The need for science to focus on data sharing

July 27, 2018

Should scientists’ incentives place as much emphasis on how openly available they make their data, as on the scholarly articles they publish?

The USA’s National Academies of Sciences (NAS) has released a new study that sheds light on the state of open science around the world. The report, Open Science by Design: Realizing a Vision for 21st Century Research, says different scientific disciplines are facing different issues, but all of them need to focus on data as much as publications.

Career advancement should reflect excellence in data sharing

According to the study, a lack of incentives for sharing data alongside publications is one of the primary issues holding back open science efforts. To combat this, NAS proposes that a scientist’s career incentives should place just as much emphasis on how openly available they make their data and methods, as they do on the scholarly articles they publish.

“Universities and other research institutions should move toward evaluating published data and other research products in addition to published articles as part of the promotion and tenure process.

“Archived data should be valued, just as the publications that result from them are valued.”

NAS points out that as the distribution models of science evolve, so too will the focus of research outputs.

“The past several decades have seen the printed journal eclipsed by online distribution of research results. Datasets and other non-article research products will be increasingly valued and become a more significant focus of dissemination efforts.”

This prediction comes in the wake of several recent developments in services facilitating open access to research objects – many of them emerging from the blockchain community.

In February this year, the UK’s Data Management Hub released a test network for scientists to track the workflow of research data. In March, Boston-based group ARTiFACTS launched their own platform for tracking all scholarly ‘artifacts’ from the beginning of a study through to publication. At the same time, Australian startup Frankl Open Science created a new model to incentivize scientific data sharing using a dedicated cryptocurrency.

Several other projects have emerged to enhance the peer review process – another area of the scientific workflow that NAS identifies as too heavily focused on scholarly articles.

“Although the scientific community has a long tradition of peer review of journal articles, there is no culture for peer review of other digital research objects, such as metadata for experimental datasets.

“The success of open science will require new mechanisms to extend peer review to all products of scientific research.”

Physics and medicine are leading the way in open science

The Academies’ new report also shows significant variation in the state of open science among different areas of science. Quoting a study published in 2018 by open science advocate Heather Piwowar and colleagues, The State of OA: A large-scale analysis of the prevalence and impact of Open Access Articles, NAS highlights physics, medical science and astronomy as disciplines that have made significant progress in achieving open access to research – suggesting other fields could learn from their success.

“Over 80 percent of publications in astronomy and astrophysics, fertility, and tropical medicine were open. On the other hand, more than 90 percent of publications are hidden behind a paywall in pharmacy, inorganic and nuclear chemistry, and chemical engineering.”

Although part of this comes down to culture, NAS reports that culture itself depends on the nature of the science and the type of data it produces.

“Different fields of science have different cultures, and common issues are availability of infrastructures, policies and standards, and culture.

“Astronomy has had a culture of sharing, for example, in part because of limited access to the equipment to conduct observations and experiments.”

While this need for equipment encourages open access in some disciplines, others are hampered by issues of data privacy and security, size and complexity of data, or fears that data insights might be ‘scooped’ by other researchers. According to NAS, this last obstacle is particularly evident in areas where the data are difficult to collect.

“In some fields and disciplines, particularly those where acquiring data involves considerable effort or expense, such as collecting specimens from remote areas, or undertaking epidemiological studies that require a number of complicated steps, delays in sharing data underlying the first publications may be an accepted practice.”

Open science needs to be FAIR

Changes in incentives and culture are the first of five key recommendations NAS makes in their report, all of which are aimed at research institutions and funding bodies.

“Research institutions should work to create a culture that actively supports Open Science by Design by better rewarding and supporting researchers engaged in open science practices.

“Research funders should provide explicit and consistent support for practices and approaches that facilitate this shift in culture and incentives.”

Better open science training, long-term data preservation resources and the development of research archives were other focal points of the Academies’ final recommendations.

All recommendations were aimed at bringing about “Open Science by Design”, which NAS defines as “a set of principles and practices that fosters openness throughout the entire research cycle” (rather than at the completion of a study).

Similarly, the Academies endorse that all research should be shared in accordance with ‘FAIR principles’ – ‘FAIR’ being an acronym for ‘Findable-Accessible-Interoperable-Reusable’.

– Elise Roberts, Frankl Open Science

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