Clearly, as a community, researchers will be able to affect the greatest progress when they have access to all the information currently known relevant to their research problem. The more information we have the greater the likelihood that we will innovate, collaborate, share and make progress. Thus, openness is an important issue affecting everyone in science.

Important issues in regard to openness include:

Conflict Of Interest

A conflict of interest occurs whenever you have personal interests that conflict, could affect even compromise the judgments you need to make as an impartial, objective scientist. For example, it would likely be very difficult to read and impartially review a technical paper written by a hostile competitor or by a very dear friend and mentor. In the same it would be difficult to publish the results of a biomedical study you conducted with funding provided by private industry that demonstrated that the company’s flagship drug had no more efficacy than a placebo in treating disease. Consequently, colleges and universities, granting agencies, publishers, and private industry require applicants, reviewers and other evaluators to disclose any financial, educational, employment, or other relationships that could threaten objectivity via written disclosures of conflicts of interest. These documents protect the integrity of the individuals, institutions and of science overall.

The following are useful questions to ask in order to ascertain if there is a conflict of interest present.

  • Do I or anyone affiliated closely with me have any potential to financially or professionally benefit from the relationship?
  • Could our relationship improperly advantage or disadvantage my employer or anyone else improperly?

Advice:

  • Report to your advisor as soon as possible any relationships or circumstances that may represent conflicts of interest relevant to your research project so he/she can figure out how to properly manage the situation.

Sharing of Research Materials

On the face of it, it might seem as if it is a mute point to discuss the sharing of research materials including biological organisms, data, even ideas. After all, how can science and engineering thrive and grow if scientists don’t share needed materials with each other in the greater scientific community? In fact, in some fields, it is standard practice to deposit materials and data in national repositories in order to speed discovery and innovation. Examples of such national data repositories include The Protein Data Bank, a repository for protein crystallographic and nuclear magnetic resonance structural data, the BioMedResBank (BMRB), a biological NMR data repository, the Yeast Resource Center Public Data Repository (YRC PDR), repository for experimental data from baker’s yeast, and the Central Aspergillus Data Repository (CADRE), a repository for genomic data from Aspergillus. However, as discussed above, ideas are a form of intellectual property and as such have significant potential commercial value (patents, trade secrets, etc.) In order to realize this value, it may be necessary to restrict communication of ideas and materials outside the research team as, for example, in the early stages of the patent process or in the early stages of the scientific publication process for which novelty is an important review criterion. Some repositories sensitive to the researcher’s need to protect the novelty of their work will allow researchers to deposit data and agree not to release it until it has been published. Concerns have driven the NIH to issue a policy statement regarding the sharing of research materials for biomedical research (see: NIH Policy on Sharing of Model Organisms for Biomedical Research.) The point here being that this is a good example of an area in which there is ongoing active debate.

Advice:

  • As a student working in someone else’s research laboratory, it is important for you to find out what your advisor’s policies are regarding the sharing of research materials and follow them.
  • It isn’t a wise idea to discuss unpublished results whether they are yours or those of a lab mate with anyone outside your research group without first obtaining your advisor’s permission.

Industrial Sponsorship of Academic Research

Industrial sponsorship of research is increasingly commonplace in colleges and universities. Such sponsorship can be invaluable for all involved – providing students not only financial support but also firsthand insights into industry. Such sponsorship though often comes at a cost, the relationship may result in conflicts of interest that can impact you as a student. For example, presentation and/or publication of research findings may be delayed for an extended period of time – months even years - or may be prohibited by the company in an effort to protect, develop, and commercialize the technologies involved.