Though digital technologies and high-speed communications have significantly expanded the capabilities of scientists — allowing them to analyze and share vast amounts of data — these technologies are also raising difficult questions for researchers, institutions, and journals. Because digital data can be manipulated more easily than other forms, they are particularly susceptible to distortion. Questions about how to maintain the data generated, who should have access, and who pays to store them can be controversial.
Maintaining the integrity and accessibility of research data in a rapidly evolving digital age will take the collective efforts of universities and other research institutions, journals, agencies, and individual scientists, says a new report from the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine, which recommends principles to guide these stakeholders in generating, sharing, and maintaining scientific data.
Research institutions need to ensure that every investigator receives appropriate training in conducting research and managing data responsibly, the report says. And these institutions, along with professional societies, journals, and research sponsors, should develop and disseminate standards for ensuring the integrity of research data and update specific data-management guidelines to account for new technologies. After an investigation by the Journal of Cell Biology revealed that a significant number of images submitted to them had been inappropriately manipulated, for example, the journal issued guidelines on acceptable and unacceptable ways to alter images. Ultimately, though, researchers themselves are responsible for ensuring the integrity of their research data, said the committee that wrote the report.
The report recommends that researchers — both publicly and privately funded — make the data and methods underlying their reported results public in a timely manner, except in unusual cases where there is a compelling reason not to do so, such as concern about national security or health privacy. In such cases, researchers should publicly explain why data are being withheld. But the default position should be that data will be shared — a practice that allows data and conclusions to be verified, contributes to further scientific advances, and allows the development of beneficial goods and services.
Research data can be valuable for many years after they are generated — for verifying results and generating new findings — but maintaining high-quality and reliable databases can be costly, the report observes. Researchers should establish data-management plans at the beginning of each research project that provide for the stewardship of data, and research sponsors should recognize that financial support for data professionals is an appropriate part of supporting research. Professional societies should provide investigators with guidance about which data should be saved for the long term and which can be discarded.
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