Improving Transparency in Scientific Research

August 7, 2012 | Posted by Elizabeth in Reproducibility |

Academic scientists today face considerable barriers to transparency and access to research. Investigators are often pushed to publish positive results, with little support to publish null or negative results, or even the raw data upon which a publication is based. The sharing of data within or between labs is equally disincentivized, due to the competitive nature of publishing “first”, and the increasing competition for grants in a tighter funding environment.

The outcomes of such an environment in turn serve to stall the progress of scientific research, and play in contrast to some of the big science initiatives of the past decades. The Human Genome Project itself was an multi-institutional initiative with scientists participating at research institutes across the US, UK, Japan, France, Germany, and Spain. More recently, the FlowCAP Project demonstrated the power of open collaboration in science, where scientists all over the world were working on algorithms for flow cytometry analysis, combing their data to produce more robust systems of analysis.

It would seem apparent then that progress in biological research has relied, and will continue to necessitate, notions of transparency and collaboration. Leroy Hood, president of the Institute of Systems Biology notes that as biology is an informational science, it requires “holistic, high-throughput, integrative” approaches to big science developments. Transparency in scientific outcomes is necessary to provide investigators with a basis to build off earlier successes or learn from past mistakes. Collaboration through transparency provides efficiency in the development and interpretation of results, especially in a research climate of increasingly specialized expertise.

Thankfully, there is growing awareness of the need for transparency amongst publications and scientific engines. The open access movement has pushed for science to be treated as a public resource, where outcomes in science are made readily available and open for critical analysis. PLOS, the open access journal at the forefront of this movement, publishes its results with “unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium.” BioNOT, a separate open access initiative, has furthered this aim by developing a search engine to help scientists find negative or null results in publications.

Separately, scientists and publications have put forward new proposals for improving scientific transparency. Michael Nielsen, author of Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science, describes how the NIH and NSF can institute requirements for open sharing of research results in return for public funding. Nature has also proposed a retractions database to help in classifying negative outcomes in research due to mistakes.

The development of such initiatives can hopefully serve to promote robust outcomes in scientific research. It is only through transparent access to data and incentives for collaboration that scientific progress can truly flourish.

About the author

Elizabeth Iorns is Co-Founder & CEO of Science Exchange. Elizabeth conceived the idea for Science Exchange while an Assistant Professor at the University of Miami and as CEO she drives the company’s vision, strategy and growth. She is passionate about creating a new way to foster scientific collaboration that will break down existing silos, democratize access to scientific expertise and accelerate the speed of scientific discovery. Elizabeth has a B.S. in Biomedical Science from the University of Auckland, a Ph.D. in Cancer Biology from the Institute of Cancer Research in London, and conducted postdoctoral research in Cancer Biology from the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine where her research focused on identifying mechanisms of breast cancer development and progression.

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