Open data access is regulated access

November 11, 2015

Pär SegerdahlWe usually associate open access with the publication of scientific articles that anyone with internet access can read, without price barrier.

The concept “open access” is now being used also for research data. I have written about this trend towards open data earlier on the Ethics Blog: Openness as a norm.

In many cases, research data are made as freely available as the open access articles that anyone can read; often in connection with the publication of results based on the data. This occurs, for example, in physics.

There is a strong trend towards open data also in medical research; but here the analogy with articles that anyone can read is no longer valid. Biobank and register-based research work with sensitive personal data, to which a number of laws regulating data access apply.

Yet one could speak of a trend towards open data also in this domain. But it then means something different. It’s about making data as accessible as possible for research, within the regulations that apply to this type of data.

Since the relevant laws and ethical frameworks are not only opaque but also differ between countries, the work is largely about developing common models for researchers to work within. One such attempt is made in an article by, among others, Deborah Mascalzoni and Mats G. Hansson at CRB:

The article formulates 15 principles for sharing of biological samples and personal data between researchers. It also includes a template of the written agreements that scientists can make when one research group transfers data or materials to another research group.

Take a look at these principles, and the template of the agreements, and you’ll soon get an idea of how many strict conditions that must be met when biological samples and personal data are shared for research purposes.

Given how open access often is associated with the possibility for anyone at any time to read articles without price barrier, one should perhaps avoid using the term in this context. It may mislead, since this form of data access is heavily regulated, although the aim is to support researchers to share their data and samples.

Pär Segerdahl

This post in Swedish

Minding our language - the Ethics Blog

Building European infrastructures for research

May 28, 2014

PÄR SEGERDAHL Associate Professor of Philosophy and editor of The Ethics BlogThe European Union is traditionally about creating an internal market, where goods, services, labor and capital can move freely between member states.

Lately there have been efforts to create also European infrastructures for research, where researchers in the different member states can collaborate more efficiently, and compete on a global “research market.” A new tool for such European governance of research is the European Research Infrastructure Consortium, abbreviated ERIC.

If at least three member states hand in a joint application, the Commission can establish an ERIC – an international organization where the involved member states jointly fund and manage a European infrastructure for research in some area. In November 2013, an ERIC was established for biobank research: BBMRI-ERIC, placed in Graz, Austria.

Understanding what an ERIC is and whether BBMRI-ERIC has tools to make the diverse regulations for biobanking in different EU member states more uniform, is not easy. However, a “Letter” in the European Journal of Human Genetics addresses both issues:

The letter is written by Jane Reichel, Anna-Sara Lind, Mats G. Hansson, and Jan-Eric Litton who is the Director General of BBMRI-ERIC.

The authors write that although the ERIC lacks substantial tools to make the regulative framework for biobanking more uniform, it provides a platform where researchers and member states can collaborate developing better ways of navigating the complex legal and ethical landscape. The ERIC also facilitates administration, owning and running of equipment and employment of staff on a long-term basis, thus enabling a time perspective proper to research infrastructures (rather than individual research projects). It also provides opportunities to develop common standards for biobanking activities (e.g., handling of samples) that make biobanks function better together.

Finally, because of the required regular contacts with the Commission and representatives of all EU member states, channels are opened up through which the interests of research can be communicated and influence policy areas like data protection.

Read the letter if you are interested to know more about this new way of building European infrastructures for research.

Pär Segerdahl

Part of international collaborations - the Ethics Blog

An obligation to look for incidental findings in genomics research?

February 13, 2013

A new article in The American Journal of Bioethics attempts to take the discussion about incidental findings in genomics research a step further by asking:

  • “Assuming there is a duty to disclose significant incidental findings, might there be an obligation for researchers to actively look for these findings?”

The authors use an ancillary care model as a framework for their discussion. Ancillary care means care for research participants that is not required directly by sound science; not required to conduct a trial safely, for example, or to manage subject injury. The model was originally developed for research in developing countries.

