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Academia (vs. Industry)

Competing (And Competing Unethically?)

Sean Cutler, a biologist at UC-Riverside, is the corresponding author of a paper in a recent issue of Science. That’s always a good thing, of course, and people are willing to go to a lot of trouble to have something like that on their list of publications. But Cutler’s worried that too many scientists, especially academic ones are willing to do a bit too much for that kind of reward. He tells John Tierney at the New York Times that he approached this project differently:

” Instead of competing with my competitors, I invited them to contribute data to my paper so that no one got scooped. I figured out who might have data relating to my work (and who could get scooped) using public resources and then sent them an email. Now that I have done this, I am thinking: Why the hell isn’t everyone doing this? Why do we waste taxpayer money on ego battles between rival scientists? Usually in science you get first place or you get nothing, but that is a really inefficient model when you think about it, especially in terms of the consequences for people’s careers and training, which the public pays for. . .
. . .Obviously there is a balance between self and community interests, but as it stands there are very few metrics of scientific “niceness” and few ways to reward community-minded scientists (some grants consider “broader impact,” but that is not the same thing). What is even worse, is there are even fewer mechanisms for punishing selfish (sometimes horribly so) scientists. If it were their own money or private money they were spending on their research — fine, they can be as selfish as they want and hold others up. But 99 times out of 100, it’s not their money- it’s the public’s money and it drives me absolutely crazy that there is no meaningful oversight of behavior.

That brought in a flood of comments, and Teirney followed up a couple of days later. Addressing the general issue of scientific competition, which is where many of the comments took issue, Cutler added:

” I am in full favor of competition. My message is: Compete ethically. Sadly, there is a lot of unethical competition that goes on in science. This year alone, I have heard of cases that are the scientific equivalent of insider trading, where reviewers of important papers exploit their access to privileged data to gain unfair advantages in the “race” to the next big discovery. I have heard of researchers being ignored when they request published materials from scientists.
Not sending materials described in papers or exploiting privileged information is a clear violation of journal policies, but unethical behavior of this kind is common in science and is usually perpetrated with a proud smile in the name of “competition. . .”

Well, he’s right that this sort of thing goes on all the time in academia. I don’t know how many tales I’ve heard of pilfered grant application ideas, shady conduct when refereeing papers, and so on. To tell you the truth, though, you don’t see so much of that in industry, at least not in the discovery labs. It’s not that we’re just better human beings over here, mind you – it’s that the system doesn’t allow people to profit so much by that particular sort of conduct. Patent law is one big reason for that, as are the sheer number of lawyers that corporations can bring to bear on someone if they feel that they’ve been wronged. There’s more money involved, in every way, so the consequences of being caught are potentially ruinous.
Update: does this mean I’ve never worked with sleazeballs? Not at all! Credit-stealing and the like does happen in industrail research labs; they’re staffed with humans. But direct theft of someone else’s work – that’s rare, because being inside an organization is the academic equivalent of being inside the same research group, and it’s harder to get away with blatant theft. Academic lab vs. academic lab, though, is more the equivalent of “company vs. company”, and (at least in the researchstage of things) we have far fewer opportunities for chicanery in industry at that level.
Anyway, unethical conduct in industrial research, when it happens, tends to occur closer to the sources of the money – over in the marketing department, say, or perhaps regulatory affairs. In academia, grants are the source of money, with high-profile publications closely tied to them. The sharp operators naturally tend to concentrate there, like ants around honey.
Cutler’s proposed solution is to go right to that source:

My call to scientists, journals and granting agencies is this: What I’d like to see implemented are rewards for ethical behavior and consequences for unethical behavior. If you knew you might not get a grant funded because you had a track record of unethical practices, then you’d start behaving. It is not much more complicated than that. The journal Science has a “reviewer agreement” that bars the unsavory behavior I described above. After my discussion of the matter with Bruce Alberts, editor in chief of Science, it is clear to me that Science considers the matter very important, but that the journal currently lacks a written policy on the consequences for ethical violations of the reviewer agreement. Without clearly advertised consequences, why behave?

My take is that two issues are being mixed here, which is the same difficulty that led to Tierney having to address this story twice. The first issue is unethical behavior, and I’m with Cutler on that one. There’s too much of that stuff around, and the reason it doth prosper is that the risk/benefit ratio is out of whack. If there were stiffer (and more sure) consequences for such things, people would act on their underhanded impulses less frequently. And for the kinds of people who do these things, the only factors that really matter to are money and prestige, so hit ‘em there, where they can feel it.
But the second issue is competition versus cooperation, and that’s another story. Prof. Cutler’s points about wasting grant money don’t seem to me to necessarily have anything to do with unethical behavior. It’s true that holding back cell lines and the like is slimy, and does impede progress (and waste public money). But without going much further, you could talk about waste when you have multiple research groups working on the same problem, even when they’re all behaving well.
That’s what went on here, if I understand the situation. Cutler basically went out to several other groups who were pursuing the same thing (abscisic acid signaling) through different approaches, and said “Hey folks, why don’t we get together and form one great big research team, rather than beat each other up?” I certainly don’t think that he was expected these other labs to do something sleazy, nor was he trying to save them from temptation.
And the problem there is (as many of Tierney’s commentors said) that competition is, overall, good for scientific progress, and that it doesn’t have to involve unethical conduct. (More on this in a follow-up post; this one’s long enough already!) That’s why Cutler had to go back and clarify things, by saying “Compete, but compete ethically”. The difficulty with talking about all this at the same time is that the groups he ended up collaborating with were (presumably) doing just that. They’re two separate issues. Both topics are very much worth discussing, but not tangled together.

18 comments on “Competing (And Competing Unethically?)”

  1. CMCguy says:

    Derek I almost spit out my coffee when I read “Anyway, unethical conduct in industrial research, when it happens, tends to occur closer to the sources of the money – over in the marketing department, say, or perhaps regulatory affairs.” I have no love for Marketing (except the money they provide) however while maybe this might be true in financial/business ethics sense there is significant amounts of what I consider unethical behavior going on in labs. Ranges from “borrowing” equipment/chemicals without asking/replacing/returning to Rewarding Ass-Kisser and putting names on papers/patents of people who did not contribute. I also have seen people who hoard data or rush to do work based on another person’s idea before that person can do anything (and of course forget to credit them later if it works). It was worse in my PhD/Post-doc labs but such actions happens in all my industry positions too. You are extremely lucky soul if you have not been in such situations. As pointed out by a number of comments in Tierney pieces Scientist are people and in spite of expectation they should behave better the lack of ethics that perpetuates Mankind goes on in our world way too much.

  2. Alig says:

    If baseball has taught me anything, it is: It doesn’t pay to compete ethically. The cheaters get paid the most.

  3. Lucifer says:

    Cheating pays in the short term, just like mercantilism and crony capitalism.
    No society that has more than a minimal amount of intra-society cheating can ever progress.
    That is why most asian societies did not change for over 2000 years.. you want to repeat history.. suit yourself.

  4. nitric oxide 99 says:

    As Derek points out off the top, Cutler was corresponding author on the science paper. Question: would Cutler have been as eager to cooperate had one of the co-authors he contacted made a legitimate claim for corresponding authorship in his place?

  5. Still Scared of Dinosuars says:

    The unethical behavior in industrial reasearch and development mostly occurs in the management of people. The model is that you hire a lot of bright people, work them like dogs, make them feel like crap about it, and then get them to move on before their stock options vest. Turnover in a department has to hit about 25% a year before Senior Management ever thinks that there might be an issue with it.

  6. CMCguy says:

    Derek although I appreciate the update you added I may be in a disagreeable mood today or have seen too many counter examples (more than fair share of sleazeballs) because still feel industrial research labs are subject to similar failures that should be mentioned. The particulars may be different, not involving grant applications and reviewing papers, yet there are IMO equivalent and equally unethical acts in industry labs. You may be emphasizing money component whereas I have concerns with additional areas. In the end perhaps we are distinguishing between fairly rare to even more rare, as I do agree industry may be somewhat more controlled through more legal presence (real or potential) and other better established rules/consequences although I think the greater level of maturity typically found in industry vs academics has a role.
    In any case an Example that comes to mind is putting “non-contributors” name on paper or patent seems like stealing (credit at least). This is not always clear cut but should a Department Head automatically get authorship; seems like most warrant an acknowledgment rather a citation for their CV.
    Another questionable practice is to invite candidates for interview 1) knowing no openings/possibility to hire and/or 2) because want to pump for specific info on work they did (at another Co or Grad school) in guise of general interest. Along those lines seen people get hired precisely because they have “insider” knowledge of a competitors program to share even though giver and receiver aware is confidential (this is risk but hard to know and prove, however I also would never hire such a person who blatantly exposes secrets since very likely to do so with yours).
    Otherwise as always excellent post and look forward to follow ups.

