Research Parasites

During his excellent keynote on Information-based Medicine and Combinatorial Optimization at the EURO2016, Pablo Moscato mentioned the concept of research parasites. If you hear at for the first time – as I did – prepare to be surprised.

The term originated in an editorial on data sharing of the New England Journal of Medicine. The authors stated

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.”

As you can imagine, this statement has been heavily criticised from all sides. To use data to disprove what the original investigator posited, well, that’s what scientific progress is about.  Were the authors misunderstood? In the same editorial, they propose an alternative to what they call parasitic research:

How would data sharing work best? We think it should happen symbiotically, not parasitically. Start with a novel idea, one that is not an obvious extension of the reported work. Second, identify potential collaborators whose collected data may be useful in assessing the hypothesis and propose a collaboration. Third, work together to test the new hypothesis. Fourth, report the new findings with relevant coauthorship to acknowledge both the group that proposed the new idea and the investigative group that accrued the data that allowed it to be tested. What is learned may be beautiful even when seen from close up.

Clearly, one concern of the authors was that appropriate credit for data would not be given. Still, their definition of good research would exclude checking results of other authors using the data they used, that is, verification of results, which is at the heart of science.

As often happens with such scandals, the editorial created quite the opposite effect it intended. A research parasite award has been created, and a twitter account keeps us up-to-date on latest research parasitism.

We are promised that all keynotes can be seen online soon. Let’s hope they are uploaded while memory of the EURO is still fresh.