Seeking Consensus on Data Sharing

At odds. The Department of Energy's Ari Patrinos (left panel) and the Whitehead Center's Eric Lander (right) disagree over rules for sharing scientific data.

WASHINGTON, D.C.--Scientists and journal editors began to chisel out some commandments on the ethics of publishing yesterday at the National Academy of Sciences. The participants, led by Thomas Cech, president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Chevy Chase, Maryland, endorsed the principle that authors must make "freely available" all data supporting a published scientific claim. However, the group did not decide who would enforce this standard.

The keynote speaker, Eric Lander of the Whitehead Genome Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, acknowledged that this meeting grew out of a recent disagreement. As principal author of a draft version of the human genome published in Nature last year, Lander strongly disapproved of the way a commercial group--Celera Genomics Inc. in Rockville, Maryland--published a rival paper in Science (16 February 2001, p. 1304). Unlike Lander's group, Celera did not release supporting data through GenBank, a government-funded repository. Instead, Celera allowed readers to view data at a Web site the company controls. Lander said Science did "a disservice" to the community in agreeing to this form of data release. He asked the academy group to reject what he called "partial data release."

Some agreed. But Ari Patrinos, director of biological and environmental research at the Department of Energy which helped fund the genome sequencing effort, strongly dissented. It would be "a mistake," he argued, to impose a simple rule demanding that authors always make databases available in a public repository, for this could have a chilling effect on publications from the private sector. Patrinos urged the community not adopt "feel-good" policies that only suit academics.

Although the working session did not reach a full consensus, Cech summed up principles which he hoped all could agree on. A draft says that authors have a responsibility to "undertake reasonable efforts to make data and materials integral to a publication available in a manner that enables replication and further science." An academy panel aims to write a report within a few months filling in the details. Meanwhile, Cech said, the National Institutes of Health is preparing updated guidelines of its own and will offer financial support to encourage the sharing of data and materials.

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