Data sharing makes scientific sense, but the career-conscious nature of scientists may stand in the way.
Guest contributor Rachel Yoho
As with many aspects of society, human nature shapes interactions in science research. When we consider “data sharing,” the likely response is probably a shrug. We’ve all been there. Group work and competition at its finest. The increasingly competitive environment for grant funding, and the ‘publish or perish’ attitude promotes the “mine, mine, mine” attitude among scientists. To focus on the issue of overcoming career-protecting objections to data sharing however, we can focus on several trends.
With many factors, including budget cuts, sequestration and economic downturns, the current scarcity of grant funding creates financial stress in labs. ”Big grants” like the NIH R01, had lower success rates for new grants in 2014 as compared to the last four of five years. In turn, data ownership becomes possessive to the PI and lab, even beyond that of the funding agency or institution. Simply, it’s our grant money, it’s our data. By working for and finally achieving a grant, often after many attempts, a sense of accomplishment and pride in ownership develops.
Re-shaping data ownership by changing the publishing attitude from a career to scientific perspective may support the original intent of scientific research: to gain knowledge through building society, improving lives and preserving the environment.
The professional relationships scientists develop with lab mates and external collaborators are often some of the most productive and mutually beneficial partnerships in research. Data sharing, however, can result in awkward discussions on the allocation of time spent working on the project and – eventually – authorship positions. Clear standards set forth within and between labs for work expectations and authorship positions at the outset can create transparency and prevent later conflicts.
Passion for research, although hopefully contagious within a group, can damage external relationships. Most groups are in constant competition with a few other labs for funding and papers. In these cases, sharing becomes the opposite of “owning” your research. When sharing complete datasets, researchers may not want others to re-analyze results or find new information to publish. In an ideal world, having fresh perspectives viewing raw data may lead to collaborations. However, in the “publish or perish” research environment, these new eyes represent competition. In this case, funding agencies and data repository organizers can promote collaborations between these researchers. For example, co-authoring subsequent findings from shared datasets would alleviate some fears of being ‘scooped.’
As scientists, we are trained to investigate research areas from the cosmic to atomic scales. Many universities have training components that accompany laboratory work, including lab safety, hazardous wastes, and other day-to-day research activities. However, intellectual property (IP) understanding is sorely missed, and we might not find strict IP standards to be at the forefront of our activities. IP is considered to be more than specific inventions. It covers new ideas and research directions generated from current observations. We might use what we consider to be IP protection to justify keeping our data under lock and key. As expected, we take the cautious approach to protecting our ideas. Therefore, we must be able to analyze our own views of IP, consult with experts to obtain proper permissions, and step outside of our comfort zone.
Although these points may paint a grim picture of the personalities of researchers, it is the norm of the field that often drives the nature of scientists. The possibility of furthering data sharing trends opens up new opportunities to engage with research, communication, and training. Current movements in publication and funding guidelines (open access, for example) provide useful models for the interests of disclosure and cooperation. Also a cultural trend towards cooperation and data sharing is emerging in the movements creating data repositories and collaborative databases. The nature of science remains unchanged, but the natures of research and scientists are opening one step at a time.
Rachel Yoho is a runner up in the Scientific Data writing competition. She is also a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow in her fourth year of a PhD in the biological sciences programme at Arizona State University, where she researches extracellular electron transport mechanisms in certain microorganisms. In her free time, Rachel is renovating her house!
Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation or other entities.