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How the new White House policy on public access to federally funded research may affect data

The new policy establishes strong expectations for public access to data from federally funded research programs.

3 min read
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Photo by Tabrez Syed on Unsplash

Open access to the data that underlies scientific research has been gaining ground for the last decade across the sciences. Things are becoming more open even within paleoanthropology. I'm proud that my own research collaborations have been leaders in making our data available for other researchers to build upon. We're not alone—many institutions and researchers around the world are following open principles in providing access to data.

Last month, the Office of Science and Technology Policy for the White House announced a new policy on public access to the publications that result from federal research funding. The new policy would require all peer-reviewed research results from federal funding to be available without subscription or paywall immediately upon publication.

What I haven't seen reported is what this new policy will mean for data.

The memorandum that announced the policy made it quite clear that access to data will be a requirement:

“Scientific data underlying peer-reviewed scholarly publications resulting from federally funded research should be made freely available and publicly accessible by default at the time of publication.”

This is a powerful statement that it will no longer be acceptable for researchers who spend public funds to withhold data after publication of research. The policy memo goes a step further by directing agencies to develop ways to share federally-funded data that underlies all research, not just the data that will appear in peer-reviewed research outputs.

The policy has greater clarity than earlier statements about open access. It will more effectively leverage federal investment to enable a broader range of researchers and institutions to use the most current datasets, and that's a positive outcome for better science. The memorandum notes that the experience of the COVID-19 pandemic has shown the importance of rapid dissemination of datasets, even before peer-reviewed research can be published.

Still, I expect that this policy will have at most a slight impact on anthropology or the study of human origins. U.S. federal grant sources, such as NSF, are a diminishing share of funding for this research globally. The European Union has become the largest government funder, and national agencies in many other countries are playing a more important role in shaping policy than U.S. sources.

In human evolution research, some kinds of datasets are easily opened. Many researchers now routinely provide datasets in open repositories together with publication of their results. That culture is changing fast.

But there remains real inequity of funding and opportunities. Many of the nations that are the custodians of heritage have not benefited from research on this heritage as much as they should have. Removing heritage objects away to rich countries and keeping data in digital lockboxes is not sustainable or equitable. Science creates jobs, and science funders must continue to rebalance investment to build institutions and careers in nations where the science happens.

I'd like to see U.S. science policy move more strongly to recognize that access to data and information are part of a broader set of challenges to science. Human origins research shares much with research on climate, geosciences, and health—all areas in which global partnerships are essential to good research. Global science that is not equitable is not sustainable.

The best research on human evolution includes the broadest comparisons. In a field where many species have few fossils, there's really no excuse for leaving any out. So there's nothing that dismays me as a research article that omits a comparison with a fossil that should have been obvious to the authors.

Often, it's the difficulty of access to data that stops researchers from being more inclusive in their comparisons. The science will be better when this kind of friction is no longer an excuse for doing less.

data accessopen accessopen sciencescience policyscience diplomacy
John Hawks

John Hawks Twitter

I'm a paleoanthropologist exploring the world of ancient humans and our fossil relatives.

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