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Spend less time looking for articles with accessible datasets

Author: Iain Hrynaszkiewicz, Director, Open Research Solutions, PLOS

We’re testing a new experimental open science feature intended to promote data sharing and reuse across the PLOS journal portfolio. A subset of PLOS articles that link to shared research data in a repository will display a prominent visual cue designed to help researchers find accessible data, and encourage best practice in data sharing.

Exploring incentives and increasing data accessibility

As part of a project funded by the Wellcome Trust, we are experimenting with solutions designed to increase sharing and discovery of research data. and the second of these solutions launches this week. Both solutions are intended to promote the use of data repositories for data sharing and the linking of data to publications. Sharing research data that support published articles is considered best practice as it promotes data discovery and reuse, and aligns with the Findable, Accessible, Interoperable and Reusable (FAIR) data principles.

The first solution we introduced was PLOS Pathogens’ integration with the Dryad repository, which launched as a pilot in October 2021, and aims to increase repository use by introducing a small (optional) step in the manuscript submission process that allows seamless deposition of data to Dryad.

This second, experimental, solution is an ‘Accessible Data’ feature deployed on articles that link to research data in one of several repositories. The feature will appear on more than 3,000 PLOS articles, beginning this week. It will also appear on newly published articles that qualify for the feature during the course of the experiment, which is expected to run until the end of 2022.

We’re not the first publisher to experiment with prominent visual links to research data, and some readers will see similarities between this feature and Center for Open Science’s Badges. Since the introduction of our data availability policy in 2014, every published PLOS research article includes a Data Availability Statement (DAS) and a growing proportion of these include links to data repositories in the DAS. This solution leverages the outcomes of our long-standing data availability policy and aims to increase the visibility and reuse of those publications that share data in repositories, while encouraging more researchers to take this approach.

An important difference with this experiment is the questions we’re asking. Previous projects have explored the role of badges in encouraging more researchers to share data according to best practises, with some encouraging results. But our solution is intended to promote both data sharing and access – by linking directly to the data in the repository, and offering a visual cue (or “reward”) on the published article. We hypothesise that making linked research data more visible on article pages will increase its use, helping readers spend less time looking for articles with accessible datasets.

Another difference in our approach is automation. Articles that qualify for the feature will display the feature automatically based on simple rules, without extra human intervention by authors or editors. This offers recognition to authors who have embedded good research data practice in their publishing workflow, without placing more burden on authors, editors or peer reviewers.

Our experimentation with these solutions is informed by research involving PLOS authors that suggest many researchers have challenges in accessing research data that they can reuse — which we assume could be addressed in part by wider use of repositories. The feature has been subject to several rounds of testing with researchers and design experts to optimise the visual design and language of the text.

Scope of the experiment

The Accessible Data feature is limited in its scope in this experimental phase*. The feature will appear on PLOS articles that:

  • Have been published since 2016, and
  • Include a single link to data in a repository in their Data Availability Statement, and
  • The link directs to a unique record in Dryad, Figshare, or Open Science Framework (OSF)

See an example here.

We’ve limited the scope for a few reasons. First, by keeping the scope no larger than necessary to test our hypotheses, we can experiment faster and at lower cost. Second, we need to be able to measure if we are successful in achieving the goal of increasing data access. Dryad, Figshare and OSF provide readily accessible usage data about deposited datasets, which will help us monitor any correlations between reader engagement with the links and usage of the datasets (We’ve chosen usage/ engagement with the datasets as a more rapidly available proxy – and a prerequisite – for data reuse). Third, these repositories are relatively well used by PLOS authors, providing a sufficient cohort of papers with which to experiment.

There are numerous other repositories used by PLOS authors, which are equally as valuable to the researchers, communities, and institutions they support. If the solution is successful in achieving a measurable increase in data use, we will extend it in the future to handle more complexity –  more data repositories, unique identifier types, and more complex Data Availability Statements. There are also other potential future directions to explore, such as the integration of data linking with data citations to increase credit for data sharing; with data discovery tools; and with open infrastructure for sharing and reusing data-article link information.

Looking for the ‘what’ and the ‘why’

As well as monitoring what usage of the feature and datasets are observed, we’re conducting research to help us understand why the solution is effective – or not. Readers of PLOS articles who use the feature will be invited to take part in a survey, and a subset invited to interviews. Authors submitting manuscripts after the launch of the feature will be surveyed to find out if the feature had any impact on how they shared data. This research will complement research we’re also conducting with users of the PLOS Pathogens Dryad integration. As experimenters, we’re open to challenging our ideas and designs when we analyse the results, which will, naturally, be shared with the community in the future.

*If readers notice any issues with the Accessible Data feature, please tell us by emailing

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