Encouraging scholars to embrace data sharing

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Data sharing and data publication should be more broadly adopted among scholars, argues Norman Wiseman

A relatively new trend, ‘data sharing’ or making data open, is building momentum to change the traditional approach to research publishing and unlock new research possibilities.

Many researchers are dubious about sharing their research data openly with the wider community, but doing so can actually bring them and their work wider recognition. Over the past few centuries, research has always been published through traditional channels, such as high-quality journals, which have offered a way of measuring value and impact. Journal publishing allows fellow researchers to see the findings of the work, but not necessarily how the conclusions were reached.

When researchers make the data behind their work open, it enables others to use their datasets to enhance their own data, find new information in it or even use it for comparisons against their own work. This saves time, opens a world of opportunities and reduces inefficiencies when basic experiments are repeated unnecessarily. Allowing access in this way can also enable comparisons that have never been possible before. For example, it enhances the opportunities for cross-disciplinary research and brings together many formerly independent sources to enable more comprehensive study of a research topic.

The flip side to this for the researcher is that their findings can be challenged. This could have benefits but, as researchers themselves have no control over how or by whom the data is used, it could also lead to data being misrepresented or misinterpreted by others.

There is increasing international interest in data sharing and its potential benefits. The Research Data Alliance (RDA), set up by organisations in Australia, the USA and Europe, for example, is keen to make data created by publicly funded research openly available and easily discoverable.

However, there are challenges in making data sharing by researchers a normal part of the process. The technical aspects of this are difficult but actually quite achievable. It is the necessary step change in researcher behaviour that is the real hurdle.

One of the thornier issues is how researchers could gain recognition for data sharing in the same way that they do for publishing results in journals. At Jisc, we’ve been working as part of Knowledge Exchange (a co-operative effort of bodies in five European countries to support the use and development of ICT for higher education and research) to address this and other concerns.

A new report from this initiative, ‘The Value of Research Data: Metrics for datasets from a cultural and technical viewpoint’, provides an international perspective on the current state of data sharing and explores how data publication can be encouraged, recognised and simplified.

The report puts forward several recommendations to support data sharing. It recommends creating a reward system that will allow researchers to demonstrate the value of their work in an open/shared setting. Alongside this, it notes the need for data-citation standards so that usage of data can be tracked and recorded. 

To help researchers share data and to encourage buy in from universities, the report advises promoting the positive impacts of data sharing. These include increased recognition, reduction in admin costs, improved reputation and increased profile, and ultimately the ability to attract the best new researchers. The report also suggests providing a process and support for universities to undertake long-term data storage, and greatly simplifying the process of data publishing for the researcher.

Encouraging use of the shared data is also important. The report advises creating an international standard for metadata so that the data is easily searchable across multiple university repositories and publishers.

However, putting these steps in place only provides the tools to enable data sharing. It will require concerted efforts over an extended period by policy makers, funders, publishers and above all the researchers themselves to make this method best practice.

Fortunately there is support for change at senior levels. Commenting on the report, Maire Geoghegan Quinn, the European Commissioner of Research, Innovation and Science, said: ’The European Commission is committed to increase the impact of publicly-funded research through open access. We have already said this will be the default for publications arising from future EU funded research in Horizon 2020 and we are considering also a pilot project to explore ways to make research data open access too. We welcome all contributions to this debate and this report is very timely as we develop our ideas‘. 

This does indeed provide encouraging signs that the international community is willing to put the work in to realise the benefits promised.

Norman Wiseman is head of services and outreach at Jisc