Old-fashioned ways of reporting new discoveries are holding back medical research. Some scientists are pushing for change
“NEVER tried sharing data like this before,” said the tweet. “Feels like walking into a country for the first time. Exciting, but don’t know what to expect.”
David O’Connor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison was announcing his decision on February 14th to post online data from his laboratory’s latest experiment. He and his team had infected macaques with the Zika virus and were recording the concentrations of virus in the monkeys’ bodily fluids every day. Researchers know that Zika is transmitted principally by infected mosquitoes. But if the virus appears in saliva and urine then these might also be sources of infection.
Dr O’Connor and his colleagues published their results every day to a publicly accessible website. They hoped this would be useful to others working on the disease and, ultimately, to health authorities striving to contain it. They did not expect to garner much attention. But they did.
Within days, researchers from all over the world started contacting them, making suggestions and asking for samples to conduct work that Dr O’Connor’s lab was ill-equipped to carry out. He describes the experience of data-sharing as “universally positive”. But as his tweet suggests, such openness is far from routine.
Careers in medical research hang on publishing papers in prestigious journals such as Nature, Science and Cell. Even in emergencies such as the recent Zika outbreak, or the earlier epidemic of Ebola fever in west Africa, biologists are reluctant to share data until their work is published.
Once a paper is submitted to a journal, though, its findings can languish unseen for months as it goes through a vetting process known as peer review. Reviewers can ask for substantial changes, further experiments and also suggest the journal reject the paper outright. If several journals turn down a paper before it is published, it may be years before the results become public.
Left in the dark in this way, other practitioners may waste time and money conducting unnecessary experiments. In cases where the unpublished work might warn of things like unsafe treatments, the cost of the delay could be measured in lives. Dr O’Connor’s response is part of a reaction against this delay.
He is not alone. On February 10th, prompted by concerns that vital data on the Zika epidemic could be held up by journal peer review, scientific academies, research funders and a number of academic publishers urged researchers “to make any information available that might have value in combating the crisis”. The publishers promised that posting a paper online as a so-called preprint would not disqualify it from publication in a journal later.
But not all publishers signed up to the agreement, and it raises many questions. As Stephen Curry of Imperial College London noted in a blog post for the Guardian, a British daily newspaper, if the approach is valid for Zika, then why not for other infectious diseases, including malaria or HIV/AIDS, which kill millions every year?
Learn more: Research publishing: Taking the online medicine
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