Keeping friends close but data closer

Research groups, here in science world, are a bit like small independent countries – island states determined to hold their ground. In a career where getting your name out there on papers is what will get you through the research group is the only thing that prevents us all striking out lone ranger style to collect data. A good research group provides consistent funding thereby ensuring everyone can do what they need to do, they provide additional ideas, collaborations, and a means to increase your publication record and research success. Of course, there’s scientific nepotism and some people are pulled up (deservedly or not) due to group connections, but that’s probably a discussion for another day.

What this post wishes to cover is the secretive, well-armed and defensive state of these little ‘independent country’ research groups. Each one with strict border control and heavy-duty customs preventing many things from leaving. We share the microbiology lab with three other research groups and all we know about each other’s research is from what we moan about in the office. Even when I’ve worked closely with groups from other universities it can feel like walking a tightrope between collaboration and competition.

Why not be more open with our data? There are plenty of worries; perhaps we will be pipped to the publishing post by a less-than-honest collaborator who takes your data and runs with it. Perhaps others may pull holes in the data and criticise our work. Perhaps it will prevent patents being issued due to prior disclosure. Now, the final point is valid, and for work where patents may come into the equation some degree of caution is advised. But for all other worries, let’s consider a quote by Harry S. Truman;

“it’s amazing what ou can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit”

I like to think that good actions are mutually reinforcing and if you share with other people they’re more likely to help you than to undercut you, especially if we help bring an attitude of friendly collaboration to the mainstream.

There are signs that openness in scientific data is becoming more commonplace.  Most research councils now have policies and repositories for data once projects have finished.  And on a smaller scale there are web-based projects such as FigShare; (from the creators of Science3.0, pioneers in freely available science and scientific opinion).  FigShare, for example, encourages ALL data; unpublished work, negative results, dead ends etc., to be uploaded.  One man’s junk is another man’s treasure as they say.  The data may be available to everyone, but they’ve also made it tag-able and cite-able therefore attributing credit where credit’s due.  Some people go one step further; the Open Notebook Science; project is made up of scientists who upload and share everything they put in their lab book.  Here’s an example from someone in our research group; Martin Johnson (click here).

I’m not sure I’m knowledgable or confident enough with my data, data processing, university politics and protocols and the academic system as a whole to feel that I can take these data sharing steps with the entire world wide web.  But I do have standards to uphold to myself; mainly that I will be as honest and as free-giving with my research and it’s products as it is possible for me to be.

We had a great opportunity to put some of this collaborative attitude into practice on a rather local scale last week, when the marine biologists from Essex University came over to spend the day with us.  Plenty of people from both departments have short talks and there was plenty of discussion, email-address exchanges, debates and pretty fine lunches to boot.  At this stage in your career, when time ticks ever faster towards the submission deadline, a day out of the lab can be a daunting subject.  But stepping back and listening to other talk about there work gives you fresh perspective (and a boost when stuff doesn’t always go right for other people too!).

What I haven’t even touched on here is data sharing with the general public (although sites like FigShare are open to everyone they seem, currently at least, populated by those in the scientific community).  Last year, when talking to an academic from a rather prestigious university who’s name I have conveniently forgotton otherwise he may well be getting named-and-shamed right now I was told that the public didn’t deserve the data and had “no right to stuff they couldn’t understand”.  Looks like there’s still a long way to go before we open that door fully.

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