Call for OA to paleo data

Fossils for All: Science Suffers by Hoarding, editorial, Scientific American Magazine, September 2009.

… [F]ossil hunters often block other scientists from studying their treasures, fearing assessments that could scoop or disagree with their own. In so doing, they are taking the science out of paleoanthropology. …

The scientists who expend the blood, sweat and tears to unearth the remnants of humanity’s past deserve first crack at describing and analyzing them. But there should be clear limits on this period of exclusivity. Otherwise, the self-correcting aspect of science is impeded: outside researchers can neither reproduce the discovery team’s findings nor test new hypotheses.

In 2005 the National Science Foundation took steps toward setting limits, requiring grant applicants to include a plan for making specimens and data collected using NSF money available to other researchers within a specified time frame. But paleoanthropologists assert that nothing has really changed. And according to Leslie Aiello of the Wenner-Gren Foundation, a major source of private funding for anthropological research, both public and private funding agencies typically lack the resources to enforce access policies, if they have them at all.

Ultimately, the adoption of openaccess practices will depend in large part on paleoanthropologists themselves and the institutions that store human fossils—most of which originate outside the U.S.—doing the right thing. But the NSF, which currently considers failure to make data accessible just one factor in deciding whether to fund a researcher again, should take a firmer stance on the issue and reject without exception those repeat applicants who do not follow the access rules. The agency could also create a centralized database to which researchers could contribute measurements, observations, high-resolution photographs and CT scans—a GenBank for paleoanthropology. And journals could require that authors submit their data prior to publication, as they do with authors of papers containing new genetic sequences. …