New article: Best versus Good Enough Practices for Open Music Research

After a fairly long publication process, I am happy to finally announce a new paper: Best versus Good Enough Practices for Open Music Research in Empirical Musicology Review.


The abstract reads:

Music researchers work with increasingly large and complex data sets. There are few established data handling practices in the field and several conceptual, technological, and practical challenges. Furthermore, many music researchers are not equipped for (or interested in) the craft of data storage, curation, and archiving. This paper discusses some of the particular challenges that empirical music researchers face when working towards Open Research practices: handling (1) (multi)media files, (2) privacy, and (3) copyright issues. These are exemplified through MusicLab, an event series focused on fostering openness in music research. It is argued that the “best practice” suggested by the FAIR principles is too demanding in many cases, but “good enough practice” may be within reach for many. A four-layer data handling “recipe” is suggested as concrete advice for achieving “good enough practice” in empirical music research.

The article is written based on challenges we have faced with adhering to Open Research principles within music research. I mention our experiences with MusicLab in particular.

The perhaps most important take-home message from the article is my set of recommendations in the end.


1a. Create analysis-friendly data. Planning what to record will save time afterward, and will probably lead to better results in the long run. Write a data management plan (DMP).

1b. Plan for mistakes. Things will always happen. Ensure redundancy in critical parts of the data collection chain.

1c. Save the raw data. In most cases, the raw data will be processed in different ways, and it may be necessary to go back to the start.

1d. Agree on a naming convention before recording. Cleaning up the names of files and folders after recording can be tedious. Get it right from the start instead. Use unique identifiers for all equipment (camera1, etc.), procedures (pre-questionnaire1, etc.) and participants (a001, etc.).

1e. Make backups of everything as quickly as possible. Losing data is never fun, and particularly not the raw data.


2a. Separate raw from processed data. Nothing is as problematic as over-writing the original data in the pre-processing phase. Make the raw data folder read-only once it is organized.

2b. Use open and interoperable file formats. Often the raw data will be based on closed or proprietary formats. The data should be converted to interoperable file formats as early as possible.

2c. Give everything meaningful names. Nothing is as cryptic as 8-character abbreviations that nobody will understand. Document your naming convention.


3a. Organize files into folders. Creating a nested and hierarchical folder structure with meaningful names is a basic, but system-independent and future-proof solution. Even though search engines and machine learning improve, it helps to have a structured organizational approach in the first place.

3b. Make incremental changes. It may be tempting to save the last processed version of your data, but it may be impossible to go back to make corrections or verify the process.

3c. Record all the steps used to process data. This can be in a text file describing the steps taken. If working with GUI-based software, be careful to note down details about the software version, and possibly include screenshots of settings. If working with scripts, document the scripts carefully, so that others can understand them several years from now. If using a code repository (recommended), store current snapshots of the scripts with the data. This makes it possible to validate the analysis.


4a. Always submit data with manuscripts. Publications based on data should be considered incomplete if the data is not accessible in such a way that it is possible to evaluate the analysis and claims in the paper.

4b. Submit the data to a repository. To ensure the long-term preservation of your data, also independently of publications, it should be uploaded to a reputable DOI-issuing repository so that others can access and cite it.

4c. Let people know about the data. Data collection is time-consuming, and in general, most data is under-analyzed. More data should be analyzed more than once.

4d. Put a license on the data. This should ideally be an open and permissive license (such as those suggested by Creative Commons). However, even if using a closed license, it is important to clearly label the data in a way so that others can understand how to use them.

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Alexander Refsum Jensenius is a music researcher and research musician living in Oslo, Norway.