Scientists’ Responsibility to Share Materials

November 9, 2007

A little discussion has been going on at MWE&G over the topic of materials sharing. To be very general about it [since, it turns out we write at the high school level around here; h/t], once a scientist has published a paper using a particular set of methods, they are expected to help others to conduct experiments in the same area because this is how science best advances. Through replication and extension of a given finding to move on toward new discoveries. In some areas of science this may simply be a professional expectation to “help”, i.e. to provide advice and feedback on experimental minutia and other things which are not obvious from the paper’s Materials and Methods section. In addition, there is an expectation that when unique tangible resources are required, the laboratory which has published the paper will go to a reasonable effort to provide resources upon request. This is where things get tricky.

In the comments over at MWE&G Whimple identifies two of the most critical issues. First, the refusal of a laboratory to provide the critical resources when asked. Second, providing the materials requested but demanding authorship on the resulting manuscript(s) in exchange (i.e., without any further involvement with the project). My points in the commentary tended to orient toward the understanding that what really mattered was the expectation in scientific subfields and that there could be no universal “ethical” approach to these issues. Then I thought perhaps we could do a little better than that.

At this point, it is worth reminding ourselves that this is not merely a professional expectation but indeed a requirement for publishing your paper in a wide variety of scientific journals. For example:

Nature‘s policy on the issue:

An inherent principle of publication is that others should be able to replicate and build upon the authors’ published claims. Therefore, a condition of publication in a Nature journal is that authors are required to make materials, data and associated protocols available in a publicly accessible database (as detailed in the sections below on this page) or, where one does not exist, to readers promptly on request. Any restrictions on the availability of materials or information must be disclosed at the time of submission of the manuscript, and the methods section of the manuscript itself should include details of how materials and information may be obtained, including any restrictions that may apply.

Science‘s policy on the issue:

Materials sharing After publication, all reasonable requests for materials must be fulfilled. A charge for time and materials involved in the transfer may be made. Science must be informed of any restrictions on sharing of materials [Materials Transfer Agreements or patents, for example] applying to materials used in the reported research. Any such restrictions should be indicated in the cover letter at the time of submission, and each individual author will be asked to reaffirm this on the Conditions of Acceptance forms that he or she executes at the time the final version of the manuscript is submitted. The nature of the restrictions should be noted in the paper. Unreasonable restrictions may preclude publication.

The Journal of Neuroscience‘s policy on the issue:

Policy Concerning Availability of Materials
It is understood that by publishing a paper in The Journal of Neuroscience the author(s) agree to make freely available to colleagues in academic research any clones of cells, nucleic acids, antibodies, etc. that were used in the research reported and that are not available from commercial suppliers.

(If you have a favorite journal which does not have a similar requirement, drop us a comment, eh?)

So I note a couple of things. First, the issue of “conditions” placed upon material sharing which is obviously targeted toward protection of intellectual property and Material Transfer Agreements (MTA). But this is not incompatible with a policy that states “The laboratory will require authorship for the PI and Postdoc X for any use of Material Z used in this manuscript”. (Anyone do that?) Or for that matter a policy that states “The laboratory will not provide materials to be used in investigations related to X, Y or Z as they are currently working on these areas”. Such a policy is also not incompatible with a MTA approach to scientific applications of intellectual property. MTAs, as we know, are mostly concerned with institutions trying to agree on sharing the profits should the science arising from shared materials turn out to be useful in a commercial manner. Why shouldn’t an institution protect it’s own future scientific output in a similar manner? Is requiring shared authorship for any “resulting inventions” any different from requiring licensing agreements, patent sharing and the like?

Second, since these journals are fairly broad in scope circumstances do not permit any subfield distinctions- thus making the rules general enough to be useless. So we have to debate away. Admittedly, I may have to backtrack a bit on my subfield-expectations theory since journal policies really don’t permit a distinction between a fruit fly and a mouse. And the journals fail to mention gene manipulated organisms in the specific examples. This is where the authorship thing typically arises in spades and can become increasingly idiotic (think of some long established and broadly relevant mouse lines). Also where refusal to provide the materials entirely gets more common. While most requested materials may pass Whimple’s excellent “pull it from the freezer, break off a chunk and send it” test, genetic mouse models most certainly do not. This brings us down from the lofty consideration of intellectual property and future use to the practical concern of how much effort it requires to fulfill the request. How to judge? Is 6 hrs of technician time too much to service a request? 2 hrs? 40? Where is the line. What about costs? It costs just to FedEx materials, not a lot but what if you get 100 requests in a week? There may be some creation costs in, say, culturing some cells or whatever. Somewhere beyond “break it off and send it” but where is that line?

