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a strong trend towards open data also in medical research; but here the analogy with articles that anyone can read is no longer valid.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

Bioethicists suggest broad consent for biobank research

September 2, 2015

Pär SegerdahlIt is still unclear what kind of consent should be used when collecting biological samples for future research. Different forms of consent are practiced, which creates another uncertainty: which research is actually permitted with the collected samples?

This haphazard situation leads to unintended constraints on research. But it also leads to research sometimes being carried out without consent.

Against this background, the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) organized a workshop to discuss whether it is ethically reasonable to manage these uncertainties by using broad consent for future research when collecting biological samples.

The group of bioethicists who attended the workshop, including Mats G. Hansson, recently published their thoughts and conclusions in the American Journal of Bioethics:

The group’s proposal is that broad consent is ethically reasonable and often the best option, if it has three components:

  1. Consent is conducted initially, in connection with sample collection.
  2. There is a system for oversight and approval of future research.
  3. As far as possible, there should be ongoing communication with, and information to, donors.

Biological samples are collected in a variety of contexts. It is here that the haphazard situation arises, if different forms of consent are used, or perhaps no consent at all. By initially informing potential donors of the wide range of research that can be carried out, they can take a position on risks and benefits of donation (given the oversight and the general conditions of the future research that they are informed about).

The group emphasizes that broad consent gives donors control over the use of samples, while minimizing costs and burdens for both donors and researchers.

They also point out that empirical studies show that most people want to decide if their samples may be used for research. Most respondents also say that the decision is not influenced by the specific details of the future research (e.g. what diseases are studied, what techniques are used, or which parts of the sample are studied).

Of course there are examples of research that can be perceived as controversial, such as human cloning. But broad consent can be combined with specific restrictions. Oversight moreover considers whether research proposals can be said to comply with the donors’ values.

If donors still hesitate, they are free to choose not to donate the sample.

Pär Segerdahl

Approaching future issues - the Ethics Blog

Open research platforms and open data

February 11, 2015

Pär SegerdahlToday, I recommend reading about two major changes in current research. Both changes are reflected in the December issue of the newsletter:

The changes concern researchers’ relation to their material.

The first change has been discussed on the Ethics Blog. It is that samples and data that individual research groups collect begin to be saved, documented and analyzed in joint biobanks. The material is then made available to other researchers, both nationally and internationally.

This requires an attitude change among researchers who are used to store their data material locally and then use it locally. Now, one sends the material to the biobank instead, which takes care of it and provides service to researchers in the form of analysis, access to more data, advice, and more. Perhaps researchers need not always collect their own material, if relevant data are available via the biobank infrastructure.

This change is discussed in the editorial by Joakim Dillner, Acting director of, and in an interview with Mark Divers, Head of the biobank facility that built up at Karolinska Institutet.

The second change has not been discussed on this blog. It is featured in an interview in the newsletter with a researcher in cognitive neurophysiology, Gustav Nilsonne. It is closely related to the first, but requires a change in attitude to what it means to make research available through publication in scientific journals.

The change is about making research open not only through Open Access publication of scientific articles, but also by making raw data available. Such a change is significant in several ways:

  1. Data collected with efforts of many research participants can be used multiple times instead of disappearing in forgotten archives.
  2. Published findings can be critically examined; it becomes more difficult to cheat or be negligent.
  3. It becomes easier to make meta-analysis of data from many studies.

These changes can of course be seen as two sides of the same coin. Researchers seeking services from the biobank facility must accept that other researchers apply for access to “their” data … which thereby become open.

Pär Segerdahl

We recommend readings - 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

Open biobank landscapes

May 14, 2014

PÄR SEGERDAHL Associate Professor of Philosophy and editor of The Ethics BlogLast week I wrote about the transition from organizing science as a tree of knowledge that once in a while drops its fruits onto society, to organizing research as part of knowledge landscapes, where the perspective of harvesting, managing and using the fruits is there from the beginning.

That the proud tree is gone might seem sad, but here we are – in the knowledge landscape, and I believe the development is logical. As a comment to the previous post made clear, many fruits fell from the old tree without coming into use.

