Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Ethics question of the day

I don't know whether to file this under NIH, but maybe it's something they should find a way to address.

Which is worse?

a) agreeing to review a paper which you know competes with a colleague of yours (conflict of interest)?
b) not telling your colleague that you know they're about to get scooped by this paper you agreed to review (breach of confidentiality)?
c) both?

How often do you think this happens?

a) rarely
b) never
c) sometimes
d) way more often than you want to know about

On my mind today is the moral aspect of science. Some of us actually do it to try to help improve the world, and in doing that we also feel some obligation to make the academy, as one astute commenter put it, "fairer".

It strikes me as interesting that many of the industry trolls are defensive about their choices. I don't mean to imply that people who go to industry are in any way bad people. I'm just saying it's not what I want. So why the big fuss over what I write here?

There are three major groups of people who have commented on this blog thus far:

a) people who want to see me quit, because they think I'll be happier
b) people who are in a similar boat to me
c) people who are afraid they'll be in my boat soon enough and are wondering if they can get out now

To those of us who are already in the boat, I love the comments in support of improving the academy. I really need to hear, at least once in a while, that I'm not in this alone.

For those who have chosen to leave academics, good for them if they're happier. It's clear from the comments and continuing interest in this blog (and the few who have recently jumped ship, good riddance!) that there's always agony in the choice and some may even still regret it.

But it makes me downright angry when they belittle my wanting to make the system fairer.

Where on earth are they going to get people to hire into their companies if the academy goes away completely? And isn't it a worthy goal to want to make the process of evaluating science and scientists more... scientific? Objective, even?

Okay, so maybe I sound a little martyred some days. I'm sorry for that because it is disgusting in its own way. There are a lot of days when I'm not sure if I should choose to fall on my sword.

I just wonder what will happen if science continues to get worse, and nobody wants to make it better?

Right now in my field, there's a weird phenomenon in progress. Several papers have come out in the last year that all make the same, erroneous claim, for different reasons. It's bizarre because they all use the other papers to support their claim, and none of them address previous publications to the contrary.

I can only conclude that they've all be reviewing each other's papers, and seen each other at meetings presenting the work, so they might have even agreed to publish around the same time, figuring there would be strength in numbers.

What's sad is that they're all fooling themselves, and neither the editors at these journals nor anyone outside the field appears to be aware of it in the slightest.

I've spoken with some of them about the discrepancies and they're just defensive about it, have no interest whatsoever in getting the right answer to the scientific question.

Instead they're closing ranks, and in some ways this is the scariest thing I've ever seen in science.

For those of you who have been reading these blogs, you know that's saying a lot.

It's kind of like groupthink, where they all point to each other as justification for believing something that just isn't true. It must be true because everyone believes it, right?

Since everyone has a job or a grant at stake all the time now, they have every reason to defend their publications and no reason to want to set the record straight.

Is that corruption? Or just a total lack of morality? Aren't those the same thing?

Until we figure out how to prevent things like this from happening, science is screwed, and so is anyone else hoping to get cures for human diseases.

Who knows how long these kinds of fairy tales are going to derail research and send it in the wrong direction? How many papers and grants are going to be triaged because they appear to conflict with "the bulk of the current literature"?

And doesn't anybody give a damn?

And if they did, would there be a way to do anything about it?

It's not as if there's a governing body that would review the evidence and sort out things like this.

(I was going to say Supreme Court until I remembered the recent Ledbetter decision... and I realized that wouldn't solve anything because you can always still stack the courts).

One idea I was discussing yesterday with a friend would be to require a more thorough review of the literature when papers are submitted.

If most editors at the top journals aren't actually educated in the fields they're publishing, and they don't know the politics well enough to realize they're sending papers to all the wrong people to review, the least they could do is check.

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At 9:31 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

i feel it is perfectly acceptable to agree to review a paper that may or may not scoop your colleague. are the journal editors supposed to know and acknowledge alliances? who is to say who is a friend or foe to whom? so i think that question is irrelevant. the question is, do you find the paper to be something that you want to review or not?

second, i would not tell a colleague anything. i don't see how it would help me if were in the other colleague's shoes. someone else already submitted a manuscript. either i do the same or i get scooped.

i think this sort of thing happens very often (more often than not), and there are different ways to handle it. maybe it keeps happening out of "tradition."

At 9:33 AM, Blogger Image Goddess said...