Then we get to the question of relative “uniqueness” and”commercial availability”. The idea being if you can do it too with a little work, why in the heck should I provide it to you for free. The trouble is that everything can be reproduced from scratch, or at least the vast majority. Knock out some beta subunits of the nicotinic acetylcholine receptor in the cortex? Well, someone else can do it too, it just may take a LOT of work. I raised the issue of creating a group of drug-exposed rats upon request and people find this obviously silly. Anyone can buy the rats and drugs from commercial sources and replicate the experiment, right? Sure. But what if it were monkeys? Not so easy to replicate, eh? How about blood samples from a chimpanzee? Now we’re talking about things that can’t really be replicated by just anyone at any (decent sized) research institution. On the human research side of things, how about access to highly unique resources like, oh, say a subject like H.M.?

I come to the conclusion that while the spirit of the expectation to “help” upon request is emphatically clear, the letter of the law is quite lacking. In particular, the obvious areas for moving forward with specific principles fail to identify any clear boundaries. “No Duh!” you say. Yet it also strikes me that through discussion of topics such as the scientific/career benefits of intellectual property, effort required to comply with requests and thresholds of “uniqueness” we can make some progress.

9 Responses to “Scientists’ Responsibility to Share Materials”

  1. laelaps Says:

    Interesting piece, and it made me think about Stephen Jay Gould’s book “The Mismeasure of Man.” Published how you achieved your results in details (procedure, materials, the whole deal) allows later scientists to go back and test the results, sometimes uncovering mistakes or biases that were not questioned at the time. Hence, even beyond helping science “advance” a more open policy can help to correct mistakes made many years before.


  2. drugmonkey Says:

    a minefield, laelaps, a minefield. in terms of your specific example your characterization is a bit off in my view. this is an area of creating further refinement and understanding as opposed to “correcting a mistake”. but i digress.

    you are emphatically correct in identifying additional reasons we have Methods sections in the first place and indeed why scientists should share critical resources.

    but I’ll go right out on the limb and suggest that, particularly in what we regard as some of the hottest science these days, labs are motivated to ignore reagent requests in some part because they don’t want to be falsified. “what? those cheaters!” you say. well yes. I’m in an area myself where experiments “working” or “not working” in the sense of antibodies being “no good”, conditions not right, etc are rare. however, I am familiar with other types of work in which the appearance of one lab “getting it to work” while another cannot is not ALWAYS evidence of fiction. so it can be complicated. provision of the material may end up being a long and lengthy process of helping someone replicate your work…


  3. laelaps Says:

    Thanks for the reply. I was just offering up a supplemental reason (not wishing to replace the idea of refinement that you elaborated).


  4. […] of thoughtful & thought-provoking commentary, well worth the long scroll. Even Better Update: Drugmonkey has started a great (& needed) discussion on responsible material sharing (journal policies, replication of results in other labs, community of science, etc.). Go forth and […]


  5. draust Says:

    Antibodies and engineered cell lines are a good test here. The unlikelihood of getting something off a lab goes approximately

    cDNA < antibodies < cell line

    – i.e. you might get a cDNA, but after that it gets really tough.

    Another problem is that whether you can get the stuff often depends on who you are. If you are a “player” you have a shot at getting your request taken seriously, provided they are not afraid of you as a direct rival. If you are a relative nobody you basically go to the back of the queue. And I’ve been sent a few “oops-no DNA in that cDNA, funny that” samples in my time, too.


  6. physioprof Says:

    “And I’ve been sent a few ‘oops-no DNA in that cDNA, funny that’ samples in my time, too.”

    I think we all have. I remember one situation as a post-doc where I requested a particular cDNA clone from someone, and she rapidly and politely sent me a tube of DNA. It was pBluescript with no insert. So I sent a polite e-mail informing her of this, and quickly received an apologetic e-mail that a “technician” must have made a mistake, and that a new aliquot was on its way. New aliquot was also pBluescript. “So sorry. First-year grad student must have made a mistake.” Next aliquot: still empty vector. I think we gave up and just PCRed it up. But she won, at least in her own perception, because she slowed me down by about six months from working with that cDNA.


  7. drugmonkey Says:

    So whaddaya think? Assuming the articles involved were published in journals that had something like the statements listed above, was this an ethical violation?

    If so, how bad? Not worth contacting the journal over I assume?

    I’ll put on my moral absolutist Janet/writedit/s.rivlin pose for a minnit. Suppose there were a journal blog or per-article discussion like PLOS One that coturnix is always on about or even a field gossip blog. And you posted the “they sent me junk” accusation with the lab involved made obvious. And suppose everyone else who tried to request reagents also chimed in with “gee I got a bogus response too”? How long would it take to eliminate that crap?


  8. Biogeek Says:


    Journal blogs don’t for the most part allow anonymous commenting. You think people would sign their names to such comments? Gossip blogs are just that, gossip.

    Anyhow, I thought this was what professional meetings (GRC, Keystone, society, the like) were for, right? To exchange dirt on people in the field?

    ps. if it comes to that, contacting the journal can be effective I think.


  9. physioprof Says:

    I tend to think of that kind of crap as just “in the noise”, and not worth getting too worked up about. Like when someone cuts me off on the road: momentary annoyance, but five minutes later I’ve forgotten about it.


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