How would you feel if you were called a parasite in a respected scientific journal? If you’re Drs. Erick Turner and Kun-Hsing Yu, the answer is: elated.
The two scientists have each received an inaugural Research Parasite award, for which they’re honored in the latest issue of Nature Genetics.
The tongue-in-cheek honor comes from the mind of computational biologist Iddo Friedberg, and was brought to life by Casey Greene, a pharmacologist at the University of Pennsylvania. The idea was a response to a now-infamous editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine that referred to those who picked over the bones of previously published studies as “research parasites.”
The award has the serious aim of fostering “the craft of data reanalysis for novel ends.” And the particular brand of parasitism that Turner and Yu demonstrated shows just how useful the rehashing of others’ findings can be.
Turner, a psychiatrist at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, explored publication bias in studies of antidepressants and other medications. One of Turner’s findings: 90 percent of published studies of mood drugs report positive findings but only about half of such trials registered with the FDA do so.
For his part, Yu, a postdoctoral fellow in biomedical informatics at Stanford University, led a group that used data from the Cancer Genome Atlas to improve predictions about how likely cancer patients would be to survive their disease. And they did so in a way that would allow other scientists to use their approach — let’s call it meta-parasitism.
Data sharing is not a new idea. Since 2003, the National Institutes of Health has required grantees who receive at least $500,000 per year in funding to share their results. And many journals demand that authors make their data public as a prerequisite of publication, although those polices are often not enforced.
“Research parasites help to maintain the self-correcting nature of science,” Greene and his colleagues wrote in Nature Genetics announcing the winners. “Scientists who perform rigorous parasitism put scientific work to the test, and their results may support or challenge what we think we know.”
This year’s contest generated 41 applications and the group is already accepting applications for 2018. Greene says he’s pleased with the results so far, but he fears that some scientists may be turned off by the satire. “I’d like to transition to the positive framing of the award — awards for rigorous secondary data analysis — and to work harder to encourage members of underrepresented groups to apply,” he said.
Turner said science does not value secondary data analysis as much as it should. “My cynical sense is that one’s academic ‘success’ is largely measured in terms of how much grant money you bring in — not only for your work but also for the institution via indirect costs,” he told STAT. ”Funding agencies seem enamored with chasing the next big thing, even though the ‘gold in them thar hills’ often turns out to be fool’s gold. The research parasite who reveals that fact may be viewed by many as a party pooper.”
Yu offers these tips to would-be parasites: know the online datasets and data repositories that are available and mine them for “hidden gems.” Don’t be afraid to come up with conclusions that differ from those of the earlier research — but always acknowledge the scientists who worked on the original study and cite them appropriately. Oh, and of course: “Share your findings with the scientific community.”
Still, at the moment, the supply of data — not the skills of parasites — is what’s holding up more data reanalysis from taking place.
Part of the problem is attitude. At a two-day summit on data-sharing hosted by NEJM, Rory Collins, a UK scientist who has spoken out in the past against mandatory sharing of data, linked the push to being on the wrong end of a mugging, and expressed the view that sharing for the sake of sharing is like Brexit: “The remedy is worse than the disease.”
We agree that collaboration is better than coercion. But that’s the whole point: We need coercion precisely because so many scientists are loath to collaborate on any terms other than their own, if at all.
In the end, though, you can’t have parasites without hosts. So how about a new, complementary award for researchers who most willingly turn their data over to parasites? According to Greene: stay tuned.
A previous version of this story misstated Dr. Turner’s profession. It has been updated.