On the benefits of open data in astronomy

In his book, The Universe: A Biography, Paul Murdin charts the history of the universe via the astronomers that have explored and researchers it.

In this quote here (page 55 of the book), he explains how the open data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) helped nourish a community of researchers who could understand more about the development of the universe.

The data from the SDSS is accumulated in a publicly accessible archive as soon as it is obtained and processed. It is unusual for data from an astronomical project to be made public so quickly-usually the project personnel have rights to withhold the data for a period of time as a scientific reward for putting in the effort to bring the project to fruition.

The logic was that the project was funded by public sources of money and its data should be publicly available, and that it would be best for science if anyone could bring ideas to the archive to investigate its scientific possibilities. The project personnel knew so much about the instrument’s capabilities and its programme, it was argued, that they had an advantage over the rest of the community of astronomers and ought to be able to make killer discoveries even if they were competing in the same time frame as everyone else.

It has been a community effort to master the data produced by the SDSS and use it so successfully to map the structure of the Universe as it is known today.

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