Top universities ink data-sharing pact as virus spread shows need

Research-intensive university groups ask funders to provide additional support for data management

January 28, 2020
coronavirus virus 3D rendition
Source: iStock

The coronavirus crisis exemplifies why researchers must systematically disclose their underpinning data, according to Australia’s Group of Eight (Go8) universities.

Go8 chief executive Vicki Thomson said that research already completed could yield information capable of speeding up vaccine development, but health authorities would struggle to find it. “How do they know, if there’s no database for them to access?” she asked.

The coronavirus has sparked discussion at Sorbonne University in Paris, where the Go8 and counterpart organisations from eight regions – including the UK’s Russell Group, the Association of American Universities, the League of European Research Universities (Leru), Japan’s Research University 11 group and the African Research Universities Alliance – have gathered to thrash out a joint position on data sharing.

Ms Thomson said that during Western Africa’s Ebola outbreak in the middle of last decade, potentially useful research data had been “scattered” and largely unusable. If it had been available in some sort of global or central databank, vaccine development could have progressed more quickly.

The same applied to the coronavirus, she said, notwithstanding rapid findings about the pathogen’s genetic makeup. “There could be data to support a rapid response, but if it’s not available publicly it’s impossible to access,” she said.

The delegates have signed a joint statement called the Sorbonne declaration on research data rights. It encourages researchers to “share data as much as possible” and make it “findable, accessible, interoperable and reusable”.

The nine groups promise to urge their members to integrate these principles into institutional policies and develop “appropriate recognition” for academics. The statement asks for support from the global scholarly community and begs funding agencies to treat research data management as a “fully eligible activity for funding”.

Governments should resource funding bodies to increase grants accordingly, while developing “policies and guidance” that embody data sharing principles and support their implementation. This would help prevent commercial data platforms and services imposing a “lock-in effect”, the statement adds.

The Go8 said  that the statement complemented Plan S, the European-led push to require academics to make publicly funded research freely accessible at the point of publication. “The data underpinning such research is not often so readily available,” the Go8 noted.

“The research results are set out, but not always the data specifics of how those results were arrived at. The Go8 sees data release and sharing as an excellent way of instilling public trust in ever more complex research, if universities can work together to overcome the hurdles.”

Ms Thomson said that the hurdles included legal frameworks and the resources needed to establish suitable data repositories – things requiring action from sometimes reluctant governments. But universities could play an important role by fostering the necessary cultural change among academics, she insisted.

Some of the statement’s signatories have spent years advocating similar principles. Data sharing dominates the 44 recommendations in Leru’s Roadmap for Research Data, released in 2013.

In an address to last year’s European University Association conference, Sorbonne University president Jean Chambaz called for “a global vision of open science, not reduced to open access nor to Plan S, but including alternative platforms of open publication, open and fair evaluation by peers, open and fair citation index, open and fair indexation and mining of scientific data, and a profound change in the criteria for recruiting, rewarding and promoting academic staff”.

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