Sean Cutler, a biologist at UC-Riverside, is the corresponding author of a paper in a recent issue of Science. That’s always a good thing, of course, and people are willing to go to a lot of trouble to have something like that on their list of publications. But Cutler’s worried that too many scientists, especially academic ones are willing to do a bit too much for that kind of reward. He tells John Tierney at the New York Times that he approached this project differently:
” Instead of competing with my competitors, I invited them to contribute data to my paper so that no one got scooped. I figured out who might have data relating to my work (and who could get scooped) using public resources and then sent them an email. Now that I have done this, I am thinking: Why the hell isn’t everyone doing this? Why do we waste taxpayer money on ego battles between rival scientists? Usually in science you get first place or you get nothing, but that is a really inefficient model when you think about it, especially in terms of the consequences for people’s careers and training, which the public pays for. . .
. . .Obviously there is a balance between self and community interests, but as it stands there are very few metrics of scientific “niceness” and few ways to reward community-minded scientists (some grants consider “broader impact,” but that is not the same thing). What is even worse, is there are even fewer mechanisms for punishing selfish (sometimes horribly so) scientists. If it were their own money or private money they were spending on their research — fine, they can be as selfish as they want and hold others up. But 99 times out of 100, it’s not their money- it’s the public’s money and it drives me absolutely crazy that there is no meaningful oversight of behavior.
That brought in a flood of comments, and Teirney followed up a couple of days later. Addressing the general issue of scientific competition, which is where many of the comments took issue, Cutler added:
” I am in full favor of competition. My message is: Compete ethically. Sadly, there is a lot of unethical competition that goes on in science. This year alone, I have heard of cases that are the scientific equivalent of insider trading, where reviewers of important papers exploit their access to privileged data to gain unfair advantages in the “race” to the next big discovery. I have heard of researchers being ignored when they request published materials from scientists.
Not sending materials described in papers or exploiting privileged information is a clear violation of journal policies, but unethical behavior of this kind is common in science and is usually perpetrated with a proud smile in the name of “competition. . .”
Well, he’s right that this sort of thing goes on all the time in academia. I don’t know how many tales I’ve heard of pilfered grant application ideas, shady conduct when refereeing papers, and so on. To tell you the truth, though, you don’t see so much of that in industry, at least not in the discovery labs. It’s not that we’re just better human beings over here, mind you – it’s that the system doesn’t allow people to profit so much by that particular sort of conduct. Patent law is one big reason for that, as are the sheer number of lawyers that corporations can bring to bear on someone if they feel that they’ve been wronged. There’s more money involved, in every way, so the consequences of being caught are potentially ruinous.
Update: does this mean I've never worked with sleazeballs? Not at all! Credit-stealing and the like does happen in industrail research labs; they're staffed with humans. But direct theft of someone else's work - that's rare, because being inside an organization is the academic equivalent of being inside the same research group, and it's harder to get away with blatant theft. Academic lab vs. academic lab, though, is more the equivalent of "company vs. company", and (at least in the researchstage of things) we have far fewer opportunities for chicanery in industry at that level.
Anyway, unethical conduct in industrial research, when it happens, tends to occur closer to the sources of the money – over in the marketing department, say, or perhaps regulatory affairs. In academia, grants are the source of money, with high-profile publications closely tied to them. The sharp operators naturally tend to concentrate there, like ants around honey.
Cutler’s proposed solution is to go right to that source:
My call to scientists, journals and granting agencies is this: What I’d like to see implemented are rewards for ethical behavior and consequences for unethical behavior. If you knew you might not get a grant funded because you had a track record of unethical practices, then you’d start behaving. It is not much more complicated than that. The journal Science has a “reviewer agreement” that bars the unsavory behavior I described above. After my discussion of the matter with Bruce Alberts, editor in chief of Science, it is clear to me that Science considers the matter very important, but that the journal currently lacks a written policy on the consequences for ethical violations of the reviewer agreement. Without clearly advertised consequences, why behave?
My take is that two issues are being mixed here, which is the same difficulty that led to Tierney having to address this story twice. The first issue is unethical behavior, and I’m with Cutler on that one. There’s too much of that stuff around, and the reason it doth prosper is that the risk/benefit ratio is out of whack. If there were stiffer (and more sure) consequences for such things, people would act on their underhanded impulses less frequently. And for the kinds of people who do these things, the only factors that really matter to are money and prestige, so hit ‘em there, where they can feel it.
But the second issue is competition versus cooperation, and that’s another story. Prof. Cutler’s points about wasting grant money don’t seem to me to necessarily have anything to do with unethical behavior. It’s true that holding back cell lines and the like is slimy, and does impede progress (and waste public money). But without going much further, you could talk about waste when you have multiple research groups working on the same problem, even when they’re all behaving well.
That’s what went on here, if I understand the situation. Cutler basically went out to several other groups who were pursuing the same thing (abscisic acid signaling) through different approaches, and said “Hey folks, why don’t we get together and form one great big research team, rather than beat each other up?” I certainly don’t think that he was expected these other labs to do something sleazy, nor was he trying to save them from temptation.
And the problem there is (as many of Tierney’s commentors said) that competition is, overall, good for scientific progress, and that it doesn’t have to involve unethical conduct. (More on this in a follow-up post; this one’s long enough already!) That’s why Cutler had to go back and clarify things, by saying “Compete, but compete ethically”. The difficulty with talking about all this at the same time is that the groups he ended up collaborating with were (presumably) doing just that. They’re two separate issues. Both topics are very much worth discussing, but not tangled together.