More than a quarter of U.S. geneticists say they can't replicate published findings because other investigators won't give them relevant data or materials. And the rejections are more than a breach of professional etiquette; a majority of academic geneticists say that data hoarding retards progress in the field.
The survey team, led by David Blumenthal and Eric Campbell at Massachusetts General Hospital's Institute for Health Policy, compared the responses of 1240 geneticists with 600 other life scientists from the 100 universities that receive the most funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The survey explores a bread-and-butter issue: 84% of the geneticists report that they have asked another researcher to provide information, data, or materials related to published research.
Almost half (47%) said that at least one request had been denied in the previous 3 years. The most likely requests to be thwarted were for biomaterials such as mice or viruses (35% had been denied such a plea). Despite the widespread rejections, the survey found that naysayers were a distinct minority. Only 12% of geneticists reported that they had denied a request. This number may be an underestimate, Campbell explains, because researchers don't like to admit they resisted sharing their data. The most common reason cited for denying a request was the amount of effort required to produce the data (see table).
Geneticists say this proprietary behavior is having a negative impact. Some 73% felt that withholding of data slowed progress in genetic research in general, and 58% said it had limited their own work. About the same fraction reported that it hindered the training of students and postdocs. More than twice as many scientists (35% to 14%) thought that withholding had risen rather than fallen over the last decade, although a bare majority (51%) said they hadn't noticed any change. The results appear in the 23/30 January issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Campbell and his colleagues suggest that researchers might be more forthcoming if material transfer agreements were more user friendly. Another step, they say, would be for funding agencies to provide money to defray the expense of meeting requests. "It's a legitimate cost of doing research," agrees Wendy Baldwin, NIH's deputy director for extramural research, adding that researchers could either list the cost in their grant application or apply for a supplemental award.