Be honest. Curing cancer is not your primary goal

Go and ask your fellow postdoctoral researchers in the biology, chemistry, medicine,… fields what it is their main goal. I’m always getting the same answer: I’m developing a cure for cancer (replace cancer by your “favourite” disease”).

In fact, this is a big lie. Their primary goal is to get a permanent position in a university/research institution. As simple as that. If you want proof, just ask them if they release online all the info about the experiments they tried and that went wrong. The answer I always get is a variation of this one: “NO! There are other competing groups working with the same protein (or whatever), we have to be the firsts in publishing the results”, which “translated” means: “I hope they run into the same problems I’ve already been able to solve and this makes them waste a lot of time and (government) money trying to find the solution themselves which will give me time to finish by work, publish it before them and get all the credit”.

Am I criticizing my friends? Only for not being honest and accepting this fact, not so much for not willing to follow the open science principles. At the community level, their practices have a tremendous negative impact on the society but at the individual level I completely understand them.

Asking my colleagues to change their approach when the government evaluation agencies have not yet changed theirs is not fair (and coming from somebody who already has a permanent position, even if my group indeed publishes all the software as open source,  would be hypocrite; If I were them I’d do exactly the same!). I cannot ask them to kill their research careers by risking their work not being recognized (according to current standards). This is specially important in the critical period of trying to get a permanent position. I do believe that people with a permanent position would be more open to these ideas (since they have less to lose) but we should not forget that we have many more temporal researchers than permanent ones!

Anyway, with this post, my intention was just to bring some attention to this unfortunate situation since I had the feeling that most people are not aware of how much of our resources are wasted because of evaluation policies that do not favor cooperation but competition among research groups.

If I’ve managed to get you a little bit more interested in the Open Research philosophy, can I suggest you to follow the work of Cameron Neylon? You’ll not regreat it (at least I don’t since I saw him for the first time in Toronto, thanks to Greg Wilson)

if you liked this post please consider following my thoughts on twitter and visit my other projects: the modeling languages portal, wordpress <-> drupal migration services and my stories of a failed entrepreneur .

10 thoughts on “Be honest. Curing cancer is not your primary goal

  1. Dear fellow researcher,

    Before getting angry at me because of this post, please note that I’m not criticizing you (the researcher) but the causes that make you act this way.

  2. Mmm, that is highly incorrect. I need publications in order to be able to continue investigating. Permanent position? I am fighting to have money for the next 2 years, who cares about any permanent position? What I think, is that “those” postdocs that you know, are a minority very well positioned.

    In some countries of Europe, we are just surviving. If you ask to one of these not to compete, you are asking him to stop doing research. Guess what, everyone says no. So, having said that, if you guarantee me that I will be able to work in this field, stay in the same place, start a family, some stability … then, let’s focus only in save the cancer!

    But aren’t we in a capitalism system??? We are not researches. We are individual private companies. Ask apple to release all their technology. If you are not happy with this, you just have to vote to the adequate politicians. Because you think about this when you vote, don’t you?

    1. ” So, having said that, if you guarantee me that I will be able to work in this field, stay in the same place, start a family, some stability … then, let’s focus only in save the cancer!” <- This is exactly my point.

      In fact, I'm not asking people not to compete. If you read the post carefully you'll see that I say that I would also do the same in that situation. What I'm asking is researchers to at least not to acknowledge this and the politicians/society to think about how we can change the system so that young researchers do not need to compete and we all save a lot of money and advance much faster (and no, I don't have a better solution myself, maybe I'm too busy competing)

      1. Politicians (representing society) think that this rat race competitions actually save money and give better outcome. So, no way out of this situation in the near future…

  3. Unfortunately, the nature of biological/medical research is long and tedious with loads of repetition. I completely agree with you in your post – but at the same time if it was simply a matter of writing a length of complex code and making it opensource – I think most researchers would be open to sharing. The problem really does lie with the limitations of the speed at which you can produce answers to the questions you’re asking. If the lab next door can get the answers faster using your theory – then sure, the science progresses faster… but the accolade goes to them, the funding goes to them, and you’re left in the dust.

    But look at it another way – if you are good at what you do and are an expert in your field – then you should have enough faith in your judgements and decisions to open your research for the public to see. By so doing, everyone knows it was your idea to begin with even if Lab X took over the idea and made it fly.

    Returning to our current situation – science has progressed slowly because of people failing to publish their results and theories. In some cases its even gone backwards. Generally the person with the most charisma and biggest blow horn for selling their ideas (which most likely are pushed by public opinion) gets heard first and last. Imagine if the little guy, if he were to be open about all of his/her ideas… perhaps many questions in science would soon be solved.

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