DURHAM, N.C. Growing numbers of researchers are making the data and software underlying their publications freely available online, largely in response to data sharing policies at journals and funding agencies. But in the age of open science, improving access is one thing, repurposing and reproducing research is another. In a study in the Journal of Ecology, a team of researchers experienced this firsthand when they tried to answer a seemingly simple question: what percentage of plants in the world are woody?
They thought the answer would be easy to find. After all, scientists have been distinguishing between woody and herbaceous plants for over 2000 years, ever since Plato's student Theophrastus -- often considered the "father of botany" -- made the distinction in 300 BC. Researchers already know when the first woody plants came to be, how wood develops and decomposes, and that woody plants like trees and shrubs evolve slower than herbs.
"We thought that if we just dug through the literature enough we would find the answer," said co-author Will Cornwell of the University of New South Wales.
But online searches weren't much help. Google didn't have the answer. Bibliographic tools like Web of Science didn't offer any clues, either.
Expert opinion didn't get them any closer. An informal survey of nearly 300 researchers from 29 countries revealed little consensus even among trained scientists, with guesstimates ranging from 1% to 90%. "[Surprisingly] it didn't matter how much research experience they had, or how familiar they were with plants," said co-author Matt Pennell of the University of Idaho, who was a graduate fellow at NESCent at the time of the study.
Thankfully public data were available. Before they could turn to existing databases, however, they had to deal with an additional problem: Even the largest plant trait database to date -- a global woodiness database containing nearly 50,000 species -
|Contact: Robin Ann Smith|
National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent)