The ‘big data’ revolution has enabled novel types of analyses in the life sciences, facilitated by public sharing and reuse of datasets. Here, we review the prodigious potential of reusing publicly available datasets and the associated challenges, limitations and risks. Possible solutions to issues and research integrity considerations are also discussed. Due to the prominence, abundance and wide distribution of sequencing data, we focus on the reuse of publicly available sequence datasets. We define ‘successful reuse’ as the use of previously published data to enable novel scientific findings. By using selected examples of successful reuse from different disciplines, we illustrate the enormous potential of the practice, while acknowledging the respective limitations and risks. A checklist to determine the reuse value and potential of a particular dataset is also provided. The open discussion of data reuse and the establishment of this practice as a norm has the potential to benefit all stakeholders in the life sciences.