Thursday, August 1, 2013

Free the "dark data" from scientific failures

I recently stumbled across "Freeing the Dark Data of Failed Scientific Experiments," by Thomas Goetz in Wired magazine. I had read it years ago, and its thesis still sounds as fresh today as it did back in 2007:

What happens to all the research that doesn't yield a dramatic outcome — or, worse, the opposite of what researchers had hoped? It ends up stuffed in some lab drawer. The result is a vast body of squandered knowledge that represents a waste of resources and a drag on scientific progress. This information — call it dark data — must be set free.

While the usefulness of negative data is being recognized, there are still powerful forces, organizational and human, working against freeing our dark data:

More and more, research is funded by commercial entities, which deem any results proprietary. And even among fair-minded academics, the pressures of time, tender, and tenure can make openness an afterthought. If their research is successful, many academics guard their data like Gollum, wringing all the publication opportunities they can out of it over years. If the research doesn't pan out, there's a strong incentive to move on, ASAP, and a disincentive to linger in eddies that may not advance one's job prospects.

One of the publications cited by Goetz is still going strong: "The Journal of Negative Results in BioMedicine," edited by Bjorn Olsen of Harvard Medical School, has possibly the most delicious description of any journal ever:

Journal of Negative Results in BioMedicine is an open access, peer-reviewed, online journal that promotes a discussion of unexpected, controversial, provocative and/or negative results in the context of current tenets.

When will all the results of scientific research be released into the wild? How can we free up this unused resource?

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