Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Genes Are Us

scientists-huh

(Photo: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

Why Scientists Need to Learn How to Share

• March 21, 2014 • 8:00 AM

(Photo: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

Despite ethical fears over work being co-opted, the benefits of scientific cooperation are too big to keep avoiding.

Imagine a scientist from a small university who has spent a decade creating a unique data set by collecting thousands of measurements of a prairie ecosystem that is adapting to climate change. Despite struggles with funding and the time-consuming demands of her teaching duties, she publishes her first piece in what she intends to be a series of papers on this ecosystem. As a supplement to the paper, she shares her data on the Web. A year later she finds that a large, well-funded research group has downloaded her data and, without contacting her, published multiple papers that present the same analysis she was planning on doing.

It’s not clear how often this scenario happens in science, but many scientists worry about it. While most government agencies and journals make scientists agree to share their data as a condition of funding and publication, researchers often have strong incentives not to share. The ethics of sharing in science are murky, and journals and funding agencies have largely left the specifics of what and when to share up to the individual scientists. As Jonas Waldenström at the University of Linnaeus explained, “it is one thing where your data is used as a brick in a new construction, and another to have someone taking over your house and having to give away the key.” When they share data, scientists want to be sure they’re handing over a brick, and not the key to their ongoing creative projects. In many cases, if you want someone’s data, you won’t find it up on the Web—you have to ask for it directly.

It may be that sharing data doesn’t do much to prevent outright fraud, but my own experience is that sharing is a strong incentive to not be sloppy—and despite science’s reputation for rigor, sloppiness is a substantial problem in some fields.

THE EDITORS OF THE Public Library of Science (PLOS) family of scientific journals recently decided to give their authors much more specific instructions for sharing data. They announced that “authors must make all data publicly available, without restriction, immediately upon publication of the article.” They defined data as “any and all of the digital materials that are collected and analyzed in the pursuit of scientific advances,” and now require authors to provide a “data availability statement” that serves the purpose of “describing where and how others can access each dataset that underlies the findings.”

The response to PLOS editors’ announcement shows that, while most scientists agree in principle that some data sharing is important, they disagree about what data needs to be shared, how it should be distributed, and what sharing is supposed to accomplish. In sometimes-angry responses, researchers argued that PLOS is imposing a huge burden on researchers in an attempt to fix something that isn’t broken, that the new policy applies a misguided, one-size-fits-all solution to different scientific communities with different needs and standards, and that making it easy to access other people’s data will result in nothing but low-value research that is the scientific equivalent of fan fiction: “Science is the motorboat … data are the wake behind it … shit we’ve already churned through.”

The negative responses prompted PLOS to clarify their intentions. The PLOS editors argued that their new policy is merely to more strongly enforce the expectations for sharing that have always been in place. “The policy does not aim to say anything new about what data types, forms and amounts should be shared,” the editors wrote. “The policy does aim to make transparent where the data can be found, and says that it shouldn’t be just on the authors’ own hard drive.” They acknowledged that different scientific fields will have different constraints on what data can be shared, such as legal requirements that protect the privacy of patient data. Some fields don’t have well-established standards for sharing data, and the editors say they are willing to work with authors to figure out how to best comply with PLOS policy.

DESPITE THE ROUGH START, the new PLOS policy is a good thing because it is forcing scientists to reconsider why sharing is important. Before the Internet, if you wanted to look at someone’s data, you’d have to go through the trouble to get it in person or through the mail. But these days the whole process can be much easier, and a scientist is much more likely to explore a quick, preliminary idea or a puzzling inconsistency when the data can be downloaded in a few minutes. It may be that sharing data doesn’t do much to prevent outright fraud, but my own experience is that sharing is a strong incentive to not be sloppy—and despite science’s reputation for rigor, sloppiness is a substantial problem in some fields. You’re much more likely to check your work and follow best data-handling practices when you know someone is going to run your code and parse your data.

The rapid advances in information technology are a blessing and a curse for scientists today. With better computers and networks, scientists can collect and analyze more data, and share it more easily. This is supposed to be good for science and good for society—sharing is supposed to get us “a better ‘bang for the buck’ out of scientific research” that is primarily funded with public money. But this raises hard questions about the value and ethics of sharing that some scientific communities have not yet resolved. Nobody is forced to publish in PLOS journals, and so we should take the new PLOS data sharing policy for what it is: an experiment in science communication and an opportunity for the scientific community to learn how to share.

