Are We Drowning in Conflict Data?

I’m probably not alone in observing that there seems to be an increasing number of data articles being published in the field of conflict studies and IR. Together with some colleagues, I’m even preparing one myself at the moment! Is that perceived increase in data publication actually measurable? And does it indeed amount to “drowning”?

The answer to the first question is certainly yes. Scraping data from Google Scholar, I searched the three major IR journals that regularly publish data feature articles (Journal of Peace Research, Conflict Management and Peace Science, and International Interactions) for the terms “data” and “dataset” in their article titles since 1990. I then aggregated the counts by journal name and year. This reveals the following trend:

data trends

Now, this is only a quick and dirty search which is certainly flawed. For one, it is likely that my search counts articles as “data publications” when they are only re-examining existing data. Plus, my search does not include articles who do present new data, but do not include the term “data” or “dataset” in their article titles. JPR, for instance, publishes an annual update to its conflict data. My data collection records no published dataset in 2008, however, but a quick manual search reveals that UCDP did publish their update in 2008. But they named it “Dyadic Dimensions of Armed Conflict, 1945-2007” which excludes it from my search criteria.

Also, journals may have increased their publishing rate. If they publish now 6 issues per year whereas they used to publish only 4 back in the 90s, the chances for data getting published increase. Finally, and probably most importantly, not every new dataset is published in a separate data feature article. I’d say most of new datasets are introduced in original research articles–but it is difficult to capture those programmatically.

To somewhat correct for the fact that increased data publication may simply reflect an increase in overall journal output, I coded the number of annual issues per volume and “normalized” the number of data articles per number of annual issues. This procedure reveals a somewhat similar trend–although the earlier years get a little bumped up if we account for the lower number of issues published in the 90s and early 00s:

data trends normalized

The main reason is that all journals increased their number of issues per year over the last 20 years. The increase in data articles was accompanied by an increase in journal output which then results in the same pattern as simply counting data articles per year.

I also at least wanted to try to somehow capture those articles that introduce original datasets in the context of a regular research articles. I therefore searched for the term “new data” in all articles (body + title) to get an idea of how frequently authors referred to somehow newly collected data.

data trends all

This reveals a much steeper increase than the “mere” data feature articles, especially in the last four years, but I’d assume the number of false positives is also much higher. A “normalized” plot that accounts for varying issues/year looks similar, again which is why I won’t reproduce it here. It suffices to say that the “data revolution” in IR and conflict is reflected in the number of articles that publish data or that refer to “new data”. It would probably be even more steep if we included articles from other Journals, such as Journal of Conflict Resolution.

But does that mean we’re “drowning” in conflict data? Answering that question is a much more difficult task than simply scraping the raw numbers from Google Scholar. It is so difficult because it entails a whole string of follow-up questions: is there such a thing as “too much” data? Who is going to analyze all of these data? And, with so much data being produced, can we ensure that the data are of high quality (see, for instance, this JPR piece on data quality)? Plus, growth rate of data articles looks almost exponential–but from all what we know about exponential growth, should we expect a limiting factor to kick in at some point? Is the increase in information reflected in increase in actual knowledge about peace and conflict?

I obviously can’t answer all of these questions in this quick blog post. The growing availability of data is certainly a good thing in that it enables us to understand much more about conflict from a social science perspective (and probably from a policy perspective, too). At the same, this data explosion should also make us pause a moment and think about where we are going with this, what we can and cannot do with this amount of data, and–maybe most importantly–what we should and shouldn’t do with this flood of information.

Postscript:

I’ve uploaded the R script to download the data from Google Scholar and reproduce the plots here. Feel free to tinker with it yourself. I’m grateful to Kay Cichini for writing the excellent GScholarScraper function in R which I modified a bit to allow for searching within specific Journals.

Crossposted from the author’s website.

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