Research parasites?

An editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) has caused controversy recently. The authors outline their thoughts and concerns regarding the sharing of research data but the main bones of contention were found in this paragraph:

A second concern held by some is that a new class of research person will emerge — people who had nothing to do with the design and execution of the study but use another group’s data for their own ends, possibly stealing from the research productivity planned by the data gatherers, or even use the data to try to disprove what the original investigators had posited. There is concern among some front-line researchers that the system will be taken over by what some researchers have characterized as “research parasites.”

This assertion and the idea of “research parasites” attracted criticism and ridicule online.

Haendel is angered by the editorial, feeling that researchers have an ethical obligation to share data and she celebrates the work of people who build on others’ data.

Lowe is unworried by “research parasites” and believes that building on others’ data is part of how science itself works (he is, however, concerned by what unscrupulous or ‘unscientific’ salespeople may do with shared data).

The International Society for Computational Biology have criticised it as “an obsolete view of hegemony over data” (in spite of a response to the criticism from the NEJM).

However, Shaywitz points out that, although he personally disagrees with the sentiment of the editorial, it actually articulates what a lot of researchers are thinking. He believes that data sharing is “a classic case of stated preference vs. revealed preference” whereby researchers publicly support the idea but do not actually share their own data, largely because there is little personal incentive.

Similarly, Jha believes the NEJM editorial acknowledges this reality and that “If we do not recognize the self-interest of researchers, data socialism, like other forms of socialism, is condemned to failure”.

The debate continues to rumble on and can be followed via #researchparasites on Twitter.

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