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Proudly Parasitic: Penn Scientist Highlights the Positives in “Research Parasites”


Photo credit: Flickr user Bernard Dupont

It may sound like an insult, but “research parasite” is a label that Casey Greene, PhD, wears with pride—and so do many other scientists like him. Greene, an assistant professor of Pharmacology at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, is helping to reclaim that seemingly ugly title by granting an annual set of awards for two scientists, one junior and one established, for research that finds novel insights from reusing and analyzing other people’s data.

These Research Parasite Awards were inspired by a controversial editorial published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) in January 2016. “There is concern among some front-line researchers that the system will be taken over by what some researchers have characterized as ‘research parasites,’” wrote NEJM Editor-in-chief Jeffrey Drazen, MD, and Deputy Editor Dan Longo, MD, in discussing the promise and perceived perils of data sharing in medical research. The editors warned that such “research parasites” were scientists who might build their entire careers on reusing data generated by others—especially if the researchers who generated the data were not involved in planning the reanalysis.

This idea was not universally well received. “The description of a research parasite sounded exactly like the description of a scientist,” and like his own lab’s work developing algorithms to model biological systems, Greene said.

ProPublica reported that “criticism was immediate, fierce, and widespread — probably more than for anything else the journal has done in many years. In an editorial in the journal Science, titled ‘#IAmAResearchParasite,’ editor Marcia McNutt wrote: ‘No more excuses: Let’s step up to data sharing.’”

Iddo Friedberg, PhD, a computational biologist and associate professor at Iowa State’s College of Veterinary Medicine, tweeted:


But he didn’t really expect anyone to do it. “I thought it would be something you put out there on Twitter because it sounds cool,” he said.

Nevertheless, at Penn, Greene did it. Soon after the NEJM editorial was published, he got in touch with organizers of the Pacific Symposium on Biocomputing (PSB) about the idea of a Research Parasite Awards ceremony at their 2017 conference. Showing a scientist’s penchant to give credit to the first to publish an idea, he cites Friedberg’s tweet prominently on the website about the awards. Greene and his co-organizers first opened the call for award nominations on his lab’s website in April 2016.

For Greene and other scientists who were upset by the NEJM editorial, the Research Parasite Awards represent more than a way of reclaiming a perceived insult as praise: They are a way to emphasize and place a greater value within the scientific community on aspects of science that are underappreciated, but vital.

The award “speaks to the urgent need for incentives to reward those scientists doing what’s best for their field,” scientific “watchdog” commentators Ivan Oransky and Adam Marcus wrote in a column for STAT News. “Unfortunately, our current incentive structure — based almost entirely on publishing in prestigious journals, with large cash rewards in some countries — discourages sharing, replication, and, some might argue, careful science.”

As Greene describes it, that incentive system pits scientists against each other and treats research as a game with winners and losers. If someone else finds a publishable result from your data set that you didn’t, then they win points and you lost out on them, he explained as a possible mindset behind maligning data reuse as “parasitism.”

With the Research Parasite Awards, by contrast, Greene hopes to emphasize a more idealistic concept of sportsmanship in science. “Biology is all about figuring out how living systems work,” he said. “Medicine is about how to make or keep people well. When what we consider winning and losing fails to align with what promotes discoveries in biology and medicine, we need to change the system. The rules of the game are cultural, and we aim to change them with the parasite awards.”

So-called parasitism contributes to many of the highest ideals of scientific inquiry, Greene and his co-organizers of the award argue in a letter published online this week and in the April issue of Nature Genetics. Research parasites can improve the integrity of past scientific findings by validating or challenging them in a way that a journal’s peer-review process cannot, they note. Combining data sets to perform meta-analyses, or re-analyzing single data sets to ask new questions, can yield new insights that an initial analysis did not. And such work is applicable beyond biomedical or clinical questions. “A team of eagle-eyed parasites recently identified inconsistencies in a study of food consumption at a buffet restaurant,” they write. “Others raised issues with the genetic structure of polar bear populations and social welfare spending. This process by which scientists selectively retest assumptions and previous findings forms the foundation of scientific discovery in every discipline.”

In the letter, Greene and his co-authors advocate for crediting the scientists who originally generated data used by so-called parasites, but they stop short of saying it’s necessary to share material benefits with each creator—as in a so-called research symbiosis, which Drazen and Longo advocated in NEJM. “Researchers who share should be recognized by the community and funding agencies, but to maintain scientific rigor we need to enable independent reanalysis of data,” Greene said. “This requires a new culture.”

Although Greene and other advocates of parasitism remain somewhat at odds with Drazen and other traditionalists, Drazen has remained engaged in the conversation. At the PSB 2017 conference in January 2017, Drazen delivered remarks before Greene awarded the first annual Research Parasite Awards—a suite of prizes that included a magnetic lamprey statue that Greene felt captured the spirit of the awards’ “parasitic whimsy.”

The letter in Nature Genetics announced the call for entries for the 2018 Research Parasite Awards. In addition, Greene is working to assemble support for an award to celebrate scientists who generate and share data sets that others can use”—something Greene realized he should have done sooner to offer incentives for the type of scientific behavior that deserves to be celebrated.

“We want a research ecosystem that celebrates and rewards those who contributed each component of a scientific discovery:  Data generators for building and sharing data sets that can reveal something new, and those who analyze the data to derive insights from it,” Greene said. “To tackle the tough problems that we face in medicine, we won’t be able to do one without the others.”


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