Today, alongside EDGI’s Items essay, the Council is publishing a report, Securing Social Science and Humanities Government Data, on the SSRC website. On April 21, 2017, the SSRC’s Digital Culture program hosted a meeting of approximately thirty social scientists, humanities scholars, data scientists, librarians, and archivists to discuss the topic of “Securing Social Science and Humanities Government Data.” As “data rescue” events were being held across the United States, focused largely on downloading government data primarily related to the environment and climate change, the SSRC began exploring, first, the extent to which other data—namely, government data oriented to the social sciences—were being collected (or not) alongside the environmental and climate data and, second, the applicability of data rescue efforts to a broader social science research landscape.
The value of these collections is not just for researchers. Archival data provide a fundamental starting point for public conversation on the details of political conflict and compromise. They guard against revisionist interpretations of our political past. They implicate all Americans in the shared project of contesting and resisting a world devoid of political history.
Federal statistics saturate political debate about how we’re doing as a nation. Consider the function of the simple trend line—what trend is going down? What is going up? Imagine politics without trend lines, without knowing in what direction trade balances, terrorist threats, obesity, automobile wrecks, poverty, life expectancy, and inflation are headed. Remove trends from the daily news and not much is left. Although big data is making headway, for the present, trend lines draw heavily from federal statistics (surveys and administrative records). If this is true of trend lines, it is even more so when inquiring into causation. How did things get as they are? What has to happen to move the needle? Build a wall? Drop more bombs? Pass a law?
A vibrant conversation is underway about how research data should be curated, managed, and shared. While these were not initially prominent questions in qualitative social science traditions, more recently, discussions have ensued across a wide range of scholarly contexts.
The Social Science Research Council’s Digital Culture program is issuing a call to our networks, fellows, and the scholarly community in general for personal stories of government data use. Government data, from the census itself to more subject-specific datasets—housing data, environmental data, CDC research—is the backbone of much important social science research. The goal of these pieces is to highlight the importance of those datasets and illuminate the huge impact their loss would have on advancing knowledge and social science research.
Current social science research and writing faces a number of possibilities that seem to be constrained by three major challenges. The first is the limits of the imagination; the second is knowing what kinds of data are now out there; and the third is having the tools to aggregate and mine them.
Early proponents of the power of digital publishing celebrated the ways in which the Internet, and in particular the world wide web, democratized both access to information and the ability to disseminate knowledge to wide audiences. News organizations might evade government controls of the press by publishing on servers outside their nations’ borders. Dissidents could organize in the digital public sphere, evading controls that prevented freedom of assembly in the physical world. Scholars could disseminate work in progress directly to the web either outside of the process of peer review or under the aegis of new types of online journals.
It is now abundantly clear to librarians, archivists, computer scientists, and many social scientists that we are in a transformational age. If we can understand and measure meaning from all of these data describing so much of human activity, we will finally be able to test and revise our most intricate theories of how the world is socially constructed through our symbolic interactions.
In the end, this task force did recommend going open access, and got some assurances from the AAA that we felt would allow us to do this in a fair and substantial way. In February of 2014 the first open access issue of Cultural Anthropology was published.
The arguments around scholarly communication, and particularly scholarly communication within the social sciences, are rather more complex than the simple “evil closed publisher/good open researcher” narrative that dominates so much of the current conversation on the blogosphere.