I recently wrote this article as a submission to the journal Nature — it was rejected, probably because what I suggest would require a reworking of the publication process, something that lies in contrast with their business model. Data sharing is, however, something scientists and research could benefit greatly from and I hope something scientists (especially those just entering the field) will see the importance of and push for. Data is essential to discovery and history is very clear on the power of people working together to better the world.
As a younger person than I am now, just out of undergrad, I had a burning passion for science. I wanted to explore it and get my hands dirty. I wanted to work with animals and manipulate DNA. I wanted to make a big contribution that would affect the scientific community and the world.
It took me about two weeks of graduate school to realize research is a really slow process. Since scientist’s establish hypotheses based on previous studies and ongoing research, the more known about a problem, the more informed a hypothesis can be. Research is then conducted using tools, which, if you’re lucky, already exist. If not, it can add years to research, so, the more the better. To my dismay, my project lacked both previous research knowledge and existing tools…until I found out it didn’t. In fact, three other labs around the world were doing almost the same experiments I was. So why was I in the dark for so long?
Simple. Experimental secrecy.
And it’s understandable; fame, glory and money go to the winner – the first to the finish line. Technology companies live and die by this creed – we know that Apple will release an iPhone this year, but looks and functionality will only be certain when it’s revealed on stage. If it were common knowledge, another tech giant may copy the design and rush it to market, stealing millions of dollars in potential sales.
For consumer electronics companies however, being sneaky and underhanded in order to get the upper hand on rival companies really only affects other companies, and maybe some shareholders. With scientific research, it affects humanity.
As a rule, scientists are obligated to make their tools available to the community after they have been published. Does this always happen? No. Scientists should also be forthcoming with specific experimental methods following publication. Does this always happen? No. And that’s a sad reality. As scientists, we are conducting research in the study of truth, and yet some are conducting it with lies and deceit.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to blame scientists for being protective of their research. Novel research equals publications, which equal funding, and so it is money, as usual, that drives us to this necessary evil. The fact is that there simply isn’t enough money to fund all labs equally and hence the competition, but this is impeding the goals of our pursuit.
I’m not saying competition is bad, or that the scientific community should consider results true based on the word of one scientist and move on, but what makes science and the scientific community so strong is individual expertise. ‘Two heads are better than one’ isn’t a well-known proverb for nothing. Openness and collaboration have the ability to greatly speed the progress of science, leading to amazing discoveries (the Higgs Boson and Human Genome Project, for example). It’s somewhat ironic that the very people that elucidated the evolutionary benefits of social communities with regards to progress and survival hide things from their peers and make a go of it alone.
And if you’re wondering how the expedition of research will affect you, consider how experimental secrecy could delay drugs and technologies capable of curing cancer, organ failure and climate change.
So how can we, as scientists and citizens, address this issue? First, we can educate the public on the importance of scientific research. A well-informed and supportive constituency is our best bet for convincing governments to increase research spending. Encouraging and educating a next generation of scientists on the importance of progress and the power of collaboration will be critical. And maybe, by relieving the pressures of publishing complete studies in high-impact journals or being the first to publish, we can encourage regular data sharing.
Scientific advancement is the one sure avenue to improving the quality of all life worldwide. It seems morally reprehensible to knowingly stand in the way of that. Maybe in the end, my great scientific contribution, and hopefully that of others, will be in the pursuit of this idea.