Paleonet: An Open Letter in Support of Digital Data Archiving

Lucy Muir lucy at
Mon Mar 28 12:26:48 GMT 2011

Dear Ross and other authors of the open letter (and other readers of

We're writing this here on paleonet rather than on the open letter
website, because 125 characters doesn't allow us to explain our thoughts
about the letter in sufficient detail. We fully support what we think is
the general principle behind your approach. However, we have serious
concerns regarding the wording. We feel that there should be some caveats
included for use in situations where some data should not be made public,
either temporarily or permanently - this of course should be at the
discretion of the journal editor. In many situations, where the background
data are a set of measurements, for example, then there is no problem, and
we agree completely. There are, however, a number of situations where the
wording could cause significant problems. Some of our points below echo
what Jonathan has already said, but they are worth repeating.

For example:
 1) Locality data in field-based studies. Many sites are sensitive to
overcollecting or commercial exploitation, and revealing all details of
the sites with open access, online, could be extremely damaging. The
journal Evolution has a clause allowing editorial discretion, with the
specific example of location data for endangered species.

 2) We are currently writing a paper for a high-impact journal where the
crux is extremely high diversity of new species. As written, the letter
would require detailed photographs (sufficient to be able to support a
taxonomic study) of every species, including several specimens of many of
them, and all measurements made that support separation of species. The
submission of this information would effectively jeopardise future
publications by publishing all the taxonomically important information in

 3) This applies in general to any cases where undescribed taxa are listed
- the data that support an assertion of "undescribed" effectively mean
that new Lagerstatten cannot be announced unless everything mentioned is
described in detail.

 4) Long-term projects (e.g. in palaeoecology) can produce papers at
intermediate stages, with the full data set still being added to, and
intended for use in more comprehensive future studies. Forcing
publication of work in progress is unfair on the authors, especially if
there is no protection for their results. We have been compiling a large
database of occurrence data for one region, which in a previous paper we
have stated was available on request - but we don't want this to be
freely available on the internet. Yet. We also intend to have a copy held
at the NMW in case of an accident befalling us, so that the data are not

  For field-based studies the situation is rather less clear-cut in
general - must notebooks be digitised and submitted, for example? When
presenting a log, would the field notebook even be sufficient evidence,
or would you need to demonstrate sedimentary changes through a long (in
some cases very long) series of photographs? At what point would the
stated observations of a trained specialist be counted as sufficient
evidence? If you argue that only the locality information is needed,
then the same applies to morphometric studies - all that is needed is
the list of specimen numbers.

 We therefore have significant reservations about the absolute nature of
the statement, rather than with the principle of access to data, which we
do support. Even the example you cited allowed editorial discretion, and
we feel that this is essential for a policy of this type.

 Lucy Muir & Joe Botting

Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology
Chinese Academy of Science
No. 39 East Beijing Road
Nanjing 210008

lucy at
l.muir at

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