In case you wondered what’s wrong with biomedical research, just read this editorial on data sharing by Longo and Drazen in the New England Journal of Medicine, a leading journal in the field. What you will find is a desperate attempt to take data hostage and to enforce co-authorships for people who didn’t make any intellectual contributions.
But let’s take it one step at a time. What did Longo and Drazen actually say? They think there are major problems with sharing data fully, timely and openly.
The first concern is that someone not involved in the generation and collection of the data may not understand the choices made in defining the parameters.
I am an experienced biomedical researcher. If I completely misunderstand the choices you made in designing your study, then you failed to explain them well in your paper.
One more reason you should make all your data and patient information available, so people not involved in your research can unbiasedly assess the choices you have made.
Special problems arise if data are to be combined from independent studies and considered comparable. How heterogeneous were the study populations? Were the eligibility criteria the same? Can it be assumed that the differences in study populations, data collection and analysis, and treatments, both protocol-specified and unspecified, can be ignored?
These are very good questions and they are exactly what people like me worry about.
We use statistics together with decades of experience in data analysis. And this is why you need to share your data and all information you have about the patients – because else no one can answer the questions you just asked.
Many journals also have this thing called “peer review” where scientists, who often were not involved in the original study nor in my analyses, comment on my work and help me to fix potential flaws. I am sure the NEJM has something similar …
The parasites are here already
So far, so good. They haven’t insulted anybody yet .. Let’s see how it goes on …
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.
What do you mean by “will emerge”? No, these people are already here, I am one of them!
I use other groups’ data to my own ends. I often address questions the data gatherers might not even have thought about.
And yes, if the original claims are shaky, I will do my best to use their own data to disprove them. This is called science.
And I am not stealing anything. Your data have been publicly funded. I am part of the public. I take what is my own. If you are not productive, don’t blame it on me.
There is concern among some front-line researchers that the system will be taken over by what some researchers have characterized as “research parasites.”
“Some researchers”, again. How very specific.
I am a top-notch, cutting-edge, front-line biomedical researcher myself and I hope to run into them one day and give them a tour of my parasitic research program.
Parasites versus symbiotes
Do Longo and Drazen have anything positive to say? Yes, they do. They outline how they think data sharing would work best:
We think it should happen symbiotically, not parasitically.
Start with a novel idea, one that is not an obvious extension of the reported work.
Second, identify potential collaborators whose collected data may be useful in assessing the hypothesis and propose a collaboration.
Third, work together to test the new hypothesis.
Fourth, report the new findings with relevant coauthorship to acknowledge both the group that proposed the new idea and the investigative group that accrued the data that allowed it to be tested. [my emphasis]
There is nothing wrong with the idea of symbiotic research. I do it all the time. Go ask Bruce Ponder, Carlos Caldas or James Brenton. They are PIs in my institute, we share postdocs and students, and our groups work symbiotically every single day. And in the end we write papers together as co-authors, because we all contributed intellectually to the study, not because one of use owns the data.
Let me speculate a bit. I believe the real reason the NEJM editorial has been written is hidden in the fourth point of the quote above: It is to argue that the initial data gatherers should be co-authors on all follow-up studies. Implicit in their proposal is the assumption that the data are not available to me unless I collaborate with the data gatherers, who retain full control over it. I can “buy into” their data only by making them coauthors. Longo and Drazen argue for a system in which data are held hostage to enforce co-authorships.
When I use published data, I acknowledge the efforts of the initial data gatherers by citing the original paper. And that is exactly how it should be done.
If you call my approach ‘parasitic research’ I am proud to be a parasite.