Open Access: A Disciplinary Perspective

For the past two years, I have been a scribe for the Center for Geotechnical Practice and Research (CGPR) and thus been privy to the organization’s voting of research initiatives. An initiative that has been repeatedly requested is “big data” and its compilation, organization and access. Emphasized, because I now understand that’s what the request has really been about.

Some background on the CGPR. It’s a consortium of private geotechnical engineering firms that meet annually at Virginia Tech to vote on research initiatives. Essentially, the companies propose and vote on research topics of priority, and fund graduate students (myself included) to work on these.

The “big data” the CGPR wants refers to geotechnical data (soil engineering properties, measurements of load and deformation) from lab testing, field testing and case histories that have been amassed throughout the decades but scattered across the professional industry and academic institutions. There are many reasons why all the engineering firms would like access. Main ones include: 1) for a profession that performs analysis, design and construction based on experience and judgment, all that data understandably has much value; 2) case histories of failures are of particular interest; the profession as a whole has historically advanced through lessons learned from failures; 3) the suitability of applying statistical analysis and risk assessment to the soil medium which is inherently variable in nature. Unfortunately, legal barriers, client privacy, and just the logistics of organizing and rendering access to all the data have resulted in the initiative being left on the back burner for years. Everyone is interested, yet there’s a lack of jump start of any sort on the issue. I think the main problem is no one is quite sure what to do.

The Open Access forum was an eye-opening experience for me. It was good to hear about the various platforms and cross-industry experiences. The CGPR could similarly benefit, since the movement towards greater openness and access seems to be just what is needed to advance the geotechnical profession. I think the university could be a key promoter. Organizations like the CGPR exists in the first place because of the belief in the benefits of research, higher education and forward-thinking ideas, including potentially disruptive movements such as open access. I can see how the movement could gain momentum and translate to professional practice because the demand is already there. Safe to say that universities should keep pushing.