The early months of the COVID-19 pandemic showed clearly the need for researchers across the world to be easily able to share data as they researched ways to treat and prevent the disease.
Ideally, research data would follow four principles: being easy to discover (Findable); easy to obtain (Accessible); possible to combine with other data or systems (Interoperable); and Reusable. Together these are known as the FAIR principles.
However, at first the COVID-19 researchers were slowed down by the reality of sharing data. An OECD report from May 2020 highlighted that research data had no specific standards, co-ordination and interoperability.
“The COVID example demonstrated that with an urgent need and funding, data can be shared,” says Serena Scollen at ELIXIR, a European infrastructure for bioinformatics and life-science data affiliated with the European Molecular Biology Laboratory-European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI).
This is a problem that has existed for decades, she explains. Industry and academia usually focused on specific scientific problems with their data, making it difficult to reuse the data outside of the grants and projects. Data management for broader use was often not a priority.
ELIXIR is part of the Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI) funded FAIRplus project alongside other academic institutions and pharmaceutical companies. Together they want to help organisations and projects complete a ‘FAIR transformation.’
“FAIRplus set out to change data management culture, and we learned that the best way to do this is by providing a framework and process for FAIR transformation,” said Serena.
The FAIRplus project has launched two initiatives to help in this transformation. One is the FAIRification Framework, a planning process that shows how to use available resources to adopt FAIR principles and expand organisational FAIR data management capabilities.
This framework was developed alongside 17 other data-producing IMI projects, which allowed the project to apply the framework to datasets from clinical studies, lab experiments on molecular interactions, and real-world observational data.
The project also launched the FAIRplus Fellowship Programme in summer 2021 to help users improve the FAIR levels of their own data sets, plus use and contribute to the FAIR Cookbook.
The framework means that these and future organisations/projects have a template that is easy to apply, adapt and reproduce within their workflows.
However, even these processes may need more specific guidelines to help organisations achieve a FAIR transformation. The project’s FAIR Cookbook provides organisations with specific ‘recipes’ to keep the data FAIR.
For example, users of the cookbook can get specific guidelines on search engine optimisation, creating a metadata profile, or data licenses.
Although the FAIRplus project finished in December 2022, the cookbook is being sustained by ELIXIR as a service currently provided by four ELIXIR Nodes (UK, Luxembourg, Spain, Switzerland), and EMBL-EBI is running a workshop to expand these principles out to more industry partners in December 2023.
The framework and cookbook have been warmly welcomed by the community. “Researchers have found the resource a great starting point and academics and companies are using the ‘recipes’ to change data management,” said Serena, though she notes “it’s still important to make more people aware of the resource to increase its use in the community.”
FAIRplus was supported by the Innovative Medicines Initiative, a partnership between the European Union and the European pharmaceutical industry.