possible”.
The importance of sustainable infrastructure to support the FAIR use of research data and digital objects is emphasised, as are incentives and rewards for providing access, and the specialised skillsets needed for research data management and data science.
A coordinated national approach
The OECD recommends countries take a coordinated national approach to implementing the recommendations, suggesting a 5-year plan is required. Though the recommendations are not legally binding, the expectation is that countries adopting them will do their utmost to fully implement them. OECD member states will be required to report their progress in five years.
So how will the changes be implemented in Australia?
The ARDC’s Adrian Burton, Director of Data, Policy and Services, is a member of the specialist advisory group that has met regularly over the past 3 years to revise the OECD recommendation, and one of only 2 Australian representatives in the group, the other being Australian Research Council Branch Manager (Policy and Strategy) Kylie Emery.
“We expect that these new settings will be reflected in the policies of government, such as grant funding guidelines for the Australian Research Council (ARC), the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), the Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF), the National Environmental Science Program (NESP), and the Australian Government Department of Education, Skills and Employment, which provides block funding to universities. Funding guidelines could require research data and digital objects to be FAIR, for example,” says Adrian.
“We should also expect new government programs to reflect the spirit of the Recommendation.”
The change in scope to include digital objects such as software and algorithms is an area where a lot is already happening, he says: “With the ARDC being very active in international Research Data Alliance working groups and in our own Software and Platforms program, we’re well poised to deliver on that.”
The call for sustainable data infrastructure, he says, is well supported by the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS). “Policy and skills are necessary but not sufficient—governments need to stump up and have infrastructure for making research data available. Australia is at the head of the pack internationally for national research infrastructure and is in a good position to deliver on this.”
Our national research infrastructure also allows us to collaborate on global data initiatives, which the OECD Recommendation emphasises. “Science and research are inherently global concerns, so our national data capabilities provide Australian researchers with the ‘currency’ to engage in international research collaborations,” says Adrian.
“We look forward to strong support from the Australian Government for implementing these recommendations.”
The ARDC is funded through the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS) to support national digital research infrastructure for Australian researchers.