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Selfish Science

Survey shows academics don't always share information

TUESDAY, Jan. 22, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Science is the free exchange of ideas in the pursuit of truth, unfettered by petty egos.

Hardly, says new research.

Almost one in two genetics researchers say they've occasionally been denied access to data and other important information by fellow scientists, refusals that sometimes led to the inability to confirm previously published work or delayed publication of papers, a new survey from Harvard University has found.

The good news is that most of the requests for information -- about 90 percent -- are met. While refusal to swap data might sometimes be rooted in small-mindedness, it can have life-threatening implications for patients with dire diseases, says Dr. Steven A. Rosenberg, chief of surgery at the National Cancer Institute.

"If there's information available that can help those patients, it seems to me that it should be shared. To me, it's very clear that there's no role for secrecy in medical research," he says.

Rosenberg has written with alarm about the gags biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies put on the scientists they fund. "It's a major problem," he says, and one that has worsened in recent years.

The standard line about scientific research is "publish or perish." Without that research on the academic resume, promotion and tenure are unlikely. However, the latest work, which appears in tomorrow's issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, suggests some scientists are willing to sacrifice the medical library for their place on the shelf.

The researchers, led by Eric Campbell, queried 3,000 scientists at 100 U.S. institutions -- those with the most funding from the National Institutes of Health in 1998 -- about their experiences asking for data and other materials from colleagues.

Most of the 1,849 researchers who responded to the survey were self-described geneticists. Campbell's group also included scientists working in related fields, such as clinical medicine, biochemistry and microbiology.

Almost half -- 47 percent -- of the geneticists said at least one of their requests for information related to a published paper had been rejected in the past three years, out of an average of approximately nine requests over that period. Ten percent of the requests for additional information on something that had appeared in print were denied.

As a result of the snub, 28 percent of geneticists said they couldn't confirm published results; 24 percent said they were forced to delay publishing their own findings; and 21 percent said they'd decided to abandon a line of research. Many also said the denial hindered their ability to teach graduate students and other trainees, and hurt their relationships with colleagues.

In a display of bad playground behavior, some scientists said the refusal prompted them to deny or delay requests for data from the researcher or group that had first spurned them.

In all, 12 percent of the researchers admitted denying a request for information. In their defense, 80 percent of the geneticists who did the rejecting said providing the information was too time-consuming. Other reasons cited: 64 percent said complying would have jeopardized a junior colleague's attempts to publish; 53 percent said doing so would have compromised their own ability to produce papers.

Geneticists were more than four times as likely as the other life scientists to make requests of their colleagues. Yet, both groups reported about the same level of rejections. Nor were geneticists any more likely than the other researchers to deny a request.

Two factors did seem to influence the odds that a researcher would turn down an appeal for help: if he had received several such requests in the last three years, or if he was engaged in commercial activities. However, industry funding didn't influence a scientist's willingness to share.

"Having industry funding is really associated with delays in publishing one's results rather than denying other faculty" access to those data, says Campbell.

Campbell says the findings are far from all bad, because most scientists are willing to turn over their data, cell lines and other materials. However, the impact of those who aren't so open has a chilling effect on research, he adds.

What's more, Campbell says, not sharing data is only one form of secrecy in science. Avoiding discussions about research methods in papers and talks and keeping results confined to members of one's lab are also ways scientists can hamper the free flow of information.

What To Do

The American Association for the Advancement of Science held a conference on secrecy in research.

To learn more about the human genome project, try the U.S. Department of Energy.

SOURCES: Interviews with Eric Campbell, Ph.D., instructor, health policy, Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Boston; Steven A. Rosenberg, M.D., Ph.D., chief of surgery, National Cancer Institute, Bethesda, Md.; Jan. 23, 2002, Journal of the American Medical Association
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