A new position paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) has generated a lot of controversy among some scientists: Toward Fairness in Data Sharing. It’s not hard to see why: the piece criticizes the concept of data sharing in the context of clinical trials. Data sharing is the much-discussed idea that researchers should make their raw data available to anyone who wants to access it. While the NEJM piece is specifically framed as a rebuttal to this recent pro-data sharing NEJM article, the arguments advanced apply to science more generally.
There is a strong prima facie case that raw scientific data should be made freely available. It is widely recognized that nullius in verba –“on the word of no-one” or “take no-one’s word for it” – is one of the fundamental principles of the scientific endeavor. Scientists do not believe something just because it someone (or even everyone) claims that it is so. Evidence, not opinion, is what science is about.
Without open data, a scientific paper is little more than a statement that, in the author’s opinion, some evidence supports a certain set of claims. Without access to the raw data, a reader of a paper has no way of checking whether the results really do support the conclusions of the paper. So, without access to the raw data, the reader is asked to take the results essentially on faith.
It might be said that nullius in verba is an impossible standard.