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Going Open Access

posted May 20, 2020, 6:24 AM by Clemens Kuepper   [ updated Jul 28, 2020, 5:48 AM ]

We did it. We have made 11 years (2006 to 2016) of Snowy Plover data freely available here. The data are described in a publication in Scientific Data. Observations of 1,647 individually marked Snowy Plovers. Monitoring of 794 nests and tracking of 415 broods. Pretty powerful stuff when you are bird- or data-enthusiast. Putting this together was a huge effort lead by Luke Eberhart-Phillips – it took him the best part of a year to get everything into shape.

 This is a big step for us, so I want to briefly outline why we did this and what the ramifications are. The main motivation for our work is understanding our beloved plovers better. Ultimately, we want to figure out why females desert their broods and mate with other males whereas their first males are left to look after the chicks alone. We also want to improve their conservation, which means we need to figure out why chick survival at our site is so poor and what management actions are necessary to improve this. All this requires a lot of detailed field observations and hence a lot of work to collect and curate the database. Over the years we have invested thousands of hours into this data collection. This is not only our own work, but also countless hours committed by students and volunteers who have been part of the journey. There is more to it than the nearly 20,000 observation hours. First, our fieldwork required a lot of preparation: chasing funding, preparing permit applications, getting the equipment and the team ready and so on. This is followed by three months of fun chasing and watching wild animals, and, of course, enjoying Mexico. Fieldwork is why we are biologists in the end. Once the fieldwork is done, a lot of more work is needed: the data have to be entered and curated – meaning many revisions of the database. We then use some of the data for our own research purposes, but since we are only a small team, there is only so much that we manage to analyse.

 Sitting on so much data after so many years is somewhat frustrating because there are countless projects that we simply do not have time to do. So, we have thought long and hard about how to change this limitation. Eventually we determined that the way forward is to get you involved – with no strings attached. I admit it is occasionally scary: we feel somewhat naked and vulnerable at the thought of having our science scrutinized even further. However, we are confident that this is the right decision and excited about where this will lead us in the future. We realize that there are lots of ways to analyse and wrangle the database, and hence other users may produce slightly different results from us. Perhaps in a few years we have another brilliant idea for a high-profile science project, yet somebody may have then done it already thanks to our data. But ultimately, we decided that the benefits will outweigh the costs. We are confident that we are doing robust science, but like any long-term field project, there will be the occasional mistake in the data base that despite our best efforts we have overlooked. These mistakes will be corrected in future updates of the data base, while keeping tidy version control in the database’s GitHub repository. We hope that future users will utilize CeutaOPEN to address cool questions about ‘our’ Snowy Plovers that will stimulate new research projects that we would have otherwise have never thought of. Certainly, getting more people interested in our plovers and getting more and better science done will only benefit the birds.  

 Publishing these data was also meant to reward the people who were involved in their collection. Many field assistants, collaborators, and students who helped with permitting and worked for more than a year with us have become authors on the data descriptor. We have been incredibly lucky with them: without them we could not have done this. Most field assistants worked as volunteers very long hours under challenging conditions. They put in a lot of enthusiasm and effort and were in for research or training – but never for the money. (In science there is not a lot of money, especially when you work for your degree.) The field assistants can now see that the data they have collected are part of a big study and hopefully will be used for a long time. They can be proud of their contribution!

 So far, we also have been in the fortunate situation to have had always financial support to cover most of our basic costs. Without those public and private organizations (listed here) the data collection would not have been possible for so many years. Government agencies have trusted us and permitted us to conduct our studies for the best of the birds and the people. With all this trust comes responsibility and hence we want to make sure that we make the best use of the resources given to us. Making the database freely available means that our past, present and prospective funders can see for themselves how we have spent their contribution to our work.

 One important consideration in deciding to make the data publicly available is also an awareness that academic life is dynamic and constantly changing. Today’s science is often a huge collaborative effort. Academic life does provide a lot of freedom but most people, including ourselves, are on temporary contracts with high employment uncertainty. Furthermore, life and research careers evolve. Sometimes, professional relationships turn sour and there is a high potential for conflict about the data use. This brings up a lot of questions: Who owns the data from a long-term collaboration? Can someone actually ‘own’ data collected from wild animals? There are a lot of stake-holders with a claim on the data. 1) The students who spent countless hours in the field to collect them. 2) the supervisors who provided guidance and resources. 3) The universities/funders who provided the money to do the research. 4) The countries and local communities where the research has been conducted. Disagreements among stakeholders about data usage could mean that the data become locked up until conflicts are resolved. We don’t have the answer to the complex issue of data ownership, but by making the data open-access we aim to ensure that they are not lost and that their potential use is maximized.

 Finally, we want to inspire others to conduct similar studies and share their own data. It has been a lot of work to collect these data, and it feels as if we are publishing a big part of our professional lives. But now we are excited to see what will happen next! We hope that this endeavor can kickstart new collaborations and we plan to make more data from subsequent years available after careful curation and after current student projects are finished.

 We invite you to dive into CeutaOPEN. We are convinced that going open access will make our own science better and more transparent – a move that can only benefit conservation of  Snowy Plovers.