Preparing data for use, converting it, cleaning it, leafing through thick manuals that explain the variables, asking collaborators for clarifications takes a lot of our time. The rule of thumb in data mining is that 80% of the time is spent on preparing the data. Also, it is often painful to read bad summaries of interesting data in papers when one would want to actually examine the data directly and do the analysis for oneself.
While there are many repositories of data on the web, they are not very sophisticated: usually there is a ZIP file with the data in some format that yet has to be figured out. Today I have stumbled upon Virtual Data System that provides an open source implementation of a data repository that enables one to view variables, the distribution of their values in the data, perform certain types of filtering, all through the internet browser interface. An example can be seen at Henry A. Murray Research Archive – click on Files tab and then on Variable Information button. Moreover, the system enables one to cite data similarly as one would cite a paper.
A similar idea developed for publications a few years earlier is GNU EPrints, which is a system of repositories of technical reports and papers that almost anyone can set up. Having used EPrints, I was frustrated by the inability to move data from one repository to another, to have some sort of a search system that would span several repositories, to have integration with search and retrieval tools such as Citeseer.
But regardless of the problems, such things are immensely useful parts of the now-developing scientific infrastructure on the internet. There would be wonders if even 5% of the money that goes into the antiquated library system was channelled into the development of such alternatives.