In an effort to increase the amount of scientific information available to the public, the Public Library of Science has announced that their open access scientific journal PLOS ONE will begin to require all authors to make all of their data available to the public upon publication.
PLOS ONE was established in 2006 as an international, peer-reviewed journal that publishes primary research results for all branches of science and medicine. The papers are all open access under a creative commons license, which means that anyone may read and use the information, just as long as proper credit is given to the authors, with absolutely no paywall to keep study results privy to certain groups. While many journals choose to accept articles based on perceived interest levels, PLOS ONE was designed to accept any scientifically sound paper and let the readers decide and rate the impact of the paper.
The next step of truly open access science is to go beyond just having the results available, but the data as well. Without complete datasets available to the reviewer, it becomes very difficult to properly interpret the results. Though papers with sufficient data are often cited more with a higher quality rating, papers without such sets should not be accepted for publication. While scientists are supposed to include all relevant data regarding their conclusions at the time of publication, it doesn’t always happen.
Ken Witwer from Johns Hopkins analyzed 127 papers from over a dozen journals that publish studies using microarray-based microRNA profiling between July 2011 and April 2012, including PLOS ONE. He found that nearly 75% of the papers did not meet the Minimum Information About a Microarray Experiment guidelines that all scientific journals are supposed to follow. Only around 40% of the papers included data submission at all. Unfortunately, the problem regarding a lack of reported data is not isolated to any one branch of science or specific journal.
Yes, this is a large problem within the scientific community, but it can easily be remedied with stronger guidelines to bolster integrity. Beginning March 3, 2014, all authors seeking to publish in PLOS ONE will have to submit all of their data in either the body of the paper, the supplemental materials, or linked to a reliable, publicly-accessible online database. The database is the preferred method of submission, especially for studies that have copious amounts of data.
Of course, some data will be exempted from this new policy. Datasets containing personal information about patients could be modified so there are no ethical violations regarding privacy. Studies involving endangered species are also protected from having all of the data shared, so that they are not targeted by those who would exploit them. Some scientists also get data from third party sources and do not possess the rights to distribute the information. If sensitive data are not able to be anonymized for public access, the author must provide the data to a small ethics committee and state that the information is available upon request.
Though some have expressed concern that open data presents the opportunity for hard earned data to be exploited or misused, others are lauding the decision to make science more transparent and accessible to all.