Data sharing can save important scientific work from extinction, but only if researchers take care to ensure that resources are easy to find and reuse.
Between 1969 and 1972, the United States landed six crewed spacecraft on the Moon as part of the Apollo programme. The missions retrieved priceless samples. But for more than four decades, the data from those samples remained stashed away at a handful of US laboratories — until Kerstin Lehnert came along.
Can there be a more startling example of the problems with data and sample sharing than for more than 40 years, the research community did not have access to the samples returned from the moon? Most sets of data and material won’t be quite as precious as the product of a flight to the moon (though in the coming years, samples will be returned to Earth from Mars and asteroids). There are some excellent ethical reasons to retest human research (e.g. to reduce the burden on participants) and commentary that sharing can boost researcher careers. Researchers must plan for open data and sharing, long term retention and metadata listing.
Countless other laboratories, and their precious, irreplaceable data, are not so fortunate.
Lost to the ages
‘Big science’ efforts led by international consortia typically have data-management and sharing plans built in. But many labs doing small- to medium-scale studies in more specialized areas — such as analysing the biological contents of a single lake, or tracking the physiology of specific animal models — have no such systems. Their data often remain siloed in the labs that generated them, fading from memory as project members leave.
For the scientific community, that’s a tragedy of wasted effort, lost collaborative opportunities and irreproducibility. “Things don’t have to be really popular in order to be still very valuable,” says Erik Schultes, international science coordinator for the GO FAIR International Support and Coordination Office in Leiden, the Netherlands. Established in 2018 to develop best practices for data preservation and sharing, GO FAIR is one of several efforts engaging with researchers in almost every scientific discipline to secure today’s data for posterity. But success will require a concerted effort — and a shift in lab culture.