I have struggled with whether I should write this post. Generally, I am an open everything advocate: open access, open source, open science, and yes, open data. But I have some concerns about PLOS’s new open data policy.
As of March 1, 2014, PLOS will require authors of research papers to make “the underlying data…freely available for researchers to use, wherever this is legal and ethical”. It will no longer be sufficient for authors to say “data available upon request” and remain as the sole “gatekeepers”. Data must be included in the paper itself, in a supplemental, or stored in an online repository. In cases where data cannot be publicly released (for example, due to concerns about patient privacy), or if a third party owns the data, the authors must specify a committee to which requests for data should be submitted.
In principal, data sharing sounds great. But what are some of the practical implications of this policy? There are many, but I would like to focus for now on the potential repercussions for researchers in low- to middle-income countries and the diversity of PLOS authorship.
First, a little background: I work in Mexico, where the country spends less than half a percent of its GDP on research. (Compare that to nearly 3% of a much larger GDP spent on research in the U.S.) Multimillion dollar (or even 1 million dollar) RO1’s do not exist here. Labs are run on very little funding. In 3-5 years, a single lab may only have enough money to produce one really solid data set. This means that data acquired are like gold, and it is absolutely crucial that researchers here get as many publications out of one data set as possible. The situation is the same or worse in many other countries throughout the world where research funding is scarce.
Now, I do not mean to diminish the funding problems currently facing scientists in many European countries, Canada, or the U.S. – the funding environment has gotten increasing difficult and many researchers are suffering. It is also important for these researchers to get the most out of their data. But I think it is fair to say that the funding situation is more dire in low- to middle-income countries, like Mexico.
What does all this have to do with PLOS? Their new open data policy means that researchers will have to make data available upon first publication. As PLOS writes, “data availability allows validation, replication, reanalysis, new analysis, reinterpretation, or inclusion into meta-analyses”. In short, they are admitting that one of the possibilities is that people could take the published data and do a new study. Could the public and science in general benefit from this? Yes. But what about the researchers who originally generated the data? Because of funding and consequently manpower constraints, labs in low- to middle-income countries may not be able to crank out additional papers from data as quickly as could larger labs in the U.S., for example. There is the possibility the original researchers could be ‘scooped’, losing out on publications from data that was meant to sustain their lab for potentially several years. (This could also be a problem for smaller labs within the U.S.)
Some have argued that the fear of getting scooped is unfounded. That could be true – I am not aware of any data on how often this actually happens. But the problem, I think, is not just whether the risk of being scooped is real, but whether researchers believe the risk exists. If researchers believe the risk of being scooped is higher if they have to release their data, they will simply stop submitting to PLOS.
Why should PLOS care if they get a few less submissions ever year? Diversity. I think this policy has the potential to decrease the diversity of the authors submitting to PLOS. I can tell you that although PLOS has a generally good reputation in Mexico, many researchers here will now be thinking twice about submitting. In fact, I am particularly worried about a personal situation. I had just convinced my coauthors here that we should submit our next paper to PLOS ONE. (I considered this no small victory, since they often publish in closed access medical journals.) I wonder whether PLOS’s new policy will change their minds. I hope not. But since the data do not belong to me, it is possible we will have to submit elsewhere, depending on what they decide.
I say all this not to unduly criticize PLOS – I think they have the best intentions in mind with this new policy. But ideology is different from practice, and I think there are many details that still need to be worked out with respect to data sharing. In sum, I am torn. I want to support their efforts to increase openness in research, but I am concerned about the possible repercussions.
What do you think? I am worrying unnecessarily?