Avoiding an EU own goal on digital access to knowledge

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Data driven innovation is being hampered by EU data protection rules. [Shutterstock]

The EU should listen to the innovators, knowledge creators and developers when it comes to data mining: the potential benefits are too great to be ignored, writes Helen Frew.

Helen Frew is advocacy officer at LIBER, the Association of European Research Libraries.

Two years ago, 25 people sat down together in a room and wrote the Hague Declaration. They were specialists from differing backgrounds (researchers, publishers, lawyers, lecturers) but they had an understanding and recognition that there needed to be action to safeguard knowledge in the digital age. Not just through preservation but better access and exploration. They advocated for the responsible use of big data to improve and innovate, for the economy and society.

Two years on and the issue of accessing and analysing data through computerised mechanisms is now at the forefront of EU legislative policy. EU institutions are at the point of making a decision that could have an incredibly significant and positive effect on research and innovation – namely to facilitate text and data mining (TDM) of digital information. Importantly, legislation includes provisions that this is not the mining of sensitive data but information that has already been legally accessed by the data analyst.

We know from other countries in Asia and the US (who already have better environments for such research) that the technique is invaluable, paying economic dividends and making breakthroughs in health and science. The recognition that the human eye is no match for a computer when it comes to scanning and correlating vast amounts of big data, should be a technology we too in the EU can use rather than cordon off. Research organisations are currently being considered for access to this data yet with limitations. For the EU, sadly, such restrictions would only stifle growth because of question marks over whether universities can work in collaboration with the commercial sector, whether budding young entrepreneurs and researchers can access this data for TDM, whether journalists can use the technology to verify claims made in the media.

The debate on access to TDM in Brussels seems at first glance to be polarised. Though looking at the players, the majority disagree with the argument that publishers’ revenue is at risk or terms and conditions need apply. Bearing in mind the economic burden that accessing publisher held data already puts on universities and their libraries, there has to finally be a recognition here that researchers, who after all create the data, should be able to further this knowledge without additional costs and barriers imposed.

And let’s look at those who seek to make improvements in analysing digital data. Along with the hundreds of Hague Declaration signatories, in response to EU proposals, we have seen position papers and advocacy from an incredible range of stakeholders asking for a mandatory copyright exception for TDM that is also afforded to those outside of research organisations. Support for this comes from the scholarly community, libraries, start-ups, SMEs and industry to open-access publishers, technical experts and developers. These are the people and the organisations that the EU expects to collaborate, to innovate, to create knowledge, build on it and move it from the lab to the market. So let’s actually listen to them.

The question now is whether decision makers at the EU institutions also recognise the strength of support for a meaningful exception to copyright rules for text and data mining. If they don’t, the alternative of a limited scope and potential added barriers of fragmented licensing and technical restrictions could be a massive own goal for team Digital Single Market.