Should scientific data be shared more openly – and how would that help science? London’s Royal Society has launched a study, Science as a public enterprise: opening up scientific information, which it says “will look at how scientific information should best be managed to improve the quality of research and build public trust”.
That statement makes it clear that two separate trends are driving the inquiry. First, issues such as the public policy debate over climate change shows that “in a democracy that has lost many of its habits of deference to authority, science should become a more public enterprise,” explains Geoffrey Boulton, a professor emeritus of geology at the University of Edinburgh, who is chairing the working group undertaking the study. “Citizens should have access to information hitherto locked behind laboratory doors,” he says.
Second, says Boulton, is the change that has taken place in the practice of science itself, where “increasingly we have come to regard the published paper as almost an advertisement for the underlying science – the data.” The more rapidly that data – and the methods used to develop it – are made publicly available, the more readily other researchers can challenge it and add to it, potentially improving the efficiency of science, he adds.
The issue raises thorny risk-benefit questions, as Boulton and other working group members explain in an editorial in The Lancet [pdf]. “Is the potential for misuse, misinterpretation, and the triggering of spurious finding from data a price worth paying for greater openness?” they ask. Other tricky questions include how to make information more accessible, and who should pay to do it; whether privately-funded scientists should be held to the same standards as publicly-funded ones; how to cope with the need for confidentiality, data security, intellectual property rights, and anonymisation; and whether any rules on data sharing could apply globally.
Boulton says the working group are hoping to complete their study within the year, and that it should be released in early 2012. The Royal Society is welcoming online submissions (here) and, for those in London, will be holding a public meeting to discuss the issues at the South Bank Centre on 8 June.