Scientific research and innovation are essential components of progress. As such they benefit humankind at large. Yet science cannot properly function without the pooling of knowledge. Sharing research data makes it possible to reuse them. This concerns most of the various disciplines of social sciences, which are heavily data-driven. But sharing datasets is impossible without an adequate infrastructure.
CESSDA: The European network of data archives
The first infrastructures dedicated to the preservation and dissemination of survey data in Europe were created in the 1950s. As stewards of scientific data, they came to be known as ‘data archives’.
Most European countries nowadays have such a central data archive despite the differences in terms of size or resources.
In 1976 the various actors in the field of data archiving came together and created a formal network called the Consortium of European Social Science Data Archives (CESSDA). This entity works as a distributed platform for its member states as well as observer members. Its main goal is the support of comparative social science research at the European level.
In 2017 CESSDA earned the status of European Research Infrastructure Consortium (ERIC), a legal entity under European law endowed with legal capacity in all states of the European Union.
Data archiving and the SODA project
The SODA (Social Sciences Data Archive) project aims to develop a prototype for a data archive that will become the Belgian representative in CESSDA and beyond. This future entity must provide different types of services that address the needs of the social science research community.
Such services, which revolve around the concept of data lifecycle, are research, planning, collection, analysis, and archiving.
Research: Access to existing data through a portal that links to one or several databases;
Planning: Reviewing datasets to help conceive new research projects;
Collection: Training, tools and services that support the data collection process;
Analysis: Encoding and enriching raw data in order to perform secondary analysis;
Archiving: Secure long-term preservation of research data.
To reach these objectives, the SODA project involves:
Elaborating the business model of the future organization, including the tasks and responsibilities of the various potential partners of the service provider;
Studying the legal and organizational framework which the Belgian data archive will integrate;
Preparing a physical and software infrastructure to support the prototype;
Devising a crosswalk between the metadata standards of traditional archives, notably XML-EAD (eXtensible Markup Language – Encoded Archival Description), and that of social sciences, DDI (Data Documentation Initiative).
The project, which is financially supported by the Belgian Federal Science Policy Office (BELSPO), brings together the following partner institutions:
- State Archives of Belgium (coordinating institution)
- Université catholique de Louvain (UCLouvain) : Jean-Paul Sanderson, Centre de recherche en démographie (DEMO), headed by Thierry Eggerickx.
- Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) : Laura Van Den Borre, Interface Demography, headed by Patrick Deboosere.
Open (research) data, open science, open access, data management plans, data security, protection of privacy… Such are but a few of the many questions that Belgian social scientists are now faced with more than ever. The SODA project team sought to learn more about the needs and concerns of its target audience by sending a needs assessment survey to all Belgian universities.