The Dilemma of Hunters and Donors in Science

Publicação: 7 de January de 2022

Sharing data and research samples is a practice increasingly encouraged by institutions and research communities, but what about the ethical relationships between scientists who collect data and those who receive it for experiments

How can researchers make sure that they are properly credited?

Collaboration in scientific research has increased substantially in recent decades and has become essential given the thematic complexity, the plurality of experts and the availability of sophisticated equipment and financial resources obtained by research institutions and their researchers. In studies conducted from the more traditional perspective with just one laboratory and one principal investigator with its assistant researchers and graduate students, there were fewer challenges in prioritizing the recognition of each research participant’s contribution and the definition of emerging patent intellectual property new knowledge.

In this new scenario, however, multiple roles in scientific research are now being played by various groups of scientists, laboratories and institutions with different attributions and contributions. Proponents of researchers emerge from some institutions who generate the guiding ideas of the projects, bring more resources than others, while others offer special and necessary equipment, others offer essential collaborating experts, while others obtain data and samples for analysis and studies. This phenomenon evidenced the need for clarification and definitions of the relative importance of institutions and authors.

Thus, doubts about the prominence in publications and intellectual property brought potential litigation and started to demand rules and contracts based on ethical foundations and on national and international legal structures to avoid conflicts that could destroy scientific production. An ordering label for authors was developed and contracts aimed at intellectual property rights between authors emerged. It was accepted that the first author, the one who appears first in the citations, had the most relevant contribution, it was understood that the last author would be the one who guided and provided the research, the so-called senior author, it became common sense that the corresponding author would be the one who most understood all the stages of the project, in addition to mastering the English language, and it was even admitted that the second and penultimate authors had special relevance in relation to the third and subsequent ones in the order and to the third and penultimate ones and immediate antecedents.

This process, initially essentially subjective and cultural, was incorporated as a quantitative element in the evaluation of research projects and in the evaluation of the scientific contribution of researchers and institutions by development agencies, particularly acutely in Brazil. Here, measuring science by evaluating the editorial and commercial impact of scientific journals has become common practice in the evaluation of science and scientists in public funding agencies and research grants and, by extension, in the rules for admission to public examinations, in order, finally, to insert itself in academic jurisprudence and interfere in the legal process of higher education.

These developments are particularly relevant where there is intellectual and financial asymmetry between research institutions; while some that have well-trained experts and leaders develop the projects and obtain funding, others have few resources and do not have the same knowledge on the subject that generated the research project, either because of thematic specificity or because they do not have scientists with the same qualifications. Of course, the entire process is due to the limitations of educational opportunities and resources to finance expensive and impactful projects in less industrialized countries and regions.

Asymmetrically poorer regions, such as tropical countries or poorer federal states, had other types of problems, especially regarding tropical diseases, which are generally endemic and neglected. Due to their historical constraints, whether financial, educational or scientific, their institutions and researchers began to play secondary roles, such as limiting sample collection and minimal recognition of the scientific relevance of their contributions and virtually no recognition of intellectual property. Someone, sarcastically, asks if researchers in these regions should not be qualified as “hunters and gatherers” of scientific data that will be elaborated in richer and more sophisticated centers.

Finally, in this transit of samples and scientific information from vulnerable populations, yet another exploratory category of researchers in the Tropics has emerged, the intermediaries who collect information and samples from researchers belonging to even more incipient places and transfer them to researchers from large and rich university centers and, even without significant contribution, retain the priority in the authorship of the collection of samples and intellectual property. Thus emerged a type of scientific dealer whose end result may be the almost complete neglect of the role of those who have had the difficult and arduous task of collecting medical and biological information and samples directly from the tropical environment and neglected populations.

Dr. Carlos Costa, associate editor (deputy-editor) of the Journal of the Brazilian Society of Tropical Medicine (RSBMT), opines that researchers in Tropical Medicine are particularly penalized in terms of intellectual recognition. There is, for example, the problem that the topic does not contribute much to the quantification of science due to the peculiar limitation of its scope. Although they are, in most cases, the sources of valuable samples for study, they do not have competitive resources or the most advanced technologies, ending up relegated to secondary roles in the authorship order. “Thus, their scientific relevance is systematically underestimated, as recognized by the status quo of evaluating science based on metrics dictated by scientific publishers,” he emphasizes. Finally, he emphasizes that Covid-19 showed an inglorious aspect of scientists in a desperate search for recognition and fame through hasty publications and contaminated media spaces and in the dispute for the recoil for primacy in the order of authorship. Strange moments, he comments, because science is circumspect, careful, and more zealous for what it reveals than for what it reveals.

The effect of this entire process of collaboration, unfortunately, may be to relegate science and scientific development in the Tropics to the same precariousness that existed before scientific collaboration with more developed centers and thus failing to comply with the main reason for intellectual collaboration between rich places and poor places: that of elevating science as a whole and that of providing greater scientific and economic advancement for the greatest part of humanity. There is a clear challenge for global science and for the reflection of scientists who deal with tropical themes.