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Taking off with someone else’s data

Taking off with someone else’s data

Scientific integrity series: Part 5

As an economist, you have gotten your hands on someone else’s enormous mountain of data, which a business has made available. You know that with this data you can deliver a series of great articles. After the first publication, a colleague from the US asks if he can take a look at your rough data. What do you do? Share? With the risk that the researcher publishes follow-up articles based on ‘your’ data?

The recently deceased Geert Hofstede, retired professor from the School of Business and Economics, became famous by doing just that. At the end of the nineteen-sixties, he worked for computer giant IBM, which regularly distributed questionnaires among the many thousands of employees in its 53 offices across the world. With this wealth of information, Hofstede mapped out the cultural differences within organisations. His book Culture’s Consequences (1980) yielded him eternal fame. 

These days, economic and business administration researchers would kill for business information from Google, Uber or Airbnb. A colleague of Martin Strobel, associate professor at the School of Business and Economics, once got his hands on data from eBay. The colleague was researching last-minute-bidding. “Many people only decide at the last minute whether they will make a higher bid, but why actually? After all you run the risk of missing out.”

Several articles can come from such a data set, but what if a colleague from another university asks for the rough data after the first publication? Many economists are not ready to share research data willingly, which is understandable. They fear that someone else will take over with possible follow-up articles. “But of course you don’t have to share everything,” says Strobel, who himself doesn’t work with business data but sets up experiments. “I would only send the data that is relevant to the published article.” 

Judge

But even that is sometimes not possible. eBay started to work with the researcher after the latter signed a confidentiality agreement. And in doing so, promised that the business data would remain secret at all times, although the enterprise approved mentioning its name in the articles. 

This is not really in the spirit of open science, in which transparency is primary. No, Strobel admits, but businesses not allowing others to take a look inside, is also very understandable. The secrecy also means that the study can never be published. While repeat studies form the heart of science, findings only really gain credibility when they are repeatedly proven.

This may well be the case, says Strobel, but when a researcher shares secret data, he or she will end up before a judge. It’s as simple as that. Open science is important but data protection is more important. Not just where it concerns businesses, but also in the case of interviewees. Economists who distribute questionnaires, ask for permission beforehand - informed consent - to use the answers. They then cannot just share that information with others, if not agreed upon in advance. All participants must then give permission again. This can be a lot of work if there are hundreds of respondents. The same applies to patient research, the results of which cannot be shared with third parties.”

Blunders

It would make a difference if there were better methods to anonymise respondents. “It isn’t always enough to hide the names. You also want to prevent individuals coming into the picture when two data sets are linked. A lot of research is being done on this at the moment.”  

In the meantime, more and more economic journals are demanding that authors submit their rough data, unless it is secret, along with the article. “This is now happening sparsely, but it will certainly become the trend. This is to prevent blunders happening, as was the case with the economists Reinhart and Rogoff. In their article they claimed that if the national debt went above 90 per cent, economic growth would stagnate. This was one of the arguments for the German minister Schäuble to come down so hard on Greece during the financial crisis. Except, it appeared that the analysis by Reinhart and Rogoff was incorrect. This was because of a practical blunder: one part of the rough data had been omitted and not included in the analysis.”

 

Six dilemmas

Together with the Platform for Research Ethics and Integrity, Observant has drawn up six dilemmas that researchers may face. They will be published every other week in Observant.

The Platform for Research Ethics and Integrity, which was set up in 2018, has set itself the objective to promote a healthy research culture at the UM. They do so by making researchers aware of the pitfalls and by starting a discussion on the subject.

For quite some time, PhD candidates have been able to involve a confidential adviser in cases of conflicts with colleagues, just like every researcher can do with the UM confidential adviser. Should the conflict touch on scientific integrity, a report will be filed with the Committee for Scientific Integrity. They have been investigating complaints of scientific misconduct since 2012. This was prompted, among others, by the Stapel Affair, in which a psychology professor from Tilburg was exposed as a fraud.

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