Case Two: Data Sharing Fever

RCR Casebook:  Data Acquisition and Management

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Mary admires the NIH-funded work of her postdoctoral advisor, Henryk, who pioneers research on alternative treatments for fever due to infectious diseases. Mary is one of many co-workers who has assisted Henryk in compiling the most comprehensive database ever assembled, tracking many different infectious agents, species of animals, and different interventions and their outcomes. Henryk’s interpretation of this rich dataset suggests that some “alternative medicines” are highly effective in certain species, but have no therapeutic value in others. He is completing his analysis and interpretation, and is preparing a manuscript for submission. Mary will be a co-author because of her part in collecting data for the study.

The NIH Research Tools Policy - Sharing Biomedical Research Resources

“Progress in science depends upon prompt access to the unique research resources that arise from biomedical research laboratories throughout government, academia, and industry. Ideally, these new resources flow to others who advance science by conducting further research. Prompt access can be accomplished in a number of ways, depending on the type of resource that has been developed, whether it has broad or specific uses, and whether it is immediately useful or private sector investment is needed to realize its usefulness. The goal is widespread, timely distribution of tools for further discovery.”

Mary is preparing to seek an Assistant Professor position and wants to build on her postdoctoral work.  She asks Henryk for permission to use the dataset to develop her own project. However, she plans to use a different methodology for analysis and interpretation of the dataset to address a different aspect of the outcomes of treatment. At that point, she will develop a career development proposal to submit to the NIH.

Henryk is unwilling to share the entire dataset prior to publishing his interpretation of these data. However, Mary has access to the database as part of her current project, and therefore she decides that it is ethical for her to look more closely at the data. Mary spends quite a lot of time looking at the data and Henryk’s analysis, and realizes that he has excluded specific datapoints that impact his interpretation. Henryk’s draft manuscript carefully justifies the exclusion of these data in the methods section so that there is no issue with data falsification.

Mary realizes that if she includes these datapoints, an entirely new understanding of therapies to treat fever could emerge. Mary is excited about her impending grant proposal, but is concerned about how to broach the discussion of her use of the data with Henryk.

How should Mary proceed?

Discussion Questions for the Facilitator:

  • Must Henryk share his database with Mary before publication? After publication? Must he share it with others, outside his lab, and if so, when?
  • Who owns the database at this point: Henryk? The institution? NIH? The public?
  • Why is sharing a dataset beneficial to the person who collected it? How is it potentially risky?
  • Is Henryk obligated to document how datapoints were included or excluded in the methods section of his paper?


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