Over the past year, I have searched for resources addressing digital preservation and access issues applicable to sociocultural anthropology, my larger subfield, or at least qualitatively leaning researchers. One of my finds was the AnthroDataDPA Report (Anthropological Data Digital Preservation and Access), which will be the primary focus of this post. Generated from a weekend workshop in 2009 and organized by Carol R. Ember, Eric Delson, Jeff Good, and Dean Snow, efforts behind the organization of the AnthroDataDPA Report were designed to provide general anthropological best practices concerning digital preservation and access issues.

One of the unique contributions about this report, in my opinion, is that it tackles issues applicable to the entire anthropological discipline as well as those more sub-discipline specific. Some of the overall recommendations concerning data digitization and access include: retaining physical records even after digitization due to lack of long term preservation plans for several projects; freeing access to anthropological data from restrictions outside of a few exceptions; and efforts should be made to digitize supplementary materials associated with projects. The report goes on to cover other topics such as copyright, storage infrastructure, access, data preservation and funding sources.

Standing at nearly 60 pages, I have decided to focus on issues and recommendations applicable to cultural anthropology, in particular privacy and ethics, within the report. For sociocultural and medical anthropologists, the report recommends consulting consent agreements and IRB requirements when determining access to data. Additionally, access might be restricted if conflicts arise with subject communities concerned about which material should be made public or withholding data that is deemed too sensitive in nature. The report poses an important question: ‘Should the investigator alone be able to decide on sensitivity?’. Furthermore, outside of consulting with subject communities, should anthropologists consult with their member associations or their institutional IRBs? What about anthropologists without institutional affiliations? While it is important to cover your bases when attempting to make your data publically accessible, I wonder if adding a third party might damper participation from anthropologists working with human subjects.

Anthropologists working with humans have an obligation to mitigate any potential harm to the individual that may come from participation in their research study. Furthermore, this protection extends beyond the data collection as well. Some of AnthroDataDPA’s most interesting conversations were its discussions around privacy and IRB. The authors’ point out IRB’s ambiguous language concerning the length of protection of human subject. This is demonstrated with phrases such as ‘until no foreseeable harm can be done’, which can interpreted a myriad of ways. Because of issues such as these, the report recommends constructing a post research IRB protocol for any data digitization plans.

All in all, I think the AnthroDataDPA report provided a good overview of potential issues and concerns regarding data digitization and access within the anthropological discipline. At the end of the summer, I will post Part 2, which will cover other aspects of the AnthroDataDPA Report not discussed here in conversation with QUALANTH, a digital repository I am working on to house qualitative data.