Linking big

A new commentary piece, Linking big: the continuing promise of evolutionary synthesis,  in the journal Evolution describes the promise of “synthetic science,”  which includes re-use of data sets,  research results, or unconnected methods or concepts,  leading to new discoveries or trends.    The authors, who all are affiliated with the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent),  argue for removing the cultural and technological barriers to enable new breakthroughs.

“By putting together pieces of prior research, it is possible to transform how you do science and open the doors to findings that previously were unattainable,” said Brian Sidlauskas, a fish biologist from Oregon State University and lead author on the Evolution article. “But such an approach runs counter to the way science traditionally has been conducted, so pursuing synthetic science is somewhat risky.”

“We need to reduce the risk, remove the barriers, and encourage more pursuit of synthesis because the potential,” he added, “is staggering.”

Sidlauskas cites access to actionable data as one of the major obstacles. “When you’re looking to synthesize data from several hundred individual studies, data formatting, storage and accessibility become huge issues,” he said.   He says that  “…the vast majority of data supporting previous studies are unavailable, often because the data are lost or preserved in inaccessible forms (notebooks, floppy disks).”

The article refers to Dryad as

… working to alleviate the problem of data availability by providing an open-access home for ecological and evolutionary data that does not fit into more specialized repositories. Dryad actively works with a coalition of journals and scientific societies to make deposition of all data a normal part of the research workflow. As more journals require data deposition as part of the manuscript publication process, the opportunities for potential syntheses linking such data will increase substantially.

Sidlauskas adds, “It’s kind of an open-source approach to science,” he added. “Data archives may require some kind of proprietary protection for a few months or years, but after a certain amount of time, they should become public domain. Only by saving the data that underlie today’s science will we allow future scientists to use those data in ways that may far exceed what the original researchers envisioned.”

Other authors on the commentary piece include Ganeshkumar Ganapathy, of the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent); Einat Hazkani-Covo, Duke University Medical Center; Kristin P. Jenkins, NESCent; Hilmar Lapp, NESCent; Lauren W. McCall, NESCent; Samantha Price, University of California-Davis; Ryan Scherle, NESCent; Paula A. Spaeth, Northland College; and David M. Kidd, NERC Centre for Population Biology, Imperial College London.

CITATION: Sidlauskas, B., G. Ganapathy, et al. (2010). “Linking big: The continuing promise of evolutionary synthesis.” Evolution doi: 10.1111/j.1558-5646.2009.00892.x.