From our cold dead hands: NEJM Editorial on Data Sharing

There are few things more at the heart of the progressive science movement than the notion that good science is open science. It’s a notion that has led to an explosion in data sharing networks and advocacy groups all with one goal in common. Give people access to the data.

After all what better way is there to verify, or refute, a finding than by independently assessing the original data? If your answer to this, albeit, rhetorical question was “None, that seems like a really simple way to do exactly that”, you’d be correct. However, if your response started something along the lines of “Now hold on just a minute, the importance of tradition…” then you’re probably an editor of the New England Journal of Medicine.

In a gallingly, short-sighted editorial entitled Data SharingDeputy Editor Dan L. Longo, M.D. and Editor-in-Chief Jeffrey M. Drazen, M.D. have shared their concerns with the scientific masses. And the masses have thus far been far from impressed. Taking to twitter to take out their frustrations on the hapless duo.

The cynic in me questions whether NEJM has simply taken a leaf from the book of clickbait in an attempt to muster up some serious page hits. Or perhaps they were trying their hand at satire. If so, congratulations on a job well done.

But if the views expressed by Longo and Drazen are indeed genuine, then I thought perhaps we ought take a closer look.

“The first concern is that someone not involved in the generation and collection of the data may not understand the choices made in defining the parameters. Special problems arise if data are to be combined from independent studies and considered comparable. How heterogeneous were the study populations? Were the eligibility criteria the same? Can it be assumed that the differences in study populations, data collection and analysis, and treatments, both protocol-specified and unspecified, can be ignored?”

Dan L. Longo, M.D. & Jeffrey M. Drazen, M.D, Data Sharing. (Emphasis current author)

This concern on initial glance is a reasonable one. How could new investigators be aware of the unspecified caveats and behind the scenes decisions of the original authors? They couldn’t. At least not if the authors weren’t interested in an open system in the first place. The main problem at the heart of this concern is the barely hidden disdain that the authors hold for open science. After all in an ideal collaborative scenario, we as independent researchers would be aware of the caveats and defining parameters as the original authors would have been careful to include them in their original manuscript. Probably in the supplementary data somewhere so as not to mess up the traditionally succinct formatting of their journal of choice, but there nonetheless.

“A second concern held by some is that a new class of research person will emerge — people who had nothing to do with the design and execution of the study but use another group’s data for their own ends, possibly stealing from the research productivity planned by the data gatherers, or even use the data to try to disprove what the original investigators had posited. There is concern among some front-line researchers that the system will be taken over by what some researchers have characterized as “research parasites.”

Dan L. Longo, M.D. & Jeffrey M. Drazen, M.D, Data Sharing. (Emphasis current author)

The second concern of Longo and Drazen is where they stop pulling their punches, labeling anyone who dares use data to “disprove what the original investigators had posited” as a “research parasite.” It is this comment that has drawn the greatest amount of ire from the online scientific community. Leading to the trending hashtag #researchparasites. As a young researcher I would have thought that any and all steps to data verification would have been a good thing. After all what are researchers, but people desperately trying to discover the truth about the world they inhabit. Surely more eyes on the job in what is essentially a giant game of Where’s Waldo? can only be a good thing. But it’s not. At least not according to Longo and Drazen. Rather, young researchers who hope to verify the work of a well-respected, senior (I’m assuming that this is what the authors mean) academic are simply using their prominence to give their own career the nutrients it so desperately craves. Not for a second could they simply be asking “But are you sure?”.


“A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”
Planck’s Principle, Max Planck (1950)

You may know this quote more commonly as “Science progresses one funeral at a time.” It’d be witty if it weren’t so devastatingly true. The simple fact is that increasing transparency in the design and methodology of scientific investigations erases the concerns outlined by Longo and Drazen. And you know what? I dare say they know this already. It’s just we’ve been doing it their way for oh so long and their not ready to give it up just yet.

So let’s look at this editorial for what it actually is. A tantrum. It’s the scientific equivalent of Longo and Drazen kicking and screaming in a supermarket aisle all because they no longer get all of the treats to themselves. As for me? I’m happy to share.

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