Troves of Personal Data, Forbidden to Researchers

When scientists publish their research, they also make the underlying data available so the results can be verified by other scientists.

At least that is how the system is supposed to work. But lately social scientists have come up against an exception that is, true to its name, huge.

It is “big data,” the vast sets of information gathered by researchers at companies like Facebook, Google and Microsoft from patterns of cellphone calls, text messages and Internet clicks by millions of users around the world. Companies often refuse to make such information public, sometimes for competitive reasons and sometimes to protect customers’ privacy. But to many scientists, the practice is an invitation to bad science, secrecy and even potential fraud.

The issue came to a boil last month at a scientific conference in Lyon, France, when three scientists from Google and the University of Cambridge declined to release data they had compiled for a paper on the popularity of YouTube videos in different countries.

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