Fossil access editorial

5 minute read

The editors of Scientific American offer arguments for greater data and public access to fossils in their current (September 2009) issue: “Fossils for All: Science Suffers by Hoarding”. The editorial hits on several issues that I’ve discussed here over the years:

In 2005 the National Science Foundation took steps toward setting limits, requiring grant applicants to include a plan for making specimens and data collected using NSF money available to other researchers within a specified time frame. But paleoanthropologists assert that nothing has really changed. And according to Leslie Aiello of the Wenner-Gren Foundation, a major source of private funding for anthropological research, both public and private funding agencies typically lack the resources to enforce access policies, if they have them at all.
Ultimately, the adoption of open-access practices will depend in large part on paleoanthropologists themselves and the institutions that store human fossilsmost of which originate outside the U.S.doing the right thing. But the NSF, which currently considers failure to make data accessible just one factor in deciding whether to fund a researcher again, should take a firmer stance on the issue and reject without exception those repeat applicants who do not follow the access rules. The agency could also create a centralized database to which researchers could contribute measurements, observations, high-resolution photographs and CT scansa GenBank for paleoanthropology. And journals could require that authors submit their data prior to publication, as they do with authors of papers containing new genetic sequences.

The editorial also discusses the ongoing “Lucy” exhibition:

As for the public display of these fragments of our shared heritage, surely taxpayers, who finance much of this research, deserve an occasional glimpse of them. Irreplaceable objects are routinely transported and displayed. And in countries such as the U.S., where a staggering proportion of the population does not believe in evolution, scientists should embrace the opportunity to share with laypeople the hard evidence for humankinds ancient roots. The future of science education may depend on it.

I went cruising back through my archives looking for other posts that might be informative. I highly recommend my essay from the very beginning of the data access rules at NSF, “NSF and data access.” Here’s a sample:

If the new policy is to be a success, then the proof of it cannot wait for ten to thirty years. It needs teeth. It needs two or three high-profile grants to be declined because of data access issues. And it needs those cases to be made public, so that everyone can have confidence in the openness of the process. This doesn't mean that the names of the applicants and their alleged sharing violations should be dragged through the press. It does mean that NSF should publish the number of grants (and their proposed funding amounts) declined for failings in the data access plan.
But more importantly, it needs replication among other granting agencies. A large set of molecular anthropologists have just shown their willingness to completely forego public funding, in order to maintain certain kinds of controls (in this case ethical ones) over their research (See Genographic Project). Will paleoanthropologists do the same? It would be helpful if some of the important private foundations, such as the National Geographic Society, the Leakey Foundation, Wenner-Gren, and others would establish data access provisions also.
Another helpful idea would be for one of these foundations to establish a data bank. Notice what is missing in the NSF policy is any discussion of a data archive. Other areas of NSF and NIH have such archives and maintain policies of mandatory deposition of data. This is most prominent for genetics, with the GenBank archive and journal publication of most results conditional on mandatory submission of data to the archive. Thus, there is no logical impediment to the creation of such a resource by a federal agency. The fact that they chose not to implement such a policy, I find significant.

Four years later, I think it’s fair to give a synopsis of the results. All NSF grant applications do now include a mandatory section detailing how results will be shared with the public. To my knowledge in paleoanthropology, no grant renewal or follow-up application has been declined for failure to comply with a data access plan. NSF has funded at least one workshop on data sharing in paleoanthropology. There are no CT scans of fossil hominids available for free public download. None.

The European Union and a number of European institutions have made some good progress toward data availability and database sharing. The NESPOS cooperative is a wonderful step toward CT scan availability. It is not as open as I would like – this is not a site that your science-fair-inclined high school students can access. But at least professionals can download useful primary data from the site. The University of Vienna’s CT archive is also a good (if limited) source. Several European institutions and regional or national projects have databases online – covering everything from faunal species lists to high-resolution photographs of stone tools.

Yet, there is nothing to alter what I wrote four years ago:

The real problem is that twenty to thirty years after many fossils are uncovered, there is no cast availability, little public data access, few financial accommodations to make such access possible. Specialists like me often find ways around these barriers. But I do not think it would be overstating the problem to suggest that perhaps half the people teaching human evolution in four-year universities have never touched a cast of a Hadar fossil. I would be delighted to be proved wrong, but I don't think I am. Our field is educating students into a world in which A. afarensis is unknown in the laboratory and poorly represented in our textbooks. I'm not talking about new specimens, here, I'm talking about fossils that were found in the mid-1970's and monographed in 1982. Nor is this problem limited to early hominids. What proportion of people teaching about the modern human origins problem do you suppose have seen a cast of any "early modern" fossil other than Skhul 5?

I’m not picking on Ethiopia; the problem is the same for many regions and time periods – even those with relatively open access to original fossil collections.

More recently, I looked at the impact of those data access rules, along with the prospect that they might be removed by new legislation: “Congress to repeal open access science provisions?” I don’t think that we’ll see that action in this session, but it’s obvious that a policy with no record of success is always in danger of being rolled back.