Data sharing and the ‘gift culture’ of science

6 minute read

Some paleoanthropologists claim that they share data very widely, because they are exchanging datasets with other researchers to accomplish particular research aims. When I’ve talked to such people, they often do not understand where I am coming from when I talk about data access. “What’s the problem?” they might say, “I’ve always been able to get data about fossils I needed for my question.”

A few investigators even go so far as hoarding datasets that they gather from other scientists. Imagine scientists trading illicit CT scans….

Wouldn’t it be much easier just to deposit datasets into open access repositories when the work is published?

A number of researchers have examined this question in other branches of science by doing surveys and case studies of research in practice. This is a quote from a paper by Wallis, Rolando and Borgman (2013), who looked at scientific practices among the Center for Embedded Network Sensing, an interdisciplinary research center funded by NSF.

Much more is known about why researchers do not share data than about why they do share. Among the many reasons for not making data available are a lack of appropriate infrastructure, concerns about protecting the researcher's right to publish their results first, incentive systems that favor publishing articles over publishing data, difficulty in establishing trust in others' data, and the individual investment needed to preserve and manage data in ways that will be understandable and useful to others. This is not to suggest that researchers are selfish, lazy, or greedy. Rather, these findings suggest that despite the current interest in managing, sharing, and reusing research data, the infrastructure and incentives to do so do not yet exist.
Another explanation for the lack of sharing is the “gift culture” of scholarship. Researchers exchange data, documents, specimens, and other intellectual resources with each other through trusted relationships. Data often are closely held, as they can be bartered for other data or resources. If openly deposited for anyone to use, researchers may lose the ability to barter data privately, thus creating a disincentive for deposit.

But for various reasons, scientists hesitate to make data public. They may think that others will misuse the data, by misunderstanding the precise conditions under which it was gathered and thereby drawing incorrect conclusions.

I’ve participated in many formal meetings and conversations about data access in anthropology, and they nearly always end in bickering about the precise conventions for “metadata”—the description of the precise way that the data were gathered. Metadata are necessary for researchers to make intelligent choices about whether and how data gathered by different observers are comparable. But the metadata problem in practice is an excuse for no one to make their own data available to anyone else.

Of course researchers are not only driven by altruistic motives to keep other scientists from making errors. They may want to reserve the ability to publish further studies on the same data, instead of allowing others to benefit from their work. If they can share data very selectively, they may be able to get other useful data in exchange, thereby increasing the value of further publications using the same observations. In other words, they want to cash in.

The “gift culture” is an ideal description of some corners of paleoanthropology as practiced since the 1980s. The term doesn’t blame the participants in data exchanges, who have a broad range of motivations and willingness to share their own data. It just recognizes that data are being shared reciprocally within established networks of scientists, which are based on reputation, access and power. Always within this gift culture some individuals and institutions have shared data and access to information broadly with respect to the power or position of recipients. But others have been extremely reluctant to share any information at all, even questions about their own published research, and never share data unless they can exert control over the direction of the science.

At its worst the gift culture is not science at all, it’s sycophancy. Scientific analyses critical of some previous studies can never be performed, because data are shared only with scientists who will support the conclusions of prior work.

Ability to perform an unbiased replication is by far the most important scientific reason for open data access. Even if no replication is ever performed, the availability of the data provides a minimal assurance that the conclusions are based on real observations. In paleoanthropology, the widespread use of reconstructions and corrections for distorted fossils make this a real concern. How can we know that the seventeenth attempt at reconstruction is the anatomically correct one, if we cannot independently evaluate the data that underlie it?

But a widespread gift culture not only raises questions about the practice of science, it can damage the future of the science. Consider:

  1. An informal network of data sharing, outside of recognized repositories, does nothing to advance the institutions that curate hominin fossil remains. They have no ability to track this informal data sharing, nor do they develop a connection with the recipients of data from their collections. This denies those institutions opportunities to receive public and donor funding for their work. By contrast, recognized repositories allow a citation trail to be established between uses of data and the institutions that curate fossils.

  2. Informal “gift culture” networks cut early career researchers out of the system as independent scholars. If early career researchers can only access data through existing networks of senior scholars, then they may simply not be able to ask certain questions without connections through an academic advisor or other senior investigator. For some research questions this may look like patronage, for many it is peonage.

  3. The gift culture keeps data out of the hands of teachers who are training the next generation of students. Open sharing of data enables teachers to create valuable teaching resources that show how human evolution happened. When data are held close by researchers and traded in secret, students will not have these opportunities to see how science works. Teachers are the biggest losers, and opponents of teaching evolution are the biggest beneficiaries of the gift culture of paleoanthropological data.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Paleoanthropologists are drawn into the gift culture ultimately as a way of managing their reputations. A better way of building a reputation is to provide data freely. The data have contributed to some piece of work, and sharing data with the world is a hard-to-fake way of demonstrating the rigor of the work.

In other words, we need to move from a gift culture to a potlatch culture.

Some excellent institutions and individuals curate and share data broadly, and they deserve more recognition for what they are doing. The University of the Witwatersrand is getting some attention for open access this week because of the Rising Star collection on MorphoSource. Teachers all over the world have been printing out the fossils and sharing them with their classes! Our team is building upon the long-term efforts of many others. More and more paleoanthropologists are using open access repositories like MorphoSource and Figshare, or are depositing datasets in supplementary material of journal publications.


Wallis JC, Rolando E, Borgman CL (2013) If We Share Data, Will Anyone Use Them? Data Sharing and Reuse in the Long Tail of Science and Technology. PLoS ONE 8(7): e67332. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0067332