Open science can lead to greater collaboration, increased confidence in findings and goodwill between researchers.
Ecologist Thomas Crowther knew that scientists had already collected a vast amount of field data on forests worldwide. But almost all of those data were sequestered in researchers’ notebooks or personal computers, making them unavailable to the wider scientific community. In 2012, Crowther, then a postdoctoral researcher at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, began to e-mail and cold-call researchers to request their data. He started to assemble an inventory, now hosted by the Global Forest Biodiversity Initiative, an international research collaboration, that contains data on more than 1 million locations. Data are stored in CSV files (plain-text files that contain a list of data) on servers at Crowther’s present laboratory at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich and on those of a collaborator at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana; he hopes to outsource database storage to a third-party organization with expertise in archiving and access.
After years of courting and cajoling, Crowther has persuaded about half of the data owners to make their data public. The other half, he laments, say that they support open data in principle, but have specific reasons for keeping their data sets private. Mainly, he explains, they want to use their data to conduct and publish their own studies.
Crowther’s database challenges reflect the current state of science: partly open, partly closed, and with unclear and inconsistent policies and expectations on data sharing that are still in flux. High-level bodies such as the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine and the European Commission have called for science to become more open and endorsed a set of data-management standards known as the FAIR (findable, accessible, interoperable and reusable) principles. Government funding agencies in the United States, Europe and Australia require researchers to devise plans for data management and, in some cases, data sharing; some private funders also require them. Many journals, including Nature, have adopted policies that encourage or require authors to make data available. A plethora of open-access repositories host data sets from almost all fields, and scientists have been publicly criticized by colleagues for not sharing data.