Enlisting help from your institution

Institutions can do a lot to help researchers share their data. One potential complication to openness is ensuring compliance with national data protection regulations. Institutions can help with this by ensuring that researchers can recruit participants without personally keeping copies of their personal details. Local ethics review boards can enable openness by encouraging researchers to use consent forms that require explicit agreement to the broad sharing of anonymized data, where appropriate.

Depending on your institutions’ regulations, it may be necessary to consult your local ethics committee regarding opening your data or materials. If you are unsure whether posting your data set is allowed, you may send your ethics committee a version of the following letter:

Dear <insert name of local ethics committee> members,

I am interested in making my data publicly available. Scientists are frequently asked to share data with colleagues on an ad-hoc basis, but in the interest of openness I would like to make my data available before any specific requests are made. I believe my data are of broad value to scientists and I want to facilitate access so that the scientific community learns as much from them as possible.

Naturally, there are ethical considerations to making data open, especially regarding participants’ anonymity and consent. These considerations are likely to vary depending on the nature of the research project. Regarding my approved research project, <insert title and approval number here>, is there any objection to my making an anonymous data set <perhaps insert variables included or attach dataset to email> publicly available? Also, are there any particular demographic variables besides names and contact information that you believe I should also omit from a published dataset, so as to protect my participants’ privacy?

If you would also like to press for the standards at your institution to reflect expectations for sharing data, you may continue:

More generally, I would be interested in taking steps to help other researchers at our institution make their data publicly available. It would be a great help if data sharing were assumed to be the norm, rather than an exception. Could we prompt researchers to consider the possibility of sharing their data at the beginning of their projects, perhaps by including prompts about this in ethics applications, or mentioning open data and the precautions in place for privacy protections on template consent forms? Assuming that data sharing will occur would help researchers tremendously by removing unnecessary barriers to openness. I would be grateful if the <insert name of local ethics committee here> would consider these issues carefully, think of ways to facilitate data sharing while considering the interests of research participants, and offer guidance on these issues to our whole research community.

Sincerely,

<insert your name>