Sharing publication-related data and materials: Responsibilities of authorship in the life sciences

Thomas R. Cech, Sean R. Eddy, David Eisenberg, Karen Hersey, Steven H. Holtzman, George H. Poste, Natasha V. Raikhel, Richard H. Scheller, David B. Singer, Mary C. Waltham

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

17 Scopus citations


The publication of experimental results and sharing of research materials related to those results have long been key elements of the life sciences. Over time, standard practices have emerged from communities of life scientists to facilitate the presentation and sharing of different types of data and materials. However, there recently has been concern that, in practice, publication-related data and materials are not always readily available to the research community. Moreover, in some fields, questions have arisen about whether standard practices really exist or whether putative standards are accepted by and commonly applied to all authors. That uncertainty is driven by several factors, including the changing nature of the participants in the scientific enterprise, the growing role of large data sets in biology, the cost and time involved in producing some data and materials, and the commercial and other interests of authors in their research data and materials. These circumstances have engendered widespread interest in a reevaluation of the responsibilities of authors to share publication-related data and materials. As interest in the topic of standard practices was growing, the National Academies approached the National Cancer Institute, the National Human Genome Research Institute, the National Science Foundation, and the Sloan Foundation with the idea of undertaking a study of the issues related to sharing publication-related data and materials. With their support, in October 2001, the Academies created the Committee on Responsibilities of Authorship in the Biological Sciences, whose members were chosen from academe and the commercial sector for their expertise in the life sciences and medicine and their experience with issues related to scientific publishing, databases, software, intellectual property rights, and technology transfer. The committee was given the following charge: To conduct a study to evaluate the responsibilities of authors of scientific papers in the life sciences to share data and materials referenced in their publications. The study will examine requirements imposed on authors by journals, identify common practices in the community, and explore whether a single set of accepted standards for sharing exists. The study will also explore whether more appropriate standards should be developed, including the principles that should underlie them and the rationale that might be there for allowing exceptions to them. To meet its charge and obtain a variety of perspectives on these issues, the committee organized a workshop, "Community Standards for Sharing Publication-Related Data and Materials," which was held on February 25, 2002 at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, DC. The participants included distinguished members of the life sciences community - researchers and administrators from universities, federal agencies, and private industry; scientific journal editors; and members of the legal and university technology transfer communities. Evaluation of the issues was stimulated by the group's analysis of several hypothetical situations (attached in an Appendix to the full report) that captured many of the difficult issues facing the community. During the workshop, discussions about which data and materials related to a publication an author ought to provide and the precise manner in which they should be shared with others revealed how important those requirements are to the scientific community. Much of the analysis that took place in working groups was an effort to discern how an author (with individual competitive, commercial, or other interests) could, by some minimum effort, meet the collective needs of the community. Regardless of the specifics of the hypothetical problem under discussion, the ability to resolve the situation satisfactorily depended ultimately on whether an author could meet the community's general expectations of getting what was needed to move science forward. Although largely unwritten, the community's expectations of authors are a reflection of the value of the publication process to the life sciences community. The central role of publication in science also explains its value to scientists who want to publish their findings. For individual investigators, publication is a way of receiving intellectual credit and recognition from one's peers (and perhaps the broader public) for the genesis of new knowledge and the prospect of its conversion into beneficial goods and services. Publication also enhances a researcher's job prospects, ability to be promoted or gain tenure, and prospects for research support. Companies whose scientists publish their findings also typically receive the intellectual credit, recognition, and prestige that come with such disclosures to the entire scientific community. Such nonfinancial benefits can translate into publicity and increased perceived value of a company to investors and business partners. They also strengthen the scientific reputation of the company in the eyes of potential collaborators, employees, and users of the company's products. Regardless of the motivation, the arena of publication is where participants in the research enterprise share, and are recognized for, their contributions to science. Ultimately, this system benefits all members of the scientific community and promotes the progress of science. Although society encourages innovation in other ways (for example, through the patent system), the sharing of scientific findings, data, and materials through publication is at the heart of scientific advancement. A robust and high-quality publication process is, therefore, in the public interest. In this context, and informed by the views expressed at the workshop and its own subsequent deliberations, the committee found that the life sciences community does possess commonly held ideas and values about the role of publication in the scientific process. Those ideas define the responsibilities of authors and underpin the development of community standards - practices for sharing data, software, and materials adopted by different disciplines of the life sciences to facilitate the use of scientific information and ensure its quality. Central to those ideas is a concept the committee called "the uniform principle for sharing integral data and materials expeditiously (UPSIDE)," as follows: Community standards for sharing publication-related data and materials should flow from the general principle that the publication of scientific information is intended to move science forward. More specifically, the act of publishing is a quid pro quo in which authors receive credit and acknowledgment in exchange for disclosure of their scientific findings. An author's obligation is not only to release data and materials to enable others to verify or replicate published findings (as journals already implicitly or explicitly require) but also to provide them in a form on which other scientists can build with further research. All members of the scientific community - whether working in academia, government, or a commercial enterprise - have equal responsibility for upholding community standards as participants in the publication system, and all should be equally able to derive benefits from it. In addition to UPSIDE, the committee identified five corollary principles associated with sharing publication-related data, software, and materials.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)19-24
Number of pages6
JournalPlant Physiology
Issue number1
StatePublished - May 1 2003
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Physiology
  • Genetics
  • Plant Science


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