Studies examine withholding of scientific
data among researchers, trainees
Relationships with industry, competitive
environments associated with research secrecy
BOSTON - January 25, 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 examine a broader range of withholding behaviors
among life scientists than previously reported and describe how
data withholding is affecting researchers in several fields during
their training years. The papers appear 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 minimize 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 1,800 life scientists at the 100 U.S. 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avoided including unpublished scientific information in conversations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 seminar 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 percent of the
geneticists and 32 percent 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 1,000 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 percent of trainees reported
having denied requests from other researchers, with that behavior
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 U.S.,"
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."
Along with Blumenthal, the coauthors of the first report are Campbell,
Manjusha Gokhale, Policy Analysis, Inc., Boston; Recai Yucel, PhD,
University of Massachusetts, Amherst; Brian Clarridge, PhD, University
of Massachusetts, Boston; Stephen Hilgartner, PhD, Cornell University;
and Neil Holzman, MD, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. The study
was supported by a grant from the National Human Genome Research
Campbell's coauthors on the trainee study are Christine Vogeli,
PhD, MGH Institute for Health Policy; Yucel; Eran Bendavid, MD,
Stanford University Hospital; Lisa Jones, PhD, St. Paul Public Schools,
Minnesota; and Melissa Anderson, PhD, and Karen Seashore Louis,
PhD, University of Minnesota. The study was supported by a grant
from the Office of Research Integrity at the U.S. Department of
Health and Human Services.
Massachusetts General Hospital, established in 1811, is the original
and largest teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School. The MGH
conducts the largest hospital-based research program in the United
States, with an annual research budget of nearly $500 million and
major research centers in AIDS, cardiovascular research, cancer,
cutaneous biology, medical imaging, neurodegenerative disorders,
transplantation biology and photomedicine. In 1994, MGH and Brigham
and Women's Hospital joined to form Partners HealthCare System,
an integrated health care delivery system comprising the two academic
medical centers, specialty and community hospitals, a network of
physician groups, and nonacute and home health services.
Media Contact: Sue
McGreevey, MGH Public Affairs
Physician Referral Service: 1-800-388-4644
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