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Sharing in Science

Karen Louis, Lisa Jones, Eric Campbell

Two Sides of the Sharing Coin

Our survey suggests that geneticists live with a complex set of personal beliefs about the ethical underpinnings of their work. They engage in multifaceted decision-making about both openness and personal interests in scientific research. On one hand, scientists are seen, as Robert K. Merton put it, as having "a passion for knowledge, idle curiosity, altruistic concern with the benefit to humanity." The search for scientific truths enables scientists to explore all information regardless of where it might lead. In contrast, the best scientists are often noted for their intense devotion to their particular line of inquiry: "Science ought to be personal to its core ? emotional commitment [as opposed to disinterestedness] can also be viewed as a necessary condition for the development of science," wrote Ian Mitroff in his 1974 philosophical study of Apollo moon scientists.

Scientists generally agree with the belief that the advancement of science is based on disclosure of results, but are usually discriminating about what to share, with whom and when. They believe that investigators should be motivated primarily by a desire for knowledge, but do not, generally, view this as inconsistent with the idea that personal payoffs from research results are acceptable.

Twenty years ago, when we first began to look at academic-industry research relationships, the involvement of private corporations in university research was generally regarded as a threat to basic research. Since then, accumulating evidence suggests that "hot fields" such as genetics have adapted with relatively few consequences to external and internal demands to monitor the effects of such relationships. This study puts some concerns to rest and raises others that deserve more discussion.

The results indicate that financial relationships with industry that involve research funding entail little risk to scientific openness and disinterestedness. There are no systematic patterns of either attitudes or behavior that indicate that this (now normative) relationship has negative consequences. Relationships that are also enhanced by the potential for personal financial gain do seem to increase the risk of secretive behaviors slightly, but the differences are relatively slight.

Two issues that deserve further discussion stand out, however. First, it is clear from the results that a very large proportion of geneticists—irrespective of the kinds of relationships they have with industry—deliberately withhold findings, methods and materials from their colleagues. The only groups from whom most scientists never withhold this information are students and postdoctoral fellows in their own departments. Secrecy, in one form or another, is the norm, despite protestations about the need for openness.

It is, however, also important to point to the "half full" finding that sharing continues to payoff for most of those who practice it. Those who share are able to reap the rewards of greater productivity and more rapid scientific advancement. The question that we cannot answer is whether this benefit accrues to open sharing (for example, at conferences), or, as we suspect, only to semi-public sharing within a small group of trusted colleagues.

Scientists need also to look at the reasons why more public openness may be declining, and to grapple with the fact that industry and commercialization are merely a small element of reluctance to share. We suggest that the following are more important than the corruption of individual work by the hope for financial gain:

Sharing is burdensome: Prepublication information needs to be "cleaned up" before it is shared, for reasons ranging from protecting scientific priority to protecting patients. The financial costs and time associated with sharing are increased, according to comments on the surveys, by increasing federal and university regulations, which are not factored into the increasingly competitive grants process.

Sharing poses real scientific risks: The "urban legend" of scooping is validated by this survey, in which over 30 percent of the respondents indicate that either their own or a student's intellectual work has been appropriated.

Sharing is undermined by decreasing trust: Scientists' experience is that even if they share, others may not reciprocate. Once denied by another scientist, will they be always gun-shy?

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