The Public Library of Science (PLOS), one of the largest open access journals, put into effect a new data policy regarding newly published scientific research on March 1, 2014. According to an official statement, the journal will now “require authors to make all data underlying the findings described in their manuscript fully available without restriction, with rare exception.”
Theo Bloom, chief editor of PLOS Biology, wrote that “PLOS journals have requested data be available since their inception,” even before this policy change. The main change with this policy, Bloom notes, is that authors now have to specify in a “Data Availability Statement” where their data is stored for public use.
Liz Silva, senior editor of PLOS ONE, stated that the public access may refer to “one of three places:” in “the body of the manuscript,” “in the supporting information,” and “in a stable, public repository.” Silva describes these sites as being suitable for small, moderate-sized, and large datasets, respectively.
However, in instances where the dataset is too large for any of those places, Silva wrote that authors should proceed with the submission of their research paper, but note the “details of their situation.” Afterwards, PLOS will contact them to find a solution for the sharing of their data.
“Refusal to share data and related metadata and methods in accordance with this policy will be grounds for rejection,” stated PLOS.
However, there are specific conditions, which may be unethical or binding, that mean authors can’t share data. Some of the examples Silva listed include “private patient data, or specific information relating to endangered species,” and instances when the authors used third-parties’ data. Under such conditions, Silva wrote that authors should label that “their ‘Data is available upon request’, and identify the person, group or committee to whom requests should be submitted.”
Erin McKiernan, a neuroscience researcher at the National Institute of Public Health of Mexico, expressed concern about this new policy change. She explained that a big preoccupation for researchers in developing countries, where funding may be scarce, is that “There is the possibility the original researchers could be ‘scooped’, losing out on publications from data that was meant to sustain their lab for potentially several years. (This could also be a problem for smaller labs within the U.S.).”
Additionally, McKiernan wrote that “this policy has the potential to decrease the diversity of the authors submitting to PLOS,” especially if they fear “being ‘scooped’” by bigger research stations. She noted that it may not be an actual risk, but if “researchers believe the risk exists,” then it could lead to a decrease in submissions to PLOS.
On the other hand, there are other researchers who see the benefit of active data sharing. For example, Jef Akst of The Scientist quotes several individuals who are in favor of this policy change.
Peter Doshi, assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy, told The Scientist “PLOS’s new policy is quite exciting and supports the notion that a published paper has far more value and credibility when the data underlying that publication are also available.”
Additionally, Carol Tenopir, a director for the Center for Information & Communication Studies of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, noted that “‘[There is] the possibility of making new discoveries by combining datasets.”
PLOS is taking a bold and somewhat controversial step in calling for full transparency of their data and findings. Whether or not this turns out to be a step forward or step backward remains to be seen.