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A ministry of health official visits a family in Guatemala City to help control the mosquitoes that transmit Zika virus.

A ministry of health official visits a family in Guatemala City to help control the mosquitoes that transmit Zika virus.

Conred Guatemala ( CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

A plea for open science on Zika

Data from studies of Zika virus and its clinical effects should be shared as soon as possible, without scientists having to worry that they're endangering a later publication, dozens of leading journals and research funding agencies said today in a statement.

The 11 journal publishers that signed the declaration—including The New England Journal of Medicine, PLOS, Springer Nature, and Science journals, pledge that they will make all papers concerning Zika virus freely available to anyone, and that data or preprints that are made publicly available won’t preempt their journals from later publishing the work. The 20 funding organizations, which include the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Wellcome Trust, and public funding agencies from 11 countries, promise that they will require grantees to have plans in place for sharing their results and data “as rapidly and widely as possible,” including with public health agencies and the World Health Organization (WHO).

Sharing has been a touchy topic in previous outbreaks and epidemics, including severe acute respiratory syndrome, Middle East respiratory syndrome, and Ebola. Countries are sometimes reticent to share data or samples with foreign researchers or organizations; Indonesia, for instance, refused to share influenza strains with WHO for some time because it feared it would not benefit if the viruses were used to produce a pandemic vaccine. Scientists often fret that releasing data early will make it difficult to publish them in top-notch journals, which prize exclusivity. But this lack of transparency can slow down both the international response and the scientific understanding of an epidemic.

In September 2015, a WHO task force drew up guidelines for work related to public health emergencies. It states that researchers have a “fundamental moral obligation to share preliminary results once they are adequately quality controlled for release.” Journals and funders should work toward a “paradigm shift” in which data sharing is the norm, the task force said: “Opting in to data and results sharing should be the default practice.”

The initiative to draw up and circulate the statement came from Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust in London. “It’s extremely heartening to see so many leading international organizations united in this unprecedented commitment to open science, reinforcing the decision by the WHO to declare Zika a Public Health Emergency of International Concern,” Farrar says.

Today’s pledge does not cover sharing of physical samples, which has been flagged as an issue in the current outbreak. The Associated Press reported last week that Brazilian laws make sample sharing difficult. A later story reported that government officials are considering amending those rules, and that the health ministry planned to send a large number of samples to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In contrast to the countries hardest hit in the Ebola epidemic, Brazil’s research infrastructure is able to do Zika gene sequencing and other analyses in-country, a WHO spokesperson says, meaning that sharing samples is a less critical issue. But if the samples don't travel, it may be even more important that data flow freely.