A blog on statistics, methods, and open science. Understanding 20% of statistics will improve 80% of your inferences.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Can you explain why you did not share data and materials when publishing your article?

I recently signed the Peer Reviewers’ Openness Initiative. At its core, it boils down to one very simple thing: As a reviewer, I will from 2017 onwards ask authors to explain why they can not share their data and materials. Without an explanation, I will choose not to review this specific article. 

In Peter Singer’s ‘The Life You Can Save’ (2009) he describes a simple situation. You walk past a shallow pond where you see a small child who is in danger of drowning. No one else is around, but you can easily save the child if you act immediately. You won’t have time to take off your shoes, and the shoes you are wearing will be ruined, and no one will refund them. Will you save the child at the expense of your shoes?

The answer many people give is: “Yes, sure”. Peter Singer goes on to argue that the same amount of money you would be willing to spend in this situation, could be used right now to save the life of children somewhere else in the world.

Why this story stuck with me, because it forces you to explain your behavior. Why don’t I give more to charity?

I personally think it is important to be able to rationalize some important behaviors I perform. When it comes to my work, which is paid for by taxpayers, I feel I need to give them optimal value for their money. When I share my data, stimuli, and materials, science will become more transparent and efficient. If I don’t adhere to these open science principles, I think I need to give an explanation. That’s why from 2013, most of the data, materials, and scripts of papers I was a first author or co-author on are publically available.

As in Peter Singer’s scenario, the rationalization not to do something is sometimes difficult, and sometimes easy. If you don’t have enough money as it is, you don’t have any money to donate to others. Similarly, if you can not share materials, such as the IAPS pictures I used in Lakens, Fockenberg, Lemmens, Ham, & Midden, 2013, the justification is easy. At other times, such as when you are considering spending money on gadgets you don’t really need, or when the materials and data have no copyright or privacy issues, you might be affectively inclined to come up with an excuse, only to realize they don’t hold up after careful deliberation.

It’s this latter category we aim to address with the Peer Reviewers’ Openness Initiative. It is so easy to just ignore this rational justification process when you are a little busy. The goal is to make people ask themselves: Could I share the data, materials, and stimuli? Would doing so make science more transparent and efficient?

I’ve started send out tweets to let you know how many papers I review share all data and materials, or explain why this was not possible. So far, I’m at 3/3. After all, journals like PLOS already ask authors to specify the reasons for restrictions on public data deposition in line with the PRO initiative (they just don’t ask authors to include stimuli or materials whenever possible). I have a strong conviction that researchers want to do what is best for science. Every now and then, we just need someone who asks us to reflect upon, and explain, our behavior. 

If you want to help remind researchers they need to rationalize why they are not sharing data, materials, and stimuli, you can sign the PRO initiative here.

For other views related to the Initiative, see blog posts by Richard Morey, Candice Morey, and Rolf Zwaan.
[Read the paper -- Sign the Initiative -- More resources for open science]


  1. To add one more perspective on Peter Singer’s scenarios. In the first example the person is having a direct effect on someone's life. Actionable and visible. In the second example you are trusting and relying on others to carry out your wishes.

    But to your point, why aren't researchers doing something that they are in control of that will benefit others?

  2. I think there is a misconception to the Singer scenario. Money is viewed as potential; a reserve for contingencies, both planned and unplanned. Shoes are already expended monies and therefore not a not a viable alternative to mitigate future planned and unknown circumstances.

    This has little to do with decision to consider whether to review a paper. Possible, the monies weren't made available to properly manage and control the data for presentation in a way consumable for reviews. Maybe it is time to ask the question: "Are you just punishing the already victimized?". Will it divert resources from the research and assets, diminished capabilities ? What value will the taxpayer find from this additional expense?

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