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Research results just a mouse-click away


A profound contradiction lies at the heart of academic research.

In many ways, it lives up to its highest ideal: the disinterested pursuit of knowledge.

Academic researchers have the unusual privilege of devoting much of their time to intellectual quests -- whether examining nebulae in distant galaxies or the eating habits of the kids in the local junior high school -- that, at first glance, don't earn an immediate buck for anybody.

But getting the chance to take part in that pursuit is a ruthlessly competitive business: Researchers have to sell themselves and their interests, to universities, to tenure committees -- and to federal granting agencies.

Data -- the raw material of research -- often has been regarded as the property of researchers, much like many software products have been viewed as the property of technology companies.

And just as some companies are profiting from sharing source code, some researchers are discovering that sharing data is a key to successful competition.

A proven track record of making research data accessible can give a researcher an extra edge in grant applications, according to Carolina Population Center Director Amy Tsui.

She should know. The Carolina Population Center currently administers 19 NIH/NSF grants and 23 other federally or foundation-funded grants and has posted the data of a number of nationally and internationally significant studies on the World Wide Web, such as its study of health and nutrition in China, a USAID project on public health in several developing nations, and the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (http://www.cpc.unc.edu/projects/projects.html).

Making such data available helps prevent duplication of research, fosters collaboration and speeds up the progress of research in related subjects.

It's good for organizations such as the National Science Foundation, because it results in multiple returns on their initial investment -- the grant that funded the original research.

In fact, 1998 federal law requires that non-exempt data resulting from federally funded research be publicly available.

"Federal agencies now track use of databases and the number of publications resulting from that data," Tsui said. "The agency is better off in terms of cost-benefit the more research is done relative to the cost of publishing the data."

And it's good for Carolina in terms of simple recognition. The more researchers use data originally garnered by Carolina researchers, the more recognition Carolina receives as a research institution.

In addition to the merits of the Carolina Population Center data itself, researchers may be compelled to use it because of software that makes using the center's data astonishingly convenient.

"Take our study of adolescent behaviors," Center Research Associate Phil Bardsley said.

"In the recent past, a researcher who found this data and wanted to use it would have had to download it to his or her own computer, uncompress it and run it through some data analysis program to find it out if it was usable."

Thanks to a software package called SAS/IntrNet and development assistance from ATN's Doug McIntyre, outside researchers can spare themselves most of those steps.

"Let's say you wanted to look at a specific health indicator in a specific population, such as adolescent white males," Bardsley said. "Before you could do any substantial work you want to know if there is a big enough population for you to study.

"On our web site using drop-down menus you can select for those variables, and find out the size of the sample, all on our server before you download anything to your computer. It's like the difference between looking at a jacket in a catalog and trying it on."

The Carolina Population Center receives inquiries regarding its research from as far away as India.

Many of the inquiries are what you would expect -- regarding use of data to support specific lines of inquiry. Some are a bit more surprising.

"There was a professor at Lehigh University who was accessing our web site and running data analyses using the SAS/IntrNet software as a regular feature of his lectures," Tsui said.

"We were completely unaware of this until one day our server was down and he called us in a panic half an hour before his class," she added, laughing.

But Tsui stresses that while it's still relatively rare for a research center to have made using its data so convenient, it's not unique, either.

"Increasingly, any institution that has a developmental role in a national database has developed software to make that data easy to use," she said.

As an example, she cited the Integrated Public Use Microdata Series, a set of programs on a University of Minnesota web site that enables users to analyze census data from 1850 to 1990.

One of the reasons researchers are aware of that database is because it's so readily available for analysis.

Sharing research data isn't just ethical -- it's quite possibly the best PR.

For more information on SAS/IntrNet, contact Ruth Marinshaw with ATN's Applications Support Group at 2-4314 or

Technology & You is sponsored by the Technology in Context Consortium - http://www.unc.edu/faculty/tic

Writer: Kevin O'Kelly



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