Hopefully I will have my doctoral degree by the end of the fall semester. I've thought A LOT about what I want to do when I'm done. I don't want to go into industry, that's not for me. But over the past several years, I've really become disillusioned over how science "works." I see people trying to make results fit the conclusions that they want. Not making conclusions from the results. I see manipulation of statistics to see the desired results.

I have yet to see a PI who really cares about what the science says. Not what they want it to say. I see millions and millions of dollars go to research that can get funded, not research that is applicable in the real world. I'm in an area where most of the people around me work on HIV/AIDS and see so much time and effort spent on 'proof of concept.' When I know, and they know it will never work in the 'real world.' So what good is most of it?

It makes me want to not go into academia. I'm torn because I love science, I love learning. I've had experience teaching and I love it. So maybe I'll try to find a position at a University that focuses more on teaching than research.

But I'm always left with the fact that now I don't trust research so much. I don't know what I expected, but I didn't think it would be this way.

At 9:55 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

To address A), I think it happens all the time. Personally, I believe we should move towards a system in which all data (at least, once you can make up a 4-panel figure), should be published on the web, in some sort of giant searchable database. "Papers" would come about naturally by basically setting a bunch of these figures together in a story... and would let everyone know who was working on what. There's a lot of potential bugs to work around in this idea, but I've gotten favorable responses from a few people.

With regards to the "weird phenomenon" wrt an "erroneous claim"... I've been involved in a field which has had this kind of fight going on for several years, so either it's common or we work in the same field. :) My take from it is that people are way to eager to take conflicting data and claim that other people's work is "wrong". It may be misinterpreted, for whatever reason. Or, as seems to be the case in my field, perhaps different groups are using slightly different conditions, reagents, or techniques... and if there are only a few labs doing a certain technique, and they all disagree, how do you decide who's right? And if someone publishes conflicting data first, there's a hill to be overcome in getting your own data accepted.

In the end, science and technological progress have blundered down one dead end after another - if we hadn't, we've have cured cancer by now. Eventually though, either the conventional wisdom will stand, or the true data/theory will out. It only took a few hundred years for the Pope to admit that Galileo was right after all...

At 10:08 AM, Anonymous Drugmonkey said...

You forgot d) people who were once in your boat, managed to land on the PromisedLand of PIdom and, gee, might just have some useful perspectives.

re: "same erroneous claim". yep. emperor, clothes. it sucks. you will have a tough time publishing contradictory data. ditto getting a grant funded. is it important to you? then persevere. if you are right, this will out in the end. if not that important to your core interests, well, there's lots of this in the lit so move on.

last, your first point. it is not unethical to accept a paper to review just because it might be "competing" with friends or colleagues. the question in science is, "can you be objective and fair". this is left up to you for the most part. just because there are some (many?) unethical people doesn't change how you choose to behave, does it? or does it?

in the real world an editor often has to balance expertise to review a given paper with possible competing interests. when i've queried an editor I know well about a possible dodgy conflict situation his point was that if this level of conflict was a categorical disqualifier, he'd never get anything reviewed. the point being that after a while in a field just about *everyone* is either a colleague or a competitor.

At 10:13 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just to let you know what one postdoc did: I was asked by my boss to review a paper that scooped something I had just started working on. I had done about 2 months work (maybe 25% commmitment). It was a good paper. I gave honest critique and accepted the paper with minor revisions. As far as I know it is being published. If you have trouble with "a, b, and c" then you should stop and delete the email once you've read enough of the abstract to know you shouldn't be reviewing it. The right thing to do is ok in my book. Cutthroat competition is for assholes.

At 1:25 PM, Anonymous JR said...

"There are three major groups of people who have commented on this blog thus far:

a) people who want to see me quit, because they think I'll be happier
b) people who are in a similar boat to me
c) people who are afraid they'll be in my boat soon enough and are wondering if they can get out now"

I am sure that a lot of your readers are both B and A. At least I was. I lived the same life as you and I walked away from academics 2 years ago.

I have been reading your blog for over a year now. I keep thinking that you will see the writing on the wall, tell all your "mentors" what you really think of them and take the great leap of faith into something new. You can't be blamed for your resistance to something besides academic research. The mind control runs deep and we are all over achievers. The attitude that everything is inferior to academic science is also so strong and persuasive.

