Musings – are we research parasites? (#researchparasites)

Text by Lauri Laanisto

The New England Journal of Medicine published an editorial paper today, titled “Data sharing” by Longo and Drazen (link to full text). In short it´s point is that while “The aerial view of the concept of data sharing is beautiful.“, there are also negative aspects in this.

More precisely – 1) other people using published data “may not understand the choices made in defining the parameters“; and 2) 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.”

My PhD thesis consisted of three meta-analysis. So basically, what this editorial says, is that I´m probably a thief who stole data to get a degree. Research parasite, as Longo and Drazen put it. And not just me. I don´t know the exact number, but Ülo has surely carried out dozens of meta-studies and -analysis, plus using data from other sources to back up the results of his own experimental studies…

These “concerns” are not new for me. Some years ago there was quite aggressive paper about how meta-analysis in ecology are deeply flawed, by RJ Whittaker (link to paper), where he said: “…the aims of the original studies have often been profoundly different from those of the meta-analyses, providing some form of data that may be scavenged and recycled, but not necessarily that are fit for purpose.” and when specifically trashing our meta-analysis (Pärtel et al. 2007, which was one the papers included in my PhD thesis) says “They have also, of course, added in further data sets scavenged from other source papers.

Well, at least in the case with Whittaker´s paper, it was his criticism that was actually almost fully flawed. We wrote a comment on that as well (link to full text), although about half of our arguments were filtered out by reviewers and editor for being way too elementary. To claim that, let´s say, one can use published data on species richness only for meta-studies about species richness, but not, for example, about phylogenetics – it´s just silly. Not to mention Whittaker´s more specific claims about the productivity-diversity relationship in plants, that U-shaped relationship should be considered equally sensible to unimodal shaped relationship – while it´s ecologically impossible that productivity-diversity starting point is not 0:0 (there cannot be any diversity if there is zero productivity/biomass). And so on.

So we´ve been now demoted from scavengers to parasites for carrying out meta-studies. Hah!

P.S. This editorial has been taking social media by storm. There is already a blogpost making the same point (link), another one here (link) and also Twitter hashtag #researchparasites


'Ok, Louie, knock it off or I'll arrest you for violating the law of gravity.'


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One Response to Musings – are we research parasites? (#researchparasites)

  1. Pingback: Musings – Sharing is caring: Data Sharing by Scientists | Ülo Niinemets’ Lab

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