Sharing of ideas and data could remove the barriers to scientific discovery.
Guest contributor Lorraine Clark
I’m currently working as a postdoctoral research associate in the field of chemical biology at Scripps Florida and over my past eight years in academia, I have come to some conclusions based on personal experiences and conversations with colleagues: Teamwork and collaboration are considered the most valuable qualities in the chemical and pharmaceutical industry. However, in an academic setting, people often still commonly believe the only way to advance their careers is by independently achieving as many accomplishments as possible. This point of view is perpetuated by the tendency of some investigators to pit their students and postdoctoral researchers against each other. This may involve, for example, having two people work on the same project and only giving recognition to the person who completes it first. This process can breed a hostile, overtly competitive atmosphere leading to mistrust and an unwillingness to share data, particularly if the data represent negative results, because of the negative connotations it has. Rather than quickly leading to scientific achievements, this practice might actually decelerate the speed of discovery.
Much more progress could be made if academic researchers were willing to collaborate more by sharing not only their ideas but also their data, especially considering the time and resources often spent on dead end avenues of a research project.
To make trust a fundamental part of scientific research, it’s necessary to enforce the concepts of teamwork and collaboration early on in the education process. This could be accomplished by grouping students together in college laboratories and discussion courses to solve a problem.
At the graduate and postdoctoral level, the importance of working together could be instilled by having students participate in every research project going on in the lab, no matter how small their contribution may be. This would have the added benefit of increasing their chances for a publication. Many research institutions already require graduate students and postdocs to complete ethics courses.
However, seasoned scientists also need to be reminded of the importance of trust, either through regular workshops or webinars.
Once the general mentality has shifted from focusing on purely individual success to understanding the value of individual contributions to group efforts, the avenue towards data sharing will become much more accessible.
The majority of research projects require years of hard work before fruition because of many obstacles like experimental failure or negative results. In some cases, experiments may have to be abandoned because they are unable to yield results, regardless of how much time and effort was spent on them. However, if researchers made data from failed experiments available to the community, this hurdle could potentially be reduced and possibly even avoided. Review of experimental designs by an outsider could be helpful, as they may have a previously unconsidered perspective. This means the failure rate and the amount of time spent on an experiment could be reduced, potentially accelerating the discovery of treatments and cures for diseases, for example. Additionally, fewer resources would be spent on unproductive efforts, which is especially important given the limited availability of academic research funding.
Precautions for effective data sharing
Many researchers may be reluctant to share unpublished data for fear of getting scooped, or having data made publicly available and possibly misrepresented before publication.
In order for data sharing to be truly effective, it would be necessary to prevent researchers from using other people’s data for their personal advancement, such as publishing it as their own. Therefore, some type of precautionary measures would be required, such as a binding legal document between the researcher and reviewer that protects both parties.
The avenue for data sharing would also have to be established. This may involve a secure worldwide database, for example, that is accessible to all scientists from industry, research institutions and universities. This database would need to be developed and maintained by a well-established and neutral research facility. Any researchers interested in using this database should be able to access it at any stage of a research project since it may not be immediately obvious that a given experiment may lead to challenges. An advantage of such a database is that the uploading of each piece of data would be accompanied by a time stamp and thus potentially reducing the possibility of scooping.
While there might be some challenges associated with data sharing, it is imperative that researchers understand and value the importance of working in a collaborative manner. This attitude will be the key to allowing science to progress and to achieve the common goal of scientific success and advancement.
Lorraine Clark is a runner up in the 2015 Scientific Data writing competition. Originally from Germany, Lorraine moved to Florida, where she completed a BSc and PhD. She liked it so much there that she decided to stay, and is currently building her multi-faceted science career as a postdoctoral research associate in the field of chemical biology at Scripps Florida in Dr. Thomas Kodadek’s lab. Her love of science was awakened through the movie “Jurassic Park” and, combined with her passion for writing, she is interested in combining these two interest towards pursuing a career in science publishing.