Opening up science

Feb 06 2014, 03:21 IST
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SummaryPooling research data and giving open access to it will aid independent verification of findings and repurpose old research to answer new questions

New Jersey-based health care giant Johnson & Johnson took a leadership position in open science on Friday, leaving behind competitors who are reluctant to outgrow the current way of doing science and technology, which believes that the highest value accrues from exclusive ownership of knowledge, protected by a punitive patents regime, strong data security laws and a climate of corporate secrecy. This model cannot possibly scale up to the ever-larger questions and opportunities that science and technology will encounter soon. Sharing across national borders and corporate and academic firewalls would be an easier and faster route to take.

J&J has forged an alliance with the Yale Open Data Access (YODA) Project of the Center for Outcomes Research and Evaluation (CORE) at Yale-New Haven Hospital to release clinical trials data to other researchers. Traditionally, pharmaceutical companies have closely held trials data, only sharing with regulators as required. Negative results were especially unlikely to be released. It has been feared that the data can be used by the competition to save development time, or to launch political attacks on the company. Not all criticism of companies in the life sciences is in the public interest, and they are naturally not eager to shovel grist into the mill.

So J&J is being daringly progressive in turning the model on its head. YODA will act as a clearing house vetting requests for data coming in from researchers and practitioners all over the world. Credible agencies will be given access to raw data in bulk, scrubbed of patient identifiers. Starting with drug trials, the programme will eventually include medical devices. Crucially, all the data will be revealed, not only sets relating to positive results, or sets which are immediately germane to the query. Interesting possibilities will emerge, including some which may be unanticipated.

For starters, researchers would be able to verify company results independently. This would have implications for scientific issues which have been overtaken by politics, such as genetically modified foods. In such cases, there is room for politics rather than reason because the tests run are not seen to be entirely compelling, or the testers not entirely disinterested parties. Reappraisals of the raw data by third parties at arm's length could pave the way to acceptable resolutions.

But recursing old trials is only an elementary outcome, though it can have profound consequences for trust. More interestingly, large, cumulative volumes of released data would make big

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