Only this morning I was chatting to my wife in the car and we were discussing how important generational change is, how it is a force for good. Take climate change – every single child is now being taught about the environment, about climate change, about how we are destroying our own planet. Sure, the old white men that are in power now are raping the planet and ripping out every last drop of oil they can lay their hands on; but they’ll die soon, and the children of today will grow up and take their place, and be more careful with our planet. I expect similar stories for sexism and racism – they will disappear as long as we teach our kids the right values.
Of course, our kids will also do some awful things too, things that our grandkids will need to fix, but let’s not get into that.
How serendipitous then, that a pair of out-of-date, soon to be extinct dinosaurs vomited up this stinking editorial in NEJM about data sharing. Had it been April 1st I’d be convinced it was a parody; alas no, these guys genuinely seem to believe that others who download and use your data for science are “parasites”, and even express fear (yes, that’s what it is, fear) that someone might use their own data to disprove their hypotheses. The whole piece is dripping with disdain for these “parasites”, and I think this editorial (if it remains up!) will be remembered as a dark day for NEJM.
Sympathy for the devil?
Is there any way we can empathize with the authors? Where does this feeling of data ownership come from? It is of course the product of a broken system. We are judged on the impact and number of our papers, which is weakly correlated with the amount of money we spend on our research; the amount we spend is strongly correlated with the amount of money we win in grants, which in turn is dependent on those papers being published. So our entire system of reward is based on getting those publications so we can win more money and publish more papers. Naively, there seems few incentives to share data, and many incentives to keep data to private so we can wring out every last publication for ourselves.
Wrong on many levels
Of course the reasoning above doesn’t stand up – as I explained here, the data do not belong to the scientist, they belong to the funder and should be released as soon as possible, for the good of science and the good of the public. It is extremely arrogant to assume that you, as data generator, have the ability to extract all possible useful information from the data. Others of course will have ideas, many better than your own, and those ideas deserve your data, they deserve life. Perhaps most importantly, rather than damaging your reputation, releasing data does the opposite and will almost certainly result in more collaborations, better science and more impact for the data generator. Contrary to the NEJM bile, open science is far better – for you, for science and for humanity in general.
The last roar of dying dinosaurs
The views in the piece are so out dated it’s almost funny. Attitudes have been changing for years and will continue to do so. Treat the article with the disdain it deserves – this is your grandparents moaning about how TV and the internet have spoiled everything and life was so much better in their day; this is the biplane telling everyone that spaceflight is bad; it’s the bicycle desperately hoping that no-one wants to travel 100mph in racing cars.
It’s a pair of dinosaurs looking at an approaching comet and thinking: “oh shit!”