Sean Cutler is an assistant professor of plant cell biology at the University of California, Riverside and the corresponding author of a paper in Science published online at the end of April. Beyond its scientific content, this paper is interesting because of the long list of authors, and the way it is they ended up as coauthors on this work. As described by John Tierney,
Dr. Cutler … knew that the rush to be first in this area had previously led to some dubious publications (including papers that were subsequently retracted). So he took the unusual approach of identifying his rivals (by determining which researchers had ordered the same genetic strains from a public source) and then contacting them. He told me:
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.
Cutler doesn’t argue for the end of competition between scientists. Rather, as he explained in a subsequent TierneyLab post, he thinks it’s important for scientists to compete ethically — to play by the same rules as they do their research and submit their findings for publication, rather than getting across the finish line first by sabotaging other scientists in the running.
As you might imagine, I’m on board with Cutler’s view of how scientist should approach competition. And, I am delighted that he agreed to let me interview him for my blog. (On account of its length, I’m breaking the interview up into two posts.)
JS: Can you explain your experiment in cooperative science, and what motivated you to do it?
SC: Well, first off, the idea that it was an experiment is a tad misleading. It was a personal experiment in how I wanted to live my life — not a scientific experiment. Perhaps I can publish it in the Journal of Irreproducible Results one day, if I am so lucky.
The background is this. After several years of work I found myself sitting on a major discovery in one of the most competitive fields in plant biology. “Competitive” in science is usually code for “cut throat”, and can be associated with scientists who abuse their power to get ahead unfairly. I thought to myself — what is the one thing that those “cut throat” types would not do in my situation — because I really do not want to end up like them. Contacting people I might of scoop seemed like an interesting approach. My colleague, ethicist and friend Coleen Macnamara thought it was a great idea, which was encouraging. I sent emails out to people who I determined were sitting on the same jackpot discovery as me, but I gathered that they didn’t realize it. That got the ball rolling.
JS: What’s your take on why competition, rather than cooperation, has come to be seen as the right way to do science?
SC: Just read Jim Watson’s Double Helix or watch the movie And the Band Played On. There are too many narratives of success coupled to unethical behavior. These campfire stories are deeply ingrained in the psyche of science and scientists. I have heard one particularly troubling message over and over again in my career: “you can do whatever you want, as long as you publish great work”. Sadly, I have heard of graduate students getting that advice from their mentors! That said, I am not against competition or individuals working in isolation. What we need to do is supplant the current narrative with a better one. We also need to be militant about calling the jerks on their behavior whenever we see it — I seem to have a unique talent for this.
JS: You’ve said that you’re aware of scientific competition that has relied on unethical strategies — peer reviewers making unfair use of confidential information from manuscripts submitted to journals, scientists neglecting requests for published materials from other scientists, etc. Do you think this kind of ethical breach is more prevalent than outright fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism? Do you think, because of its prevalence, it might be more serious?
SC: Yes, in my opinion it is much more serious and more damaging to the culture of science, perhaps not the public perception of science, but to the environment that scientists operate in. I would wager that this stuff is 100 to 1000 fold more common than fraud — but I couldn’t say for sure (that doesn’t stop me from guessing though!). I hear about the behavioral breaches very often but I rarely hear of outright fraud. You risk your career if you fake data, but there are really no serious consequences for being unethical in the behavioral sphere. Sure, you may be known as a “shark”, but the praise that comes from your fantastic papers seems to make that tolerable. That is why the institutional structure of rewards and consequences needs tweaking.
JS: Do you think that the institutional structure protects those that commit “ethical crimes”?
SC: Perhaps tacitly, and sometimes explicitly. I think science would benefit from more transparency so that jerk scientists just cannot get away with this stuff. For example, anonymous review probably does more to protect “sharks” than protect honest reviewers, which is sad. I would wager, that if one were granted access to analyze the reviewer data held by the journals, I think some interesting patterns would arise and a lot of horribly unethical scientists would be exposed. I would love to see someone use journal reviewer data for this purpose- that would be awesome. Google, are you listening? The irony is, if you proposed that to a journal, they would say “but the process is anonymous,” to which I would respond, yes — you are using anonymity to protect jerks! Even a coded data set or an unpublished analysis to prove the point would be awesome — no need to expose people, just prove that there are unambiguous problems at work and that the problem needs to be fixed.
JS: This kind of ethical breach, as you’ve also noted, typically violates journal policies. Why do you think enforcement of these policies has been so lax? Are there practical ways for journals (and granting agencies) to enforce such policies more rigorously? Are written policies about consequences for violating reviewer and author policies sufficient?
SC: I wish I knew, but let me give a cynical answer. Look who is making the rules: successful scientists who usually got to where they are by “winning” in competitive fields. It is like asking company executives if they want a rule that makes them disclose their personal sales of their company’s stock (which is an SEC mandate, by the way). But before these rules were imposed, why would they agree to that? It has to come from outside the system, because insider trading is a proven method for acquiring wealth and no one wants to lose a proven strategy. Don’t get me wrong, it is still a minority of scientists that are unethical jerks — but all it takes is a couple jerks in the room to say “we could never tackle this problem” and they can shut the discussion down.
Additionally, there may not be a clear sense of the scope of the problem at journals, and this only helps to slow progress. One high level person at a journal told me, and I am paraphrasing here, “breaches of the reviewer agreement are thankfully rare.” I almost fell off my chair when I read that and I wrote a rather nasty email in response (which I regret doing — I make mistakes too). That is what we are up against. Many of the people with the most power think that there is not a significant problem.
Having said all of that, my shenanigans enabled me to get Bruce Alberts on the phone for a lengthy discussion, and he assured me that this will change, and that Science Magazine will make this topic an important component of their upcoming discussion about ethical policies at their journal. The historical focus on this topic has been on “data ethics”, not behavioral ethics, but I think things will change. The challenge is for people to speak up and say, “Yes, there is a problem — and we need to fix it”. If Science Magazine institutes a policy, the rest of the journals will follow suit. This won’t fix the problem that jerks will always exist, but at least it changes the ground rules and creates clear consequences about what happens when you get caught getting winning dishonestly.
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In part 2, we wrestle with some of the details that complicate the task of helping scientists compete more ethically. Also, Cutler gives a tantalizing hint of a miraculous solution.