Edward Davies: Open data – are you a great big hypocrite?

Edward DaviesDuring the Scientific Sessions of the American Heart Association I spoke to several people and attended a session with several speakers on the importance of open data.

On the availability of patient level data, every talk and conversation has had the same two competing  threads:

1)      Making data more open is hugely important to the future of research

2)      Making data more open is hard to do

But there has been a third facet that has cropped up more than once: researchers who pronounce the importance of open data with their words and undermine it with their decisions of where to submit to publish.

In the spirit of disclosure, the BMJ actively campaigns on this and, as of January 2013, the BMJ no longer publishes any trial of drugs or devices where the authors do not commit to making the relevant anonymized patient level data available, on reasonable request. So I have a huge invested interest in the following. But pretend I don’t.

Put bluntly, when you tell me with your mouth that you care deeply about open data and then submit your research to a journal that does not have similar standards on data, you sound like a hypocrite.

I wondered about toning down that sentence to something like “you are making statements as to the relativity of importance of patient level data,” but I think that sounded too weak—because it is. If you choose a journal for impact factor, audience, future funding potential, and so on, you are making a good and important choice, which does indeed reflect the current priorities of your peers. Well done. This is not a judgement, it is a mirror. Do not then turn around to me, your colleagues, and the scientific community at large, and claim that the issue of open data is of vital importance to you. Your considered actions do not back this up.

If researchers really want to stress the importance of opening up patient level data then maybe it’s time to make it a priority and only consider journals with open data policies. Go on. I dare you. Or are you just a hypocrite?

Edward Davies is US news and features editor, BMJ.