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Scientists pushed to share their data sooner

Scott Bauer
A soil scientist collecting data in the field.

Some policymakers say scientists hold onto their data too long. They say by the time the information is released, it can miss the window for addressing pressing problems.

The federal government is urging scientists to share their data sooner, but good data is like gold to scientists.

It can solve a lingering puzzle, and lead to professional success. That's why some scientists are considered data hoarders. They protect the information they collect.

But in a recent survey of over 1,300 scientists, Carol Tenopir found more of a spirit of collaboration than competition.

Tenopir participates in a National Science Foundation project called DataOne. Her job is to figure out how to overcome barriers to data sharing and broaden access to information.

Though only a small percentage of scientists said they actually share their data, she was surprised to find many are eager to do so.

What’ keeping them from doing it? Several things.

“They said, ‘I don't have time to do it,’ or they have lack of knowledge,” said Tenopir.

Scientist said they didn’t know where to share their data, and they didn’t know how to describe their data sets to others.

“So those are barriers to sharing … It's just one more [thing to learn] that they don't have time to do right now,” said Tenopir.

Last February, The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy pushed federal agencies to develop a new data sharing plan. They want data collected in federally funded scientific research to be more readily available.

Victoria Schlesinger wrote about this push for AlJazeera America:

…the White House issued a memorandum in February to almost two dozen federal funding agencies instructing them to create individual plans for ensuring that research papers will be available within roughly 12 months of publication. It also required agencies to make the data in those papers “stored and publicly accessible to search, retrieve, and analyze.”

Patrick Doran, the director of conservation at the Nature Conservancy in Michigan, is pleased by this new focus. He's director of Conservation at The Nature Conservancy in Michigan. He says it's essential to have the data sooner, when it will have the greatest impact.

His says the Nature Conservancy widely shares data. They recently completed Biodiversity Conservation Plans for Lakes Erie and Michigan and shared it with resource managers throughout the Great Lakes basin.

"You can either be at the table or you can't, and if you're going to wait ... you're going to miss the window of opportunity to influence a relevant policy decision."

"You can either be at the table or you can't, and if you're going to wait, and wait, and wait, or if you're going to want to do one more experiment, or one more analysis, you're going to miss the window of opportunity to influence a relevant policy decision," said Doran.

His hope is that the data will help others in their conservation efforts. Doran says scientists should think more like chefs.

"Chefs put their recipes out there. They put their methods out there. They put their, I would almost say, they put their data out there, right? So half a cup of sugar, one cup of flour ... what then gets done with it is the creativity of the various users, or the interpretation of the various users," said Doran.

But this push for data sharing troubles David Allen. He's a professor in the University of Michigan's School of Natural Resources and the Environment. He says this could lead to data being released that hasn't undergone sufficient review, and it also holds the potential for another serious setback.

"So one drawback to sharing data in advance of publication is that the most high profile journals will insist that work that they accept for publication has not appeared elsewhere," said Allen.

"So for investigators to share their data in advance of publication could actually jeopardize their ability to publish their work and for and for a young investigator building her or his career it could jeopardize their career."

Even people encouraging more data sharing acknowledge that's an issue.

Carol Tenopir'sDataOne survey found often younger scientists were more leery of sharing because they're concerned about tenure and promotion, but she says there are ways around that.

"There's lots of things a good system can do to preserve data but also protect both the scientist and the data," she says.

For example, she says scientists can specify dates to keep information confidential until it has been accepted for publication.

Protections like that can help ease scientists' worries in this new era of data sharing.