Research involving Big Data requires interdisciplinary teamwork

15 May 2018

Researchers must work much more in teams that include data specialists and, not least, ethical experts, writes the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences in its advisory report on Big Data in research involving personal data. The report was published on 15 May 2018.

Illustration Carolyn Ridsdale

Big Data on persons offers researchers unprecedented opportunities to explore the frontiers of science and scholarship, for example in such areas as human mobility, social media use, or personalised health (combining genetic data with information on nutrition, behaviour and environment). But it also makes new demands on researchers, who must reconsider the questions that they pose and the methods and techniques that they use.

In essence, Big Data does not differ from ‘ordinary data’. Virtually every field of research uses Big Data, but what ‘Big’ actually means depends on the field itself. There is no difference between Big Data and traditional data in the way researchers select data and construct datasets to answer their research questions. The overabundance of data does, however, require them to use different methods and techniques to perform their analyses, for example data mining and machine learning.

To ensure that they make proper use of such methods and techniques, researchers need specialist expertise with respect to data processing, data management and IT solutions. That not only calls for a different approach to researcher training but also demands that researchers collaborate more often and more closely with data specialists. The Academy notes that theory formulation is even more important in this setting, so that researchers can stop themselves from being swept up by the extensive availability of data.

Ethical and legal aspects

Like others, researchers must comply with statutory frameworks, such as the new General Data Protection Regulation. The way in which Big Data is collected, shared, processed and linked could lead to privacy issues and raise questions regarding ethics and liability. After all, who is responsible for complex data that are continuously being combined and recombined?

The Academy therefore favours adding not only data specialists but also ethicists and legal specialists to the teams that support researchers who work with personal data. Indeed, the Academy argues, data specialists, ethicists and legal specialists should not be called in on an ad hoc basis but become fully-fledged members of research teams. It is the task of institutes and faculties to arrange this.

National infrastructure

The Academy further advises establishing a ‘national infrastructure’ to support local parties in collecting, processing, sharing and analysing Big Data on persons. The infrastructure must support collaboration between researchers and with other parties, and address overarching issues. The Academy recommends that the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science should take the lead in establishing this infrastructure, in consultation with existing institutions and initiatives such as the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO), the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU), SURF (the collaborative IT organisation for Dutch education and research) and the National Platform for Open Science.

The advisory report, Big data in wetenschappelijke onderzoek met gegevens over personen, was written by a committee chaired by Kees Aarts, Professor of Political Institutions and Behaviour at the University of Groningen.