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Which scientists are bad at sharing? 92% of environmental scientists

Posted By Joanne Nova On October 24, 2014 @ 6:08 pm In Global Warming | Comments Disabled

Sharing data is one of the most essential principles of good science and has led to remarkable advances in areas like genetics. But one recent study showed the worst sharers were ecologists, as only 8% shared their data. This new paper by Soranno et al describes sharing data through publicly available datasets as “ethically obligatory”. (Did we need a paper to say that?) And she further claims environmental scientists are out of date. (Which all seems rather bleedingly obvious to anyone in the climate debate.) Soranno argues a cultural change is needed. Indeed.

It’s good to see recognition here of the value of citizen scientists, but the paper misses the elephant in the room. There is no recognition that the largest pool of citizen scientists on the planet are often formally trained, experienced, and seeking data from public institutions on such controversial, dangerous areas as tree rings and thermometers. Nor that the scientists with the worst sharing habits are not the ones who don’t release data, but the ones who ignore FOIA requests, then threaten legal action as well.

One day perhaps social scientists will recognize the real ethical fire burning in science.


Expanding the inner circle: Public access and citizen science 

By definition, data sharing increases access to information, not only for researchers but also for the public. There are growing grassroots movements, led by scientists and the public alike, toward greater public participation in environmental science and policy. Concurrently, there are growing expectations from funding agencies such as the NSF and the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Research for scientists to share their data from publicly funded research projects.

Citizen scientists and local experts, as well as the data that they collect and create, are increasingly being included in environmental research (Silvertown 2009, Miller-Rushing et al. 2012). Understood in this context, it is clear that data sharing is not solely connected to practical concerns such as technology and professional incentives. Instead, the issue of data sharing holds the potential for environmental scientists to align their practice with the discipline’s growing interest in issues of social consciousness, the  democratization of science, inclusion, and scientific literacy. This is particularly true in the realm of environmental policymaking, which, we argue, demands an inclusionary approach and, therefore, data sharing.

This combination of public sponsorship of research, participation in research, and connection with policy creates a set of circumstances that push environmental scientists—and particularly those who seek to broaden participation.

It is good to see some recognition of the value of citizen scientists, even the admission that people without formal training can help make research more robust. But

There are compelling arguments in support of the roundtable model for environmental science–policy interactions, many of them strongly tied to inclusion. First, the public has demanded that they be more involved in interpreting research for policy purposes, particularly in high-stakes situations and when the scientific information is complex and uncertain (Jasanoff 2005, Shrader-Frechette 2007, Ottinger and Cohen 2011). Second, stakeholders and the public are much more likely to accept scientific findings and policy decisions when they know that the results have been vetted through a transparent, open process (Dietz and Stern 2008, Röckmann et al 2012). Third, science-policy analysts argue that research can be made more robust between scientists and people without formal scientific training (Irwin 1995, Kleinman 2000, Walley 2004). For example, citizen science and community-based monitoring efforts are on the rise around the world in response to environmental concerns (Whitelaw et al. 2003, Silvertown 2009, Conrad and Hilchey 2011), and there are examples of direct applications of those efforts for conservation and policy (Crabbe 2012).

MSU Today Press release

Some scientists share better than others

While astronomers and geneticists embrace the concept, the culture of ecology still has a ways to go.

Research by Michigan State University, published in the current issue of Bioscience, explores the paradox that although ecologists share findings via scientific journals, they do not share the data on which the studies are built, said Patricia Soranno, MSU fisheries and wildlife professor and co-author of the paper.

“One reason for not sharing data is the fear of being scooped by another scientist; but if all data are available, then everyone is on the same playing field, there are more people to collaborate with, and you will have a bigger impact on science,” said Soranno, an MSU AgBioResearch scientist. “Think of the advances being made in genomics, for example, due to the human genome project and the free-flowing findings and data. Genomics is advancing at an unprecedented rate, and it’s having an impact on many other fields as well.”

The paper’s co-authors and the diverse fields they represent exemplify this new era for sharing in ecology and many other fields. The team comprised MSU researchers from the Lyman Briggs College, including Kendra Cheruvelil, fisheries and wildlife; Kevin Elliott, a philosopher in fisheries and wildlife; and Georgina Montgomery, history.

While many environmental scientists support the notion of sharing, the vast majority of them do not carry out their good intentions, according to a recent survey. Even with calls from funding organizations, scientific journals and even the White House, it’s still yet to instill sharing as a matter of practice, Montgomery said.

“If you advocate for inclusion in science, if you believe scientists should be engaged with the public and decision makers in policy, then you should walk the walk and share your data,” she said. “Collaboration, rather than competition, is the best way to continue to advance science.”

To improve the current culture, the team argues that increased data sharing will allow more diverse people to actively participate in research, such as early-career scientists and those from underrepresented groups; scientists from smaller or historically less-influential institutions; citizen-scientists; and scientists from the Global South, scientists from Africa, South and Central America, and much of Asia who are often excluded from leading research.

The culture is beginning to change, but now it’s time to find ways to implement it, Cheruvelil added.

“We’ll still need to work through the best way to make this the norm,” she said. “We’re not saying to share data as soon as it’s gathered, and we understand that there’s not a one-size-fits-all policy. Our hope is that scientists will change their practice because they are compelled by the argument that they are ethically obliged to, not because they are forced to share data.”

Future research will focus on scientist-driven approaches to making data more shareable and increasing incentives at an institutional level. Universities offer few, if any, motivations to share data. It would help to offer credit for sharing rather than for solely emphasizing published papers, Cheruvelil added.

Outside of universities, sharing data is key because there are many efforts to include community-based monitoring groups to help inform decisions and policies about the environment.

“If environmental scientists truly espouse the ethical value of inclusivity, including diverse groups of people at the tables of research, decision making, policy and public debate, it is not only necessary to share scientific data, it is ethically obligatory,” Elliott said.


Miller-Rushing A, Primack R, Bonney R. 2012. The history of public participation in ecological research. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 10: 285–290.

Silvertown J. 2009. A new dawn for citizen science. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 24: 467–471.

Soranno, PA., Kendra S. Cheruvelil, Kevin C. Elliott, and Georgina M. Montgomery. It’s Good to Share: Why Environmental Scientists’ Ethics Are Out of Date. Bioscience, October 2014 DOI: 10.1093/biosci/biu169

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