Peer reviewed research publication and data-access

From: Stevan Harnad <>
Date: Wed, 20 Mar 2002 15:38:30 +0000

On Wed, 20 Mar 2002, [identity removed] wrote:

> Some time ago there was an article in Science on some gene or protein
> sequence, where the data where kept at the commercial (US) company and not
> published in Science, though Science accepted the article. It is all about
> patents on bio-stuff versus the freedom of publication. Can the reader
> believe the article if the data are proprietary and not public?
> It was quite a stir. I lost the trail. Do you remember this case?

I don't know of it. (Perhaps other AmSci Forum readers will.)

But to put it in context: Peer-reviewed scientific research
publications usually do not include the raw data on which they
are based, only the results and analyses that they are reporting.
The referees must decide whether the results themselves are sound and
worth knowing, hence publishing. Sometimes they need access to the
data to ascertain this. But in the past it was not practice -- indeed
it was not possible, because of the expenses or print-on-paper -- to
go on to publish the data themselves.

But the online era now makes this possible too. There is still an
element of voluntarism in it, for even researchers who are not
interested in concealing it as proprietary or commercially exploitable
information may want to keep their data under wraps so that they
themselves can continue to mine it, and eventually to publish it in
further peer-reviewed articles of their own, rather than being
"scooped" by others.

In part, this is nonsense, of course, if it serves to retard rather
than enhance scientific progress. But in part it is a practical
byproduct of the fact that researchers often put a great deal of effort
and skill into the gathering of their data, effort they may be more
reluctant to expend if, as of their first published reports, all their
data were to become fair game for other researchers who had not put in
the time or effort.

But let us not exaggerate this proprietariness either: The division of
labor in data-gathering and analysis (and its funding and rewarding)
will be able to accommodate and optimize all this, now that data can be
archived online along with data-analyses and results. Indeed, perhaps a
new category of peer reviewed output, namely, peer-reviewed data, will
earn a place and credit in researchers' CVs and their productivity/impact
assessment. So open online access to archived data will go hand in hand
with open online access to peer reviewed research findings.

As to proprietary data: Nolo contendere. It is the referees who must
decide whether the results are worth reporting in a peer-reviewed
journal even when the data on which they are based are inaccessible.

Stevan Harnad
Received on Wed Mar 20 2002 - 15:40:18 GMT

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