Zika, Ebola emphasize need for open, public health data sharing

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Old-school sharing of public health data, via methods such as through peer-reviewed journals, doesn’t work in emergency situations--and recent public health crises including the Zika virus and Ebola emphasize the need for routine public health information exchange, researchers say.

In an essay published in PLOS Medicine, researchers from the Defense Health Agency, the U.S. Army Institute of Public Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, call for support of initiatives to address data sharing obstacles and say the scientific community must support “open science practices in both emergency and nonemergency research.”

The authors note that to best ensure proper data sharing is in place in the event of an outbreak like Ebola or the Zika virus, the practice should be expanded to all public health research.

This should tie in with the effort to move to a place where science data and information is more open to all, they add. Which is not to say that such practices aren't already underway in the sciences: The authors point to how, because of the Zika outbreak, scientific journals have made Zika-related content free to access.

However, challenges remain, they say, including:

  • No established standards for data users to credit data providers
  • Scientists may not think sharing data will advance their scholarly position as much as published research
  • Technological barriers that prevent easy data sharing

They conclude that amending the International Health Regulations with “clear codes of practice for data sharing warrants serious consideration.

“Integrating open science approaches into routine research should make data sharing more effective during emergencies, but this evolution is more than just practice for emergencies. The cause and context of the next outbreak are unknowable; research that seems routine now may be critical tomorrow. Establishing openness as the standard will help build the scientific foundation needed to contain the next outbreak,” they write.

To learn more:

- here's the essay