Paranoia in Research

November 16, 2007

I’m not sure about the prevalence of DrugMonkey’s conspiracy theories about contemporaneous publication, but I do have a more general comment on “paranoia in research”. In my experience, the benefits of discussing one’s research-in-progress with peers and colleagues far outweighs the risk of having your ideas stolen or being scooped.

What are these benefits? They include getting critical feedback on the work before submitting it for peer review, receiving valuable input on directions to move in, and just having fun discussing new science. When I give a seminar, I never talk about published work from my lab, only unpublished new stuff. I find it too boring to talk about published work and much more stimulating to discuss work in progress.

There are, however, reasons relating to the type of work that we do that permit this approach. For one thing, almost all of our work involves the creation of novel transgenic animals and/or laborious series of electrophysiological recordings. Both of these things are quite time consuming, and have a relatively high “activation energy”, so it’s not like someone could attend my seminar and then go home and replicate our experiments in a few weeks. I do understand that there are areas of science where this is not the case, and where someone could just go home and immediately repeat and experiment they just heard about.

Another aspect of my research that permits an open approach is the kind of scientific question I choose to address. At one extreme is the kind of question where everyone in a field knows that some entity exists, and there is a race to be the first to identify that entity. An example of this that comes readily to mind are the olfactory receptor proteins. I’m not a physicist, but I imagine in physics an example would be a new particle that theorists have predicted, but no one has yet observed in a collider. In that kind of situation, just knowing the identity of the entity generally allows extremely rapid replication of the identification experiments. So in that situation, you wouldn’t reveal its identity to your colleagues–many of whom you know with certainty are also trying to identify it experimentally, and could instantly do so with knowledge of its identity–until publication.

I explicitly stay away from this kind of science, in large part because I dislike the secrecy and “racing” that it imposes. I much prefer a more exploratory type of approach based on devising new techniques to explore a phenomenon and reveal new and unexpected mechanistic features. I favor this because it naturally leads me in methodological and substantive directions that tend to be substantially different from my peers and colleagues, and frees me to be open about my research even at very early work-in-progress stages. It also frees my trainees to talk about their work freely both internally at our institution and externally at meetings, which is an important component of their training.

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One Response to “Paranoia in Research”

  1. drugmonkey Says:

    “it’s not like someone could attend my seminar and then go home and replicate our experiments in a few weeks. I do understand that there are areas of science where this is not the case, and where someone could just go home and immediately repeat and experiment they just heard about.”

    This pretty much sums up my work as well. Although in my case this is sort of an emergent property of what I happened to end up doing, the relative underpopulation of my sub-sub-sub-subfield, etc, rather than choice. But it is my comparison of how science can work when (mostly) noncompetitive and how it appears to work in highly paranoid/competitive fields that motivates my commentary.

    “It also frees my trainees to talk about their work freely both internally at our institution and externally at meetings, which is an important component of their training.”

    Double underline. I am quite familiar with some labs where the paranoia thing actively prevents the quite-well-published postdocs from really having much of a professional “presence” in a field. A total shame. No wonder none of them ever get jobs even with C/N/S stats that place them in some very elite company indeed. In contrast, the substance abuse types are really good about that social-integration of their trainees into the field.

    Not that we don’t have competitive pressures (the number of cocaine or heroin self-administration labs is pretty scary at times- eggs/basket NIDA?) and sometimes reasons for holding something back a little. But for the most part the competition is of the good kind. The type that replicates and extends. That provides converging evidence. That takes a question and really tries to answer it (a touch on one such situation is here) instead of just moving on. Yes, even if the back-n-forth is a bit contentious (anyone remember the temporal-lobe memory wars of the late 80s and 90s? Those were usually fun sessions to attend at SfN!)

    Finally, with respect to “DM’s conspiracy theories”… Sure, it could be the case that everything is on the up and up in this case or in all other similar cases. Could be. Maybe the labs involved were all at a conference somewhere and got all excited about something at the same time. Maybe the PIs are constantly on the horn to each other about cool findings. Maybe they are all buds and agreed to wait until everybody was ready together. Or maybe everything was totally independent and all the reviews were done by people not involved as authors on the five papers.

    I am certain in a large number of cases that seem slightly suspicious there is nothing to worry about. The question is, like scientific fraud, whether ethically dubious cases exist at all and whether certain subfield or general cultural practices encourage bad behavior.

    Like


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