Action Potential

Paranoia in research – justified or not?

I just returned from attending my second Gordon Research Conference in two months and I am surprised by what I have seen and heard. Or should I be? Gordon Research Conferences (GRC) were started in the 1920’s by Dr. Neil Gordon of Johns Hopkins University as a means to foster direct communication between scientists working in specific disciplines. The “spirit” of the GRC was to present unpublished data, making the meeting a cutting edge presentation of the latest and best findings from top laboratories. These days, one is considered a cavalier presenter if your talk includes data that are mere days from being accepted for publication, let alone including novel findings that are provocative, but may not as of yet be fully developed, and nowhere near ready for submission to a journal.

I am all for presenting older results, as some recent historical perspective often enriches the understanding of any new findings that are presented. This “review” also helps to educate the students and post-doctoral fellows attending the meeting, the conferees most likely to be less familiar with the history of the field. But I didn’t see any chances being taken at the meetings that I attended, which likely reflects the nature of scientific research today, at least in particular disciplines. With academic positions few, the number of PhD-holding ambitious young scientists many, I guess I can’t blame presenters for hoarding their most precious findings, so as to protect them from the “vultures” looking for the next great idea to pursue, or experiment to conduct, ready to call the kidnapped results their own intellectual property. However, this policy of data protection is bad for science and can transform a meeting into a delicate social interaction where one never knows if the person to whom he/she is talking will be the one to run back and duplicate a result, rushing to publish it quickly (unfortunately, given the competition of today, being the first to publish a key result may make the difference between getting tenure or finding a new job and home.) Therefore, the intellectual exchanges that are the hallmark of small meetings, and often the source of the best criticism for one’s work, are severely dampened.

I think that Dr. Gordon would be disappointed if he saw that his vision of small, intimate, cutting-edge meetings where scientific ideas can flourish and intermix had digressed to a state that differs little from the stereotypical large meetings (like SFN) where novel, unpublished findings are a rarity. For the record, here is the mission statement of the GRC:

"The Gordon Research Conferences provide an international forum for the presentation and discussion of frontier research in the biological, chemical, and physical sciences, and their related technologies…placing a premium on the “off the record” presentation of previously unpublished scientific results and on the consequent ad hoc peer discussion."

It is sad that our intellectual pursuit of knowledge through scientific research has become just like any other business venture…cut-throat, stressful, with a healthy dose of paranoid conservatism attached to everything. And to think, in my undergraduate naivety, I thought that by going into science I was going to avoid the abuses and misadventures that came with pursuing a career in corporate America.


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    Drugmonkey said:

    Of course not all meetings and subfields are like this. One of my smaller society meetings is refreshingly full of recent data and not-ready-for-publication presentations.

    It is beyond ironic that you should be posting a complaint about scientific paranoia under the umbrella of a journal series that is one of the very prime motivating forces behind such paranoia!

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    Noah Gray said:

    Well, that is kind of like shooting the messenger, don’t you think? The paranoia exists because some researchers believe that their colleagues may steal their ideas and publish them…in a journal. I am in a very difficult position to determine who is stealing ideas and who isn’t. Therefore, I guess, therein lies the problem. When left to police themselves on this issue, some researchers find it easier to simply become introverted and only share when it is safe. The point that I was attempting to make above was that while I understand this behavior, I am disappointed that it seems to be necessary.

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    Marylka Yoe Uusisaari said:

    Perhaps part of the problem is that “stealing” of an idea can occur subconsciously – some time after attending a meeting an idea pops into your mind, even though you won’t remember it was actually presented in a talk. You know this can happen to yourself, why not then to others?

    So, in a sense, the paranoia “is justified” – even though at the same time completly crazy and counterproductive. Where is the way out?

    (As for Nature journals being the prime motivating forces behind this – they’d deserve praise for their efforts in opening new ways for communicating science, rather than the opposite 🙂

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    Drugmonkey said:

    Noah, you are being disingenuous. There are journals that publish the first report on some topic with significant priority over the best demonstration, Nature being a prime mover in this trend. To the extent that they simply will not publish subsequent papers that may be of much higher quality and actual (as opposed to definitional) impact. Scientist who may not fear that anyone can catch up and do as good of a job, are therefore only concerned that someone can put together a lesser paper that will ride novelty into acceptance and torpedo their own chances.

    The second category of silliness for which Nature policy is directly responsible is accepting a submission because “a paper on a similar hot topic is accepted at (competing journal X)and gee don’t you want one too”. or worse, accepting a me-too for co-publication that comes in, astonishingly, from the group you sent the other paper to for review. yes, i know of specific examples and anyone who cares to look at “initial submission” dates across co-published situations can draw their own conclusions.

    The point is that you don’t have to determine who stole what in a specific case to recognize that systematic journal policies encourage scooping and project stealing. The pose that the journal is above the fray and plays no role in paranoia, impact factor chasing (a prior topic of hypocritical editorializing from Nature), etc is just laughable. As are attempts to handwave away documented findings that high-impact factor journals have higher rates of data fakery…..

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    Noah Gray said:

    Thank you for your comments Drugmonkey, but you seem to be adding additional skills to the job description of a journal editor. Not only should we police the field in order to discover the “cheaters” and the “thieves”, but now we must also foresee the coming of the best study on a particular topic so as to shun the first study, which may prove the point, but lack the extensiveness of the stronger manuscript. That would be a useful skill indeed!

