Many researchers say they will share data — but not

Many journals require researchers to declare whether they will share the data underlying articles.Credit: Getty

Most biomedical and health researchers who declare their willingness to share the data behind journal articles do not respond to access requests or hand over the data when requested, a study reports.1.

Livia Puljak, who studies evidence-based medicine at the Catholic University of Croatia in Zagreb, and her colleagues analyzed 3,556 biomedical and health science articles published in one month by 282 BMC journals. (BMC is part of Springer Nature, publisher of Nature; The Nature news team is editorially independent of its publisher.)

The team identified 381 articles with links to data stored in online repositories and another 1,792 articles for which the authors indicated in statements that their datasets would be available upon reasonable request. The remaining studies stated that their data was in the published manuscript and its supplements, or did not generate data, so sharing did not apply.

But of the 1,792 manuscripts for which authors stated they were willing to share their data, more than 90% of corresponding authors declined or did not respond to requests for raw data (see ‘Data Sharing Behavior’). Only 14%, or 254, of the authors contacted responded to email requests for data, and only 6.7%, or 120 authors, delivered the data in a usable format. The study was published in Journal of Clinical Epidemiology on the 29th of May.

DATA SHARING BEHAVIOR.  Graph showing the percentage of authors who were willing to share data.

Source: Livia Puljak et al.

Puljak was “amazed” that so few researchers actually shared their data. “There’s a gap between what people say and what people do,” she says. “Only when we ask for data can we see their attitude towards sharing data.”

“It is very disheartening that [researchers] are not presenting the data,” says Rebecca Li, who is executive director of the nonprofit global data-sharing platform Vivli and is based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Data availability statements are of little value because many of the data sets are never really accessible, says Valentin Danchev, a sociologist at the University of Essex in Colchester.

Puljak’s results match those of a study led by Danchev, which found low rates of data sharing by authors of articles in leading medical journals that stipulate that all clinical trials must share data.two.

persistent barriers

The researchers who declined to provide data in Puljak’s study gave several reasons. Some have not received informed consent or ethical approval to share data; others dropped out of the project, misplaced data, or cited language obstacles when it came to translating qualitative interview data.

Aidan Tan, a pediatric physician and researcher in evidence-based medicine at the University of Sydney in Australia, says the study demonstrates that persistent barriers prevent researchers from sharing their data. His own research, surveying clinical trial leaders, found concerns about data privacy, participant confidentiality, and data misuse in misleading secondary analyses.3. Investigators may also want to publish more original research first, or fear discovery.

Past research suggests that some fields, such as ecology, embrace data sharing more than others. But several reviews of COVID-19 clinical trials — including some from Li4,5 and tanned6 — reported that about half to 80% of investigators are unwilling or unwilling to share data freely.

“It is concerning,” says Tan, “that data-sharing practices do not appear to have improved during the COVID-19 pandemic, despite calls for data-sharing” from funding organizations such as Wellcome in London, US National Institutes of Health and the World Health Organization.

facing the problem

Li surmises that many researchers don’t fully understand what data sharing really entails: that the data underlying manuscripts “must be ready, formatted, and available to anyone who asks,” she says.

To encourage researchers to prepare their data, Li says, journals could make data-sharing statements more prescriptive. They may require authors to detail where they will share the raw data, who will be able to access it, when and how.

Funders can also raise the bar for data sharing. The US National Institutes of Health, in an effort to stem the waste of irreproducible research, will soon require grant applicants to include a data management and sharing plan in their applications. Eventually, they will be required to share data publicly.

“The power to move forward with data sharing lies with those who are attuned to researchers to change the culture,” says Li.

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