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Tuesday, October 02, 2007

The Value of Dark Data

Tom Goetz wrote a thoughtful article "It's Time to Free the Dark Data of Failed Scientific Experiments" in Wired this week.

So what happens to all the research that doesn't yield a dramatic outcome β€”or, worse, the opposite of what researchers had hoped? It ends up stuffed in some lab drawer. The result is a vast body of squandered knowledge that represents a waste of resources and a drag on scientific progress. This information β€” call it dark data β€” must be set free.


There are some islands of innovation. Since 2002, the Journal of Negative Results in Biomedicine has offered a peer-reviewed home to results that go negative or against the grain. Earlier this year, the journal Nature started Nature Precedings, a Web-based forum for prepublication research and unpublished manuscripts in biomedicine, chemistry, and the earth sciences. At Drexel University, chemist Jean-Claude Bradley practices "open notebook" science β€” chronicling his lab's work and sharing data via blog and wiki. And PLoS is planning an open repository for research and data that is other wise abandoned.

The main focus of the article is on results that don't make it to an article because they are not interesting enough. "Failed Experiments" in this sense are those that do not uncover a hoped for correlation or, in synthetic organic chemistry, those where the desired product is not obtained.

However, there are many more shades of Dark Data. One large category often downplayed consists of experiments aborted because of mistakes and accidents. For example in EXP096, the product was spilled and lost. But all of the spectra and data collected up to that point are still perfectly usable for someone wanting to repeat this or a similar experiment. That is the reason researchers don't tear out pages from their lab notebooks when accidents happen. The same logic applies to Open Notebook Science, where the audience extends to the whole world.

Thanks to Attila for posting an early report.


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