Pre-emptive open science is fairer open science

The Peer Reviewers Openness Initiative is a grass-roots campaign to empower reviewers to demand greater transparency in scientific research. Simply put, peer reviewers promptly request that authors “complete” their manuscript by making the data and research materials publicly accessible, or provide a justification for why they have not done so. I encourage you to read the PRO initiative, and if you support its aims, sign it.

One advantage of pushing for not just open science but pre-emptive open science is that making data and materials accessible at publication will better ensure that the same opportunities to benefit from knowledge are available to everyone. Most of us offer an available-upon-request policy for letting other researchers access our data. But this available-upon-request model is inadequate: it is inconvenient for both the author and the requester, and I argue that it is also one more opportunity for our motivations and limited resources to selectively disadvantage junior researchers.

When we haven’t preemptively prepared data and materials for sharing, these impromptu requests are inconvenient. It is tempting to find a reason why you cannot spend the time to locate and curate the materials right now: too busy this week, not sure where the data are, need to check it for anonymity, etc. There are plenty of plausible reasons for delay, and as the lag between the request and compliance increases, the chance that you forget the request increases. But the enthusiasm you feel for complying with a request for data likely varies depending on who requested it. Is it a rival? Is it an unknown student from a foreign country? Is it a potential peer reviewer? Is it a prominent colleague who is likely to have influence over whether your next grant application is funded or whether you are promoted? 

I bet some requests are far less likely to be forgotten than others, and compliance in certain cases is likely to be prompt and enthusiastic, not reluctant. These differences tend to place junior researchers who want data or materials to facilitate their own projects at a disadvantage. Anecdotally, I’ve requested data or experimental materials on many occasions, and I’ve sometimes directed my students to request data, naively thinking that this would give them a chance to experience a pleasant, productive interaction with another working scientist. My personal success rate in getting the requested materials is something like 50%. I estimate that I got at least some reply 90% of the time I attempted to get data or materials on request, even if the author declined to share. My students’ success rate, defined as getting any acknowledgment of their request, has been closer to 10%. Because students’ projects are usually time-sensitive, sluggish responses to requests (or waiting for weeks to get no reply at all) can make a huge difference in the amount and quality of work that student can produce.  

Complying with a request for data or materials may seem like a chore, but I think it is a mistake to assume there is nothing in it for you. Sharing data and materials increases your reputation among your colleagues. It is a display of confidence in your lab’s work. Availability of your published data or materials is likely to increase citations of your original work. In my experience, sharing or requesting data has occasionally resulted in collaborations which produced novel, jointly co-authored research. If our interest is to get important work done, helping a colleague by sharing materials and data should be rewarding for everyone because it reduces duplicated efforts in collecting data or programming experiments and analyses. These are benefits that should be available to all scientists, not just the ones we most hope to impress. 

I think sharing data and materials should be the norm, and currently it isn’t. In order for this to be convenient and fair, we need sharing to be done preemptively, not just on sporadic request. By joining the PRO initiative, you can help make this happen. You can also express your support for the PRO initiative by using one of our badges as your avatar on social media, or by placing a badge or banner on your website.