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Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Harlan Krumholz On Data Sharing

It is easy to envision how a community of scholars should be organized. Every idea would be taken on its merits, and every person judged on the worth of his ideas. The need for a social hierarchy would be strictly limited. Each member of the community would enjoy status that was determined by merit and that owed nothing to social standing or any other personal attribute. Elite group[s might appear temporarily but would never outlast the original reason for their existence. -Betrayers of the Truth, Chapter 8, Power of thew Elite -William Broad and Nicholas Wade

In a world where social hierarchy is strictly limited, why would a scientist withhold data? To gain notoriety a scientist must get his/her work published. That means communicating with the rest of the community. Communication is the purvey of the bullshit artist. Scientists write up their papers according to the structure required. Somehow the required structure of the scientific paper has evolved to excise meaningful data. One possible explanation is that those who are now in charge were once up and coming researchers. They knew the perils of data sharing to their careers. Now, as leaders, they have opened up the path to more creative narratives. Science took the hit and careerists had way around the old fashioned rigors of science.

But there is one feature I notice that is generally missing in Cargo Cult Science. That is the idea that we all hope you have learned in studying science in school—we never explicitly say what this is, but just hope that you catch on by all the examples of scientific investigation. It is interesting, therefore, to bring it out now and speak of it explicitly. It’s a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty—a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you’re doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid—not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you’ve eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked—to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.

Scientific integrity, the layman might assume, means operating in the ideal world described above. The world where ideas are judged on their merits and not by the pedigree of the originator. Scientific integrity, the layman might assume, means that the leaders of the scientific community require their underlings to report everything, good and bad. Yet the scientific paper has evolved to the point where the actual data that supports the conclusions is top secret. And the rest of us do not have the proper clearance.

AllTrials is an organization that sees the problem and seeks to do something about it. AllTrials has targeted the pharmaceutical industry and their clinical trial data. Another scientist pursuing data transparency is Harlan Krumholz. Please read his article and listen to the NPR interview.

Data sharing is knowledge sharing. It is the same concept of forming a university where we share knowledge with intelligent young people in hopes that they will further the knowledge. Dr. Krumholz says
Among the first things we learn in school are to share and to show our work. This lesson has been lost on medicine for many years. The medical editors are reminding us that we scientists have a principal responsibility to society and to those who agreed to participate in our studies.

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