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Ethics of withholding science data from the public

  1. Feb 9, 2010 #1
    I am a graduate student who works with a large science collaboration. The collaboration has built a very useful set of data which will, we are told, be released to the public at some future time when the collaborators are sure it is sufficiently free of errors. However, it is more or less an open secret that the data is really being withheld from the public so that the collaborators can publish their analysis of the data before anyone else has a chance.

    I strongly believe this policy is unethical, and detrimental to science as a whole. The more scientists who have access to data, the sooner it can be used to draw conclusions about nature, and perhaps guide the next generation of research projects in the most fruitful direction. Restricting data to the smallest possible audience may benefit a few in the short term, but ultimately retards the progress of science as a whole.

    The practice of withholding science data is also unethical from a financial point of view. Unlike the private sector, where companies can justify keeping their research secret for business reasons (and because they pay for it), most basic science research is funded by the public and is meant to benefit all humankind, not the careers of specific researchers.

    Do you readers agree that the current practice of withholding science data is unethical, and what is being done to change this practice?
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 9, 2010 #2
    No. If I discover something I am making sure it is error free, and it is me who gets the credit for discovering it.
  4. Feb 9, 2010 #3
    In the collaboration to which I referred, extensive error checking has already been done, and there is no ongoing effort to verify the data's accuracy any further. Error checking is merely an excuse to delay the data's release, and a transparent one at that. If there is no ethical objection to the practice of withholding data, why must the ruse of "error checking" be invented to (thinly) disguise its true intent?

    The real priority is to ensure that designated people are the first to publish any results derived from that data. That, in itself, is not a problem; we are mostly talking about straightforward statistical analysis of the data, the sort of thing that any competent researcher in the field could do once the data is in hand. I agree that this sort of publication should be left to the same people who took the data, since they contributed most of the value to the work.

    The down side, however, is that true discovery is impaired; conclusions that are not straightforward and that may use data from multiple sources. By its very nature, this kind of research is unlikely to come from within the collaboration that collects data. Thus by withholding data to protect the more straightforward results from being "scooped", unexpected and perhaps more significant results are suppressed, or at least delayed.
  5. Feb 9, 2010 #4
    Those who went to the work of collecting the data should get the first chance to make any of the discoveries from the analysis. If I go to the work of producing a bunch of data, why should you get the credit for the discovery?

    Generally when a group collects a significant quantity of data, they will already know what sorts of analyses they intend to carry out. They usually will not make the data publicly available until they have completed whatever work they intended for it. However, generally if another group asks to use their data for something that they don't intend to pursue, they will most likely share the data (with conditions that it not be passed along, not be kept afterwards, and/or not be used for any purposes other than the original request).

    If other groups get a chance to make all the interesting discoveries from data that I've collected, there's not much incentive for me to be the one to collect the data. I think that forced immediate sharing of data would do more harm than good. In the end, there's nothing stopping you from collecting the same data as someone else.
  6. Feb 9, 2010 #5
    If you produce a great set of data, what's wrong with getting credit for a great set of data? Any subsequent discovery would have to cite your work in producing the data anyway.

    If a grant proposal were funded on the condition that data be released to the public quickly, do you really think any research group would refuse the funding? Scientists keep their data private for extended periods only because they can. If that option were removed, they wouldn't stop doing science; on the contrary, they would be able to do more science, since now they would have everyone else's data at their fingertips, as well as their own.
  7. Feb 9, 2010 #6


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    Because no one gets credit for gathering data, you get credit for drawing conclusions based on a set of data. No sane experimentalist will share great data until he/she has used it to publish a few good papers; doing that would be professional suicide.

    That said, I imagine it depends on the field. Data from major international collaborations in e.g. particle physics are usually made public pretty quickly

    It is important to realize that science is highly competitive, I am not saying that this is neccesarily a good thing; but there is not nearly enough funding for everyone and whoever publishes the most papers in good journals wins the most funding.
    Remember that there is more than profesionall pride at stake here, unless you happen to be one of the lucky few with a secure permanent position you simply HAVE to publish, or otherwise you will be out of a job.
    Last edited: Feb 9, 2010
  8. Feb 9, 2010 #7


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    "Withholding" data for a certain period of time is common. For example, Hubble data is made available only to the researchers who collected it for a certain amount of time (I forgot how long).
  9. Feb 11, 2010 #8
    This is exactly why I framed my original post as a question of ethics, not career strategy. It's not a question of whether the system works the way it does, but whether it should work the way it does. The public does not fund science to keep scientists employed; they want results that benefit society as a whole.

    If this way of doing business in the scientific community continues, a political backlash is inevitable. Imagine, for example, a very socially significant discovery like a treatment for a fatal disease, a new source of clean energy, or an asteroid likely to strike Earth is discovered. On further investigation, it turns out that this discovery was delayed months or years by a few scientists hoarding their data in order to promote their own careers. Good luck to those scientists arguing why their decision made sense when they are called to testify before Congress.
  10. Feb 11, 2010 #9


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    But then you need to come up with a completely new system for science funding. Science has become more competitive over the past few years, not less.
    Nowadays most politicians are talking about "focused funding", "promoting excellence" etc; and all of these concept are designedto create a more competitive climate in science; and the way we scientists compete is by publishing papers.

    Hence, if the public wants another system they should vote for different politicians.