The thing that I have learned from my personal experiences is that we are all born with some kind of skill or trait. Some are smart, some are beautiful, some are industrious, ... If there are a lot of people with special skills, why then are some people more successful than others? In my mind, it all comes down to opportunity. Those who can find opportunity will succeed and those who can't will wonder why they haven't succeeded yet. If you believe that you are capable of great things, you need to find the people who can enable you to be great. Your current academic "mentors" are not delivering opportunity to you. It is in your best interest to find something or someone who can. As a postdoc, you have a relationship with your mentor that you will take inferior salary and working conditions and in return you will expect some degree of career mentoring and possibly development. Like many of us, you have held up your end of the bargin and you are not seeing anything in return. The mentors see many of us as highly skilled laborers and because there is always another highly skilled laborer, there is no need for them to advance us only so that we can compete with them.

Did you ever wonder why the postdoc population in most universities is as least 50% foreign? The real answer has nothing to do with encouraging diversity.

You (and others, or course) should not be so resistant to change. Science is science no matter where you are. If you have strong fundamentals, you will realize that the basics of doing science in industry (or elsewhere) is not as different than academic. Sure, I don't have the excitement of doing cutting edge science anymore, but because of business and regulatory pressures, the science that I do has to be more accurate and more true than anything I did in academics. For me, there is a large amount of satisfaction in that. I was so tired of fumbling in the dark, looking for the lightswitch when i didn't even know if there was one.

You have the power and control to make something happen. If you are not recognized, you have the power to go somewhere else. Don't insult yourself by waiting for your mentors to finally give you the nod. Go after it and get it yourself. It may not be the career you imagined yourself doing, but it will be more fruitful than anything that you are not getting out of academics. Walking away from the academic game was the best decision I ever made. No regrets and I've never looked back. Except only to try to save some of my peers from the same mistakes that I made.

At 7:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can only guess that this must be what it is like to be in other realms of public service. To save one's soul, one must sell one's soul. I am with you on trying to make things better. I am in the boat with you. :)

At 8:31 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The review question is a good one,and it is an theical dilemma we increasingly face. The problem is, when an editor sends you an abstract of a paper and asks you to consider reviewing it, even if you do the ethical thing and decline because your freind/colleague down the hall works on that stuff, now you know about it and what do you do-tell them that they are about to be scooped or not?

Really good question, damned if I know the answer.

I hate to play the blame game, but my sense is that this is happenning more and more now that the hot journals are run by failed scientists who are younger than kids I used to babysit for. Once you get on their radar screen, they keep asking you to review stuff. They are entirely too deferential to the "big guys and gals" and have no idea the demands on an assistant professor's time, never having been assistant professors themselves.

The other day my friend received a request to review a paper ON WHICH SHE IS AN AUTHOR! OK, so she's a middle author on a multi-author, multi-PI paper. But Jeez, the editor coulda read it a bit more carefully. For the record, my freind declined to review the paper. ;)

This is symptomatic. Not checking a name on the author list is pretty extreme and rare, but not realizing that Dr. A and Dr. B are in the same institution, and Dr. C is a direct competitor of Dr. B so Dr. A should probably not be asked to review Dr. C's paper is apparently much more common.

At 6:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If we could all work in a vacuum without needing to interact with anyone, then I agree with you - that the system should be more objective. But research is a human enterprise and as such we need to go along to get along. I'm not trying to defend the old boys' network, but maybe, just maybe you need to do something that other people think is important before embarking on your own independent (and from the sound of it quixotic) career.

The truth of the matter at the top tier institutions is that economics plays a huge role in success. It's not how well you teach or how well you construct your research program (sure, those things are important, but you've got to pay the bills), but how relevant your research is to a contemporary problem (that other people recognize as both important and tractable) and how successful you are at navigating the politics of getting funded.

Based on how you describe what you like about science, I don't think you'd enjoy being at a top tier institution for the first part of your independent career. You are way too irrelevant in the near term. Maybe you'd like to end up at a top tier institution - but to get there you will probably need to start somewhere smaller, do whatever it is that you want and then painstakingly demonstrate to people that what you have found is relevant.

It's not a path I would choose for myself, but hey, what do I know. I do what I like - solving problems with available tools. I don't claim to be a good judge of what a relevant problem is yet. I leave that up to the people who have been down the block and around the corner. And I'm on a path toward an independent academic career. I'm just happy so few people have figured out that this approach works (or like yourself, would find this path so distasteful as to not even explore it).

At 3:39 PM, Anonymous Just Curious said...

For those who have chosen to leave academics, good for them if they're happier. ... there's always agony in the choice and some may even still regret it.

Is academia v. industry really a dichotomy?


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