Saturday, February 04, 2006

Secrecy in scientific research: hardly a newsflash

I hope the "new" studies reporting the presence of secrecy in scientific research cite the previous studies reaching the same conclusion. Remember back in the heady days of 1-2-3 superconductors, when a submitter to Physical Review Letters deliberately mislabeled the composition of his compound (as to yttrium) because he was afraid the reviewers would disclose his paper to third parties?

The news report:

Even though open sharing of information is considered a basic principle of the scientific process, secrecy fueled by competition and researchers' relationships with industry has become common in academic science, two new studies suggest.

"Secrecy in science reduces the efficiency of the scientific enterprise by making it harder for colleagues to build on each other's work," Dr. David Blumenthal, director of the Institute for Health Policy at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) in Boston, said in a prepared statement. "Secrecy cannot be totally eliminated; but to minimize it, we need to understand it better. That was the purpose of this work."

Blumenthal is lead author of a study, published in the February issue of Academic Medicine, that surveyed more than 1,800 life scientists in the United States.

The survey found that 44 percent of geneticists and 32 percent of other life scientists reported withholding data. Those who said they withheld data were more likely to have relationships with industry beyond funding of their research, such as consulting or owning equity. They were also more likely to have been discouraged from sharing data during their research training. Male scientists were more likely to withhold data than female researchers.

The second study, also from MGH, surveyed more than 1,000 scientific trainees (graduate students and postdoctoral fellows) in the life sciences, chemical engineering and computer sciences. Twenty-five percent of the respondents reported that their requests for data, information, materials or programming had been denied. Eight percent of the trainees said they'd denied requests from other researchers.

About 50 percent of the respondents said that a denial for data had a negative effect on their own research or the progress of their lab or group, a third reported negative effects on their education, and 25 percent reported negative effects on communication within their research group.

Some of the trainees who were denied data said they were forced to abandon a line of research, were unable to confirm the results of other scientists, or had their research or a publication delayed.

"Data withholding clearly has important negative effect on the integrity of the scientific education system in the U.S.," study leader Eric Campbell, of the Institute for Health Policy, said in a prepared statement. "Failure to address this issue could result in less effective training programs, an erosion of the sense of shared purpose, and a general culture of scientific secrecy in the future."


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