Innovation Blog

Why Scientists Compete – When They Should Collaborate: “Market Failure” in Knowledge Production

By Shlomo Maital

  A short article in Elsevier’s on-line publication Academic Executive Brief, which covers academic research, *  reveals the following:

      From 2000 to 2008, success rates  dropped  for the National Institutes of Health R01eqivalent grants, from over 30 per cent of all applicants to under 20  per cent,  while at the same time the average age of awardees increased.  This trend exacerbates pressure on researchers who, particularly in the early stages of their careers, are driven by the need to further themselves.    Survey results show that 74% of scientists, on average, believe that access to other researchers’ data benefits — or would benefit — their own research; however, only 54% are willing to allow other researchers access to their raw research data. And the gap is increasing over time.  Academics may also be disinclined to share and collaborate because of the nature of the reward structure in science, which esteems first discoverers.

    This is a massive “market failure” in the production of knowledge.  Essentially it replicates the situation of ‘monopoly’ in business.  By building an incentive system that rewards egoistic selfish behavior, universities have done serious damage to the way research is done.  Just as free competition benefits business, and anti-trust bans monopolies and cartels, so should collaboration on data sources benefit science.  Why should cartels be banned in business and allowed and even encouraged in scientific research?

   There is a simple solution.  Make it a condition of scientific research grants, that all data must be openly shared. After all, the money for these grants is taxpayer-funded.  It is incumbent on universities, therefore, to optimize its use.  By fostering little research-lab monopolies, the money is wasted.  Require researchers to upload their data onto the Web – and watch science take off.   I believe that in the end, this will benefit all researchers.  Knowledge is like love – the more you give it away, the more you get in return.  

     The problem is definitely one of “Prisoner’s Dilemma” – it doesn’t pay for any one researcher to collaborate and give away data, but if everyone did it, all would benefit.  So, on a count of three – one, two three – everybody, say,   here’s my data!  

  • Andrew Plume, “Why Scientists Don’t Share – And Why They Should”.