Last week, a global group of 30 journals, health nonprofits, and research institutions announced that they would be sharing data on the Zika virus in the interest of stanching the spread of the mysterious disease as quickly as possible.
Not surprisingly, the announcement was met with cheers from scientists and the media. And at first glance, there’s a lot to like here. After all, as the World Health Organization has noted, researchers who study public health emergencies have a “fundamental moral obligation to share preliminary results once they are adequately quality controlled.”
But wait. After a group of scientists did just what the WHO and editors said they should do, posting Zika virus genomes in a publicly available database, other authors of a paper in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) used those data. And the original researchers have complained that they didn’t get enough credit, Nature reports. You might even call the NEJM authors “research parasites,” which would be ironic given that the term first surfaced in a much-criticized editorial in … NEJM.
Ah, science, that selfless search for knowledge, in which the truth, not credit, is the ultimate incentive, right?
Forgive us for being a little cynical here. The fact is that the WHO, journals, and others are correct. Data should be shared. But while we agree with the substance of last week’s announcement, the backslapping rang a bit hollow. It’s scientists, and journals in particular, who have created the problem, or at least not done much to solve it until this point.
For starters, it’s not clear what the WHO means by emergency. More than 600,000 people die each year from heart disease in the United States alone. The death toll from the Zika virus is still believed to be in the single digits. Yet you don’t see dozens of research bodies banding together to call for sharing data on cardiovascular illnesses.
More to the point, the journals involved here — including such heavy hitters as Science, the Lancet, the Journal of the American Medical Association and NEJM — are being more than a little disingenuous in jumping on the data-sharing bandwagon. After all, federally funded scientists who submit papers to their pages are supposed to share their data openly anyway, and many affirmed similar policies last year. Journals are notoriously lax at enforcing those requirements, however. They want big papers that will be cited frequently, and they do what they have to do to get them.
One of the ways journals make sure no one scoops them is a clever little clause called the Ingelfinger Rule. Named for the former editor-in-chief of NEJM, the rule began with good intentions as an attempt to make sure that unscrupulous scientists didn’t take to the press before their work was peer-reviewed. Letting horses back into barns, particularly when those horses are alleged cures for cancer, is a challenge. Promote your work in the press, or publish it elsewhere? We’re not interested, says the rule.
But the rule has become a major bottleneck in the dissemination of results, because scientists are so scared that any publicity — whether they seek it or not — for their work will make it impossible for them to publish in a peer-reviewed journal. And if they can’t do that, they won’t get tenure and grants. Journals have apparently recognized that problem, and as part of the announcement last week, they said Zika research will be exempt from such rules.
This feels like a bit of a “Casablanca” moment, though. “We’re shocked, shocked, that scientists don’t want to share data,” you might imagine Claude Rains saying in a version of the film for scientific research. The response from the guy running the craps table: “Your Ingelfinger Rule, sir.”
In short, journals are trying to score points for doing something they really should be doing already but aren’t. Instead of focusing on that initiative by old-school institutions, we suggest taking a look at some braver ideas by newer entrants. Take for instance Accelerating Science and Publication in Biology (ASAPbio). They’re gathering Tuesday and Wednesday outside of Washington, D.C., to talk about making more use of so-called preprints, a way to share findings that doesn’t depend on waiting for peer review. “I have heard from several colleagues about how this will lead to people publishing huge numbers of papers containing patently untrue statements or lots of junk science,” wrote David Stern on ASAPbio’s site. “This may happen, but I think it is extremely unlikely that the authors of these papers will be rewarded for these efforts.”
In the end, we’ll admit without a grudge that anything that promotes the sharing of scientific data is good. We just wish announcements like last week’s could happen without the backslapping, and make data sharing for all conditions — not just Zika — the reality.