An Italian-led research group's closely held data have been outed by paparazzi physicists, who photographed conference slides and then used the data in their own publications.
For weeks, the physics community has been buzzing with the latest results on 'dark matter' from a European satellite mission known as PAMELA (Payload for Antimatter Matter Exploration and Light-nuclei Astrophysics). Team members have talked about their latest results at several recent conferences ... but beyond a quick flash of a slide, the collaboration has not shared the data. Many high-profile journals, including Nature, have strict rules about authors publicizing data before publication.
It now seems that some physicists have taken matters into their own hands. At least two papers recently appeared on the preprint server arXiv.org showing representations of PAMELA's latest findings (M. Cirelli et al. http://arxiv.org/abs/0808.3867; 2008, and L. Bergstrom et al. http://arxiv.org/abs/0808.3725; 2008). Both have recreated data from photos taken of a PAMELA presentation on 20 August at the Identification of Dark Matter conference in Stockholm, Sweden.
I'd say this is a situation that bears closer examination.
Here, we have a bunch of players with connected, and sometimes competing, interests.
We have the PAMELA research team, whose members have been hard at work collecting data and trying to figure out what these data mean. They're hoping this work will make a significant contribution to their scientific field. And, they're hoping to establish their priority in reporting these important results, because that's how scientists keep score (and because that score-keeping has an impact on how things like grant money, academic positions, and tenure are distributed).
We also have the larger community of physicists working on the question of what dark matter is like, how to get good empirical evidence on this matter, etc. This community has an interest in keeping up with the most recent findings by scientists working in this area; not only does this help them avoid duplicating someone else's work, but it also helps them make more sense of their own findings.
From the point of view of a scientific community jointly engaged in trying to answer a certain constellation of questions, scientific communication is a good thing. And the scientists from the PAMELA team did present their results to members of their scientific community at various conferences.
But its sounds like, rather than lingering over the details of their data, they flashed a slide to show that there was some data forming the basis for their more general claims.
Who knew that there would be digital cameras flashing as they were flashing their slide with the data?
Now, the Nature story notes that the two papers cited above that reconstruct the PAMELA data do clearly cite the source of these data. These authors are not pretending that they collected the data themselves (except to the extent that catching a digital photo of a conference slide constitutes data "collection"). And arguably, in discussing these data, they are moving the conversation about the PAMELA findings (and what these findings show about the nature of dark matter) forward.
This may be good for the community of physics, but it's not so good for the PAMELA team members who might have been hoping to publish their findings in Nature or in a journal with similar rules about keeping data confidential prior to publication. The Nature article suggests the PAMELA scientists may have had just such plans, which would now appear to be thwarted:
Piergiorgio Picozza, PAMELA's principal investigator and a physicist at the University of Rome Tor Vergata, says he is "very, very upset" by the data being incorporated into a publication. But [Marco] Cirelli [one of those who photgraphed the slide with the data] maintains that he and others have done nothing wrong. "We asked the PAMELA people [there], and they said it was not a problem," he says.
This is one of those moments where the interests of the individual scientist (in establishing priority for a finding) and of the scientific community (in full communication of important results in a timely fashion) seem to be in direct conflict.
Indeed, the conference presentations might have been motivated by perceived duties to one's scientific community, to keep the members of that community appraised of important results. From the point of view of the journal rules, is presenting data at a conference the same as "publicizing" data? Does "publicizing" data require that you deal with it in detail (rather than flashing it on a slide to prove you have it)? In case of priority disputes, would presenting data at a conference (either in detail or in passing) be enough to establish a scientist's claim to priority?
There are all sorts of related questions we might ask here connected to the nature of conference presentations as a species of scientific communication. For one, I'd be interested for the PAMELA scientists' take on what role the slide with the data played in the narrative structure of their presentation. Would the presentation have worked without such a slide? If not, why not? Will their future conference presentations omit such slides, and if so, what changes do they anticipate in how their findings are received?
But back to the tension between individual and communal interests. One of the recognized norms of science is that, once you've made your results public, they are community property, a shared resource upon which other members of your scientific community can draw. In theory, you want your results to be important enough that others will build on them. Of course, you also want to get the maximum recognition and reward for your contribution to the community's body of knowledge.
The nub of the matter here may be which modes of communication really "count" within the community of physics. If conference presentations count then, once the PAMELA results were communicated, they were fair game for other scientists to use. In contrast, if what counts is a peer reviewed article printed in a dead-tree journal like Nature, you could make a case that the PAMELA data wasn't really properly "out" to be drawn upon as a community resource.
And here, there may be a difference in opinion between physicists as a group (including those in the audience for the conference presentations in question) and the particular physicists trying to get their results published in a high impact journal like Nature. I've heard from a number of sources that much of the communication of important results within the community of physics happens by way of preprints uploaded to arXiv.org. One of the reasons I've heard for this is that the turn-around time between submission and publication in a high impact dead-tree journal is just too long, wasting precious time that the community could be using better to answer the questions with which it is wrestling. If arXiv.org is really the main conduit for communicating important results in physics, then there might be something almost anti-social about deciding to submit your findings to Nature instead. (I'm assuming here that Nature would regard a preprint on arXiv.org as a case of publicizing your data prior to publication.)
Of course, the reality is that a number of physicists may be working in contexts where they are not just answering to the expectations of their fellow physicists, but also to those of their employers, their granting agencies, the people evaluating their performance for tenure and promotion, etc. In some of these situations, an article in Nature may carry much more weight than the esteem of the tribe of physicists. Given the importance of such factors in keeping one's job and one's funding to do physics, it is understandable that members of the PAMELA team would feel wronged by the paparazzi who publicized their data.
So, the exigencies involved in maintaining the position from which to take part in physics research may make it a good idea to depart from community norms about how and where to share data and conclusions (and how completely, and how promptly, etc.). In the short term, they might also provide a good reason to forbid photography and videography during conference presentations.
However, it seems to me that this particular story also raises some bigger questions about the rules imposed on scientists by journals like Nature. Who is served by keeping the data under wraps prior to publication? Not the broader scientific community, whose members might find this data relevant to their own work. Perhaps not the scientists whose data are being kept under wraps, since they run the risk of being scooped and they miss out on potentially productive discussions with their fellow scientists. Is this kind of secrecy about data required for good peer review, or is this simply a matter of the journal editors wanting to make a splash, helping them to encourage subscriptions and attract advertisers?
Nature's rules, in other words, might be too restrictive to benefit anyone but Nature.
In the longer term, this story might lead the community of physics, and the administrative types in places where physics is funded and conducted, to think about how to tweak the system of individual rewards to encourage more timely and thorough communication of the sort that advances the scientific interests of the tribe of science as a whole. This might require Nature to revisit its rules -- or physicists and their home institutions to opt out of publishing in journals like Nature.