Maybe if we think and wish and hope and pray

It might come true – The Beach Boys

Run, run. Ooo, ooo. No, I'm not listening to The Beach Boys. But I did see The Beach Boys a few years ago, and they were really good. Brian Wilson was interactive and clearly having fun, which was just great. If you don't know who Brian Wilson is, you're missing a terrific, moving story of triumph over mental illness. Also, you won't understand the song “Brian Wilson” by the Barenaked Ladies. And if you're completely lost, I'm sure you wouldn't like Hamilton, either (which I love). I'm digressing already, and we haven't even started yet.

What I wanted to talk about, really, was courtesy. There is much more of this in biomedical research than you might think (see, I know that you think there's practically none). As scientists, we tend to be overtly courteous to each other, until, of course, we review our papers and grants. Then we can be dramatically un-courteous.

But before we get into this un-courteous review thing, let's talk about a couple of examples of what I think should represent simple courtesy. The first one relates to research, the second relates to the presentation of research. Stick with me, though, because after these examples, we are going to get, um, controversial.

Okay, first off, the response to a request for a thing you have used, and someone else wants for their research, is an act of courtesy. Here we are, working hard to solve an interesting scientific problem, and we realize that you have published on exactly what we need to test it. So, I write to you, asking for the thing and what I want to use it for (email write, not an actual letter, but still respectfully) and hope you'll respond, preferably favorably, that, sure, we can have it. But more often than I would hope, there is no response at all. I know you're busy, and I've interrupted you to ask for this reagent, or animal, or construct, and maybe you planned to get back to me and just forgot. But I can't help thinking that you're thinking, “Why should I share this? Why should I make things easier for this guy?” And that you're thinking that I'm thinking that you're thinking that by not responding I'll just go away. And I'm thinking that you're thinking that I'm thinking that you're thinking that it just isn't worth the trouble.

Or perhaps worse, you tell me, politely, to go jump in a lake.

This isn't about fairness, and it isn't only about courtesy. At least in my country, if I receive a grant from the government, I agree a priori to share whatever reagents and tools I create and publish. This should apply to all grants, regardless of the source. When you don't respond, or refuse outright, the pace of science slows. And here's the thing. If you are using money from any source other than your own pockets, the purpose of the grant is to advance, not just your career, but the entire scientific enterprise. Disease foundations want to cure the disease. Governments want to cure as many diseases as possible. Slowing the research is not the goal here.

“But Mole”, you say (and indeed, I have a copy of your email), “I have a small lab and I have to protect the projects of my students. I can't give away the tools that they have worked to develop. Even if what you want to do is not what we are already doing, we might want to do your experiment some day. We spent a lot of time on this, and you want it for free.” Sorry, but this just doesn't fly. You are involved in a research enterprise, and this includes other people. If you don't respond to me (and if I know that you have agreed to share, based on your funding), I will write to your chair or director and (again, respectfully) ask for help in contacting you. (I am often amazed at how quickly this results in a response from the first person.) If you are not obligated to share, because your grant sources do not stipulate such, then I'll decide that you, indeed, are not worth the trouble, find another way to do what we want to do, and tell all my friends what a jerk you are. Really, just ask me to collaborate, or include your trainee on my publication; I'm happy to do that. [Sometimes, though, this does get a little out of hand. I recall at least two of our papers that included four co-authors (each) for a single reagent, but I lived with it.] Our lab has sent out over two thousand thingies since we started keeping track a few years ago. It's part of my job. And it's simple courtesy. I hope you do it, too. Wouldn't it be nice if everyone did this? This shouldn't be controversial. We really are in this together.

Okay, the second example. It has become increasing common, during talks and poster sessions that often include unpublished data, for folks to hold up their phones and take pictures of the data. I'm sorry, but this is simply rude. I suspect that the purpose is often personal, as a reminder for the culprit (I mean, fellow scientist) and an adjunct to their notes. It may also be an effort to present the work to their colleagues who could not be at the talk or poster. Or maybe they want to Tweet it out to their followers. Sorry, but again, this just doesn't fly. Here's why. When I present unpublished data, I always take the risk that someone will focus their efforts towards using my information to publish our own findings before we do. I'm generally happy to take that chance, because I think it is more important to share what we find than to keep secrets from the community. I want you to use what we've found to promote your own work; I just want a chance to publish it first (like you, I have to think about my trainees). And here's the thing: all the people at the meeting know that it is our finding, and if you're physically present, any such attempt at a ‘scoop’ will be recognized by those around you. And probably, they will think you are a jerk. This is why we can present unpublished data; the community at the talk serves as a sort of neighborhood watch against improper use. Really, this has worked for me for decades. But that was before the ‘taking pictures with your phone’ thing got started.

It's pretty easy. If you want to take pictures strictly for your own notes, then ask the speaker before the talk. If that's me, I'll be okay with it (especially since I know, now, who you are). If you want my talk, just ask me for the presentation (which gives me a chance to decide if there are data I would rather keep private for now). It saddens me that many talks now include the line “Unpublished data, do not record or post” on each slide. Or maybe we just stop showing unpublished work, and effectively reduce our presentations to journal clubs. But maybe this is what we've come to (and maybe this is what you already do). Show some courtesy; do not simply decide that everything around you is yours. It's just rude. Wouldn't it be nice if people asked permission before they photographed your poster or presentation?

But these were just a couple of examples, and hopefully, they aren't too controversial. The really controversial thing relates to the absence of courtesy in the review process. But now I've got this stupid song stuck in my head. So, let's talk about it next time. Run, run. Ooo, Ooo.