The notion of knowledge landscapes sheds light on the attempt by to build infrastructure for biobank research. The initiative can be viewed as an attempt to integrate research in broader knowledge landscapes. Supporting research with an eye to the interests of patients is a new way of managing research, more oriented towards the fruits and their potential value for people than in the era of the tree of knowledge.

The novelty of the infrastructural approach to biobanking isn’t always noticed. In Sweden, for example, the biobank initiative LifeGene was met with suspicion from some quarters. In the debate, some critics portrayed LifeGene as being initiated more or less in the interest of a closed group of researchers. Researchers wanted to collect samples from the population and then climb the tree and study the samples for god knows which purposes.

Those suspicions were based on the old conception of science as a high tree, inaccessible to most of us, in which researchers pursue “their own” interests. The aim with LifeGene, I believe, is rather to integrate research in a knowledge landscape, in which research is governed more by the interests of patients.

We mustn’t underestimate the challenges such a reorganization of research has to deal with, the forces that come into play. I merely want to suggest a new way of surveying and thinking about the transition – as a change from approaching science as a high tree of knowledge to integrating research in open knowledge landscapes.

If you want to read more about research in knowledge landscapes, you find Anna Lydia Svalastog’s article here, and the network where these ideas originated here.

In September 2014, the third conference, HandsOn: Biobanks, is organized, now in Helsinki. Academics, industry, doctors, patient groups, policy makers, public representatives and legislators are invited to share knowledge and experiences. As in previous conferences in the series, there is an interactive part, The Route, in which biobanking processes can be followed from start to finish, with ample opportunities for discussion.

View the conference as part of maintaining open biobank landscapes, with research as one of several integrated components.

Registration is open.

Pär Segerdahl

We like broad perspectives :

Overview of the regulatory framework of European biobanking

October 16, 2013

Unless you have an education in law, it is almost impossible to find your way through the regulatory landscape of European biobanking, or to understand the motives behind the proposed new general data protection regulation.

However, a helpful overview and discussion can be found in this article by Evert-Ben van Veen:

The article also contains some interesting thinking on a number of important issues, like the concept of personal data, the need for a third category of data between personal data and anonymous data, and the role of trust in institutions.

Pär Segerdahl

We recommend readings - the Ethics Blog

Idling biobank policy?

October 9, 2013

If you allow researchers to do brain imaging on you for some research purpose, and they incidentally discover a tumor, or a blood vessel with thin walls, you probably want them to inform you about this finding. There are no doubts about the finding; the risks are well-known; it is actionable.

Suppose instead that you donate a blood sample to a biobank. Suppose that researchers studying the sample discover a genetic variant that, depending on a number of interacting factors, might result in disease in three years’ time, or in thirty years, or not at all. It is difficult to predict! Do you still want to know?

How should these incidental findings be handled that increasingly often will be made in genetic biobank research? We are all different, so finding variants with some statistical relation to disease is more or less expected.

A common approach to this question within attempts to develop a policy for incidental biobank findings is to formulate general conditions for when researchers should inform participants. Like: if the finding is analytically valid; if it has clinical significance; if it is actionable – then participants should be informed.

The problem is: we already knew that. We know what these conditions mean in imaging studies when a tumor or a damaged blood vessel is discovered. In these cases, the conditions can be assessed and they make it reasonable to inform. But what about genetic risk information, which often is more multidimensional and has unclear predictive value?

This question is discussed in a recent article in the European Journal of Human Genetics, written by Jennifer Viberg together with Mats G. Hansson, Sophie Langenskiöld, and me:

Viberg argues when we enter this new and more complex domain, we cannot rely on analogies to what is already known in a simpler domain. Nor can we rely on surveys of participants’ preferences, if these surveys employ the same analogies and describe the findings in terms of the same general conditions.

Time is not yet ripe for a policy for incidental genetic findings, Viberg and colleagues conclude. Formulating a policy through analogies to what is already known is to cover up what we do not know. The issue requires a different form of elucidation.

That form of elucidation remains to be developed.

Pär Segerdahl

We participate in debates - the Ethics Blog

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