Data sharing in the life sciences: reality vs. policy

Patterns of information use and exchange: case studies of researchers in the life sciences, report by the Research Information Network and the British Library, November 2009. From the executive summary:

… Researchers communicate their findings – new knowledge, new methodologies and tools – primarily through conference proceedings and journal articles. These public activities have strong institutional and professional incentives in building reputations, securing promotion and so on. Incentives for other kinds of communication and sharing are weaker and indirect.

Most research councils have policies requiring researchers to set up formal mechanisms to manage created data, including provision for access and re-use. Moreover, the experience of sharing data such as gene sequences in high-profile research programmes in fields such as genomics or proteomics has come to be seen as something of a paradigm or model around which policies and practice will converge.

But our study suggests that such a model remains exceptional. Indeed, researchers highlight a number of barriers to sharing their research data, including concerns about potential misuse, ethical constraints, and intellectual property. Above all, they see data as a critical part of their ‘intellectual capital’, generated through a considerable investment of time, effort and skill. In a competitive environment, their willingness to share is therefore subject to reservations, in particular as to the control they have over the manner and timing of sharing.

Discussion of these issues has been hampered by confusions and inconsistent usage of the terms ‘data’ and ‘information’. The current preoccupation with sharing research data has diverted attention from the diverse range of formal and informal information exchanges that take place in the life sciences. Given the limited current understanding of which forms of sharing and exchange are most effective and beneficial, and under what circumstances, we suggest that policy-makers need to engage in further discussions with researchers to identify and address the constraints, as well as to preserve the exercise of informed choice that is fundamental to science.

Narrowly prescriptive approaches are unlikely to be effective. We recommend rather that funders should adopt a more pragmatic and experimental policy that recognises the multiplicity of contexts, and the different approaches to information sharing; and which builds upon the informal sharing that is already taking place, based on the recognition of mutual needs. Such a bottom-up view is needed in order:

  • to attend to the practicalities of data sharing: what makes information from other sources intelligible? Under what circumstances is such sharing useful and sufficiently beneficial to warrant the labour necessary to achieve it? and
  • to address existing barriers and drivers for change, including the perceived self-interests and goals of researchers, and their need to sustain their intellectual capital and advance their careers.

A key message from our work, therefore, is that policy intervention and support systems for researchers need to be built around the many different and successful tools and practices emerging within life science research communities themselves. …