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Research data in a digital society: practical, ethical and legal challenges

The production of research data is often publicly funded; this makes it a kind of common good. If data is used by further researchers or made available to a broad public, it must be anonymised. As a result, they can only be used to a limited extent. Moreover, with the constantly growing possibilities in the field of “big data”, it is difficult to predict at the time of data production what the data will later be used for. This raises ethical and legal questions.

So the question is how research should deal with this area of tension. What concrete challenges does this pose for quantitative research, and what for qualitative research? Doesn’t data protection hinder the further development of innovative research approaches? Does it even make sense to collect more and more data if it is done without planning for further use? What research ethics problems arise from the recombination of independently collected data sets?

The Centre for Education and Digital Change of the PH Zurich invited to a DIZH networking event on the topic of research data in November. In a panel discussion, these questions were considered from different perspectives.

In the video, Michael Geiss, Head of the Centre for Education and Digital Change (PHZH), Florent Thouvenin, Full Professor of Information and Communication Law (UZH), Gisela Unterweger, Co-Head of the Centre for Childhoods in School and Society (PHZH), Michèle Ernst Stähli, Head of International Surveys (FORS) and Kenneth Horvath, Head of the Department of Educational Research (PHZH) explain their positions.

Gisela Unterweger

«The logics of data protection, open data and ethnographic-qualitative data production are in a difficult tension.»

The special feature of ethnographic work is that it produces heterogeneous, multimodal and hardly standardised data that is context-bound and embedded in concrete field relations. Gisela Unterweger’s expertise lies in this area of ethnographic and qualitative approaches. As co-director of the Research Centre Childhoods in School and Society at the University of Teacher Education Zurich, she conducts cultural-analytical and social-scientific research on childhoods, especially in school education.

Michèle Ernst Stähli

«The policy at FORS is clear: all the data we generate must be made freely available to researchers.»

Michèle Ernst Stähli’s areas of expertise include social science methodology. She researches survey methods with topics such as incentives, non-response bias and mixed modes. Her research aims to optimise data collection processes, including data processing and documentation. She is the Swiss coordinator for the ESS (European Social Survey), heads the ISSP (International Social Survey Programme), the EVS (European Values Study) and the “International Surveys” section at FORS.

Florent Thouvenin
UZH, Law, information and communication law

«Data should be freely usable for research – data protection law creates hurdles that benefit no one. New approaches are needed: Rethink Privacy!»

Florent Thouvenin’s research focuses on legal issues around digitalisation, with an emphasis on copyright and data protection law. A particular focus is on the regulation of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the use of data in research. He is a full professor for information and communication law at the Faculty of Law of the University of Zurich. He is also Chair of the Center for Information Technology, Society, and Law (ITSL) and Director of the Digital Society Initiative (DSI) at the University of Zurich.