Geneticists often won't share data and materials, study finds

Some fear such secrecy will slow pace of research

January 23, 2002|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

In a practice that some fear may slow the pace of life-saving discovery, academic geneticists frequently refuse to share their research data and materials with other scientists, a new Harvard-led study finds.

The research, published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association, is the first to take an in-depth look at the practice of so-called data withholding.

Competition is nothing new, and may contribute to discovery.

"That's what makes people sit in their labs for 80 hours a week," says Eric G. Campbell, a health policy researcher at the Harvard Medical School and lead author of the study.

But some observers worry that academic competition in genetics, one of the fastest-growing fields in the life sciences, is becoming cut-throat and could undermine a pillar of academic research: free and open sharing of information.

"When people don't share published resources, it may slow the rate of scientific advance," Campbell says.

To determine the scope of secrecy in the life sciences, Campbell and his colleagues surveyed 1,240 geneticists and 600 nongeneticists at the top federally funded research universities in the country.

Forty-seven percent of respondents said they were rebuffed at least once in the past three years when they asked others for data or materials. Among the most common reasons cited for turning down a colleague's request were not having the time or money to comply, or wanting to protect the ability of their students or themselves to publish research first.

There are signs that the growing secrecy may be having a negative effect on research.

In the Harvard study, 28 percent of geneticists said they were unable to replicate published research as a direct result of being unable to get data or material from others. Nearly a quarter said they had to significantly delay publication of their research, and 21 percent said it forced them to abandon a promising line of research.

"If science can't be reproduced because people can't get access to a critical piece of information, you're losing that part of what makes this system great," Campbell says.

The survey showed that geneticists were no more likely to withhold data than other life scientists. But geneticists were more likely to say that secrecy was harmful to their research.

Genetics researchers such as Dr. Victor A. McKusick of the Johns Hopkins University say they're not surprised by the findings of the Harvard study.

"It used to be that there was much more congenial cooperation," says McKusick, who began his genetics work in 1957. "Today, there is more of a sense of competition, of getting there first and finding the gene."

As corporations underwrite a growing share of academic research, nondisclosure and other protective agreements may prevent researchers from handing over a biological sample. And universities may impose their own red tape that makes sharing difficult.

"Universities have grown very protective of material which they anticipate may someday have commercial value," says Neil Holtzman, a geneticist at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and author of the study.

The pressures to keep research results secret appear to be growing. More than one-third of the geneticists who responded to the Harvard survey said they thought data withholding was becoming more widespread.

One solution, says Campbell, may be for government sponsors to provide scientists with money to hire someone to fulfill requests for data or materials.

But the Harvard researchers concede that such policies probably don't address the impulses underlying data withholding - the drive to be first - and say more research is needed. "The ultimate goal," says Campbell, "is to ensure that the progress in fighting human disease via research proceeds at the fastest rate possible."

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