Scientific data withholding

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Scientific data withholding is conduct contrary to the advance of science and a violation of the policies of research funding agencies and science journals. After publishing in a journal, the science community expects an author to share any supplemental information (raw data, statistical methods or source code) necessary to audit or reproduce his research. Because withholding data is contrary to the scientific method, textbooks describe it as unscientific or pseudoscience. [1]

It is common for data and methods to be requested from authors years after publication. In order to encourage data sharing and prevent the loss or corruption of data, research funding agencies and science journals established policies on data archiving. Despite the policies on archiving, data withholding still happens today. Authors may fail to archive data or they only archive a portion of the data. Failure to archive data alone is not data withholding. When a researcher requests additional info, the author sometimes refuses to provide it. When authors withhold data like this, they run the risk of losing the trust of science community.[2]

Funding agency policies

NIH data sharing policy

‘’The National Institutes of Health (NIH) Grants Policy Statement defines “data” as “recorded information, regardless of the form or medium on which it may be recorded, and includes writings, films, sound recordings, pictorial reproductions, drawings, designs, or other graphic representations, procedural manuals, forms, diagrams, work flow charts, equipment descriptions, data files, data processing or computer programs (software), statistical records, and other research data.”’’[3]

The NIH Final Statement of Sharing of Research Data says: ‘’NIH reaffirms its support for the concept of data sharing. We believe that data sharing is essential for expedited translation of research results into knowledge, products, and procedures to improve human health. The NIH endorses the sharing of final research data to serve these and other important scientific goals. The NIH expects and supports the timely release and sharing of final research data from NIH-supported studies for use by other researchers.’’

‘’NIH recognizes that the investigators who collect the data have a legitimate interest in benefiting from their investment of time and effort. We have therefore revised our definition of "the timely release and sharing" to be no later than the acceptance for publication of the main findings from the final data set. NIH continues to expect that the initial investigators may benefit from first and continuing use but not from prolonged exclusive use.[4]

NSF Policy from Grant General Conditions

36. Sharing of Findings, Data, and Other Research Products a. NSF …expects investigators to share with other researchers, at no more than incremental cost and within a reasonable time, the data, samples, physical collections and other supporting materials created or gathered in the course of the work. It also encourages awardees to share software and inventions or otherwise act to make the innovations they embody widely useful and usable.

b. Adjustments and, where essential, exceptions may be allowed to safeguard the rights of individuals and subjects, the validity of results, or the integrity of collections or to accommodate legitimate interests of investigators. [5]

Journal policies


After publication, readers who encounter a persistent refusal by the authors to comply with these guidelines should contact the chief editor of the Nature journal concerned, with "materials complaint" and publication reference of the article as part of the subject line. In cases where editors are unable to resolve a complaint, the journal reserves the right to refer the correspondence to the author's funding institution and/or to publish a statement of formal correction, linked to the publication, that readers have been unable to obtain necessary materials or reagents to replicate the findings.[6]


Materials sharing- After publication, all reasonable requests for materials must be fulfilled. A charge for time and materials involved in the transfer may be made. Science must be informed of any restrictions on sharing of materials [Materials Transfer Agreements or patents, for example] applying to materials used in the reported research. Any such restrictions should be indicated in the cover letter at the time of submission, and each individual author will be asked to reaffirm this on the Conditions of Acceptance forms that he or she executes at the time the final version of the manuscript is submitted. The nature of the restrictions should be noted in the paper. Unreasonable restrictions may preclude publication. [7]

Office of Research Integrity

Allegations of misconduct in medical research carry severe consequences. The United States Department of Health and Human Services established an office to oversee investigations of allegations of misconduct, including data withholding. The website defines the mission: ‘’The Office of Research Integrity (ORI) promotes integrity in biomedical and behavioral research supported by the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) at about 4,000 institutions worldwide. ORI monitors institutional investigations of research misconduct and facilitates the responsible conduct of research (RCR) through educational, preventive, and regulatory activities.’’ [8]

Studies on data withholding

Academic genetics

Withholding of data has gotten to be so commonplace in academic genetics that researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital published a journal article on the subject. The study found that “Because they were denied access to data, 28% of geneticists reported that they had been unable to confirm published research.” [9]

Scientists in training

A study of scientists in training indicated many had already experienced data withholding.[10] This study has given rise to the fear the future generation of scientists will not abide by the established practices.

