Recommendations for the handling of ethical concerns relating to the publication of research data

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Iratxe Puebla & Daniella Lowenberg

On behalf of the FORCE11 Research Data Publishing Ethics WG

The growth in data sharing over the last few years is an undeniably positive trend, providing the research community with ready access to valuable outputs and affording researchers further opportunities to extend the reach of their work. As more datasets are deposited and published, it is important -- and necessary -- to develop standards for the handling of possible ethical challenges that may arise in relation to published data: both to protect the researchers who contribute datasets and to secure trust by the scientific community in the value and reliability of public datasets.

While ethical standards have been developed for journal publications, this is a relatively new space for datasets and data publications. As the number of published datasets has increased, so has the amount and range of data-related ethics issues that data repositories and journals are encountering, and thus, the need for recommendations for a consistent and adequate handling of this type of cases has become more pressing. It is also important to recognize that while data repositories and journals may hold aligned integrity principles, the tools, processes and resources available at journals and data repositories differ. In the context of data publication, there may also be different research outputs that come into play (the dataset, the related journal article or preprint, perhaps different publications based on the same dataset). There is, therefore, a need to develop dedicated guidelines that account for these differences and nuances when handling ethical concerns related to a published dataset.

With the goal of supporting those involved in research data publication to handle ethical issues that may arise, we launched the FORCE11 Research Data Publication Ethics Working Group in early 2021. The Working Group was set up in collaboration with the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), which has a long record in developing guidelines and resources related to publication ethics in the context of journal publications. We also called for participation in the Working Group by a broad range of stakeholders to ensure the needs of data repositories, researchers, institutional research integrity officers, and libraries would be represented. We knew that for the deliverables of this group to be impactful and broadly accepted, we needed as diverse a group as possible to come to an agreement on newly proposed, best practice recommendations.

Now including over 60 members, the Working Group brings together researchers as well as representatives from institutions (research integrity officers, libraries), publishers (editors, ethics officers) and data repositories (disciplinary, generalist, institutional) from across the world. Members of this Working Group came together devoted to working through complexities of data, both related to datasets themselves, and any associated article(s). Drawing on the perspectives and expertise of our members, we have been working over the last months to develop recommendations for the handling of ethical concerns, broken down into four categories of concerns: Authorship & Contribution Conflicts, Legal & Regulatory Restrictions, Rigor, Risk.

We are pleased to share this initial resource with the community; the documents are available here.

For each of the categories of concerns outlined, the document provides a description and examples of situations that fall into that category, context to demonstrate how the issue may be raised to the attention of the data publisher, and recommendations on how the data publisher (and the publisher of related articles) can handle the concern. The recommendations cover a broad range of scenarios, including whether or not the dataset is already publicly available, whether the concern can be addressed in communication with the authors, and whether updates or even removal of the dataset may be required, along with corrections to the record for associated publications in a journal.

The work of the group does not stop here. Our goal continues to be broad recommendations and adoption across the scholarly communications ecosystem and so the next phase is already underway to develop flowcharts for each of the case categories to provide resources that support the step-by-step follow up on individual cases. The group will continue to focus on other resources that may be necessary or helpful, such as email templates, reusable policy text, and more. We plan to be responsive to the community and welcome thoughts and suggestions for other guidelines, educational materials, or outreach resources that may be useful.

We hope that the diverse stakeholders in the FORCE11 community and beyond will recognize the value of these resources and use them as standard practice when data publishing ethics cases arise. We realize that practice in relation to data publication is likely to evolve as data deposition grows and as processes and tools available to data publishers mature, and so we would very much welcome feedback on these recommendations so that we can refine them and keep them as useful as possible for the community. For any comments or suggestions please contact the Working Group chairs Iratxe Puebla and Daniella Lowenberg. If you would like to join the next phases of work, please consider joining the Working Group. 

Publication Date: 
Tuesday, September 7, 2021