To share or not to share

10 Jun 2013

The challenge of ‘sharing’ has been on my mind a lot recently.  The general consensus is that sharing is a good thing, especially in the area of research, and every day seems to bring more initiatives to increase it.  In just the last few weeks we’ve seen the launch of the first UK-wide database for sharing University facilities and equipment, equipment.data.ac.uk, Caldicott’s review of information governance in the healthcare system (a principle of which is that ‘the duty to share information can be as important as the need to protect patient confidentiality’), and the release of the Health Research Agency’s proposals for increasing transparency in research.  I am myself working on a project for a number of HEIs which is founded on the reciprocal sharing of information.  The project can only succeed if everyone shares information openly – which fortunately for me they have all been willing to do.

As the father of two small children, I am frequently reminded that sharing does not always come naturally to us.  Even when we overcome our innate reluctance to share (‘it’s mine!’), the desire to share can founder on the practical challenges involved.  Questions about ownership and reciprocity quickly come to the fore, and just as a child needs reassurance that her favourite toy will be returned undamaged, so researchers need to know that sharing information or facilities will not result in them being misused.  Policies, technical infrastructure and legal safeguards that effectively protect rights of ownership and attribution are thus essential for sharing to become the norm.

Yet the risk and effort of sharing can never be eliminated entirely.  There is no guarantee that each individual who shares will gain more than they lose, only that the community as a whole will gain.  For some, this is reason enough, and many valuable resources, from Wikipedia to the arXiv e-print service, have grown out of the efforts of like-minded individuals.  For others, it seems a nudge in the right direction is needed.  The good news is that governments and research funders are increasingly determined to give it.