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Ensuring pollen data aren't gone with the wind

In this article we take a behind-the-scenes look at a group of Australian ecosystem scientists struggling with real-life problems of data management – a story that has a happy ending, thanks to data infrastructure provided through TERN.

The Australian aerobiology working group convened through TERN’s ACEAS facility in 2013 sought to collate and analyse historical published and unpublished pollen count data from different regions of Australia and New Zealand. Their intent was to use this synthesised dataset to investigate a number of important questions, including how “pollen rain” changes with urbanisation and other changes in land use, and the likely impacts of climate change on seasonal peaks in allergenic pollen production.

The dataset would provide the platform for establishment of a national pollen monitoring program, to assist with management of patients with allergic respiratory diseases such as hay fever and asthma triggered by airborne pollens.

“Of course, we knew this was going to be a challenging project,” commented Dr Janet Davies of the University of Queensland, Principal Investigator for the group. “But we felt the benefits of this multidisciplinary collaboration – involving medical professionals, botanists, and climate change modellers, among others – would make the challenges worthwhile.”

As usual, all participants agreed to comply with the ACEAS code of ethics, which includes some specific requirements about metadata, data accessibility and publication. However, not everyone had fully considered what this meant.

“Ahead of the workshop, I made connections with the original data owners and in some cases negotiated access to crucial datasets,” recalled Janet. “We were fortunate to source some valuable data that was on the verge of being lost - for example a handful of 31/4 inch floppy disks were retrieved from a garage, and a separate set of hand-written data needed to be digitised. The practical obstacles to accessing and integrating these datasets couldn’t have been more extreme.”

However, the biggest challenges were less tangible. “When you’re dealing with long-term datasets, that many people have contributed to, and different agencies have funded over time – who owns the data? Who holds the legal rights and responsibilities with regard to its use or re-use? And how do we ensure the published data are protected from misuse or unauthorised commercial exploitation?”

Fortunately TERN’s licensing policy and data publishing infrastructure have been designed to help ecosystem scientists cope with these kinds of issues. Over the ensuing months Janet worked closely with ACEAS staff and her working group colleagues across the country to resolve issues with data ownership, access and licensing.  

Finally, the group’s first paper was accepted – on the condition that the datasets involved were all published in a suitable online repository. That condition provided enough incentive to bring most of the remaining collaborators to the table. Putting TERN and ACEAS infrastructure to work, the 11 sites (7 from Australia and 4 from New Zealand) weekly pollen count datasets were then:

Having discovered and downloaded one of the published datasets, the licence conditions would require a new user to cite the original creators accordingly, for example

Haberle, S, Daas, D, Hopf, F, Rule, S (2014) Weekly pollen count data for the Australian National University, Canberra. ACEAS. doi:10.4227/05/5344EC15D1AAD.

“Open sharing of data remains challenging, for many reasons,” reflected Janet. “But there’s increasing pressure for scientists to become more collaborative. It would have been much more difficult for us to publish our paper in PLOSONE if TERN’s data and publishing infrastructure hadn’t been available.”

“Ultimately, sharing data through synthesis working groups extends the reach and scope of use for datasets and yields maximum benefit for the scientific and wider community.  It’s great to know others who may use our data now or in future, may be able to add value to our data thereby increasing the overall impact of our work.”

The working group’s first paper, The macroecology of airborne pollen in Australian and New Zealand urban areas, will be published in a forthcoming issue of the international journal PLOSONE.

The pollen count data has been published (made publicly discoverable and downloadable) via TERN infrastructure (the TERN Data Discovery Portal and visualised from ACEAS data portal as Australian Aerobiology Monitoring Sites as shown above)

 

Published in TERN newsletter May 2014

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