Geneticists More Likely to Hide the Goods

Citing examples of data-hoarding by colleagues, some scientists have griped that commercialism and competition are destroying the once-congenial atmosphere of U.S. academic labs. Such complaints are now likely to gain credence, thanks to a survey on researchers' conduct published today in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). It suggests that secretiveness is indeed becoming a problem in the life sciences, particularly where competition is hot--as it is in the field of genetics.

The survey, conducted by a health-policy group led by David Blumenthal at the Massachusetts General Hospital, found that almost 20% of the 2167 academic life scientists who responded to a questionnaire said they had delayed publication of data by more than 6 months. Their reasons were often linked to commercial stakes: 46% said they needed time to prepare patent applications, 33% said they had to protect intellectual property in some other way, 31% were trying to keep ahead of competitors, and 28% reported they had to "slow dissemination of undesired results."

Geneticists, Blumenthal found, were more likely than others to delay publication of data. Among a group of 595 researchers identified as being in the field of genetics, 28% reported that they had delayed publication of results for more than 6 months, as compared to 22% in the broad survey group. And 14% of the geneticists (compared to 6% overall) said they had refused to share research results with a colleague. Blumenthal zeroed in on genetics, he says, because his study was funded by the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), a leader in studying ethical issues in genetics research. "We didn't want to single genetics out for criticism," Blumenthal says. "It's just that genetics [and NHGRI] may be out in front in identifying the problem."

NHGRI's director, Francis Collins, told ScienceNOW that he found one aspect of the study "troubling." The summary in JAMA seemed to imply that people funded by the genome project were more likely to withhold information than others. That's not so, claims Collins. In fact, "Early release of data has become the cultural norm for NHGRI grantees," Collins says, "and we like to think that we are setting a standard here." NHGRI is unlike other agencies in the National Institutes of Health in that it requires grantees to publish data within 6 months of completing the research. And it goes even further for recipients of large DNA-sequencing grants: They must release DNA information to the public within days of generating it.

Blumenthal says the study may point to the need for even stronger action to get NHGRI's message across. "We may need to alert universities and departments of genetics," says Blumenthal, "that they should set a tone that encourages data sharing rather than data withholding."