sociologists and property rights


Jeremy Freese, crusader for transparency and accountability in sociological research, draws attention to a new article in the American Psychologist. The article reports that, when asked to share data from a recently published study, only 27% of psychologists were willing to do so. Jeremy wonders if sociologists are any more altruistic/willing to share their data. In the comments that follow several sociologists reveal that they can understand why sociologists who collect their own data would not be willing to share. From the comments:

“we have slower publication queues in sociology and, in some subfields, greater time investments in the data collection itself (e.g., years to collect and code data from primary sources, as opposed to a semester or less to run a psych experiment). Given this, you’d expect sociologists who rely on primary data collection to be a bit slower to release it, simply to give them more time to recoup their investments.

If your campaign for greater accountability is successful, will it have the unintended consequence of reducing sociologists’ motivation to invest in collecting new data?”


“The general questions, I guess, are: what are the costs of data collection, who bears these costs, and do they (costs and their nature) have an effect on their availability?”


“Data are often hard-won. If collected via field research, they sometimes represent years of investment by the researcher. That researcher has an obligation to dessiminate their results. But they also have a right to publish their results without having them be scooped or parasitized by arm-chair workers. This dilemma causes a lot of conflict in many fields.”

I don’t think I need to point out that this is the same logic that corporations use to defend their rights to patents. “If we sink costs into a particular innovation, shouldn’t we be allowed to recuperate those costs and make a profit?” Sociologists, who are often thought of as less self-interested than their economist colleagues, appeal to the same rationale. Is an economics-based argument for property rights so powerful (perhaps even correct) that even sociologists are convinced of it?

Written by brayden king

October 11, 2006 at 7:15 pm

8 Responses

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  1. I would qualify my comment. This is an empirical question, you should be able to examine IF and to what extent sociologists horde data because of costs incurred.

    But, you have to determine: what are the costs? Are you talking dollars and cents? Time? Both? Neither? Does it matter?

    We’re assuming what needs to be proven. What would be some other reasons for restricting access to data (and replication)?



    October 11, 2006 at 7:59 pm

  2. Gosh, this is a touchy issue! My rule of thumb is that I share data after the major publications have been produced, or I conclude that I can’t publish much with the data. So I would argue that this is similar to patents: we have to balance individual interests and rewards with the need for verification and progress as a community.

    I’ve never been against incentives and we do have to realize that science is a social system with real people. If data were automatically open, then it would create bad incentives for established scholars to pick off data from lesser known scholars.


    Fabio Rojas

    October 11, 2006 at 8:31 pm

  3. If there were no property rights to data (what’s yours is mine), there would be little incentive to collect data. However, property rights can be asserted too strongly, often meaning for too long a period. As with the copyrights on books (they don’t last forever), data should be shared after time.

    Imagine the following conversation between two sociologists. Sociologist A: could you send me the data that you’ve collected over the last several years? I have some new ideas about how to analyze them. Sociologist B: I have a better plan. Send me your ideas and I’ll test them using my data. Neither A nor B could not claim the high ground of altruism.

    OTH, there is something to replication by external others; errors can be detected. Society would probably better off if A sent B the data, rather than B sending A ideas. But only after some time that allows A to reap what she’s sewn.



    October 11, 2006 at 9:11 pm

  4. Note that in my comment (the first one quoted in the post), I assumed that the incentive structure in academia is fixed: i.e., setting aside any intrinsic value to collecting data, the payoff for doing so is indirect in that it’s mediated by publications. One could instead envision an incentive system in which there were direct rewards for collecting data: i.e., the collection of a data set would in itself contribute to prestige, tenurability, job offers and the raises they bring, etc. Arguably, this would be “better” for the discipline than the current system, because there would be less cost to releasing data quickly.

    Of course, the thought of actually modifying the current academic incentive structure to reward data collection per se is rather daunting, for the usual reasons: stickiness of institutional arrangements, first-mover problems, the difficulty of judging quality and predicting impact (more accute for data than for publications, methinks).



    October 11, 2006 at 10:24 pm

  5. Presently, the incentive structure vis-a-vis property rights is a lot like allowing a drug company to decide the length of its own patent, which I’m not sure any economist would regard as maximizing social welfare. Economists seem to recognize that publishing in their top journals is valuable enough that they can command some concessionary action from authors (e.g., sharing data). Publishing in top economic journals does have a higher payoff and seems more competitive in terms of the effort required for success, so maybe economics is better able to extract this concession than sociology journals would be. Economists being economists, there is a paper describing this as a model of their being a market for reproducible results and a market for irreproducible results.



    October 12, 2006 at 4:54 pm

  6. Jeremy – are you saying that an economist has already written that paper? That’s a hilarious way to frame it. So apparently psychologists (and perhaps sociologists) prefer to exchange ideas in markets for irreproducible results?



    October 12, 2006 at 4:58 pm

  7. Yes, the paper already exists: Feigenbaum, Susan and David M. Levy. 1993. “The Market for (Ir)Reproducible Econometrics.” Social Epistemology 7:215-232. At the time of the paper, certainly, economists also preferred to exchange irreproducible results, and indeed by their behavior in the absence of institutions that require them to behave differently, still do (but the whole thing is they’ve moved to resolve the matter by institutional design).



    October 12, 2006 at 5:03 pm

  8. […] comments^2;  Enter the Scatterplot; I approve of Jeremy’s research; Jeremy moves to NWU; Jeremy for transparency; too much Jeremy. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)We Shall Overcome….Death and […]


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