My bench is filled with stacks of lab notebooks, but only a few pages will ever see the light of day. Find any other lab and any other scientist and it’s the same story—countless experiments performed, only a fraction of which are shared. But is there value hidden in these pages and if so, why doesn’t more of our research output come into the public sphere?
Our much familiar model for data sharing in the present involves the publication of results as congruent, multi-figure, scientific stories. In many ways and in many cases, this approach has tremendous value. Narratives are intuitive and complete. Nice tidy stories make logical sense and are often well supported by the data. But limitations exist. Classic storytelling in science often prioritizes positive over negative results and excludes data that are contradictory or solitary. This risks bias in our scientific understanding of the world, creates pressure that may incentivize questionable research conduct, and provides roadblocks on the quest for progress. So what can we do about this?
A number of publishers have developed innovative approaches to addressing these issues. One such approach has been taken by the journal Thorax, a top publication in the field of respiratory medicine, to promote high-quality, methodically-sound clinical trials independent of whether the data are positive or negative.1 Rather than assessing the entirety of the study—design, data, and conclusions—following its completion, investigators submit the study design prior to beginning the clinical trial. Peer reviewers then assess the study’s methodology for its rigor and ability to answer the proposed research questions. Studies deemed by peer reviewers to be answering important questions with sound methodology are accepted for publication at the onset of the trial independent of whether the data are ultimately positive or negative.
A second innovative approach is ScienceMatters, a PubMed-indexed peer-reviewed journal aimed at publishing single scientific observations.2 This platform was developed with the understanding that not all data fit a clean, congruent story, but that such observations still have value in shaping our understanding of how the world works. Investigators submit for publication individual pieces of data or small strings of data to be evaluated in a triple-blind peer review for their scientific soundness and merit. This initiative is supported by a wealth of noteworthy scientists including Dr. John Ioannidis, a Professor of Medicine, and of Health Research and Policy at Stanford University, a widely renowned expert on medical research and publication ethics.3,4
While the traditional format for scientific publishing has served us well, it is our responsibility to continue to iterate and improve upon this concept. Society has collectively sought to invest in research and discovery. It is our charge to be efficient and effective stewards of this research investment, and that includes the cultivation of optimal data sharing practices. I strongly believe that new paradigms for publication are needed to complement more classical approaches, and that those described herein provide a compelling first step towards this goal.
- “Instructions for Authors”. Thorax-BMJ. Accessed 23 October 2016. http://thorax.bmj.com/site/about/guidelines.xhtml#RCT
- “ScienceMatters”. Accessed 23 October 2016. https://www.sciencematters.io/
- “Who Matters”. Accessed 23 October 2016. https://www.sciencematters.io/help/about
- “John P.A. Ioannidis – Bio”. Stanford Medicine. Accessed 23 October 2016. https://med.stanford.edu/profiles/john-ioannidis
Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and official policies of Vanderbilt University.