What do a court case victory over PETA, recovered research data from a ransomware attack, and a dispute over Alzheimer’s data have in common? They are all front-page examples of UC stepping in to protect its investigators and data assets to ensure continuity of research. However, there are plenty of other examples of UC’s commitment to protecting the ability of its employees to conduct research that often don’t catch the eyes of news outlets. They include, for example, sifting through regulations affecting research, working with funding agencies to clarify proposed policy changes, executing complex research agreements to further collaborations, and resolving conflicts when one researcher departs the institution with another’s data. 

The recent development and issuance of the UC Research Data Policy further demonstrates UC’s commitment to protecting research. The Policy delineates rights and responsibilities of UC and its researchers, ensuring accountability, appropriate access, and continued dissemination of information. 

Origins of UC’s Research Data Ownership

UC’s protection of research data stems from its mission to expand public knowledge and from its responsibility as the owner of research data. UC’s ownership of research data is not a new concept; the institution has asserted such ownership since 1958 when Regulation 4 (embedded in Academic Personnel Manual 020) was implemented. 

Regulation 4 states, “Notebooks and other original records of the research are the property of the University.” That’s it. There are no definitions, no explanations, and no carve-outs. It’s a one-liner buried in a section titled “Publicity of Results.” This simple statement is very broad, giving rise to many questions that the drafters behind the 64-year-old regulation never contemplated. (Hello, digital records!)

Policies at Peer Institutions

Institutional ownership of research data is also not a concept specific to UC. Universities across the country have implemented research data ownership policies outlining rights and responsibilities for research data. (See, for example, Yale, Harvard, Stanford, Columbia, University of Michigan, NYU, Northwestern, University of Virginia, University of Washington, University of Utah, UW-Madison, Georgia Tech, and Colorado State. In each of these policies, research data is owned by the university.) The Council on Governmental Relations, a leading national association for research universities, also published a White Paper 10 years ago articulating reasons for institutions to clearly assert ownership of research data in their policies, including for the management of sponsored program requirements and federal policies, as well as the avoidance of conflict among researchers.

What are the Benefits to Having a Research Data Ownership Policy?

There are many benefits to the University owning research data and making that fact explicit in a policy document. For one, such a policy shows the University’s commitment to value research data as an institutional asset. UC doesn’t have the ability to protect or share something that it doesn’t own in the first place, so a clear statement of data ownership by the university enables:

  • legal action to protect UC researchers’ continued access to research data, as in the examples listed at the beginning of this post;
  • acceptance of extramural awards, which require UC to accept responsibility for compliance with of record maintenance, research continuation, and establishing a flow of accountability; and
  • provision of third party access and other third party rights to research data.

By clearly stating University ownership of research data, the UC Research Data Policy establishes UC’s responsibility for these things. At the same time, the Policy recognizes the scholarly leadership that researchers provide pertaining to research data. While the University asserts ownership, researchers continue to:

  • choose the nature and the direction of their investigations;
  • use the research data they generate in the course of their UC research to pursue future research;
  • publish their results; and 
  • share their findings with scientific and academic communities. 

Other UC Efforts at Play

The UC Research Data Policy is not the only UC effort demonstrating UC’s commitment to research data. There are many concurrent efforts, such as the work of the UC Cyber-Risk Governance Committee, which issued recommendations on the systemwide adoption of location-based research data protection workgroups and scalable data backup service for all UC researchers. The California Digital Library has also been hard at work to provide data sharing and management tools for researchers (check out Dryad and the DMPTool!). In addition, data librarians across the system have been connecting with the campus community to provide expert guidance on why and how to manage and share research data, including connecting researchers with the tools available to support these activities. Lastly, the Research Policy Analysis and Coordination (RPAC) unit at the Office of the President is working on developing guidance pertaining to certain procedural aspects of data management that are not covered in the UC Research Data Policy. Those resources are available on the RPAC website.

Why Do We Need This Policy Now? 

We need to bring the 1958 Regulation 4 language into this century to reflect the collaborative, multi-disciplinary, and dynamic ways that research is now conducted. In explaining the parameters of UC’s ownership of research data in this new Policy document, we can more easily update the language to support modern research practices and to respond to new questions as they emerge. 

Additionally, UC conducted a systemwide audit during the 2019-20 fiscal year examining the issue of undue foreign influence. The audit report noted, “It is critical that the University appropriately safeguard pre-publication research data and ensure its integrity and security.” The audit report called upon the University to finalize the UC Research Data Policy in order to consistently protect research data across the UC system. 

Getting the Policy in Place

Bringing the UC Research Data Policy to a place where people feel comfortable with it has not been easy. I have been working on this effort since 2017, have shepherded it through two systemwide reviews (in 2020 and 2022), and have rewritten the draft at least 50 times. I am deeply indebted to the considerable time and thoughtfulness of various committees, faculty, and staff who have reviewed and commented on these drafts. 

Everyone has a different idea of what research data is and different notions of the responsibilities associated therein. The truth is, there is no simple model for any of this; the best we can do is establish clear policies with clear roles and expectations and with the flexibility to address new forms of research data as they emerge. Christine Borgman, UCLA Distinguished Research Professor in Information Studies, said it best in her book Big Data, Little Data, No Data: Scholarship in a Networked World:

“Data have no value or meaning in isolation. They can be assets or liabilities or both. They exist within a knowledge infrastructure—an ecology of people, practices, technologies, institutions, material objects, and relationships. All parts of the infrastructure are in flux with shifts in stakeholders, technologies, policies, and power. Much is at stake, not only for the scholars of today and tomorrow but also for those who would use the knowledge they create.” 

With the recently issued UC Research Data Policy, I strongly believe that we will be empowered to continue to support UC’s leadership as a major research institution with a commitment to sharing and expanding knowledge on a global scale.