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The Researcher Access Service explained

Find out more about the Researcher Access Service - our platform for accessing secure public sector data for research.

About this explainer

This explainer is designed to help members of the public learn about Research Data Scotland’s (RDS) Researcher Access Service and how it enables research using public sector data. 

The below information explains how the Service works at its initial launch phase in April 2024, and will be updated as future iterations of the Service are released. More detailed information, designed for researchers and data professionals, can be found on the Researcher Access Service section of our website.

What is the Researcher Access Service?

The Researcher Access Service is a digital service that makes it quicker and simpler for approved researchers to access public sector data for research.

Initially, the Researcher Access Service will provide access to nine datasets around health, but we are working to expand to include other areas like education, social work, justice, and others through discussions with data controllers.

Launched by RDS in April 2024, the Service enables faster access to public sector datasets held in Scotland’s National Safe Haven – a Trusted Research Environment which securely houses some of Scotland’s most useful datasets for research.

Why is the Researcher Access Service needed?

Researchers need quick and secure access to good quality data so that they can generate insights that improve public policy and decision-making. This ultimately improves the lives of people in Scotland.

Currently, data is often locked away in lots of individual systems, across many different organisations, and isn’t in a format that makes access or integration easy. Accessing data can take too long, meaning research questions remain unanswered and policy is no longer fresh, innovative or even relevant.

The impact of this could mean delaying – or even missing – the chance to save time, money and lives.

The Researcher Access Service streamlines and simplifies the data access process so that researchers can access data faster, leading to more timely insights and enabling decision-makers to base their policies on good quality research built on good quality data.

Find out more about the Researcher Access Service:

The Researcher Access Service is a collaborative service developed and maintained by RDS and eDRIS (electronic Data Research and Innovation Service), which is part of Public Health Scotland, one of RDS’s founding partners. RDS has developed and continues to support the end-to-end digital service, while eDRIS colleagues work with researchers to guide them through the process. In addition, RDS works with several other partners to develop the Service and other systems across the Scottish data landscape. Find out more about our partners.

Since the outset, RDS has endeavoured to ensure that its users, including researchers, partners, and other data professionals, are a key part of the design process.

This means that the design and delivery of the Researcher Access Service has been through several stages of iterative development, with ongoing user consultation established as a fundamental part of the process.

The work undertaken has been accompanied by various stages of user feedback which, alongside forums like the public panel, influence the priorities and direction of travel for our service development. 

The Researcher Access Service has been informed by existing knowledge from public dialogue, as well as feedback from our public panel.

In 2021 and 2022, ADR Scotland (Administrative Data Research Scotland) public panel sessions took place to help to shape and offer valuable feedback on the strategic direction of RDS. These panel sessions introduced some of the concepts for the development of what is now called the Researcher Access Service and offered panel members the opportunity to comment and question the approach.

The public panel feedback influenced the approach we have taken, how we communicate safeguards and the name of the service.

  • Oversight – The panel asked around the oversight of RDS’s plans. The public panel will continue to be consulted on the development of a governance approach around the overall service that brings in different viewpoints.
  • Risk of streamlining affecting scrutiny and safety - used the feedback around the make-up of application review panels in our Service Design to ensure that decision-making is streamlined but has the necessary checks and balances in place to ensure compliance with the Five Safes framework.
  • Clear communications – the need to communicate the process and approach in plain English was imperative. The website was overhauled last year, a content designer was employed, and RDS has added clear information to outline the process and safeguards.

The public panel is now co-hosted by RDS and will continue to help shape the Researcher Access Service as it evolves. Learn more about the public panel, Scotland Talks Data.

In addition to our direct public engagement activities, we have been informed by existing knowledge on what is important to the public when using public data.

  • Public good – large scale public engagement has repeatedly found that it is important to members of the public that public data is used for public benefit. Researchers must clearly demonstrate the public benefit of their project as part of their application to the Researcher Access Service. Guidelines have been written based on wider public engagement sessions run by Scottish Government.
  • Transparency – the need for transparency is often a theme in public engagement. Research Data Scotland aims to be transparent not only about how data is stored, processed and protected but also what research projects data is used for.

As we develop future iterations of the service, we will continue to involve the Scotland Talks Data panel and be informed by wider public engagement. 

A simpler, fully digitised portal

One way the Researcher Access Service improves access to public sector data is by introducing a simpler, digitised application process.

Current application systems are often confusing and inconsistent, sometimes requiring researchers to complete paper application forms and giving them no way to track their application. The Researcher Access Service simplifies this process by introducing the first fully digital platform for requesting datasets from the Scottish National Safe Haven, enabling researchers to submit and track their application from start to finish via an online portal.

Streamlining the approvals process

The Researcher Access Service also makes it faster to access data by streamlining the approvals process for certain datasets.

