Sharing health data: good intentions are not enough
Elizabeth Pisani & Carla AbouZahr
Epidemiologists and public health researchers are moving very slowly in the data sharing revolution, and agencies that maintain global health databases are reluctant to share data too. Once investments in infrastructure have been made, recycling and combining data provide access to maximum knowledge for minimal additional cost. By refusing to share data, researchers are slowing progress towards reducing illness and death and are denying a public good to taxpayers who support most of the research.
Funders of public health research are beginning to call for change and developing data sharing policies. However they are not yet adequately addressing the obstacles that underpin the failure to share data. These include professional structures that reward publication of analysis but not of data, and funding streams and career paths that continue to undervalue critical data management work. Practical issues need to be sorted out too: how and where should data be stored for the long term, who will control access, and who will pay for those services? Existing metadata standards need to be extended to cope with health data.
These obstacles have been known for some time; most can be overcome in the field of public health just as they have been overcome in other fields. However no institution has taken the lead in defining a work plan and carving up the tasks and the bill. In this round table paper, we suggest goals for data sharing and a work plan for reaching them, and challenge respondents to move beyond well intentioned but largely aspirational data sharing plans.