Research integrity, openness, and the fear of scooping

Last month I gave a presentation to an intro to research ethics course. It’s one of two offered by the IU School of Medicine to fulfill training requirements of the NSF and NIH for residents, postdocs, fellows, etc. The presentation differed a bit from my usual RDM talk in that I was able to highlight the ethical responsibilities rather than emphasizing just the personal benefits of good data practices.

Not surprisingly, when we started to discuss openness, the problem of scooping came up. Two of the three students who mentioned it were bench scientists, while the third was a surgical resident. I asked if they actually knew someone who had been scooped. One of the bench scientists said yes, while the surgical resident described a story about a surgical technique that was invented by one person while another got the credit. As I’ve talked to my library colleagues, I began to realize that many librarians may not be comfortable challenging these assumptions or offering counter arguments. I’d like to share my responses to common fears or excuses for adhering to the status-quo in research, hoping that others will add their own arguments. These are fairly rough and I’d like to strengthen and focus them, so please share any (constructive) suggestions!

  • What does being scooped even mean?
    If another lab beats you to publication, your results are not suddenly invalid. Replication and reproduction are crucial to building a strong base of scientific evidence. Yes, some publishers and researchers do not hold these values, but those attitudes can (and should) change. Frankly, if another investigator has the same idea and does it better than you, that is a net win for science. Consider how you can learn from them, collaborate, or contribute in a different area. No one wins all the time. Do it better next time.
  • How often does scooping really happen?
    Not very. Sadly, this is based on “anecdata” for now since answering this question is really, really hard.
  • How does being “scooped” hurt you?
    Most often, this boils down to people being worried about not getting credit for their work. If being first in your field matters most, then controlled and early sharing of your results, rather than waiting until you have enough evidence to get into Nature/Science/NEJM, can actually help your career. Yes, how you do that controlled sharing varies by discipline and community of practice, so there is not one right answer. Some easy things to do are put your data/code/procedure somewhere really durable (like an institutional and/or subject repository) and get a DOI (digital object identifier) assigned so it can be easily cited. The patent process is a great example of the controlled release of information to protect IP rights. In exchange for exclusive rights to produce a product, you have to release information about how it is made.

    • An aside: Valuing being first over being accurate is seriously messed up. Science is about the accumulation of evidence to support a theory that explains how/why things happen. 
  • Research is about the process, not the end result.
    The point of research, particularly scientific research, is that is allows us to correct our mistakes over time, as the body of evidence grows and our methods/technology improve. Each of us conducting research today is building on the work of millions who came before us. You are part of a conversation and a community. Advancing knowledge is not about you and your career.
  • Incentives currently reward the results of research, rather than a sound process for getting those results.
    We need to fix this. See the myriad of stories about retractions, data fabrication, outright fraud, and hidden clinical trials with negative or null results. This is how the Vioxx mess happened.

This interview with Elizabeth Pisani about her recent BMJ article titled “Beyond open data: Realising the health benefits of sharing data” is a fantastic and honest conversation about the ambivalence many researchers feel about sharing their data.

By Heather L. Coates

One comment on “Research integrity, openness, and the fear of scooping

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