NIH and Other Major Funding Biomedical Research Institutions Call for Sharing Research Data

“As funders of public health research, we need to ensure that research outputs are used to maximize knowledge and potential health benefits. In turn, the populations who participate in research, and the taxpayers who foot the bill, have the right to expect that every last ounce of knowledge will be wrung from the research.”

The above statement concludes the first paragraph of a comment “Sharing research data to improve public health” published January 7, 2011 in the Lancet and signed by 17 major biomedical research funding institutions from across the globe. The published comment goes on to state that data are often treated as private property by investigators “who aim to maximize their publication record at the expense of the widest possible use of the data.”

Note: Excerpts of a joint statement of purpose are published in the comment. The full statement is available online here.

Since taxpayers foot most of the bill for research, the data are really owned by the public. Nevertheless, the competition is intense for the biomedical researcher working to build his or her career. The main determining factor for getting ahead is the number of papers that the individual has published. Funding agencies have an obligation to maximize data use – an obligation to both the people footing the bill and also to the subjects that participate in the research – but they also have an obligation to the research scientists who put so much of their life into time consuming, difficult, and extremely important research.

Meeting all of these apparently contradictory obligations may be less than the impossible task that it seems at first glance. Transition the biomedical research culture – the funders, the university administrations that promote their scientists, etcetera – to appreciate and fund the scientists’ producing solid data and producing the largest impact on their field. Not by counting their direct publications. This is the easiest thing to do but has lead to a massive amount of literature that is redundant or worse. With current technology we can easily quantify the amount of data scientist contributes to online data repositories. We can also easily track the use of those data. Perhaps these measures could help to replace the old measure of the number of papers published.