We usually associate open access with the publication of scientific articles that anyone with internet access can read, without price barrier.
The concept “open access” is now being used also for research data. I have written about this trend towards open data earlier on the Ethics Blog: Openness as a norm.
In many cases, research data are made as freely available as the open access articles that anyone can read; often in connection with the publication of results based on the data. This occurs, for example, in physics.
There is a strong trend towards open data also in medical research; but here the analogy with articles that anyone can read is no longer valid. Biobank and register-based research work with sensitive personal data, to which a number of laws regulating data access apply.
Yet one could speak of a trend towards open data also in this domain. But it then means something different. It’s about making data as accessible as possible for research, within the regulations that apply to this type of data.
Since the relevant laws and ethical frameworks are not only opaque but also differ between countries, the work is largely about developing common models for researchers to work within. One such attempt is made in an article by, among others, Deborah Mascalzoni and Mats G. Hansson at CRB:
The article formulates 15 principles for sharing of biological samples and personal data between researchers. It also includes a template of the written agreements that scientists can make when one research group transfers data or materials to another research group.
Take a look at these principles, and the template of the agreements, and you’ll soon get an idea of how many strict conditions that must be met when biological samples and personal data are shared for research purposes.
Given how open access often is associated with the possibility for anyone at any time to read articles without price barrier, one should perhaps avoid using the term in this context. It may mislead, since this form of data access is heavily regulated, although the aim is to support researchers to share their data and samples.