How the Scientific Sausage Gets Made: Preregistration Escrow for Basic Science?
Scientific research is at the same time highly collaborative and extremely competitive. The overall culture encourages cooperation and sharing of results (and data) with colleagues, but scientists are also extremely sensitive to the possibility of being scooped on a major finding by rivals working in the same area. Everyone wants to be Darwin or Edison, but no one wants to be Wallace or Tesla. So despite the basic collegial ethos, we are often wary of publicizing early hypotheses or experimental approaches for fear that some other enterprising grad student or post doc might be able to muster more extreme sleep deprivation and experimental luck to get a quicker publication of the same findings. That’s why there is always a bit of cat-and-mouse at scientific conferences, where scientists present early results to their most able rivals (and ardent critics).
So it’s not surprising that basic science researchers would be a little wary of proposals to pre-register their hypotheses and methods in a public database. Many regulators and journals require such registration for clinical trials (of drugs and medical devices) as a way of improving the quality of clinical research; preregistration helps prevent statistical (and publishing) practices that can bias results. But you could argue that basic research is by definition much more speculative, and therefore more vulnerable to misappropriation than clinical trials of drugs and devices that have most likely already been protected by patents. In fact, there is already a sort of preregistration in basic science because grant proposals to federal funding agencies contain the most preliminary hypotheses and cutting-edge experimental methods. While these proposals are confidential during review, they can apparently be requested through open government procedures (such as freedom-of-information requests) after they are funded (though still long before the submitter can establish a dominant head start on the research). For this reason, there has been some attempt to limit open government laws from being applied to scientific research (hat tip to @mrgunn).
How can we reconcile the need for quality control that comes with publicizing research aims in advance with some protection for scientific intellectual property (or even just the thrill of being first)? I have an idea. It’s such a simple idea that I’m sure many people must have thought of it before, and it may even be implemented somewhere in PubPeer or figshare or some other open/reproducible science platform. If it is, I’d love to hear about it, and I’ll be glad to publicize it. Here it is: Publishers, journals and granting agencies could require that project proposals (including hypotheses, methods, etc.) be preregistered in an escrow system that remains confidential until publication. During peer review, the database would be opened to reviewers and editors, and since entries would be date-stamped by the data escrow service, reviewers could verify the timeline of the research. Once published, the account could be opened up to public access for post-publication review.
As I say, this proposal is so simple that it has most likely been made, argued and abandoned at some point already (perhaps in this excellent blog by @ceptional about open science and the replication crisis). This proposal also fails to address other possible flaws in preregistration schemes, such as that they might suppress speculative research or reward data mining over data collecting (also, see a response here). It may be that some of these issues can be addressed within the scheme I describe, or it may not. I’d be interested to hear what people think either way.
UPDATE (7/26/2013): I should have added this sooner, but as I suspected the concept of escrow has been part of open science discussions, and as pointed out in the comment below, is part of the Open Science Framework.
Image credit: Hatena Fotolife user Tanemori (under Creative Commons Attribution 2.1 Japan).
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