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 When I give a seminar, I never talk about published work from my lab, only unpublished new stuff.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.