The Open Dinosaur Project in Nature
We at the ODP are excited to announce that the project is getting some publicity this week courtesy of a little journal by the name of Nature. A short letter to the editor [subscription required*], written by me, Mike, and Matt, appears in the current issue.
The letter was crafted (at Mike’s suggestion) in response to a series of articles and editorials (freely available here) in the 9 September 2009 issue of Nature, focused on the issue of data sharing and archiving. Right now, data sharing (either pre- or post-publication) is a huge concern in many fields of science. Without accessibility to original data, it is much tougher to verify results, incorporate new data into previous analyses, or use the data for new, potentially unrelated analyses. So, it should be a no-brainer to release the data underlying publications, right?
Not so fast. Some scientists are worried about being scooped (if they release data prior to publication), or losing a competitive edge to colleagues once the “exclusive” data are released (if they release data after publication). In other cases, there is no institutional support for the release of data (which requires time and money, however minimal). Furthermore, the rewards for actually releasing data can be unclear (a critical factor for scholars at the beginning of their careers, who need citations and recognition for hiring, tenure, and promotion).
All of these problems were covered in some depth in the special issue of Nature. Where does the ODP fit into this, and what does our letter add to the discussion?
We felt that the Nature articles did an excellent job of making the case for why data sharing is important to the scientific community. But, it left out one key ingredient – why data sharing is important for the world outside of professional scientists. So, we focused our correspondence on this problem.
For a field like paleontology, there is a tremendous interest in the latest (and even the not-so-latest) research findings. If you follow the Dinosaur Mailing List, the blogosphere, or any other internet venues, you will notice an active and engaged community of both professionals and amateurs. Requests for PDFs, photographs, measurements, and all sorts of additional information are quite common, reflecting an intense fascination with the field.
Public talks, popular web pages, and blogs are great for public outreach. . .but there is a demand for something more. Folks are interested in high resolution specimen photographs. . .specimen measurements. . .cladistic data matrices. So, we argue that for a field with broad public appeal like paleontology, the release of data should be a part of our public outreach efforts in addition to the immediate scientific role of data availability. People get excited by these data!
This is why we started the Open Dinosaur Project, and why we run it as openly as possible. First and foremost, it is a research project. We are collecting data to investigate some interesting questions – and we want these data to be available to other researchers! In our view, the database doesn’t do anyone any good if it stays locked up on one person’s hard drive.
We also benefit when other researchers are open with their data – this project would not be possible if original specimen measurements weren’t published in papers. The ODP thrives on data sharing. Principal components analysis and phylogenetically independent contrasts either didn’t exist or were decades away from paleontological application when Charles W. Gilmore published his monograph on Stegosaurus back in 1914. Without putting too many words in his mouth, I think it is fair to say that he would be quite pleasantly surprised that we’re using his data for something he never intended.
Second, and just as important, the ODP is a public outreach effort. There are many, many “amateurs” who want a chance to participate in real, substantive scientific investigations, and many professional paleontologists who want to contribute to collaborative research efforts. Without the combined efforts of nearly 40 contributors from all walks of life, the ODP would only be a blog with a catchy title and cool logo. All of our project participants have made important contributions, and not just in the realm of data entry. The ongoing discussions on this blog are proof positive of the deep involvement of many, many individuals.
In sum, data sharing is something we believe in. It moves science forward, both by allowing new things to be done with old data, as well as offering opportunities to involve new people in the scientific process. If we scientists are serious about our work, and about communicating our work, data sharing is not just an option. It’s the only option.
Citation: Farke, A. A., M. P. Taylor, and M. J. Wedel. 2009. Public databases offer one solution to mistrust and secrecy. Nature 461: 1053. [link*]
*subscription required; the publication agreement with Nature prohibits us from posting the full text of the article for six months; please contact Andy if you would like a copy of the text.