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.

12 thoughts on “Professors intentionally slow down science to make themselves look better”

  1. This is much of a serious problem in the medical community, where the collection of data is much painful, prone to errors, etc. I believe you have an entirely valid point, that people are deadly afraid of being scooped by people using the data that they collect.
    When you make funding competitive as possible, you get overly competitive people in science who lose sight of the goal.

  2. There is another side to it: papers.

    Professors need papers to get tenure, retain their position, continue receiving funds, apply for new funds etc.

    Also applies to students. Graduate students need papers to graduate. Undergraduate students are more likely to be accepted to graduate school if they have papers.

    If everything is available, there is always the threat that someone will beat you in your own game with your own tools and data. And sometimes you just can’t do research fast enough or other labs have more resources to beat them.

    Basically, it’s not a collaborative effort, but rather an antagonistic. Academics often work together, but they mostly work against each other.

    I don’t think the system works as envisioned, but that’s real life. Fixing it will probably require some other metric than number_of_papers / year.

  3. I would argue that there are much more important problems than flattening academics ego. I am pretty sure shaming won’t help.

    What might help if we could gradually develop a new culture, where seeing somebody building great things based on your work would be considered an achievement and not a disappointment.

    Another observation is that We are living in the world that is sickly overcompetitive. Academia is just a reflection of this world. Until, we cannot fix the world, Academia won’t improve either.

  4. I am PhD Student in Engineering and what you wrote is one of the reasons I will leave academia at the end of my program.
    The focus of people in academia is neither to teach (there are no rewards in this) nor to “advance human knowledge”.
    The focus, for everybody, myself included now, is to propel their careers as fast as possible. The papers matter and how many of them you have. A good research, sometimes, is a by-product.

    I’ll give you another reason why people are reluctant in sharing code and data: repeatability. If you “lied” or “cheated” in your paper and you give away your data/code, you’re way more likely to get caught.

    One solution might be to force people to release code/data alongside a paper or the paper won’t be published. But again, I bet that people will share as few things as possible. We don’t collaborate, we compete. Do you wanna help your competitor? No.
    When professors do collaborate, they do it because they can gain something from it (of course, in terms of their careers). I accept your papers, you accept mine.

    “The problem is that academic researchers are overly obsessed with their own personal social status. ”
    That’s true. And after being in academia, ans seeing how it works behind the scenes, I can tell you what great lie their social status is.

    Academia, as it is organized now, is unfit to progress human knowledge.

    Perhaps I ranted too much… sorry! Thanks for the article.

  5. 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.

    Hmmm…
    No I don’t think that the primary motivation, the academics are absolutely oblivious of the potential usefulness of their work.
    Look at any paper, it’s 49% sales pitch, 49% “proofs” (or “data” for the experimental sciences), the more intricate/voluminous the better and hardly 2% to actually DESCRIBE what the whole fluff is about or what it could be used for.
    It is a status game indeed but “usefulness” has almost no weight.

  6. All the journals I’ve been submitting to recently require you to provide readers with access to your raw data, usually via a website link. I don’t know how careful they are at checking that this is done, but it seems to be a good start anyway. Data hoarding has become an ethical issue which publishers are well aware of.

  7. The inherent nature of higher education is set up contrary to sharing information. Rewarding professors for unique rather than collaborative work only reinforces this behavior. And I don’t see the university system reforming itself from within; and that includes the publishing houses servicing higher education.

    Reform only happens from outside the system. Pouring money into an antiquated system not designed for today’s collaborative world won’t produce the desired results. Imagine if Obama’s “cancer moonshot” project operated outside the university system but made use of those researchers in independent roles free to collaborate where it wouldn’t affect their standing except to enhance it through joint efforts. This independent network would also be open to “outliers” outside conventional academia.

    Rather than fund the research … fund the result as a reward. This is the case with Elon Musk’s Hyperloop project. One of the organizations vying for the successful design is Hyperloop Transportation Technologies. HTT is an American research company formed using a crowd collaboration approach (a mix of team collaboration and crowdsourcing) to develop a transportation system based on the Hyperloop concept.

    It’s time for research to evolve past the guarded walls of academia and let everyone contribute.

    1. Rather than fund the research … fund the result as a reward.

      Yes. I think that if we funded results, through prizes, this might get people more interested in working toward viable results.

  8. Being secretive about discoveries, in oder to protect priority claims is old as science itself. Think about Galileo famous “smaismrmilmepoetaleumibunenugttauiras” anagram, just to cite a single example.

    Up to now science and technology have produced remarkable achievements. Good or evil, they where not the result of the caste of Professors living in an Ivory Tower, gratifying their own ego. Science progressed thanks to the tension between society at large (industry, military, government, general public) and academia. If the academic “system” has evolved in its present form, the driving forces where by far not only internal.

    Should we expect a new scientific revolution in the 21st century that will wipe away the established (and odious I agree) present academic organisation? I fear that Professors’ ego will be enough resilient to bear a little shaming from the “citizen scientists”. Nor I think that more regulation is the cure to the present condition.

    May be a reform of the process of scientific dissemination (peer-reviewed journal, with their single blind system [reviewers names are unknown to the author, and not also vice-versa]) could be the grain of sand that will disrupt the present system.

    1. Being secretive about discoveries, in oder to protect priority claims is old as science itself. Think about Galileo famous “smaismrmilmepoetaleumibunenugttauiras” anagram, just to cite a single example.

      I would argue it predates modern science, but so do war and torture.

      May be a reform of the process of scientific dissemination (peer-reviewed journal, with their single blind system [reviewers names are unknown to the author, and not also vice-versa]) could be the grain of sand that will disrupt the present system.

      Maybe.

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