A free web-based tool that promises to help its users ask authors of research papers to publicly share their data — and to make such requests publicly trackable — launched in beta version on 7 March.
The Open Data Button — a downloadable web-browser extension — can be clicked when a reader is looking at a research paper and wants to see its underlying data, says Joseph McArthur, who is co-leading the project and is assistant director of the policy advocacy group The Right to Research Coalition (R2RC) in London. The button is currently available only for Google Chrome users.
When clicked, the button generates a template e-mail which the user can send to the paper’s authors. It asks them to share the data supporting the paper, explains how to do so and — if the user has typed in the information — states why the data would be useful. All requests are simultaneously publicly posted on the Open Data Button website, where anyone can comment on existing entries to note that they want access to the same data sets.
If the author replies — either with a weblink or attached data file — “we ask our users to affirm that this is the data they wanted”, says McArthur. If so, the button e-mails a digital badge to the author as a reward for his or her commitment to data sharing. The badge is also hosted on the Open Data Button site’s ‘requests’ page. And, when a request is made using the button, past requests are trawled so that authors don’t get repeatedly asked for data sets that they have already provided. The tool will chase authors once a week for the first four weeks after a request is filed, says McArthur, after which entries will be marked as "failed".
Making open the norm
The project is mostly funded by a US$25,000 grant from the non-profit Centre for Open Science in Charlottesville, Virginia — which has also promised to host any data files sent in reply by authors on its own Open Science Framework repository. It is also part-funded by the Open Society Foundations in New York, and is supported by a group of volunteers who — at least in the tool’s early stages — will moderate e-mail requests. The aim is to encourage open data sharing, which is still far from the norm in research, McArthur notes, even though many journals are now asking authors to publish their data alongside their research papers.
“It is good to draw attention to an important problem such as data availability with a one-click gadget,” says Bernd Pulverer, chief editor of The EMBO Journal in Heidelberg, Germany. But a button by itself “is probably not quite going to cause the revolution”, he says. There is still a reluctancy — especially amongst biologists — to share their data openly, because of fears of being scooped by competition, and because of the extra work required in making data sets open, he notes.
The beta version of the tool has limitations: users have to manually enter the author’s e-mail address when sending requests, and the application doesn’t have any way of checking whether requested data sets are already freely available somewhere else. But McArthur hopes to automate these functions and to extend the tool to Mozilla Firefox and other web browsers.
Way to go
The Open Data Button is an extension of a related project, the Open Access Button, which invited users to click a button if they could not find freely available versions of papers behind pay walls. For the moment, that tool — which launched in October 2014 and has around 5,000 users — simply trawls through public repositories when clicked. Next month, McArthur says that it will allow users to e-mail a paper’s author, as with the Open Data Button.
Ultimately, McArthur hopes that neither button will be needed as it becomes the norm to share data openly and make versions of papers open to read. But progress on both fronts could be slow — so McArthur thinks that the tools can expect a long and useful lifespan.
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