Data sharing: soon to be yesterday’s news?

The New York Times is a bit of a supertanker; it takes a while to get going on a subject. So by the time they run a drum-rolling front page story about some world-changing trend, you can be pretty sure that the trend is close to becoming the new status quo.

I’m hoping that’s true of today’s front-pager on data sharing in health research. The story hypes the idea of data sharing as a brand new one. In truth, public and philanthropic funders of health research have been working for a while to develop a common approach to promote data sharing. They’re due to publish a “Joint Statement of Purpose” on efforts to promote data sharing very soon; if they back the rhetoric up with the people and money needed to do some of the tedious work that will make shared data sets valuable and easy to use, the New York Times story could look very dated, very soon. But it’s a big if. Many scientists are still very resistant to sharing, for reasons that are quite nicely described in this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. At least one of the major philanthropic funders of health research keeps asking for proof that more minds working on large, combined data sets will yield results faster than if everyone sits in their own labs, each collecting fragments of similar data and analysing it separately. That’s like software companies questioning whether open source code development is more efficient than proprietary code development. Oh, wait a minute…

The really interesting thing about the Alzheimer’s example described in the Times is that private companies are in the mix, too. Ultimately, academics funded by taxpayers and charities will share their data because their paymasters tell them to. If those same paymasters also do something to remove the disincentives to share data that come from using publication in peer reviewed journals as the only yardstick of success for scientists, it will happen even faster. But the GSKs and Pfizers of this world don’t think peer reviewed papers are the be all and end all, and they are certainly not signing on to any Joint Statement of Purpose on data sharing. (Our invitation to them to be part of the discussions were met with a resounding silence.) If Big Pharma has decided that data sharing is the way to go, then it’s more than a new trend, it’s the new orthodoxy.

This post was published on 13/08/10 in Science.

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