    Also, in areas of science where some new results are of vital importance to the general public (new diseases etc) there are usually mechanisms that bypass the usual peer-review process etc (via organisations such as WHO); so there is no reason to suspect that anyone would delay the publication of vital data for that reason. Also, it IS possible to get data out there very quickly even with the full peer-review process in place; journals like Nature and Science can act very quickly when they have to,
  11. Feb 11, 2010 #10
    It's not a question of whether science should be competitive, but whether the competition is fair. In the world of investing, for example, insider trading is forbidden so that insiders don't get excessive gains to the detriment of the overall economy. In science, "insiders" have an enormous advantage that is mostly unregulated, and some are using that advantage to promote themselves at the expense of overall scientific progress.
  12. Feb 11, 2010 #11


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    That is a flawed analogy. There are no laws against one company making a bigger profit than other companies by having access to (and not sharing) better IP.
    Exclusive access to IP is in fact the most basic part of most business models in technology intensive industries. And in industry you also have patents, which means that even WHEN a company reveals information other companies are not allowed to benefit directly. Hence, science even in its current form is much more open than industry.
  13. Feb 11, 2010 #12
    Newton kept all his work secret for a long time. And we still don't know everything.

    Reading his story, it's also possibly doubtful he constructed all his own work to begin with. He controlled a large part of his environment. And he was known for using it to his advantage on many levels. I think the originality of some of his work is actually questionable.

    Read his story from several sources and I mean books... not just the invented calculus part of his life.
  14. Feb 11, 2010 #13
    That's because companies pay for their own IP development with private funds. Scientists generally rely on public funds.
  15. Feb 11, 2010 #14
    I don't see anything unethical in this. If my team or a team I collaborate with amassed or bought ownership of a large set of very useful data, it is only natural to withheld it until you get your own analysis out. It's fair.

    It's a competitive world out there.
  16. Feb 11, 2010 #15


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    It was an analogy. You drew an analogy with financial markets, but my point was that a company is a better analogy.
    A research group IS very much like a small business. Even research grants are -in effect- contracts and the "product" we try to deliver is papers. The next time our customer (the funding agencies) needs to decide where to "buy" the next round of research they will base their decision on how many/where we published our papers last time.

    Also, it is perhaps worth remembering that a relatively large part of the research funding in more applied areas of science DOES come from contracts where a research group really IS acting like a company and is trying to deliver something. Either very specific knowledge that will be used to develop a product of some sort (which the funding agencies consider to be important, a good recent example would be detectors for airport security), or an actual component/product. The research group I belong to does quite a bit of consultancy work for ESA and we also sell them various pieces of instrumentation and highly specialized calibration equipment (which they pay us to develop for them). It is also worth noting that most large international collaborations do include at least one commercial company, in many cases this is a requirement in the call.
  17. Feb 11, 2010 #16


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    "A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it."

    If I was to discover something as epic and destructive as the atom bomb, I would never share it. The powers that be are greedy, and the political system as stands right now can never be trusted with any kind of real power. Same applies to any minute basic research being done today. Somehow it will find a way to become a weapon or make some sniveling little rat rich.

    Take a simple heat equation. In and of itself as harmless as your toaster oven. Some group of 'economists' got together in the 70's and made financial derivatives using those equations. Some other little weasel group decided to one up on that and made credit swap derivatives, mortgage backed securities, etc, and yet another group of actuaries who thought a normal distribution applied to anything, insured those same derivatives. Next thing you know, people are losing their houses, their life savings, and now their jobs, and just around the corner our freedom will be garnished.
    Last edited: Feb 11, 2010
  18. Feb 11, 2010 #17


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    The first release of data is usually the publication of the analysis by the people who collected it. Why would that be unethical? That was the purpose of the collection. If they weren't going to get anything out of it, why would they bother collecting the data? What seems unethical is to try to get a group's data to scoop them on their own work. I've never heard of a publicly funded project ONLY for the sake of gathering data with no other purpose or where the purpose was to be determined later. That's actually why the human genome project wasn't publicly funded, because there was no planned use of the data other than to gather it, so it wasn't fundable. Public funding usually is contingent on producing something from the data gathered, not just gathering it.

    The exception is a facility funded to provide services to other researchers. But, even then, the facility isn't gathering and releasing data, it's just providing a service so other researchers can gather specific types of data for their own analyses.
  19. Feb 11, 2010 #18
    Papers aren't a product, they're a medium. The product is knowledge. The average person will never crack open a peer-reviewed journal, but they certainly may benefit from the knowledge it contains, whether it's by a direct application of that knowledge to technology, or some wonder of nature conveyed in the classroom or in a PBS documentary. It's only because of these benefits to the general public that taxpayers, the real "customers" of research, are willing to fund science.

    This is why I believe it's more appropriate to view a research group as a non-profit agency than a business. The primary mission is not to collect money nor to earn notoriety for its members, but to discover things about nature. Sharing data more openly would further this mission, and would not be detrimental to the careers of scientists either, if the practice could be made standard for all research.
  20. Feb 11, 2010 #19
    If someone announced a cure for cancer or a new source of clean energy, do you really think there would be Congressional hearings angrily investigating why they didn't find it a year earlier?
  21. Feb 11, 2010 #20


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    As if congressional hearing actually results in anything :zzz:
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