UCLA Information Studies Scholar Dr. Christine Borgman: Examining the Complexities of Data-Sharing

Christine Borgman, Distinguished Professor and Presidential Chair in Information Studies

By Tiffany Esmaillian and Joanie Harmon

Christine Borgman, the Distinguished Professor and Presidential Chair in Information Studies at UCLA, challenges prevailing notions about the value of sharing information. Borgman studies how research information is retrieved, processed, curated, and conveyed—at a time when the demand for data by researchers and scholars in many different disciplines is greater than ever before.

But sharing data isn’t as simple as it sounds.

“Data are complex, compound, heterogeneous, and messy objects that rarely lend themselves to easy sharing or reuse,” said Borgman, who holds degrees in mathematics, library and information science, and communication research.

Borgman and her research team at UCLA’s Center for Knowledge Infrastructures are analyzing how data are handled in an array of research projects in astronomy, biology, environmental sciences, and medical sciences with the aim of simplifying the complexities of data practices and challenging prevailing assumptions about the value of sharing data. Her team’s work with the UCLA Center for Embedded Networked Sensing, an NSF Science and Technology Center (2002–2012), laid the foundation for two consecutive grants from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation (2012–2019): “The Transformation of Knowledge, Culture, and Practice in Data-Driven Science: A Knowledge Infrastructures Perspective,” and “If Data Sharing is the Answer, What is the Question?”.

By presenting their findings to scientific communities as well as to funding agencies, government agencies, publishers, and other key stakeholders, the team hopes to influence policy, she explained.

In addition to her research, Borgman’s prize-winning book, “Big Data, Little Data, No Data: Scholarship in the Networked World,” published by MIT Press, builds upon earlier assessments of the global information infrastructure and examines data and scholarly research.

“Having the right data is usually better than having more data; little data can be just as important as big data,” she points out.

In the book, Borgman lays out the challenges of data-intensive scholarship; includes a series of case studies of data practices in the sciences, social sciences, and humanities; and assesses data sharing, reuse, credit, attribution, and discovery.

“While I don’t claim to have the answers to these challenges, my goal is to provoke a much fuller and more comprehensive conversation about the diversity of data and practices, the infrastructure required to support them, and the roles and responsibilities of varied stakeholders,” Borgman explained.

She maintains that we need to make a huge investment in knowledge infrastructures to support the management, curation, and use of data in the future. She defines knowledge infrastructures as “an ecology of people, practices, technologies, institutions, material objects and relationships.”

Borgman, who has been teaching at UCLA since 1983 and is retiring this year, but returning in August on recall as Distinguished Research Professor, has led classes on information retrieval, data practice and policy, privacy and information technology, bibliometrics, electronic publishing, library automation, and information- seeking behavior. Prior to joining UCLA, she developed the first course on human-computer interaction at Stanford University.

When Borgman came to Los Angeles, she not only established a new course in human-computer interaction, but also brought information policy, electronic publishing, bibliometrics, and data curation into the curriculum. She also expanded existing IT courses in the then-Graduate School of Library and Information Studies.

Borgman has applied her expertise in scholarly communication and information technology policy to UCLA and UC activities throughout her career, including service as chair of the UCLA IT Planning Board and of the UC Academic Computing and Communications Committee. In 2015, Borgman, along with Kent Wada, UCLA Chief Privacy Officer and Director, Strategic IT Policy, was named a co-chair of the joint Academic Senate and Administration data governance task force, which was formed to recommend a campus governance mechanism in response to the increasing demand for data about UCLA students, faculty, and staff.

“The reason we have this joint Academic Senate and Administration task force is because you can find very different opinions and sets of ethics on both sides. It is important to get everyone in the same room to come up with something we can all live with,” Borgman said. In their first meeting, the task force articulated many of the data-related issues facing the campus, including information security, privacy, appropriate data use, and third party partnerships.
“We can assume that data always need to be properly secured. We can assume that data about individuals— whether Social Security numbers, information about health, or grades—must be surrounded by the appropriate privacy controls,” Wada explained. “So the task force is focusing on how the campus considers new uses of these data that have potentially negative consequences. We need to ask ourselves, ‘what benefit is there to our community? What are the risks? Is the use consistent with the values of the institution?’ And even, ‘Is it creepy?’ The question we need to answer is not ‘Can we?’ but ‘Should we?’”

An exemplary role model with a passion for interdisciplinary research, Borgman dedicates a large amount of her time to mentoring students and young researchers in these fields.

“What excites me about interdisciplinary research is the opportunity to combine disparate perspectives and to learn from each other,” she said.

Despite her impressive achievements, Borgman remains a humble leader. “The most rewarding outcome of these projects is guiding my brilliant team of graduate students and post-doctoral fellows to making their own discoveries,” she said.

When asked about her proudest accomplishments and what she looks forward to achieving in the future, Borgman remained modest.

“My proudest accomplishments are my students, who have gone on to lead their own research teams, win their own grants, found companies, and take on leadership roles in professional societies,” she said. “My future goals, in addition to successful research and influencing policy, are to advance my current students, to mentor my graduates, and to learn from all of them.”