“When I started on this I thought it would be boring. Having seen such distinguished people work hard at it for a day, I see it isn't.” So said Tom Cech, president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, at a gathering last week of academics, industrialists, administrators and editors at the US National Academy of Sciences seeking a consensus on the role of journals in the availability of published data and research materials. Cech's degree of interest is relevant because he heads an academy panel that is due to report on the issues of availability within a few months.

Virtually the only consensus to be found was of the motherhood-and-apple-pie variety. The stand-off persists between those seeking free access to all published data and those, not only in the database industry, who want journals to allow published data to be deposited in subscriber-only databases. As somebody remarked, not only the Devil but God is in the details: if you want to set out principles of access, you have to get into the context — a simple statement of principle cannot do justice to the varied state of the experimental arts in different fields and the differing expectations of the various research communities.

Equally important is the largely hidden problem of non-compliance with journals' guidelines on data sharing. Many refusals to share materials probably don't get reported, and where there are complaints, they go variously to funding agencies, authors' employers and journals, so that the full extent of non-compliance is unknown. Should there be a standard set of procedures for complainants to follow?

This journal's experience matches that of several editors at the meeting: a letter from the journal to an author is generally enough to overcome a reluctance to share, except where there are genuine obstacles to availability of certain types of material. A journal's editor is thus a sensible first stop for a researcher facing an author's stubborn refusal to share according to the journal's guidelines.

But there can be cases where a quiet word from the editor is inadequate. Whom do you complain to then? How does a dissatisfied researcher or editor take the case further? A threat from a funding agency (usually identified in the paper) probably carries the greatest clout. But can universities or other employers of recalcitrant researchers, eager to protect their laboratory's competitiveness, be relied on to follow the rules?

Cech also pointed out, quite rightly, that although many journals issue strong statements of principle about sharing, they give little or no guidance about how to put pressure on authors who refuse to comply. Point taken. We have now added to our website the simple instruction that anybody who fails to obtain data or materials in accordance with our Guide to Authors should contact the Editor at nature@nature.com, who will ensure that action is taken. That, at least, is a start. But for these and more serious cases of misconduct, funding agencies and employers should be more transparent about whom people should contact in cases of persistent or extreme bad behaviour, and their commitment to act on complaints.