Thursday, January 31, 2008

The scooping debate continues

Bora Zivkovic over at ScienceBlogs posted about a scooping story that was just published in Nature. The story itself is quite scandalous, since the individual in question doesn't have a great reputation as far as I could tell from reading various comments on blogs posting on the subject. Go see some of them at ScienceBlogs to get an idea. What I want to address in this post has to do with Bora's commentary on the story, since he suggests that in an Open Science world, scooping would be much more difficult to pull off, since everything is documented and associated with time stamps, and the community can rally behind the "first to blog". I'm not sure the picture is that simple.

Something that I did not fully appreciate before about scooping is that the "scooper" will claim that the discovery was made independently, which is difficult to disprove in many fields. Paleontology and archeology may have very slight advantage here in that some types of discoveries are singular and tangible - a fossil in the desert, artifacts under a dirt mound - physical things at physical locations. Someone would be hard-pressed to say they were at the same place someone else was, digging up the same object (though, as the aetosaur controversy makes clear, scooping of a related sort can still happen). In biology, you might slave away for years to discover that protein A regulates protein B, but if someone else publishes it first, you're out of luck. Sure, you have the reagents and the cell lines and the protein products - but so do your competitors, as long as they have the basic equipment and resources in place to reproduce what you did. So the fear that making your research public would increase your risk of getting scooped maybe is not that unfounded. Closed scientists could easily leech off the hard work of Open scientists with no one being able to prove anything.

Of course, that is an extremely pessimistic view, but unfortunately, it's a kneejerk reaction from many people in biomedical fields. Until Open Science becomes so widespread that anything Closed is viewed with suspicion, there will be the possibility of exploitation. And that statement itself smacks highly of Big Brother. I don't think we want a "tryanny of Openness" any more than we want scooping to happen. My conclusions from this rather sobering train of thought are that yes, scooping is a moral outrage and the fact that it is an issue is frustrating, but because it does happen, we need to think carefully about how to prevent it from escalating as more people go Open. Can we prevent it? Is collective disapproval enough?


Dr. Vector said...

These are good questions you raise.

I just want to point out that paleontologists don't always have it so easy. Despite what Hollywood (and, all too often, the Discovery Channel) would have you believe, it is usually very hard to tell if a fossil represents a new taxon as soon as you dig it up. Often, the recognition that Fossil X is a new taxon only comes after years of preparation and careful study. And a lot of new things are named from specimens that are already in museums, like Xenoposeidon last fall. Furthermore, many people announce preliminary results in abstracts and conference proceedings. Finally, getting a graduate degree in paleo often requires doing some descriptive work, which may be generally available in the form of the unpublished thesis before it sees ink in a peer-reviewed journal.

All of these factors give unscrupulous individuals ample opportunities to preempt the work of others.

We don't need a tyranny of openness. We just need for ethical breaches to be noticed and stopped as they arise. The questionable editorial practices involved in the aetosaur cases have been going on for years, and others have been burned before (see the comments on the Revueltosaurus affair here). It's time for the relevant officials and the wider scientific community to take a stand.

shwu said...

@ dr vector: I didn't mean to trivialize the challenges paleontologists face, merely to suggest one type of discovery that may not necessarily apply to biology. Though now that I think about it, discovering new species is probably similar. Really, it's a shame that this sort of thing happens at all, and I agree change needs to happen within the community (and not left to the publishing or funding bodies).

Cameron Neylon said...

This is a very delicate issue in many ways. There is no question that deliberately scooping is ethically dubious but there are lots of greay areas.

Most scooping in my experience genuinely occurs because people are doing similar things and one publishers first. Sometimes there is a sense that some other group 'is getting close' or is 'catching up' but thats all. One can ask the question as to whether open approaches would reduce this duplication of effort but that's a separate issue.

Really a lot of this is just about being polite and decent human beings. If you want to use something that someone else did, you ask, whether or not you have a right to take it. If they say no, you should consider carefully whether it is appropriate to take it anyway. If someone asks you for access to your results you should say yes, or at least explain why you don't want to take them and provide a timeframe or a set of clear guidelines.

But there will always be grey areas. How many groups are sitting out there on partially or completely unpublished datasets that they won't get around to publishing. In an open world what is the time limit on someone sitting on a data set before someone else has the moral right to make sure it gets published?

Christopher Taylor said...

As has already been pointed out, specimens can sometimes sit around in collections for years, perhaps being seen by numerous researchers, before anything about them gets into print, so proving plagiarism or claim-jumping is not always easy even if there is only one or two specimens.

The current aetosaur controversy actually has a good example of this - Lucas published on specimens that he had briefly examined in Poland that were also being worked on by students there. Lucas simply claims that due to miscommunication he was unaware that he was stepping on any toes when he published, and if it were not for the other dubious situations he was involved in, most people would probably give him the benefit of the doubt.