Defining the Public Good in Applications to Access Public Data

28 May 2021
Last updated:
7 June 2021


This report is about how researchers see their research as serving the public good, or providing public benefits. Researchers can apply to gain access to data held by government departments so that they can analyse it themselves to answer questions they have. In order to gain access, researchers must apply to the National Statistician’s Data Ethics Advisory Committee (NSDEC) or the Research Accreditation Panel (RAP).

When researchers do this, they must show that their work will serve the public good in some way. There are different ways of defining what the public good is, or how public benefits can be delivered by research, but little is known about what researchers think the public good is.

We wanted to carry out an analysis to understand more about this. We analysed a selection of applications to the NSDEC and the RAP to see what researchers said when they were asked what public benefits their work would provide.

Our findings (through a quantitative analysis) showed that the researchers often said their work would provide evidence which would help public policy decision-making or help make decisions which may benefit the economy, society or quality of life (in the UK). This might be because researchers want to show the real-world impact their research could have. Researchers might also think that this improves the chance of their application being successful so they can access the data they want.

Another frequently mentioned public benefit in applications to the NSDEC was to improve the quality, coverage or presentation of existing statistics but this was one of the least frequently mentioned public benefits in applications to the RAP. This shows that researchers applying to the different processes may want to achieve different aims in their work.

The least mentioned public benefit was to replicate, validate or challenge Official Statistics. This may suggest that researchers want to avoid saying that they will directly challenge data.

Looking more closely at the text in the applications (qualitative analysis) showed that some researchers say their work will help to improve decisions to spend public money. Other researchers say that their work will help to provide more detailed information about different regions in the UK. Lastly, several researchers said their research would enable more research collaborations to take place, and could help to improve the linking of datasets. This means that the public good provided by data can be extended even further.

There are limits on how much we can read into this work because we analysed applications and did not directly ask researchers what they think about the public good. However, the study does tell us what researchers focused on in their applications and what public good they would like their work to serve. This is important information for us in OSR as it helps us to develop our understanding about what the public good means to different people.

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