New Advice from the KNAW about big data in research

On 15 May the KNAW has published a new report about the use of big data in research, focusing on data containing details about people. The report is called, ‘Big data in wetenschappelijk onderzoek met gegevens over personen’. It is available in Dutch (with an English summary).

Sally Wyatt (TSS) was a member of the committee, and Annika Richterich (LK) took part in the consultation process.

This new report from the KNAW addresses the question of what will happen to the relationship and interaction between data, knowledge and applied research now that ‘regular’ data are developing into ‘big’ data? What are the implications for academic research, especially for those fields that work with personal data?

Big data offers the research community opportunities, but it also poses new challenges with respect to data accessibility, analysis and storage and raises various legal and ethical issues. Researchers increasingly need to call in experts to assist in using big data. Big data is also generating new questions concerning the reproducibility and validity of research, how far we can generalise from research results, and whether existing methods and statistical techniques remain useful.

The report challenges the notion that ‘big data’ means the ‘end of theory’. Although research involving big data has greater affinity with inductive reasoning, theoretical underpinnings are precisely what is required. Big data may make it even more important to work from a theoretical basis than has traditionally been the case. The report also highlights the importance of and need for interdisciplinary team working. It is advisable for researchers who use personal data to work in teams with data specialists and legal and ethical experts, all of whom should be given full credit for their expert support.

Professor Kees Aarts (Groningen) chaired the committee that prepared the report. Sally Wyatt was one of the members, and Annika Richterich took part in one of the consultation meetings held with researchers.

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