Research Data in the Digital Age

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Science  24 Jul 2009:
Vol. 325, Issue 5939, pp. 368
DOI: 10.1126/science.1178927

This week, the U.S. National Academies released an overview report* on the challenges of maintaining the integrity of scientific research data in an age of revolutionary digital technologies. The report, Ensuring the Integrity, Accessibility, and Stewardship of Research Data in the Digital Age, provides a framework for dealing with the challenges to the community generated by the onrush of digital technology. As chairs of the report committee, we hope that it moves the research community forward, collectively, to consider the integrity of data in ways that best support the advancement of scientific, engineering, and medical knowledge, as well as the maintenance of public trust.


In 2007, Ralph Cicerone, president of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, received letters from the editors of several journals expressing concern about the manipulation of digital images in scientific manuscripts. It soon became apparent that this was but one of many issues related to the treatment of data with the advent of digital technologies. As a result, the National Academies appointed a committee of scientists to examine their impact on acquiring, sharing, and storing data across scientific disciplines.


Digital technologies have transformed every facet of research, from the questions asked and the methods used, to the ways in which researchers interact. In the face of this transformation, researchers must take the lead in maintaining the integrity of data that lies at the heart of science. The guiding principle continues to be that researchers are responsible for their findings, and peer review remains the gold standard for evaluating the quality of research.

Digital technologies have raised many concerns about the methods traditionally used to ensure the integrity and utility of data. Because each research field has its own conventions and procedures for acquiring, analyzing, and disseminating data, it is not possible to provide specific recommendations that apply across disciplines. Nevertheless, the committee has identified several broad principles that extend across all fields of research, thus providing a framework for moving forward.

Standards for ensuring the integrity of digital research data must be developed and enforced by researchers, research institutions, funding agencies, professional societies, and journals. The report lays out broad principles for producing such standards, including such issues as the legal requirements for maintaining records, copyright, and ownership. It is also essential that researchers, educators, and students receive appropriate training in the proper management of research data. The report provides guidance for developing such programs. Research data and other information integral to publicly reported results should be publicly accessible. Although legitimate reasons may exist for keeping some data private or delaying their release, the default assumption must be that research data and the information needed to interpret them will be publicly accessible in a timely manner to allow verification of findings and facilitate future discoveries.

The questions of who is responsible for storing research data and who pays for maintaining the archive are urgent. The value of the huge quantities of data generated by digital technologies to contemporary and future research requires not only preserving and sharing the data, but also documenting the instruments and procedures used to generate it. Such tasks are time-consuming and costly, and there is no consensus on how to tackle these issues. However, researchers need to work with their institutions, funding agencies, and professional societies to formulate and implement data management plans.The National Academies' Board on Research Data and Information will address this agenda at an upcoming meeting in September.

Many of the issues raised by the report apply to all efforts to derive new knowledge in science as technologies evolve, and the very process of modifying the practices and daily activities of researchers provides a valuable opportunity to reinforce and extend the traditional openness and collaborative spirit of science.

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