Two seemingly opposing medical editorials on the subject of data sharing have recently been published. One, by the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) appeared in all of its member journals, a non-paywalled version can be freely read at PLOS Medicine. Its lead author is ICMJE Secretary Darren Taichman, professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. The message goes:
“(ICMJE) believes that there is an ethical obligation to responsibly share data generated by interventional clinical trials because participants have put themselves at risk […]
As a condition of consideration for publication of a clinical trial report in our member journals, the ICMJE proposes to require authors to share with others the deidentified individual-patient data (IPD) underlying the results presented in the article (including tables, figures, and appendices or supplementary material) no later than 6 months after publication”
The other editorial, in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), authored by the journal’s editors Dan Longo and Jeffrey Drazen, both professors of medicine at the Harvard Medical School, takes seemingly a diametrically opposing stand, by accusing those interested in accessing published data of nothing less than parasitism:
”…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’.”
The NEJM editors obviously think it wrong when other scientists attempt to re-analyse published data to assess its true validity. They are worried about the reputation of the original authors, who have published faulty data interpretations and its erroneous conclusions. This approach puts the individual scientist above science.
A major storm on social media began, which I joined as well. It seemed there were the good, transparent and modern ICMJE on one side and evil, secretive and backwards NEJM on the other. In fact I, and many others, got it wrong, the reality was more complicated. After contacting the NEJM editors I understood that the two editorials are not that different after all.
The solution to the riddle lies with another message in the NEJM editorial which drew lots of controversy:
“How would data sharing work best? We think it should happen symbiotically, not parasitically. […] 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”.
This means only one thing: scientists who wish to re-evaluate or use the published data generated by someone else must grant co-authorships to the latter, as opposed to the usual practice of acknowledging the source with citations. This expectation goes completely against the ICMJE recommendations on “Defining the Role of Authors and Contributors”, which are:
“The ICMJE recommends that authorship be based on the following 4 criteria:
Substantial contributions to the conception or design of the work; or the acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data for the work; AND
Drafting the work or revising it critically for important intellectual content; AND
Final approval of the version to be published; AND
Agreement to be accountable for all aspects of the work in ensuring that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work are appropriately investigated and resolved”.
Otherwise, ICMJE recommends:
“Contributors who meet fewer than all 4 of the above criteria for authorship should not be listed as authors, but they should be acknowledged”.
Obviously, simply allowing others access to the data you have already published does not qualify you for authorship criteria of their future paper. In such cases, appropriate literature citations and specific mentioning in acknowledgment should fully suffice. However, authorships on research papers are very prized assets, and scientists often ruthlessly jump on every opportunity to co-author another paper. The problem of undeserved authorships is well known to anyone who ever worked in academia. In fact, in the field of obsessively publication-counting field of medicine it is likely to be much more widespread than elsewhere. Many papers feature authors who did nothing beyond sharing a published or even a commercial reagent. Some were simply powerful or important enough to enforce or to be granted an authorship. Therefore, undeserved academic authorships are nothing but bribes, given with the sole purpose to advance own career. And this kind of corruption is very rife, if not epidemic, in medicine and clinical research.
ICMJE editorial also advices how to give due credit to the original source when using shared published data:
“authors of secondary analyses […] must reference the source of the data using a unique identifier of a clinical trial’s data set to provide appropriate credit to those who generated it and allow searching for the studies it has supported”.
However, this kind of credit seems to be what counts as parasitism for Drazen and Longo, whom I have contacted by email. I received this reply from the former:
“We said that some people described data users as parasites, but we were describing a better way to share data as symbiosites. The NEJM is a member of the ICMJE and strongly endorses its open data proposals-we published the same editorial that you cited in PLOS and you will see I am an author on it. There is no controversy here”.
Indeed, Drazen is a co-author of the ICMJE editorial. But why then does he insist on granting authorships, obviously undeserved in light of ICMJE recommendations?
When asked to clarify his demand of authorships to the original owners of the data, Drazen added:
“What we need is a method for people who generate data in clinical trials to get appropriate credit for their work- this needs to go beyond a citation. We are asking the community to help us solve this vexing problem”.
A closer look at the ICMJE editorial shows that very similar thing is being proposed there:
“In addition, those who generate and then share clinical trial data sets deserve substantial credit for their efforts. Those using data collected by others should seek collaboration with those who collected the data. However, because collaboration will not always be possible, practical, or desired, an alternative means of providing appropriate credit needs to be developed and recognized in the academic community. We welcome ideas about how to provide such credit”.
In the nutshell, it seems all medical editors of ICMJE, including those at NEJM support the call for data sharing. Members of ICMJE are apparently not generally opposed to independent analysis of published data, even without the involvement of the original authors. Maybe less so the NEJM editor Drazen. When specifically asked to elaborate on his concern about the parasites using “the data to try to disprove what the original investigators had posited”, wrote to me:
“Open data is one way to address reproducibility but that crisis is not rampant in the realm of controlled clinical trials-the realm where open data is under consideration. As we said in the ICMJE editorial, the major reason for open data is to honor the sacrifice made by research participants. They are the real heroes in this enterprise!”
This sounds like a half-hearted acceptance of the changing times, in the face of the more and more common stipulations about open data sharing coming from funders, journals and even occasional research institutions.
Under these circumstances, it is less the data itself, but its authorship credits which the clinical scientists are so afraid to lose. These doctors seem to come to grudgingly terms with the new times, where authorships cannot be automatically given and taken, without any scientific contributions to the research project at hand. But they also are not prepared to be simply thanked in acknowledgements, with their paper cited in the list of references. And they are certainly not keen on seeing their high-profile published research (NEJM has a colossal journal impact factor of 56!) being plucked apart by their critical peers.
Therefore, what exactly are Drazen and his ICMJE colleagues proposing? To introduce conditions under which original data from clinical trials can be released, and demands for collaborations (meaning co-authorships)? with its “owners”? Or will ICMJE soon change its authorship criteria, to include the ownership of original published data?