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Caught My Eye By Katina: How University Libraries Can Protect Data and Scientific Freedom

by | Jan 26, 2022 | 0 comments

How University Libraries Can Protect Data and Scientific Freedom appears on the Wire Science website. It was first published by ZBW Mediatalk and has been republished under a Creative Commons license. (This text has been translated from German.)

Photo: Alfons Morales/Unsplash

“Data tracking has long been a lucrative business model for many corporations. The fact that it also takes place in science is not so well-known, however. But here too, dangers are lurking for data protection and the freedom of science and research. And libraries also have a role to play, as stakeholders in the scientific ecosystem, particularly if they take out any kind of contract with profit-oriented companies such as publishing houses, in which the data from researchers can also function as bargaining chips.


Julia Reda from the Society for Civil Rights (GFF) has long been dedicated to the assertion of fundamental rights in the conflict area surrounding copyright and data protection. In the interview she explains the role libraries and digital infrastructures play in this complex topic and why it is so important for these institutions to build their own infrastructure and focus on green Open Access instead of financially supporting publishing houses to build up a parallel and commercial infrastructure.

“During the recent online conference #vBib21, you gave a presentation on “Tracking Science: Consequences for Data Protection and Scientific Freedom” (German). Why is this topic also relevant to libraries?

“Libraries do far more than just making literature available. Ideally they provide a comprehensive knowledge structure in which people can learn and do research. The exploding costs of licences for specialist scientific articles is not only making it more difficult for libraries to fulfil this task: scientific publishers use the enormous profits they procure in this way, at the expense of the public purse, to buy up more and more software companies responsible for organising the science industry, from logging measurement results in the laboratory to assessing the quality of research.

“In this way the science corporations create a commercial parallel structure to the services that libraries should actually provide but are often unable to, due to a lack of financial resources. Once public research takes place on commercial platforms, it is easy for these companies to collect highly sensitive data about the researchers. This represents a danger to their privacy and to the independence of science. Libraries must take a stand against this trend, because it is their very own duties that are being privatised here.

How is scientific freedom threatened when major publishing houses track the surfing and search habits of individual scientists?

“Individual researchers could be hindered in carrying out their research: For example, the Chinese government has already induced certain scientific publishers to block access to specialist articles in China for users whose topics are a thorn in the side of the regime. China has also imposed sanctions on individual scientists and research institutes who are working in these research fields. If science companies sell personal data to governments – about who is reading and downloading which specialist articles – further researchers can become the target for sanctions. The resulting “scissors in the head” (self-censoring) that begins before the actual restrictions of scientific freedom even occur, is particularly dangerous. Researchers start to avoid controversial topics because they feel that they are being watched, and they want to avoid trouble.

A further danger is that the use of data to make decisions will increase existing unfairness in science. It’s already well-known that the so-called “impact factor”, which should provide information about the quality of specialist journals, is completely unsuited to this task. Nevertheless it continues to be called upon for career promotion decisions. Measuring the quality of scientific papers according to the number of times they have been accessed can also give a distorted picture. Male, white scientists who are English native speakers and who are particularly present in the media have an unfair advantage in such procedures...”

Please click here to continue reading this interview.

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