Data and practice

"There's legislation, but codes of conduct are of at least equal importance in science, and these two are not always completely aligned." - Heiko Tjalsma

    Main points

What can and can’t you do with research data? There are rules and regulations in the background, but how to deal with these in daily practice? A helping hand.

When using research data there are always (at least) two interests at play. These can be an extension of each other, but can also cause conflict. There’s the interest of the institute (which is, for example, building a database) and the interest of the scientist working to advance their career.

Ideally, laws and regulations are unnecessary if friction occurs, because the researcher has arranged beforehand what s/he can and cannot do with the data. Ideally, again, the institute has expressed a vision on research data (and has a written policy): who is allowed to do what with the research data? An example of an institute with a policy is the KNAW.(1) And should you encounter a clash of interests in practice without having a written agreement, you could still try to work the problems out.

Q&A met Heiko Tjalsma, policy advisor at DANS

Q: Who owns my data?

A: As strict as the law seems, the answer to this question is actually rather fluid. Take publishing articles: in principle, the university where the study was conducted can claim copyright over the articles. But it doesn’t, because this would harm the researcher’s career (and thereby, in the end, harm the university itself). How research data is treated in practice also depends on the context. Often, you can take your data with you, but only after good consultation. Ideally, you agreed upon this issue beforehand, for example in your appointment letter.

The Meertens Instituut(2) employs researchers who collaborate on building several databases.(3) That is the institute’s core business, and in such cases it makes sense that the researcher leaves the data with the institute.

As a matter of fact, copyright differentiates between personality rights (which belong to you and are non-transferable) and exploitation rights or right of use: what you are allowed to do with the data? Exploitation rights can be transferred by drawing up a contract together. In that case, the party using your data will always have to acknowledge you as gatherer of the data.

Q: What does NWO being co-owner of my data mean?

A: The regulations state that NWO is the owner. This concerns the exploitation right. NWO doesn’t seem intent to battle this issue to its full legal consequences. The intention of the amendment of the regulations is to keep the data open access and to ensure durable storage. NWO doesn’t follow up if these issues are in order; it is more of a handle to deal with people who refuse this.

Q: How do data archives deal with copyright?

A: If professor X brings data in, a data archive will assume that he is the owner of that data. With a licence, he authorises the data archive to make a copy of the data available to third parties - under certain conditions.

DANS is going to conclude contracts with universities. The general principle is that the research data are owned by the universities and not by the individual researchers.

Q: How do data archives treat orphaned data?

A: Orphaned data is data of which the owner is unknown or has died. If the data was made available in restricted access, the owner must grant permission for access, which is difficult if you cannot find them. The licences of DANS and 4TU.Datacentrum contain a clause stating that data automatically becomes open access in case of the death of the owner. This is not yet the case for data whose owner cannot be reached, although that would be desirable.

Q: Who should a data supporter or researcher turn to if they cannot find the answers to their questions here? 

A: That depends on the institute. Start by asking your institute’s policy advisers whether they have a legal adviser or an official for Data Protection.


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  1. KNAW. KNAW policy on open access and digital preservation. Retrieved from
  2. Meertens instituut. Retrieved from
  3. Meertens instituut. Collections. Retrieved from

  Your additions

Do you know any stories or anecdotes from practice? Let us know in the comments.