Currently, most research projects that request access to Scottish health datasets have to be individually considered by the Public Benefit and Privacy Panel for Health and Social Care (HSC-PBPP) to ensure that the projects meet requirements for demonstrating public benefit and proper information governance. Before the project is submitted to the panel, researchers work with eDRIS to develop project requirements and prepare the application. However, these can be time-consuming processes and can lead to delays in researchers being granted access to data.

When an application is submitted via the Researcher Access Service, eDRIS will assess the enquiry and decide the appropriate pathway for approving the application. This will include judging the application against a predetermined list of questions, such as:

  • Is the project affiliated with an approved organisation?
  • Does the project have clear public benefit?
  • Can the project's research questions be answered by looking at data from the 9 datasets available through the Researcher Access Service?
  • Does the project expect to access data through the Scottish National Safe Haven? And others. 

If the project meets the criteria for the streamlined Researcher Access Service pathway, the application will be assessed by the Researcher Access Service Approval Panel, who will ensure that there are no risks or harms to individuals in the researcher accessing the data, the processing of the data is necessary, and that the proposed research is in the public good. The panel will work in accordance with the Five Safes framework, outlined below.

If the Panel decide that the application is not suitable for the Researcher Access Service, it will follow the existing PBPP approvals process.

By introducing a risk-based assessment at the first stage of the approvals process, the Researcher Access Service will enable faster access to data for certain projects, without compromising on the security of the data.

Public Health Scotland have enabled streamlined access to some of their most frequently requested datasets via the Researcher Access Service. At its initial launch, the following nine datasets are the first to become available through the streamlined approvals process:

  • Outpatient Appointments and Attendances (Jan 1997 onwards)
  • General Acute Inpatient and Day Case (April 1997 onwards)
  • Maternity Inpatient and Day Case (April 1997 onwards)
  • Mental Health Inpatient and Day Case (April 1997 onwards)
  • Scottish Cancer Registry (April 1997 onwards)
  • Prescribing Information System (January 2015 onwards)
  • Scotland Accident and Emergency (January 2011 onwards)
  • Birth Registrations (1981 onwards)
  • Death Registrations (2015 onwards)

The most recent data available may vary per dataset, and more detail will be provided as part of the application process. More detailed information about these nine datasets can be found here.

Why these datasets?

The nine datasets initially available via the Researcher Access Service’s streamlined approvals process are some of the most frequently requested datasets controlled by Public Health Scotland. The datasets cover a wide range of topics, from large populations, over a relatively long period, meaning that they can enable lots of valuable insights.

Which other datasets are available?

Many other datasets can be accessed through the existing PBPP approval process, and you can explore these using the Metadata Catalogue.

As the Service develops, RDS will work with eDRIS/Public Health Scotland and other partner organisations to widen the number of datasets available through the Researcher Access Service’s streamlined approval process.

The data is held in a Trusted Research Environment

All the data available via the Researcher Access Service is held in the National Safe Haven – a Trusted Research Environment (TRE) which houses some of Scotland’s most useful public sector datasets.

TREs are highly secure digital environments that can only be accessed by approved researchers. Data cannot be taken out of a TRE. Instead, approved researchers do their research within a TRE before exporting their results, which are aggregated and checked to ensure that no sensitive data is included.

Learn more about Trusted Research Environments

Data is kept secure by the Five Safes framework

To keep data secure within the TRE, the Five Safes framework is used. The Five Safes framework is a set of principles designed to ensure safe and secure access to data for researchers. For the Researcher Access Service, we have implemented the following requirements in accordance with this framework:

  1. Safe People: Researchers applying for data access must be affiliated with an approved organisation. They must also upload evidence of valid information governance training.
  2. Safe Projects: Researchers must upload evidence that their project has undergone peer review and ethical approval. They must also describe how their project will provide public benefit.
  3. Safe Settings: Researchers will only be able to access data through the Scottish National Safe Haven, a Trusted Research Environment.
  4. Safe Data: The application process and Researcher Access Service Panel ensure that the researcher can only access data that’s required in order to answer the project’s research questions.
  5. Safe Outputs: All research outputs are checked by trained members of staff to ensure individuals cannot be identified. Researchers must also attest that there is no requirement to cite information that would lead to the identity of any individual(s) being disclosed.

Learn more about the Five Safes framework

After initially launching in April 2024, the Researcher Access Service will continually develop and improve to meet the needs of researchers. Progress will include:

  • Widening the range of datasets available through the service
  • Enabling more datasets to be linked together to enable further insights
  • Involving members of the public and data professionals to help shape the service
  • Identifying future opportunities and developing new services over time. 

To stay up to date with future developments, subscribe to our monthly newsletter and follow us on X (Twitter) and LinkedIn. If you are a researcher or data professional who would like to get involved and help us shape the service, please join our engagement contact list or if you have any questions, get in touch

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