Sharing & Caring in the Scientific Community

The way we live and how we perceive our so-called reality is because of individuals in the past who decided to share their wacky views that is now today considered ‘tested and true’ by science. From Da Vinci to Coppernicus, to Darwin, Newton, and Einstein, would our lives have been drastically different if these brilliant minds refused to share their philosophies, findings, and research, to the public and their fellow colleagues?

 A survey-type study conducted by Adrian Mulligan and Michael Mabe in 2009 illustrates interesting trends regarding how researchers felt about electronically publishing their work. The experiment involved researchers from a variety of scientific fields (i.e. Engineering, computer sciences, fund life sciences, etc.) to complete surveys either via telephone/online, with some subjects attending focus groups.

The results reported that many researchers publish their work to either “further [their] career”, “recognition”, “establishing precedence”, and even for “future funding [motivations]”. However, 73% of participants claimed that “dissemination” was a major (primary) motivation for publishing their own research (1).

However…

When asked about presenting research via ‘informal’ means (i.e. conferences, bulletin boards, colleague discussions), only 61% of participants found these interactions necessary, especially in the fields of computer science and physics (CI ± 1.2 p<0.05). Many researchers in the engineering, earth, life, and chemical sciences felt these interactions were insignificant (Figure 8/9).

Mulligan and Mabe argue that this may stem from the belief that publishing data in ‘formal sources’ (i.e. academic journals) ensured research confidentiality. Overall, 54% of the subjects claimed they would only allow access to their raw research data to fellow scientists (2).

Is restricted access a necessary evil?

Although Mulligan and Mabe’s data may not necessarily reflect the entire global population of scientists, many of them can agree that there are valid reasons why scientists prefer to keep their data confidential.

Annual declines in funding for scientific research may be a factor. A major funding source for medical research in the US, called the National Institute of Health (NIH) has seen a disappointing trend in budget, where they experienced only a 3.4% increase from 1971 to 2003, to a 13% decrease from 2004 to 2009 (3, 4). Similarly, from 2000 to 2013, the ‘success rates’ of grant acceptance from the NIH decreased, while the average age of awardees increased. As a result, this stresses (many) young researchers who are driven to “further themselves”.

Furthermore, with an increase in students pursuing higher degrees, this creates conditions for competition and career struggles. Over the past 10 years, biomedical research funding has declined 20% (5).

Some scientists are also keen to protect certain data in their labs, especially if it involves the work of an undergraduate/graduate student (or even themselves). Some scientists are even required to keep tight lips when conducting research with government and industrial sponsors.

Finally, science was built upon discovery, and credit for that discovery, so many researchers may be more inclined to keep data for themselves, to prevent any ‘stealing’ of any ideas. Additionally, due to the ‘nature of rewards’ received in science (which usually goes to the sole discoverer), some scientists may be less keen to collaborate and share with fellow colleagues for this reason.

A scientist is a modern-day hero in some ways, using the awesome power of the mind to create, innovate, and discover things for the general improvement of humanity. But is our pool of scientists in academia shrinking? Or are sponsors becoming more stingy with their funding? Are there any more factors which may (or may not) contribute to this phenomenon? Tell us what you think in the comments!

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