02 October 2009

NAS on Release of Data

A reader (Thanks JK!) just point me to this recent NAS report, Ensuring the Integrity, Accessibility, and Stewardship of Research Data in the Digital Age, and in particular its comments on release of data underlying scientific studies. It clearly places the onus for justifying why data should not be released on the researcher, calling instances of non-release "unusual cases."
Recommendation 5: All researchers should make research data, methods, and other information integral to their publicly reported results publicly accessible in a timely manner to allow verification of published findings and to enable other researchers to build on published results, except in unusual cases in which there are compelling reasons for not releasing data. In these cases, researchers should explain in a publicly accessible manner why the data are being withheld from release.

This principle may seem to apply only to publicly funded research, but a strong case can be made that much data from privately funded research should be made publicly available as well. Making such data available can produce societal benefits while also preserving the commercial opportunities that motivated the research. As discussed earlier, differences in technological infrastructure, publication practices, data-sharing expectations, and other cultural practices have long existed between research fields. In some fields, aspects of this “data culture” act as barriers to access and sharing of data. With the growing importance of research results to certain areas of public policy, the rapid increase of interdisciplinary research that involves integration of data from different disciplines, and other trends, it is important for fields of research to examine their standards and practices regarding data and to make these explicit.

Data accessibility standards generally depend on the norms of scholarly communication within a field. In many fields these norms are now in a state of flux. In some fields, researchers may be expected to disseminate data and conclusions more rapidly than is possible through peer-reviewed publications. Digital technologies are providing new ways to disseminate research results—for example, by making it possible to post draft papers on archival sites or by employing software packages, databases, blogs, or other communications on personal or institutional Web sites. Data sharing is greatly facilitated when a field of research has standards and institutions in place that are designed to promote the accessibility of data.