Access, Use & Reuse

Working with research data is a responsible task. This is particularly true for social, behavioral, educational, and economic sciences, where people are often the main research subjects and thus sensitive, personal data are at the core of the research. In this case, various ethical considerations can come into conflict with each other. These ethical aspects are discussed in more details in our article on research ethics.

Legal regulations, such as data protection or copyright laws, also play an important role in research data management for data curators, governing the handling of research data at EU, federal, or regional levels. One of the key tasks for data managers is not only to be aware of these aspects, but also to ensure compliance, identify risks and violations, and to develop procedures to uphold these principles within their institutions.

Legal considerations extend beyond the creation and acquisition of research data; they are equally relevant in the context of data reuse, where issues related to authorship and usage rights are central.

From a purely legal perspective, From a purely legal perspective, individual research data are generally subject to copyright only in exceptional cases. Nevertheless, it is generally recommended to treat research data as if they were fundamentally worthy for protection under copyright law, in order to proactively avoid potential legal challenges and provide maximum legal certainty to all parties involved.

So, what exactly is copyright, and which areas does it cover?

Copyright (UrhG) protects certain intellectual creations and achievements (…). Copyright focuses on the overall work in the case of intellectual creations and on the creative process in the case of intellectual achievements. A database serves as a good example: when many works are compiled, there is often no new creation (lack of creative height). There is no new protective right for any of the works, but there may be one for the compilation.

[Source: Urheberrecht | Rechte und Pflichten | Themen | Forschungsdaten und Forschungsdatenmanagement, April 6, 2023, 14:00]

Although research data are not inherently protected by copyright, there are certain conditions under which research data can be considered “personal intellectual creations”:

Tangible Form of ExpressionThe criterion of tangible form of expression excludes mere ideas that have not been manifested in a tangible form. Indirect perceptibility (via technical means) is sufficient.
Personal CreationIt must result from the creative, formative influence of a person. Things created by machines or animals are excluded.
Intellectual ContentThe author must create a world of thoughts and/or feelings that somehow stimulate the viewer. The “meaning” does not have to be obvious to everyone, but a lengthy explanation should not be assumed.
Individual CharacterA certain degree of individuality and originality must be achieved. The required level is known as the ‘creative height.’ Diligence, expertise, or craftsmanship are not a criterion.

[Source: Urheberrecht | Rechte und Pflichten | Themen | Forschungsdaten und Forschungsdatenmanagement, April 6, 2023, 13:15]

The aspect of ‘creative height’ is particularly challenging to establish, that is why research data often fail to meet the criteria for copyright protection.

The use of licenses can enable the use of research data while simultaneously safeguarding the rights of individuals involved in these research data. Furthermore, contracts can be used to secure the protection of rights holders:

  • Through cooperation agreements with funding agencies or scientific institutions
  • Through data sharing agreements with colleagues prior to publication or for joint processing. These agreements serve to protect data providers from misuse and clarify any ambiguities.

Data Reuse

If you aim to maximize the reusability of research data beyond copyright considerations, you can grant additional usage rights through data licensing. Various licensing models provide the means to establish binding and transparent conditions for the reuse of the published research data. Established and globally recognized options include Creative Commons (CC) licenses, for instance.

Usage Terms

For the actual provision of data, usage terms must be agreed between data users and the RDC (Research Data Center), and, if necessary, with data providers. In case of anonymized data with no (remaining) personal reference, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) may not be applicable. Nevertheless, ethical considerations (e.g., potential psychological or legal harm to research subjects) should still be taken into account.

In principle, standard licenses such as open data licenses or licenses for scientific use can be used as usage terms. The type and scope of access regulations are determined by the RDC. However, certain legal frameworks (e.g., GDPR for personal data, legal obligations to data providers) must be observed. Data in social sciences and related fields may contain potentially sensitive information about individuals, businesses, institutions, or other actors. Therefore, when providing data, it is essential to comply with legal data protection requirements and ensure confidentiality.

For data that may potentially be personal, it is advisable to conclude a paper-based Data Usage Agreement (DUA), which serves as a trustworthy legal framework for data access. DUAs can also specify technical and organizational measures (e.g., encryption of USB drives, reporting obligations) necessary for secure and responsible data access.