What Do (and Don’t) Researchers Know About Data Sharing?

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What do (and don't) researchers know about data sharing?

Whether or not a research article is freely available through open access, it is becoming standard practice for the supporting data to be open. When a study relies on high-throughput experimental technologies (such as sequencing, for example), most journals now require the raw signal from the original experiment to be posted in a public database. Open data ensures that conclusions can be independently verified, and allows for the comparison of new data to previously published data sets. Open access to in-house laboratory journals and computer code is the next step toward consolidating research worldwide. Despite the obvious benefits of open data, scientists worry that it exposes their hard-won research to competition.

Researchers who use and share data regularly are more likely to…

  • Be aware of data that is freely available
  • Understand how open data is funded
  • Collaborate with other researchers

It’s an open question how to make data sharing work for everyone—funders, publishers, institutions, and researchers alike. While there is plenty of debate about open data, each year sees more scientific bodies come out in support of greater public access to research. Research by McKinsey, for example, estimates that open data can help unlock $3 to $5 trillion in economic value annually. And, SPARC (an organization dedicated to advancing open access, open data, and open education) points out that “data plays a central role in our ability to predict and counter natural disasters, understand human biology, and develop advances in computing technology.”

Despite their potential for driving economic, social, and scientific progress, many research datasets, statistics, transcripts, and survey results remain hidden from view—often on the researcher’s computer desktop.

Encouragement—and, in some cases, mandates—from research funders is starting to change that.  Rules about data sharing vary from funder to funder. Wellcome, for example, requires researchers to submit a plan for data management “when the dataset holds clear potential for re-use.”  The NIH also requires a data sharing plan, but only for funding requests exceeding $500,000.

Although many researchers support the idea of open data, a survey conducted for The State of Open Data reveals that many questions and some confusion remains.

Here are eight key takeaways from the 2,000 researchers who responded to a survey about their level of awareness about open data, their attitudes toward it, and their experience with its use:

  1. Most researchers are already on board: About three-quarters of the researchers who responded to the survey have already opted to make their research available.
  2. Researchers demonstrating the highest level of awareness about open data reside, by discipline, in the social sciences; by geography, in the Netherlands, Russia, and Denmark.  Interestingly, the three largest producers of research publications – the US, Germany, and the UK – rank only in the third tier of open data awareness.
  3. Age and career progression don’t appear to factor into awareness: Throughout the report, principal investigators and professors showed the same level of awareness as PhD students and post-doctoral fellows.
  4. Researchers value the credit that comes with data sharing: Almost 70% of researchers see as much value in a data citation as they do an article citation. Just 2% see no value at all in data citations.
  5. Many have significant gaps in their knowledge about how and whether to make their data open: More than half of respondents are unsure about the licensing conditions through which they’ve shared their data; many don’t know whether their funders, institutions, or publishers require them to make their data open; and all would welcome more guidance on compliance.
  6. Confusion over dataset citations: Fewer than half of those researchers questioned know how to cite a secondary research dataset with confidence–which correlates to how much they use, share, and value open data.
  7. Benefits of having an open mind about open data: A researcher who uses and shares data regularly is more likely to:
    • Be aware of data that is freely available
    • Understand how open data is funded
    • Collaborate with other researchers
  8. The future’s bright, the future’s open: Of those researchers who have never made their data openly available, 94% are either considering or definitely planning to do so in the future.

Publishers, funders, and institutions are beginning to look for ways to help researchers move data off desktops and into more accessible repositories by creating the infrastructure, developing the standards and policies, and promoting best practice around open data.   Watch this space for updates.

For an overview of funders’ data requirements, visit Oxford University’s Research Data website.

Anna Lyubetskaya

Author: Anna Lyubetskaya

As a data scientist, Anna Lyubetskaya works on implementing computational biology approaches in software solutions.  She has a Ph.D. in Bioinformatics from Boston University. In her free time, Anna mentors with Girls Who Code and dances lindy hop.

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