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Why some scientists are more open than others


As the scientific world grows more complex, it stands to reason that greater collaboration and sharing are required to make the kind of breakthroughs expected of the research community.

This has manifested itself in a number of initiatives over the past few years that have attempted not only to share success stories, but also to document the failures so that others can learn from those mistakes.

Of course, these kind of projects rest upon the willingness of the researchers themselves to share what they’re doing.  A recent study highlights how such willingness varies considerably between the various academic disciplines.

It revealed for instance, that whilst astronomers and geneticists tend to be good at sharing their work, ecologists are not in the same league at all.

The study found that whilst ecologists, obviously, share their work in journals, they seldom shared the data upon which their studies were built.

“One reason for not sharing data is the fear of being scooped by another scientist; but if all data are available, then everyone is on the same playing field, there are more people to collaborate with, and you will have a bigger impact on science,” the authors say.

“Think of the advances being made in genomics, for example, due to the human genome project and the free-flowing findings and data. Genomics is advancing at an unprecedented rate, and it’s having an impact on many other fields as well.”

The study suggests that whilst environmental scientists often have good intentions regarding sharing their work, most of the time things get stuck at that, with little carry through into actual sharing.

The virtue of sharing data is well known, and an often versed message on this blog.  Whether it’s the increased diversity it brings to the challenge or the enhanced learning from failures as well as successes, the benefits of opening up the research process are legion.

The challenge is to try and make such a culture of sharing the norm within the environmental sciences.

“We’ll still need to work through the best way to make this the norm,” the researchers say. “We’re not saying to share data as soon as it’s gathered, and we understand that there’s not a one-size-fits-all policy. Our hope is that scientists will change their practice because they are compelled by the argument that they are ethically obliged to, not because they are forced to share data.”

The researchers declare that they intend to study this issue further and explore how to ensure data is shared, and how the process can be incentivized at an institutional level.  There are few incentives offered by universities for instance, with the primary emphasis remaining on publication of papers.

Hopefully the environmental science field will take some lessons from other niches that have been more successful in opening up their own research process, and the sector can begin to improve its behaviours and cultures accordingly.

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