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China asserts firm grip on research data

SHANGHAI, CHINA—In a move few scientists anticipated, the Chinese government has decreed that all scientific data generated in China must be submitted to government-sanctioned data centers before appearing in publications. At the same time, the regulations, posted last week, call for open access and data sharing.

The possibly conflicting directives puzzle researchers, who note that the yet-to-be-established data centers will have latitude in interpreting the rules. Scientists in China can still share results with overseas collaborators, says Xie Xuemei, who specializes in innovation economics at Shanghai University. Xie also believes that the new requirements to register data with authorities before submitting papers to journals will not affect most research areas. Gaining approval could mean publishing delays, Xie says, but “it will not have a serious impact on scientific research.”

The new rules, issued by the powerful State Council, apply to all groups and individuals generating research data in China. The creation of a national data center will apparently fall to the science ministry, though other ministries and local governments are expected to create their own centers as well. Exempted from the call for open access and sharing are data involving state and business secrets, national security, “public interest,” and individual privacy. 

Some researchers think the directives could be a good thing. “My understanding is that the impact on my own research will be positive,” says Li Di, chief scientist for radioastronomy at the National Astronomical Observatories of China in Beijing. “It explicitly emphasizes the role of a science data center to be ‘promoting open access to and sharing of science data.’” But the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) is concerned. “NSF bases its funding and its international collaboration on the principle of the freedom for scientists to publish all of the data they generate with U.S. funding, regardless of where the data are collected,” Nancy Sung, head of NSF’s Beijing office, wrote in an email to Science. “We would be concerned about any potential impact to this principle.”

The ultimate impact on research, as Xie notes, “depends on implementation” of the measures.