The authors see ancillary care as the best perspective on incidental findings: a duty to disclose incidental findings is best justified as an ancillary-care obligation. The question in the article, then, is the following. If the ancillary care model implies a duty to disclose stumbled-upon incidental findings, does it imply also a duty to actively look for such findings?

To answer the question, three criteria are formulated all of which must be satisfied simultaneously to support a duty to look for incidental findings:

  1. Benefit: the genetic information sought must be beneficial for the patient.
  2. Uniqueness of access: researchers must be in a unique position to look for, assess and provide the genetic information.
  3. Burden: analyzing the genome for incidental findings must not take too much time, effort and resources from research.

Using these criteria, the authors conclude that currently there is no obligation to look for incidental findings in genomics research. Although uniqueness of access is high (genomic techniques are available primarily through research), benefit is low and burden high.

This may change in the future, the authors speculate, when better knowledge and technology make benefit high and burden low, and the technology still is available primarily through research. In such a scenario there would be an obligation to look for incidental findings. In the distant future, however, when genomic techniques are available also in clinical care, the obligation to look for incidental findings once again disappears.

In my view, this attempt to take the discussion a step further suffers from two major shortcomings that pertain already to the assumption that the ancillary care model could imply an obligation to disclose stumbled-upon incidental findings in genomics research.

Genomics research often is carried out as biobank research where the researcher’s relation to participants does not resemble a doctor-patient relationship. The researcher is not necessarily a physician and may work with samples collected years ago by others. The basic idea in the ancillary care model that “medical researchers must strike a balance between their obligations to medicine and those to research” is not obvious in many forms of large-scale biobank research.

Moreover, incidental findings in genomics research typically mean highly complex genetic risk information. It is not entirely clear, at least not to me, if the notion of, for example, actionability, has the same meaning for a discovered disease as for a discovered increased genetic disease risk.

An illuminating and realistic discussion about incidental findings in genomics research must, I believe, specifically address the biobank-infrastructural context of much genomics research, and the complex nature of genetic risk information.

If the ancillary care model generally is the best perspective on incidental findings, the applicability of this model to characteristic forms of genomics research would have deserved more careful attention.

Pär Segerdahl

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UK Biobank invites researchers

April 13, 2012

After many years of data collection, UK Biobank is now open for research on human health and disease.

Like the Swedish biobank investment LifeGene, the British investment is big and prospective. Blood and urine samples were collected from 500 000 participants aged 40-69. Participants also underwent medical examinations and answered questions about health, disease and lifestyle.

The news is that researchers can now start planning projects using these data. Nevertheless, it will probably be a long time before interesting findings are reported…

It may seem cynical, but before UK Biobank can support valuable research, sufficiently many participants must develop various diseases, while others remain healthy. This is what will allow researchers to go back to the original data and identify patterns in how genetic and environmental factors contribute to health and disease.

The value of biobank infrastructure, like UK Biobank, increases with time, as participants develop cancer, depression, diabetes, or heart disease… while others remain in good health.

The fact that biobank infrastructure initially has unclear scientific value and reveals its potential only with time tends to invite skepticism. In the UK as well as in Sweden, investments in biobank infrastructure were interpreted by some as if they concerned unusually obscure research projects, lacking proper scientific goals and procedures.

I think that this is a misunderstanding.

As the recent opening of UK Biobank shows, it is not until now that clearly defined research projects can start being planned. If I am right, however, we might even have to wait somewhat longer…

The data collected between 2006 and 2012 might not support much interesting research until 2022, if I understand the temporality of these research processes. Since the research concerns health and disease in ageing humans, the significance of the research cannot develop any faster than humans grow older.

Rather than holding the initial lack of scientific prosperity against investments like UK Biobank or LifeGene, I am struck by the patience and foresightedness of those who planned and decided about these investments.

Understanding the infrastructural preconditions of biobank research seems to require an attitude to the pace of human life that I thought had become extinct in an age obsessed with short-term agendas.

Sometimes, we have to wait for the future to reveal itself. Only when the time is ripe can the goals and procedures of scientifically interesting biobank projects be defined.

Pär Segerdahl

Approaching future issues - the Ethics Blog

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