How will open data advance scientific discovery?

Open data promotes efficiency, knowledge and collaboration. It's changing the way we do science for the better. This article was my winning entry to the Better Science Through Better Data writing competition in 2018.

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Mar 18, 2019
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Data makes the world go round. From clinical trials to epidemiological models, the data we collect changes lives. But what if we’re only scratching the surface of its potential?

The pressure to publish in influential journals is massive: the more striking the data, the more attention it’ll receive. Thus for each ground-breaking paper submitted, it’s likely that a breadth of data has been pushed to the side. An analysis of Data Availability Statements in 2018 found that only 20% of data from two years of PLOS ONE published papers are in a publically available repository.

Open data allows efficiency. It releases information to a whole other set of minds with new ideas and perspective. Fresh interpretations could be drawn from data that may otherwise have been overlooked, maximising its impact on future research. Like harvesting a crop, there is no purpose to collecting the data if it is not to be utilised. This is wonderfully demonstrated by The Society for Cardiothoracic Surgery, who collate and openly publish heart surgery data to everyone, from clinicians to researchers, moving towards the idea of big data. Through analysis and research initiated from this data, it’s thought that up to 1,000 deaths from heart surgery have been prevented annually.

From unpublished researchers to experienced academics, all scientists can benefit from this open data. A lot can be gained by the next generation of researchers, like myself, by learning to interpret others’ raw data and finding inspiration for new avenues to explore. At the other end of the spectrum, researchers with established datasets are beginning to reap rewards by working collaboratively to keep patients’ health as their ultimate goal. More organisations should follow the example of PharmaCog; by bringing together data from researchers across Europe, they are improving the drug discovery process, whilst increasing the transparency of negative results to prevent wasting resources.

For this reason, open data is on the rise: according to the Open Data Barometer, the amount of open datasets is steadily increasing. The UK is leading the way, with new initiatives being born. Just recently, NHS Digital announced their collaboration with the Open Data Institute to encourage innovation from open patient data by engaging with a range of organisations to improve treatments. But there’s still a lot to be done. Only 64% of researchers are willing for others to access their data. If we truly want research to progress, we need to unify as a scientific community.

It is clear that open data is the bricks on which the modernisation of research will be built. As big data becomes an increasingly important part of this, transparency and integrity is vital for our unified goal of advancing scientific discovery.

This article was my winning entry to the Better Science Through Better Data writing competition in 2018. You can find out more here.


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Naomi Clapp

Masters Student, University of Warwick

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