Secret science business

Thursday, 08 June, 2006



Open sharing of information is a basic principle of the scientific process, but it is well known that secrecy has become a fact of life in academic science.

Several studies have described how researchers may withhold the results of their studies from other scientists or deny them access to data or materials. In two new reports, researchers from the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) Institute for Health Policy examined a broader range of withholding behaviours among life scientists than previously reported and described how data withholding is affecting researchers in several fields during their training years. The papers appeared in the February 2006 issue of Academic Medicine.

"Secrecy in science reduces the efficiency of the scientific enterprise by making it harder for colleagues to build on each other's work," said David Blumenthal, MD, MPP, director of the Institute for Health Policy. "Secrecy cannot be totally eliminated; but to minimise it, we need to understand it better. That was the purpose of this work."

Blumenthal is lead author of the first study, which surveyed more than 1800 life scientists at the 100 US universities receiving the most National Institutes of Health funding in 1998. While previous studies focused on withholding information related to published research results, this survey asked respondents whether they had avoided including unpublished scientific information in conversations with colleagues or presentations at seminars or conferences. Respondents also reported whether they had kept information out of research manuscripts in order to protect their scientific lead or the commercial value of the data, including delaying publication of results for more than six months.

Some form of data withholding was reported by 44 per cent of the geneticists and 32 per cent of the other life scientists responding to the survey; and withholding data from publications was most frequently reported. Those who reported withholding were more likely to have relationships with industry beyond funding of their research - such as consulting or owning equity - and to have been discouraged from sharing during their research training. Data withholding was also more frequent among male researchers and, paradoxically, among those who reported having formal instruction in the sharing of information. However, when asked about their experience with sharing scientific information, respondents reported positive outcomes much more frequently than negative experiences.

The second study surveyed more than 1000 scientific trainees - graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, a group not examined in previous investigations of this issue - in the life sciences, chemical engineering and computer sciences. Respondents from the 50 US universities that grant the most degrees in the fields surveyed were asked about their own experiences with data withholding, the consequences of withholding, the competitiveness of their lab or research group, and whether their research received industry support.

One quarter of the trainee respondents reported that their own requests for data, information, materials or programming had been denied. Withholding was more likely to have been experienced by life scientists, by postdoctoral fellows rather than graduate students and in settings described as highly competitive. Only 8 per cent of trainees reported having denied requests from other researchers, with that behaviour being more common among those reporting industry support or in highly competitive groups. Life science trainees were less likely to report denying requests than were the engineering or computer science trainees.

About half the respondents reported that withholding 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 a quarter reported negative effects on communication within their research group. Some of those denied data reported having to abandon a line of research, being unable to confirm the results of other scientists, or having their research or a publication delayed.

"Data withholding clearly has important negative effects on the integrity of the scientific education system in the US," says Eric Campbell, PhD, of the MGH Institute for Health Policy, who led the trainees study. "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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