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Why Are Scientists So Stingy With Data?

We live in a world where secrets dwindle by the hour. Information zips around the world at lightning-speed. Transparency. We’re all about it nowadays. Well…most of us. Actually, a dilemma currently exists in our society where some groups wonder how much information is enough—or too much. This is especially true in the technology sector, where leading experts argue that this public expectation of transparency stifles creativity.

According to an October study published in BioScience, this concern is just as true for the scientific community. Although there are some groups within the community who state the benefits of data sharing—to replicate analyses, advance science, and confirm data integrity—very few of them actually make their materials publicly available after research publishing. In fact, most inquiries for researcher’s materials are met with rejection or are just never responded to. This pattern of secrecy takes place across darn near all of the branches: engineering, chemistry, genetics, biology, and ecology.

That’s kinda weird. I thought scientists are all about collaborating, you think aloud. And you’d be right to think so. For one you have labs—rarely run by just a solo scientist—and then you have hyper-ambitious world-wide projects (like the Human Genome Project and the Human Brain Project).

So why are scientists so stingy with data?

Well…it turns out that in some ways scientists are not terribly different from competitive athletes. And it’s the culture of innovation fueling the competition. Scientists who are inching closer to an world-shaking discovery want to be the first to reach that figurative finish line and be showered with praise by the scientific community. That…plus all of the other incentives such as: research awards, invitations to national meetings, academic promotions, and maybe even a Nobel Prize.

But competition is only one of the reasons for this apparent stinginess. You also have the crippling issue of funding—or a lack thereof. Data transfer isn’t exactly a cheap undertaking. The Journal of American Medical Association released a 2002 study which found that 45% of geneticists withheld data because it was too darn costly to send requested materials to fellow scientists. The same study revealed that 80% reported that producing data requires too much effort. It’s not really due to a lack of laziness, but rather because many of the scientific disciplines lack formal digital repositories for data storage, while others don’t have standardized methods of annotating and interpreting said data.

The problem with the lack of a centralized digital storage space means that data might only be kept on a personal computer or primarily exists in paper form, so digging it up and sending it to a requesting party can take a lot of time, especially for scientists who are already swamped with hundreds of studies under their belts. And second, the absence of uniform methods to record or describe data creates its own challenges

With all that said, many disciplines are starting to embrace the beauty of data sharing—thanks largely to the wonders of social media. More scientists are turning to blogs, tweets, and websites to present their data in order to propel these ideas into the public, encouraging feedback.

Sharing is caring.

And the scientific community is starting to live by that principle.

Just another group acclimating to the information age.


Image source: Big Data Made Simple

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