Daniel Lemire's blog

, 4 min read

Professors intentionally slow down science to make themselves look better

Recently, the president of the United States announced a big anti-cancer initiative, to be headed by his vice-president Joe Biden. Will it be fruitful? Maybe. But an important obstacle has become clear. Researchers are glad to receive funds from the government, but they do not want to share back data, software, and raw results. They are willing to publish only as a way to claim credit, but as a way to open their laboratories to the world. This means that years can be lost while other tries to reproduce research results from partial information.

Though American medical researchers are required to post results from clinical trials on clinicaltrials.gov, it takes only a few minutes to find out that the information is not available: only about a tenth of completed studies report results a year after the study is completed. The results of most government funded clinical trials are not shared, and when they are, they information is often limited. Chen et al. recently concluded:

Despite the ethical mandate and expressed values and mission of academic institutions, there is poor performance and noticeable variation in the dissemination of clinical trial results across leading academic medical centers.

This is far from limited to medicine. If you are trying to access some academic research results, and you are failing to get access to the data and the software, it is most likely by design.

If you ask representatives from the research community, they might tell you that there is too little funding, so academic researchers must compete fiercely for positions. If governments only gave a bit more money, people would be more open to share. But if this theory held, then established researchers who have jobs for life and a healthy track record of securing large grants should be more open to sharing than the post-docs who are hunting for a job. I have never heard of any such documented correlation. And given that the established researchers set the pace in science, it is unlikely that they are advocates of openness. In any case, according to this theory, we would see variations on how willing people are to share according to the level of government funding… and, again, no such correlation was ever established.

The other story is that if they were to share their data and software, others could benefit while they would get, at best, partial. That story is closer to the truth.

The real reason the Harvard medical researcher does not fully open his lab to the Stanford medical researcher is that he is afraid that the Stanford medical researcher will go back home, use the data to achieve a breakthrough.

To put it in clear terms, if you are an academic researcher, and you have data or software that could be useful to others… that could enable them to cure cancer, get trees to absorb CO2 faster, or crack AI… you’d rather that they do not do these things as they would cast a shadow on your own accomplishments.

But, surely, academic researchers are lot more open than people from industry? Not so.

“trials by industry were 3 times more likely to report results than were trials funded by the NIH [government funding agency]” (Law et al.)

The problem is that academic researchers are overly obsessed with their own personal social status. It is a stronger pull than the desire to advance science, the public good or even commercial interests.

Some people then object that it is not an obsession with their own social status, but rather a lack of incentives. Reward the researchers with more social status if they share and they will, says this theory. Of course, if you think it through, this objection is nothing more than a rewording of my own explanation: researchers tend to only think about their own social status and everything else is secondary.

Engineering the system so that it gives more social status to people who share is hard and open to gaming.

Instead, I think it is time that we get busy mocking academic researchers. Someone needs to go through clinicaltrials.gov, find all government-funded studies without reporting and openly shame the offenders.

And this would only be the start. We need to take down academia’s ego.

Next, someone needs to start issuing data, software or details requests to various government-funded laboratories. When the information is not forthcoming, we should openly report the status-obsessed professors.

Eventually, if there is enough shaming, the professors will have no choice but to share so as to protect their status.

Further reading: Michael Nielsen, Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science, 2011.