    Your second paragraph describing our tendency to dabble in the “piggy-back” publication of papers covering hot topics (especially if the competition is faster to print a manuscript discussing timely subject matter) does not follow from the first. The first paragraph clearly states that journals such as Nature Neuroscience reject any second study proving an exciting premise if that basic finding has already been published elsewhere. Which one is it? I don’t think that both can be true.

    My intention is not to place the journal on a pedestal above the fray, but rather to point out the nature of the beast we all live with in basic research. Has the prominence and existence of a high impact publication such as Nature Neuroscience added to the problem and increased the paranoia level of researchers? Certainly. But no more than the cut-throat academic tenure-track process, the difficulty in setting oneself apart in an ever-shrinking academic research job market, or potentially, a scientist’s own desire to cement his/her own legacy by becoming synonymous with groundbreaking achievements.

    I take exception to your numerous disparaging comments regarding the integrity of the journal, and indirectly, its editorial staff. You speak vaguely and generally, tossing around thinly-veiled condemnations of our publication practices, without bothering to provide citations from our journal that would edify your position. Surely making such strong attacks independent of the research required to back them up is below a blogger of your caliber.

    Getting back to the main point, as I have stated twice now, I understand all of this paranoid behavior and see the value of secrecy in research, but, indeed, I am saddened by its necessity.

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    Drugmonkey said:

    are you for real? hard to tell.

    my point with regard to best, of course can be unidirectional which indeed it so must be. being willing to publish a better follow-up to a lesser initial report would go a long ways toward defusing paranoia and, indeed, the motivation to rush out a crap job. out of curiosity, can you explain from you perspective why ‘first’ is so prioritized? do you take responsibility or would you claim this is a reflection of reviewer attitude only?

    the piggy-backing only works when things are in progress of course. first- good, co- acceptable, second, never seems to be the mantra. can you tell me you never ever get PIs telling you that something related to their MS is accepted / almost accepted elsewhere? can you tell me that this never works to influence how a submission would be treated (from review to decision to print) in such a case?

    with respect to cites, well conveniently for you most of this stuff would never be admitted to, now would it? clearly you won’t be doing any ’fessing up. the reports on increased numbers of retractions in higher impact journals are published so you can search for ’em. start with nash et al 06.

    try the nature genetics 00 crhr2 ko story for “edification”.

    are journals any more culpable that scientists that perpetuate paranoia? of course not. but they ARE still culpable. i’m happy to call bs on any scientist who bemoans the system and then keeps right on perpetuating it too…

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    Noah Gray said:

    Drugmonkey, I do not mind your criticism but I request again that you refrain from making serious accusations against our journal’s integrity. This is definitely an inappropriate forum for such negativity.

    Being editorially distinct from all other Nature Publishing Group journals, I do not have specific information regarding the crhr2 story that you cite. You will have to take that concern up with the editors of that journal. Please let me know if you need their contact information.

    The study you cite by Nath et al, 2006 (not Nash, please correct this citation in your references) can be found here. Since its founding in 1998, Nature Neuroscience has not yet retracted a paper, so the Nath study does not refer to our journal. The authors did find that a majority of retractions are due to unintentional errors in the course of the research and not because of misconduct by authors, reviewers, or editors. And certainly, the editors are not in any position to verify results in the laboratory (even as much as we sometimes wish we could!) so there is no need to “’fess up” to anything until or unless another laboratory demonstrates that one of our publications is indeed invalid. A telling excerpt from Nath’s study:

    "The three journals with the highest number of retractions in this study were Science, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and Nature. It seems highly unlikely that these journals are prone to publishing shoddy research. Instead, this elevated error rate may reflect the high level of post-publication scrutiny received by the articles in these journals. It is likely to be easier for errors to slip by undetected in less widely read and cited journals. In addition, the complexity and rigour associated with studies published in these journals may lead to a higher risk for error in implementing and replicating the research. Furthermore, the large volume of articles published in these journals may naturally increase the rate of error among them.

    Science and editing is done by humans and we all make mistakes. The vast majority of academic science is not subject to a massive conspiracy theory.

    Getting back to the main point of this thread, I understand all of this paranoid behavior, I see the value of secrecy in research, and I understand the position that high impact journals play in perpetuating this paranoia, but, indeed, I am saddened by its necessity.

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    Action Potential said:

    Retracting creationism

    I decided that all of Action Potential’s many readers down at SfN are probably in need of a little lift at the halfway point of the mother of all neuroscience meetings. It has been almost 3 days of non-stop data…

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    Action Potential said:

    Open Laboratory 2008 – last call for submissions, but I’ll just take your comments

    Science blogging is becoming a fairly large entity, if you haven’t noticed. NPG alone sponsors seventeen of them. Launched in January 2006, has had over 50,000 posts and 555,000 comments on 66 blogs. This is a good thing for…

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    Action Potential said:

    What to do with your unfunded proposals – place them in a centralized repository?

    I would say no. Grant proposals are a precious commodity, especially in this day and age of reduced funding and evaporating money. However, in a recent Nature correspondence, Dr. Noam Harel describes his vision for a centralized grant repository, ideal…