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News from the open access movement

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Lax enforcement of data-sharing policies

Climate Change Research, United States Government Accountability Office, September 2007.  The report's lengthy subtitle serves as a short abstract:  Agencies Have Data-Sharing Policies but Could Do More to Enhance the Availability of Data from Federally Funded Research.  Excerpt:

According to the scientific community —as represented by the National Academies and professional scientific associations— four key issues that data-sharing policies should address include what, how, and when data are to be shared, as well as the cost of making data available to other researchers. First, the information necessary to support major published results should be made available to other researchers. However, there are statutory limits on data sharing —such as intellectual property protections— as well as practical limits such as the lack of appropriate archives. Second, when the appropriate infrastructure exists, data should be made accessible through unrestricted archives. Third, data should generally be made available immediately or after a limited proprietary period to allow for analysis and publication of results. Fourth, data should be made available at no more than the marginal cost of reproduction and distribution. Finally, the extent to which specific policies address these key data-sharing issues may vary, depending on the type of research.

Although some program managers at all four agencies [DOE, NASA, NOAA, and NSF] have included data-sharing requirements in grant awards, these agencies rely primarily on policies and practices to encourage researchers to make climate change data available. An interagency policy, as well as numerous agency, program, and project-specific data-sharing policies, encourages researchers to make climate change data available. The policies range from broad statements calling for open and timely access to data to more detailed policies that define the mechanisms and timelines for making the data accessible. Further, these policies often vary according to the needs of specific research programs or projects. Beyond their written requirements and policies, all of the agencies also rely on unwritten practices to facilitate data sharing. For example, two program managers withhold grant payments if data have not been made available for use by other researchers.

While the four agencies have taken steps to foster data sharing, they neither routinely monitor whether researchers make data available nor have fully overcome key obstacles and disincentives to data sharing.  Because agencies do not monitor data sharing, they lack evidence on the extent to which researchers are making data available to others. Key obstacles and disincentives could also limit the availability of data. For example, one obstacle is the lack of archives for storing certain kinds of climate change data, such as some ecological data, which places a greater burden on the individual researcher to preserve it. Preparing data for future use is also a laborious and time-consuming task that can serve as a disincentive to data sharing. In addition, data preparation does not further a research career as does publishing results in journals. The scientific community generally rewards researchers who publish in journals, but preparation of data for others’ use is not an important part of this reward structure. Consequently, researchers are less likely to focus on preserving data for future use, thereby putting the data at risk of being unavailable to other researchers....

We provided draft copies of this report to DOE, NASA, NOAA, and NSF. The four agencies generally agreed with our findings and recommendations....


  • Thanks to Steve McIntyre, who is frustrated by the reluctance of many publicly-funded climate scientists to share their data and the reluctance of their funding agencies to enforce their own policies.
  • I support data sharing (no surprise) and the GAO recommendations that US funding agencies should monitor, enforce, and improve their existing policies.  But for the full picture, it's important to know that the GAO report was requested by Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) who has a history of selective support for data sharing, and a tendency to use it more to intimidate scientists who believe that human activity is a major cause of global warming than to advance research and follow the evidence wherever it may lead. 
  • This background, however, does not taint the GAO report.  On the contrary, we should implement its recommendations precisely because we deserve data sharing by publicly-funded scientists whether or not they support Joe Barton's theory of climate change.