Challenges & successes in neuroscience data sharing – 10/31/2016

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Giorgio Ascoli
Krasnow Institute
George Mason University


Although most neuroscientists have yet to embrace a culture of data sharing, the decade-long success story of NeuroMorpho.Org demonstrates how publicly available repositories may benefit data producers and end-users alike. NeuroMorpho.Org is a centrally curated repository of digital reconstructions of axonal and dendritic morphology hosting freely accessible light- and electron-microscopy tracing data contributed by >200 laboratories worldwide from 450+ peer-reviewed publications. This database continuously grew from 1000 neurons released in v1.0 in 2006 to over 50,000 in v.7.0 (September 2016), spanning 35 species, 40+ brain regions, and ~150 cell types. More than 5 million neuronal reconstructions (approximately 30 km of traced axons and dendrites) have been downloaded to date over hundreds of thousands of unique visits from 153 countries. For perspective, producing an equivalent amount of data would take a skilled neuroscientist over 700 centuries of labor. In addition to the documented scientific impact in terms of novel published discoveries based on data in the repository, NeuroMorpho.Org has been showcased in textbooks and Massively Open Online Courses, the China Applied Math Olympiads, multimedia outreach including Neuroscience for Kids, Scientific American online, and popular blogs, and a dedicated testimony to the White House Bioethics commission. Nonetheless, in this era of Big Data and open source initiatives blooming all over the world, neuroscience trails far behind. A troubling majority of authors reporting neuronal reconstructions in peer-reviewed articles flatly declines to share their data upon request. Thus, most collected data remain unavailable to the broader research community, causing a substantial loss of time, money, and missed scientific opportunities.