Interview with Mark Hahnel, founder of the data sharing platform Figshare and keynote speaker on "Open Science" at ScienceComm'15


Mark Hahnel handed in his thesis on a Friday in 2011. The next Monday the stem cell biologist started to work for his own project: Figshare. The online tool is a platform to facilitate sharing of research data that would not otherwise get published in traditional scientific journals. Although Hahnel would love to return to stem cell research, Figshare currently takes his full attention.

Mark Hahnel

Mark Hahnel actively engages in Open Science (Photo: Mark Hahnel)


Florian Fisch: You have published 21 pieces of data on Figshare yourself - many figures but also a preprint for the magazine Nature. In this case Figshare is also a preprint server like arXiv?

Mark Hahnel: It started off as a way of releasing my videos, datasets and graphs that were not going into publication. But when we went public, people started uploading preprints, posters and even presentations. The platform is now open for nine types of data. The more things get computational the more file formats we can share.

Forgive me, but this sounds to me like a dumping ground for computer files.

Figshare is meant to be for any piece of data that people want to get credit for. We give each piece a digital object identifier to make it citable. We assure the persistence and source of the data. One of the most viewed object on Figshare is a 3D-dinosaur fossil, which I could never have forseen for people to share.

Are Figshare data cited often?

There is a poster that is cited eleven times and in total we are in the thousands of citations since our foundation in 2011. We are super-discoverable via GoogleScholar. We also work with publishers like PLOS who ask people to put their data on platforms like Figshare.

Figshare was also intended for publishing negative results that otherwise end up in the drawer. Has the platform actually helped to solve the problem?

All we concentrate on is to make it as easy as possible for people to make their stuff available. This is what Governments around the world are asking scientists to do. We make sure it is marked up in the citation index of Thomson Reuters. But the incentives are still a long way from motivating people to systematically make their data available

Will it be possible to police whether people really share all their data?

Of course it is going to be difficult. You are always going to have people to hide data. Especially postdocs in the middle of their career who know that publishing papers is necessary are going to wait until the people who pay their wages tell them to do so. But even with ten percent more published data, there much more to build on by humans and machines alike.

There is no peer-review for Figshare. And you are even advocating Wiki-Science. Is this not an open door for poor quality?

I would say it even gets easier to correct errors. On 19 May 2015 Michael LaCour was the fist scientist getting into trouble with this. He had to make the data to his Science paper available somewhere. Thanks to the availability of the data we now know they were made up.

Is Open Science not escalating the information overflow we are already experiencing?

The problem is already acute. But the internet was built in the first place to share scientific data. If one day everything is available online, we will hopefully be able to ask the internet: show me any stem cell experiment with this type of cell and this type of disease in the last six month an pull it all into one spreadsheet. At the moment you can't do that.

What are necessary next steps to enable scientist to pull everything together on the internet?

Apart from sharing the data online, we need more standards for scientific data. Ecology data for example are very heterogeneous. The Center for Open Science is currently building a common programming interface to enable us to pull the data together across disciplines. And we also need education so scientists know what to do. I did not know if my boss would allow me to share the data from my thesis.

And, was she happy for you to share your data?

Yes she was. And she even encouraged me to go on.