Zimmerman, A. (2008). “New Knowledge from Old Data.” Science, Technology, & Human Values 33(5): 631-652.
Zimmerman interviewed 13 ecologists about their use of secondary data (i.e., data they did not collect themselves) in order to tease out the role standards might play in the process of re-using data for new analyses. She found that the primary determinant in an ecologist’s decision to use the data was the researcher’s own ability to understand the data. This understanding was heavily contingent upon the researcher’s field experience and knowledge of collecting similar data. If the ecologist considered the data to be generally difficult data to collect or the kind of data that was frequently poorly understood, the data were not used. A second consideration was the reputation of the data collectors themselves or a personal relationship with the data collectors.
Zimmerman concludes that standards, while potentially useful, would be difficult to develop because the collection of data is so context-dependent. In short, the research questions determine how the data are collected and which data points are important. It would be a staggering task to try to develop standards that would cover every context and approach. Even if that were possible, science moves so quickly that the standards would likely be obsolete by the time they were approved.
There was no mention in this article about the potential for others to help with the curation or development of understanding of the data. Does the individual investigator need to be involved or is this a question that can be delegated to graduate students or a data manager? Was it a collective decision or one made by the lead researcher? The participants described a process of repeatedly going back to the journal article where the secondary data are described. I would have liked to know more about what types of information they were looking for when they did that. Which types of contextual information were most important to them? Could they even tell us or is that another form of tacit knowledge they find difficult to articulate?