02 July 2013

I am a data vulture.

Heather Piwowar was one of the iEvoBio keynote speakers last week. I tweeted directly after her talk that she'd lit a fire under my ass to start advocating for open access/science/data, so immediately started my own ImpactStory profile and began meticulously analyzing my professional life.

I've long been sold on open science, and have gradually implemented practices to bring my daily professional life in line with that philosophy. In her talk, Heather spent time discussing issues hindering open science. Most of these were familiar arguments, such as current or future research being "scooped" by data being publicly available. Sometimes I'm personally hindered by technology, time, preferences of collaborators, or even just my own ignorance. I acknowledge, however, that my research here at NESCent is dependent on open access to data and analytical tools, and am hoping to continue this type of research for the rest of my career.

Starting at slide 98, Heather began relating some of the more visceral reactions to scientists opposed to providing open access to their data. I was a bit shocked at the rhetoric surrounding their claims: fear of "armchair ecologists" and "data vultures" reaping the benefit of analyzing data without having to set foot in the field.

I sat back in surprise at the realization that I am a data vulture. I literally feed my research on the carrion of discarded genomic sequencing projects, digging through the trash of the repetitive genomic fraction. I've always liked the mental image of digging through genomic junk. I use pictures of Oscar the Grouch or photos of myself digging through trash cans (right) in my professional presentations. Suddenly, though, those cute metaphors were starting to seem like a betrayal of "real" science.

Heather related the words of another respondent to her questions who was disinclined to share data: "we bleed for each data point." I nearly laughed at the rhetoric, recognizing how similar it was to a post I wrote over two years back: I bleed for my thesis: Part 1. I've literally been that scientist before.

I've sat on both sides of the metaphorical data collection fence. I know how much time, money, and energy it takes to do field/lab/greenhouse work, and I appreciate the desire to make the most of that investment with thorough data analysis. I know the work of data collection isn't always rewarded in our current academic climate. However, I'm not afraid of others knowing about my research. I gladly welcome collaborators, and am happy to foist off projects on other folks. I have enough ideas for research to last several lifetimes and will gladly share them.

What to do about my existential crisis? I suppose I'd rather spend my time really owning the label "data vulture" than worry about keeping my research secret. In my mind, the benefits of sharing data and research far outweigh the potential risks. I'll tarry onward with my perhaps idealistic view of science research and think about knitting a vulture costume...because that would be an even better visual gag for presentations, right?

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