January 2002
Volume 15, Number 1

Part 4 of 4
The Power of Psychology's Databases

DAVID H. JOHNSON is the senior consortium fellow in the Office of the Chancellor for Defense Education. He previously served as executive director of the Federation for Behavioral, Psychological and Cognitive Sciences for 14 years, and is a science policy consultant. He received his PhD in social psychology from Stanford in 1980. He strongly believes that databases, and the knowledge management capabilities they promise, will be instrumental in increasing the size and reliability of the knowledge base of psychology.

Psychology Databases
Behavioral Science vs. Social Science Databases

Henry A. Murray Research Center of Radcliffe

Archives of the History of Psycholgy

fMRI Data Center

National Archive of Computerized Data on Aging

National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health

Why share psychological data? Aren't there serious obstacles that pre-vent sharing? And even if we were willing to share in principle, how would we go about doing it in fact? These questions were discussed in the first three articles in this series. The answers I have suggested are these: We should share for our own benefit, in order to advance our science, and to better serve the general public.

There are no obstacles to data sharing that have not either been overcome or that have no possible resolution. And despite psychological science's slowness to embrace data sharing, there exist several well-developed plans for how to do it on a larger scale than is currently the case. The final installment of this series looks at some of the psychology databases that already exist. Their variety, size, and accessibility are impressive. The databases discussed here are by no means the only psychology databases that are available.

Pioneers have been at work building what can become the most important new tools at our disposal for advancing understanding of human behavior. In the following pages, several databases are profiled: Henry A. Murray Research Center of Radcliffe, Archives of the History of Psychology, fMRI Data Center, National Archive of Computerized Data on Aging, and National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health.


It remains to be seen whether we can answer those and other questions in ways that turn psychologists toward much greater acceptance of, and reliance on, shared data. There are at least two trends that may be distinguished. Each offers hope. On the one hand, we have the experience of the fMRI Data Center where the database wizards are struggling with how to present discrete, very large datasets in a single area in ways that will assure their utility. On the other hand, we have experiences such as the Murray Center and the ICPSR-managed archives where the struggle to achieve utility has an inward and an outward aspect. Not only are these centers working to make behavioral science data useful for a large potential user community (the inward aspect), they are also working at the problem of making those datasets compatible with data from many other disciplines (the outward aspect).

Unlocking the power of behavioral science databases requires doing both things well. We need to get better at making individual experiments within single disciplines relate more comparably to each other. And we need to make the research of psychology mesh better with the related data of other sciences. The prize for solving these problems is a leap in the speed with which we accumulate scientific knowledge. There is reason to think the questions will be satisfactorily resolved.

Series Contents
Part 1:
Sharing Data: It's Time to End Psychology's Guild Approach

Part 2:
Three Objections to Databases Answered

Part 3:
Three Ways to Use Databases as Tools for Psychological Research

Part 4:
The Power of Psychology's Databases