Threat down! Data accessibility in long-term studies

I’m coming for your long-term study’s data!

It way past Halloween, but something is still out there… and it’s coming for your long-term data. At least that’s what a string of recent opinions and replies in TREE might lead you to believe. But I think that the fears are misguided (and I’m not alone).

Mills et al conducted a survey* of  73 scientists who direct or have directed a long-term study (defined as being ≥ 5yrs of continuous study).  They found that 37% of respondents were against public data archiving (PDA**),  while a previous survey had found pretty much the opposite: 95% were in favor of PDA. This is a pretty striking difference and it makes me really curious what kinds of questions they asked that could have caused such a discrepancy. For example, did they phrase the question as “Are you supportive of publicly sharing your data with other scientists who will probably use the data incorrectly, scoop your coolest next project, and, more generally, ruin your career?”
With this support from long-term study researchers, Mills et al. then lay out a few reasons why they think that current PDA policies should not apply as strictly to long-term field studies. Their reasons can be put into the following categories:

  1. It will lead to bad science by researchers who didn’t collect the data and don’t understand its nuance(s). “You don’t know my data as well as I do, so you will probably just do science wrong.”
    1. Mills et al. solution: require that the articles be reviewed by someone who collected the data or is involved with the long-term study (there are some ethical issues here). Or just ask the long-term researcher to collaborate with you on the study that you are conducting with their data.
  2. Long-term researchers will get scooped, lose funding, and there will be no more long term studies. For-ev-er. Period. That’s it. Ecology and Evolution, you’ve lost your long-term study privileges.
  3. Too many people will be working on the same project/questions with the same data leading to data redundancy.
  4. Trainees (students and postdocs) will have their projects yanked out from under them by some “outsider” ***.
    1. Mills et al. solution to all of the above: share less data and have a longer embargo period on making the data publicly accessible.

You see, what it really comes down to whether or not you see long-term field studies as “special” and exempt from the ethics and rules that guide other research. All of those concerns laid out above also apply to studies that are not long term. So, while I feel their pain as a fellow long-term-study-collaborator, I don’t think that long-term studies are exempt. Most scientists and journals are NOT asking you to share your inner thoughts and emails. All we want it is detailed enough data, published with the paper, to allow us to recreate your analysis and, if we feel up to it, use the data in another analysis. This is something that has been required in the genomics field for over a decade.
People generally fall into two camps in how they think and feel about public data accessibility. You’re either see them as a carrot, enticing you to share your data to advance science, or a stick, forcing you to publish your data so that others can misuse it. So how do you see it?  Dear readers, I’d really like to hear your thoughts on this and have you join in on the conversation, so please comment!

Data accessibility requirements: not enough carrot and too much stick?

*Note that they did not make the survey data publicly available despite the fact that it was not a “long-term field study”.
** For a fun read, skip the first mention of “public data archiving” and read the rest of the article pretending PDA stands for either “public displays of affection” or “personal data assistant”. In fact, I would be supportive of bans on either of those at long-term field sites and in science in general.
*** This is an actual term they use in the paper when talking about other scientists who will use their publicly accessible data. Wow. Talk about “us” and “them”.
A final note: I call shenanigans on these results. There is no way that more than half of the researchers surveyed will avoid publishing in Nature, Science, or PNAS in the future:

“these concerns are so strong that 41% of respondents said that they have avoided publishing in journals that require data be deposited in open-access archives. Furthermore, 53% intend to avoid publishing in them in the future and, for those who published a major paper involving long-term data early in their careers, 63% indicated that they would not have submitted it to any journal that required data archiving.”


Mills JA, Teplitsky C, Arroyo B et al. (2015) Archiving Primary Data: Solutions for Long-Term Studies. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 30, 581–589.

Whitlock MC, Bronstein JL, Bruna EM et al. (2015) A Balanced Data Archiving Policy for Long-Term Studies. Trends in ecology & evolution.

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