Outside the Lab Public health

Share and Share Alike

When dealing with a fast-moving outbreak, every day is precious; there is little time for standard publication in peer-reviewed journals. In September 2015, the WHO convened a major consultation on data sharing during public health emergencies. In the wake of the largest Ebola epidemic to date, the WHO was clear that data sharing must become the “global norm” during major outbreaks (1). 

Sure enough, there were immediate calls for data transparency when the WHO declared the rise in birth defects thought to be caused by Zika infection a Public Health Emergency of International Concern in February 2016. And the scientific community responded, with a group of prominent journals, funders and institutions releasing a statement intended to encourage “timely and transparent pre-publication sharing of data” during public health emergencies (2). Journal signatories agreed to make all Zika-related articles freely available, and to relax rules so that early release of data wouldn’t prevent researchers from later publishing a full paper. Funders made rapid data sharing a condition of grants.

It seems the lessons of Ebola have been learned, and Zika researchers have been diligently depositing data in online repositories like GenBank. But there have also been hiccups. A Nature News report explains that Oliver Pybus, a collaborator of a Brazilian team who posted Zika virus genomes to Genbank, complained that a subsequent paper in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) failed to properly credit the original researchers (3). The NEJM authors commented that clearer guidelines are needed on how to cite unpublished but publically available data.

More general (and dramatic) concerns about the rise of data sharing were raised by Dan Longo and Jeffrey Drazen, who controversially warned that we could see the rise of “research parasites”, who seek to use other researchers’ data for their own gain instead of “playing fair” (4). Instead, they believe data sharing should be symbiotic, involving the original researchers. The article generated an immediate backlash, with researchers taking to Twitter to declare #IAmAResearchParasite.

The etiquette of data sharing is still up for debate, but more widespread “open science” seems almost inevitable. Science is changing, and the current centuries-old publishing model has to change with it. But that actually presents us with an exciting opportunity to re-build scientific communication from the ground up. We must start with firm foundations to ensure we create a system that allows rapid dissemination of research but also encourages a spirit of scientific collaboration.

Charlotte Barker

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  1. K Modjarrad et al., “Developing global norms for sharing data and results during public health emergencies”, PLoS Med, 13, e1001935 (2016).
  2. Wellcome Trust, “Global scientific community commits to sharing data on Zika”, www.wellcome.ac.uk/News/Media-office/Press-releases/2016/WTP060169.htm (2016).
  3. E Callaway, “Zika-microcephaly paper sparks data-sharing confusion”, Available at www.nature.com. Accessed 4 April.
  4. DL Longo, JM Drazen, “Data Sharing”, N Engl J Med, 374, 276–277 (2016).
About the Author
Charlotte Barker

“As Editor of The Translational Scientist, I’m working closely with our audience to create vibrant, engaging content that reflects the hard work and passion that goes into bringing new medicines to market. I got my start in biomedical publishing as a commissioning editor for healthcare journals and have spent my career covering everything from early-stage research to clinical medicine, so I know my way around. And I can’t think of a more interesting, challenging or important area to be working in.”

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