Michael White
Michael White is a systems biologist at the Department of Genetics and the Center for Genome Sciences and Systems Biology at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, where he studies how DNA encodes information for gene regulation. He co-founded the online science pub The Finch and Pea. Follow him on Twitter @genologos.

More From Michael White

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 25 • 12:00 PM

Why Did Doctors Stop Giving Women Orgasms?

You can thank the rise of the vibrator for that, according to technology historian Rachel Maines.


November 25 • 10:08 AM

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.


November 25 • 10:00 AM

If It’s Yellow, Seriously, Let It Mellow

If you actually care about water and the future of the species, you’ll think twice about flushing.


November 25 • 8:00 AM

Sometimes You Should Just Say No to Surgery

The introduction of national thyroid cancer screening in South Korea led to a 15-fold increase in diagnoses and a corresponding explosion of operations—but no difference in mortality rates. This is a prime example of over-diagnosis that’s contributing to bloated health care costs.



November 25 • 6:00 AM

The Long War Between Highbrow and Lowbrow

Despise The Avengers? Loathe the snobs who despise The Avengers? You’re not the first.


November 25 • 4:00 AM

Are Women More Open to Sex Than They Admit?

New research questions the conventional wisdom that men overestimate women’s level of sexual interest in them.


November 25 • 2:00 AM

The Geography of Innovation, or, Why Almost All Japanese People Hate Root Beer

Innovation is not a product of population density, but of something else entirely.


November 24 • 4:00 PM

Federal Reserve Announces Sweeping Review of Its Big Bank Oversight

The Federal Reserve Board wants to look at whether the views of examiners are being heard by higher-ups.



November 24 • 2:00 PM

That Catcalling Video Is a Reminder of Why Research Methods Are So Important

If your methods aren’t sound then neither are your findings.


November 24 • 12:00 PM

Yes, Republicans Can Still Win the White House

If the economy in 2016 is where it was in 2012 or better, Democrats will likely retain the White House. If not, well….


November 24 • 11:36 AM

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it’s relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.


November 24 • 10:00 AM

Why Are Patients Drawn to Certain Doctors?

We look for an emotional fit between our physicians and ourselves—and right now, that’s the best we can do.


November 24 • 8:00 AM

Why Do We Elect Corrupt Politicians?

Voters, it seems, are willing to forgive—over and over again—dishonest yet beloved politicians if they think the job is still getting done.



November 24 • 6:00 AM

They Steal Babies, Don’t They?

Ethiopia, the Hague, and the rise and fall of international adoption. An exclusive investigation of internal U.S. State Department documents describing how humanitarian adoptions metastasized into a mini-industry shot through with fraud, becoming a source of income for unscrupulous orphanages, government officials, and shady operators—and was then reined back in through diplomacy, regulation, and a brand-new federal law.


November 24 • 4:00 AM

Nudging Drivers, and Pedestrians, Into Better Behavior

Daniel Pink’s new series, Crowd Control, premieres tonight on the National Geographic Channel.


November 21 • 4:00 PM

Why Are America’s Poorest Toddlers Being Over-Prescribed ADHD Drugs?

Against all medical guidelines, children who are two and three years old are getting diagnosed with ADHD and treated with Adderall and other stimulants. It may be shocking, but it’s perfectly legal.



November 21 • 2:00 PM

The Best Moms Let Mess Happen

That’s the message of a Bounty commercial that reminds this sociologist of Sharon Hays’ work on “the ideology of intensive motherhood.”


November 21 • 12:00 PM

Eating Disorders Are Not Just for Women

Men, like women, are affected by our cultural preoccupation with thinness. And refusing to recognize that only makes things worse.


November 21 • 10:00 AM

Queens of the South

Inside Asheville, North Carolina’s 7th annual Miss Gay Latina pageant.


November 21 • 9:12 AM

‘Shirtstorm’ and Sexism in Science

Following the recent T-shirt controversy, it’s clear that sexism in science persists. But the forces driving the gender gap are still being debated.


November 21 • 8:00 AM

What Makes a Film Successful in 2014?

Domestic box office earnings are no longer a reliable metric.


Follow us


Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it's relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn't vanish as we age—it just moves.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.