Data sharing promotes transparency and openness in science.
But there are challenges to doing it fairly and ethically.
By Kirsten Weir
It wasn’t so long ago that “data sharing” meant talking over your findings with a trusted colleague. Now it’s shorthand for describing the future of scientific research.
Scientists, funders, publishers and institutions are taking
steps to make science more transparent. Sharing research data
is a big part of that process, along with steps such as reporting
study methodology in greater detail and publishing results in
publicly available open-access journals. “There is a culture shift
happening,” says Sangeeta Panicker, PhD, director of research
ethics at APA.
In June, the APA’s Data Sharing Working Group, convened
in 2014 by the Board of Scientific Affairs, released a report
that affirmed the benefits of sharing data, while detailing the
practical and ethical considerations involved in doing so.
“In general, data sharing is a great idea, but it’s not a blanket
issue we can just approve,” says working group member Michael
Ross, MD, PhD, MPH, a professor of sexual health education in
the department of family medicine and community health at the
University of Minnesota. “For many of us, data include clinical
records, interview transcripts or GIS [geographic information
systems] data” that can be sensitive or even dangerous if they fall
into the wrong hands, he says.
Many reasons to share
The last few years have seen a parade of high-profile reports
of scientific fraud, including the 2011 scandal surrounding
Diederik Stapel, PhD, a Dutch psychologist who was found to
have manipulated data and fabricated whole experiments. This
year, another scandal made headlines when the journal Science
retracted a widely reported 2014 political science study. That
paper, which reported that a conversation with gay canvassers
could change voters’ minds on same-sex marriage, was retracted
following allegations that lead author Michael J. LaCour, a
graduate student at the University of California, Los Angeles,
faked the data.
Making public raw data could help prevent such scientific
misconduct, but that’s not the only driving force behind data
As the working group noted in its report, sharing data
encourages accountability. Accessible data make it easier for
researchers to replicate experiments, allowing them to better
identify robust trends and connections. That, in turn, helps
psychologists and other health-care providers make more
informed, evidence-based decisions. Data sharing also makes
older data available to new and more powerful analyses, and
allows researchers to build on past work to maximize the
impact of every data point.
“It’s more bang for the buck,” says working group member
Janine Jennings, PhD, a cognitive psychologist at Wake Forest
That’s likely one reason that major funding agencies are
helping to make data sharing the rule rather than the exception.
In 2013, the White House Office of Science and Technology
Policy (OSTP) announced a policy requiring federal research
funding agencies to develop plans to increase public access
to research results. Among the directives in that policy was a
charge for agencies to “maximize access” to data.
At the time, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) already
had a public access policy that met many of the new criteria
spelled out in the OSTP public access policy. In 2015, the
National Science Foundation, Department of Defense and
the Department of Health and Human Services released their
own plans for sharing publications and data from studies that
received federal funding.