Open data: the path towards greater sharing of research results

Daniel Keirs makes the case for open access research data

Daniel Keirs is Head of Journal Strategy and Performance at IOP Publishing

The future of scholarly publishing is open and making universal access to scientific research is a priority for the industry.

From our own data we know that scientific articles published on an open access (OA) basis are downloaded 80 per cent more and cited 30 per cent more than articles behind a paywall, so the benefits to scientific discovery and progress are significant and becoming widely recognised.

At the heart of the maturing OA publishing model lies the principle that the research data underpinning the findings presented in published articles should also be openly accessible. The transparency afforded by the public sharing of research data is arguably one of the key elements to ensuring integrity and reproducibility of research. Making it openly available alongside research publications allows other researchers, and society as a whole, to scrutinise results and assess the validity of scientific claims.

Open data and its availability

STM, the global trade association for academic and professional publishers, introduced their Research Data Programme in 2020. The programme aims to align data policies between funders, institutions, and publishers, seeking to create more clarity and consistency around data sharing and making life easier for researchers.

We know that the transition toward OA for research is also widely supported by authors and funders of scientific papers but, in some sectors and parts of the world, the funding flows have not always kept pace with the desire to make science more open. Over half (53 per cent) of physical science researchers told us in a recent survey that they want to publish their work OA but struggle to find the monies to do so. Similar concerns were found in a study from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Removing all financial barriers to accessing scientific research inevitably shifts the cost of publishing science onto those groups and individuals who conduct the research, which in turn can create new barriers. That is something that needs careful consideration.

At the same time, a growing number of research funding agencies are requiring authors to make publicly funded research openly available upon publication and encourage or even require the public sharing of data from researchers in receipt of their grants. This year, the UK’s main research funder, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), introduced the requirement for researchers to include a data access statement in each published article as well as stating its encouragement for the open sharing of data. The White House Office for Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) in the United States has recently issued guidance to federal research agencies to introduce a requirement that all federally funded research data is publicly accessible without delay.

Open by default

At IOP Publishing we believe that sharing research data openly should become the default. Yet as things currently stand, fewer than half of researchers publishing an article in our own journals state that their data is publicly available at the point of publication. In discussion with authors, we hear a number of reasons why they feel held back from sharing data.

Limited awareness of suitable repositories. There are well-known repositories for depositing data for research in fields such as high-energy physics, but many scientific communities have not yet developed or identified common repositories to deposit and share their data. Many researchers are not yet aware of or do not feel it to be appropriate to use one of the more general data repositories that have emerged in recent years. Even for those aware of a suitable repository for their data they may not have the time or resources to structure or format their data in such a way that it can meaningfully be accessed and reused by others.

Legal or ethical constraints. Sometimes data cannot be shared publicly because it contains sensitive personal information or there might be legal restrictions on releasing it. We recognise that this is a genuine barrier in legal terms. Some data may not be owned by the scientists conducting the research and the terms of use for the data prohibit public distribution.

Priorities and incentives. Despite the potential scientific benefits of open data, the current academic recognition and reward process offers relatively little incentive to share research data publicly but considerable incentive to focus time on publishing more articles. Although several funding bodies are seeking to affect change in this area, at least on a global level, we remain relatively early in the development of academic assessment systems that award recognition and credit to open science practices such as data sharing.

Achieving our goal of making research data as openly available as possible will require sustained collaboration and commitment from all stakeholders in scholarly communications.

To help accomplish this, we are updating our research data policy. We will continue to require that all published articles in our journals contain a data availability statement – a policy introduced in 2020 – and from 2023 we will additionally require that researchers who cannot share their data publicly include within their statement the reason why this is the case. Our intention is to combine encouragements to share data whilst offering transparency about obstacles to public sharing where these still exist. This will not only provide us with rich qualitative and quantitative information to inform any future policy developments but, we hope, provide useful information for others in the scientific community who seek to reduce the barriers to maximum data sharing.

Of course, developments in journal policy are one part of a movement towards greater sharing of research data, but to paraphrase the recent OSTP memo on public access, policy alone can “set the stage for a paradigm shift away from research silos and toward a scientific culture that values collaboration and data sharing.”

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