Claims of data withholding in climate science

In 1998, Michael Mann, Ray Bradley and Malcolm Hughes published an article on paleoclimatology. [12] In 2003, Steve McIntyre and Ross McKitrick decided to audit the published findings of Mann et al. Mann refused access to data and his source code.[11] After a long process - in which the National Science Foundation had supported Mann's effort to withhold the code - the code was finally turned over.[12] It happened because Congress investigated. In June 2005, Congress required Mann to testify before a special subcommittee. Pursuant to the powers of Congress, the chairmen of the committees wrote a letter to Mann requesting he provide his data - including his source code.[13] When Mann complied, all of the data was available for a complete audit. Congress also requested that third party science panels review the criticisms of McIntyre and McKitrick. The Wegman Panel [14] and the National Academy of Sciences [15] both published their reports. McIntyre and McKitrick claim their findings have been largely confirmed by these reviews.[16] Mann published a corrigendum in which he admitted some errors but denied others. Mann claims that the errors found made no difference to his conclusions.[17] Without access to the author's data, methods and source code, a full audit could not have been made.

In 2006, Martin Juckes et al. submitted an article to Climate of the Past which was then made available for comment on the Internet. The article claimed the source code used by McIntyre and McKitrick was not archived. McIntyre responded that the accusation was false and may be academic misconduct, with an implicit threat of legal action against Juckes and coauthors.[18] False claims regarding data archiving are usually easy to establish. Juckes blamed the inaccurate statement on a misunderstanding.[19]

See also

Claims of data withholding in materials research

Jan Hendrik Schön earned his Ph.D. in physics in 1997 and soon went to work for Bell Labs. In 2001, he announced he had produced a transistor using a thin layer of organic dye molecules. Such a development would have dramatically reduced the cost of electronics. Soon after publication, others attempted to reproduce his work and found anomalies. In 2002, Bell Labs asked a committee to investigate. The committee requested raw data from Schön and his co-authors. The data was not forthcoming. Schön claimed he kept no laboratory notebooks and that his raw data was erased from his computer because he had limited hard drive space. In September 2002, the committee issued its report and listed 24 acts of scientific misconduct. Bell Labs fired him the same day. Science magazine withdrew eight of his papers. Other journals followed suit.[20]


  1. From the textbook Foundations of Psychiatric-Mental Health Nursing, 6th Edition’’ by Wanda K. Mohr - Chapter 8 "Evidence-based practice and pseudoscience" (pages 142-143) [1]
  2. "Publication and Openness," a chapter from the online book "On Being A Scientist: Responsible Conduct in Research" published by the National Academy of Sciences [2]
  3. “Access to and retention of research data: Rights and responsibilities” (page 5) published by Council on Governmental Relations, March 2006. [3]
  4. Final NIH statement on sharing research data.’’ [4] For more information on NIH policy, see the web site “NIH Data Sharing Policy” [5]
  5. "National Science Foundation: Grant General Conditions (GC-1)" published April 1, 2001 (page 17) [6]
  6. "Availability of Data and Materials: The Policy of Nature Magazine
  7. "General Policies of Science Magazine"
  8. Office of Research Integrity web site
  9. "Data withholding in academic genetics: evidence from a national survey" by EG Campbell et al. [7]
  10. "Data withholding and the next generation of scientists: results of a national survey" in Acad Med. 2006 Feb ;81 (2):128-36 16436573 [8]
  11. "Mann on Source Code" by Stephen McIntyre
  12. "Title to MBH98 Source Code" by Stephen McIntyre
  13. "Letter from Congress to Dr. Mann dated June 23, 2005"
  14. "The Wegman Report"
  15. "Surface Temperature Reconstructions for the last 2,000 years" by National Academy of Science [9]
  16. "A Scorecard on MM03" by McIntyre and McKitrick
  17. See Corrigendum of "Global-scale temperature patterns and climate forcing over the past six centuries" by Mann et al [10]
  18. Potential Academic Misconduct by the Euro Team" by Stephen McIntyre
  19. Martin's Big Day by Stephen McIntyre
  20. "Report of the investigative committee on the possibility of scientific misconduct in the work of Hendrik Schön and coauthors" - published September 2002 [11]


  • Gauch Jr Hugh G (2002) Scientific Method in Practice, Cambridge University Press [ISBN-13 978-0521017084]
  • Wilson F (2000) The Logic and Methodology of Science and Pseudoscience, Canadian Scholars Press [ISBN 1-55130-175-X]