Biological Anthropology association speaks out on data access

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For many years, biological anthropologists have been talking about data access.

This month the American Journal of Physical Anthropology is running a commentary: “Data sharing in biological anthropology: Guiding principles and best practices”.

An ad hoc committee on data access and data sharing produced the commentary, which they describe as a consensus of forty participants across the field.

I think that it is very positive that biological anthropologists are having these conversations. There is broad agreement that the data that underlie published studies should be available for replication and meta-analyses.

On the other hand, I’ve noticed over the years that many scientists who agree in principle that data should be available nevertheless find many ways to obfuscate or prevent access. I see some language in the published statement that makes me nervous. For example:

Project design should include a clear data management and sharing plan that is in place prior to the start of the project. Data sharing should be viewed over a time horizon related to the length of the research project, such that different parts of a data set may be shared at different times. For example, timelines in a grant proposal might include specific target dates for making particular data available (e.g., metadata, raw data, etc.).

I get very worried when I see this. In my experience, timelines and target dates in grant proposals do not translate into data access upon publication. In some areas of biological anthropology, projects that have been funded by our major grant agencies are less likely to archive data in ways that other researchers can access, even though they have filled in the mandatory “data access plans”.

It’s also curious that the NSF-funded data repositories for biological anthropology data, such as MorphoSource and PaleoCore, are not included on the list of recommended data repositories. I know that many projects have satisfied NSF data access plan requirements by referring to these repositories. Yet some people have worried that such data repositories are not sustainable in the long term because they rely upon continued funding.

Anyway, I recommend reading the statement and thinking about how the best practices can be improved.