  7. opsomath says:

    Raise your hand if you’ve had a paper rejected by a reviewer, then had that reviewer publish a paper on the same topic very, very soon afterward.
    *raises hand*

  8. milkshake says:

    There was one curious story from industry-academia interface: Astra Zeneca was interviewing on Harvard campus in late 90s, and one of the postdocs from Corey group presented during his job interview his promising (unpublished) results with cinchona-based anthracenylmethyl phase-transfer catalysts for asym alkylations of aminoacids. Soon a paper in Tet Lett came out, from academic group in UK, with the identical catalyst and methodology – scooping Corey. A curious thing was that the UK group until then worked on total synthesis of cinchona alkaloids, and switched to the PTC methodology only at the time of the interview. The Astra interviewer was in close contact with the UK group that did this thing, and they even credited him with helpful suggestions.
    Since they never provided satisfactory explanation, Astra-Zeneca interviewers got banned from Harvard-sponsored events after this controversy and EJ would discourage his people to apply with the company.

  9. SRC says:

    You have to wonder how thick/naive/silly as Cutler ever got a Ph.D. (even in biology), much less a faculty position.
    If Cutler truly believed that nonsense – which I am sure in his heart of hearts he doesn’t, really – he should publish his papers anonysmously. Otherwise, he should should spare us the hypocrisy.
    Having said that, I’m perfectly prepared to go all in on investments with Bill Gates, and split the proceeds 50/50.

  10. SMILES says:

    #3. Wrote: “…That is why most asian societies did not change for over 2000 years.. you want to repeat history.. suit yourself.”
    Wow, wow, don’t jump to where you know the least… will you focus on the subject matter of “competition”?!

  11. Jan Teller Jr. says:

    IMHO that is a clever approach…nice to see that finally some people start to change the speech in public, justifying their research and behaviour in terms of keeping happy the tax-payers and meeting society needs …before their ego.
    Consequences of the global finantial crisis and lack of funding?
    #9. Mr Gates is already a well-known philanthropist who spares something more than hypocrisy.

  12. SRC says:

    #9. Mr Gates is already a well-known philanthropist who spares something more than hypocrisy.

    You missed the point entirely, not surprisingly, in view of your post. My reference to Gates had nothing to do with him personally. Make it Buffett or Soros, if that helps you take the point, which was that sharing comes easily to those who have little to share.
    Sheesh.

  13. Jan Teller Jr. says:

    Hey SRC, no offense buddy, but if that´s the point, would you spare 50/50 an arterisk in one of your science articles?

  14. DSKS says:

    I imagine I’m reiterating a common response, but a vital aspect of scientific integrity is the independent reproduction of results. It is not a waste of tax payers money to have three independent laboratories studying the same thing for the same reason it isn’t a waste of corporate dollars to test a drug on more than one rat!
    Besides, ethics can just as easily become compromised as a result of this kind of collectivist approach to science. The desire to publish could attenuate the incentive to report conflict within the data (e.g. variance and inconsistencies between labs). In the competitive model, there is of course a strong incentive to publish dissenting results.

  15. Rob says:

    #14, except that never (well rarely) happens. Sure, it is nice, but nobody wants a paper saying “i repeated X work”. Usually they have different cell models and the like. Anyway. This has to be my soapbox issue; the other major thing is that academics piss all over their flunkies, be it postdocs or techs or grad students. The american system is inherently biased, as the student has no say and no power. Then when you get out you find all your work just got you a degree and if you are really lucky, a letter of recommendation. Even those are scantly given.
    This is why I am getting out of academia in a month, maybe to get out of science completely (on my second postdoc).

  16. Jan Teller Jr. says:

    #15 I agree almost completely with you, except for the fact that US is not the only place where things work like that.

  17. PostDoc says:

    I, for one, think nitric oxide 99 had it right on the money when he said:
    “would Cutler have been as eager to cooperate had one of the co-authors he contacted made a legitimate claim for corresponding authorship in his place?”
    because Cutler I’m sure is well aware of the fact that since he initiated the communication, most of the credit will go to him for the work of many. And had it been the other way around, I doubt he’d feel so passionately about passing off his unpublished work to his competition…

  18. DSKS says:

    “#14, except that never (well rarely) happens. Sure, it is nice, but nobody wants a paper saying “i repeated X work”.”
    That’s true to an extent, but there is window of time – albeit fairly narrow – in which duplicate studies have a reasonable expectation of publication after the initial study.
    Still, many studies are certainly repeated but the data never published because it is in agreement with the previous work. That’s a bit of a shame because it would still be advantageous to know about, and review, those corroborating studies, and there should be some sort of outlet for that kind of data.

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