Data tracking

Whether private surfing or retrieving information for scientific work, any and all kinds of activity on the net leave digital traces. ULB Darmstadt demonstrates a number of ways for preventing data tracking. In its negotiations with publishers, the ULB advocates for strict data protection and a stop to tracking.

Data tracking in science

Google, Facebook, Instagram and the rest – hardly an hour goes by without us calling on the services of the big Internet companies and sharing private insights into our lives. But anyone who uses the Internet leaves digital traces. Today it is a well-known fact that the processing of our data is a highly lucrative business – true to the motto that, “If you're not paying for the product, then you are the product”.

Everything we do on the Internet – every click we make, every link we visit, the amount of time we spend watching a particular piece of content – is collected, stored, processed, and sold on.

By the time special social networks had been established for researchers such as Mendeley and ResearchGate, this business model had also reached science. What many people do not know: behind a multitude of these networks, research information systems and reference management software programs are now large companies whose actual business has been highly lucrative for decades thanks to constantly increasing prices. Major publishing houses such as Springer and Elsevier not only offer cost-intensive access to scientific information via specialist databases and journals, but are also currently expanding strongly into the data analytics business. As a result, they are extending their business with scientific information to include the evaluation and processing of usage data.

Data tracking by scientific publishers

In October 2021, the Committee on Scientific Library Services and Information Systems (AWBI) of the German Research Foundation (DFG) published an information paper (opens in new tab) that impressively shows the publishers' approach and methods. Not only does Elsevier, for instance, hide a unique ID in the metadata of each downloaded article, but whenever the publishers' services are used, the access and usage data, length of stay, reading and typing speed or search terms are recorded, stored and evaluated, allowing conclusions to be drawn with regard to the researchers and their work. Quite a goldmine for data companies.

“Tracking in der Wissenschaft: Folgen für Datenschutz und Wissenschaftsfreiheit” – Aufzeichnung des Vortrags von Felix Reda bei der #vBIB21

“Wenn du nicht für das Produkt bezahlst, bist du selbst das Produkt?” – gemeinsame Veranstaltung vom Open-Access-Büro Berlin und Wikimedia Deutschland

Was ist und wie funktioniert Webtracking? – iRIGHTSinfo

Das Lesen der Anderen: Die Auswirkungen von User Tracking auf Bibliotheken – Siems, R.. (2022); o|bib Das Offene Bibliotheksjournal / Herausgeber VDB, 9(1), 1–25

Datentracking in den Wissenschaften: Wissenschaftsorganisationen und die bizarre Asymmetrie im wissenschaftlichen Publikationssystem – Lauer, G. (2022); o|bib Das Offene Bibliotheksjournal / Herausgeber VDB, 9(1), 1–13

The Oligopoly of Academic Publishers in the Digital Era – Larivière V, Haustein S, Mongeon P. (2015); PLoS ONE 10(6): e0127502

No. No tracking tools are used with ULB offers such as TUbiblio , TUprints, TUfind and the online catalogue.

Nor are details of your loans saved. Your loan details are deleted from the library system when you return your borrowed media. It is not possible to trace the media you borrow retroactively.

Nor are you tracked if you use the Database Information System (DBIS) and the Electronic Journals Library (EZB). However, as soon as you click on a link to an external information provider in DBIS, EZB or TUfind, you are outside the ULB's sphere of influence and can then be tracked by the particular provider (publisher).

The ULB does not use any kind of tracking technology in its own research tools. We will be pleased to inform and advise you on using our offers safely. At the same time, the ULB clarifies the data business of the major publishers, thereby contributing to the creation of an awareness of the problem.

In its licence negotiations with the major publishers, the ULB always insists on compliance with the applicable data protection regulations and advocates for a stop to tracking.

Anyone can adjust the settings in their browser to defend themselves against data tracking on the Internet. The most important measures against data tracking, including in the non-scientific sector, are:

1. Install an ad blocker such as uBlock Origin. Enable its anti-tracking filter lists.

2. If you use Firefox as your browser, enable Tracking Protection.

3. Install an anti-tracking extension in your browser. Depending on your level of expertise, the requirements with regard to ease of use and the effort for configuration, Ghostery, PrivacyBadger and NoScript are available in increasing levels of complexity.

  • Further suggestions are available e.g. from Digital Courage e. V. and Stiftung Warentest.
  • It is also a good idea to refrain from setting up personalised accounts on the websites of publishers and information providers. Although you are lured in with supposed advantages such as creating a list of favourites, it also makes it much easier to track you when you have logged in.
  • If you use reference management software, make sure that you use a program that is independent of the major publishers. Avoid cloud solutions and use free software instead.

As a general rule, assume that public institutions (universities, university libraries, research institutions etc.) in Germany act in compliance with data protection regulations and do not pursue the goal of observing user behaviours. The ULB's own offers are just as trustworthy as search engines and other universities' publication or research data repositories.