The author of this article, Dr. Andrew Vickers, is a biostatistician at Sloan Kettering hospital in New York City. A particular focus of his work is the detection and initial treatment of prostate cancer. FYI: Dr. Vickers was a guest speaker at a Malecare (sponsor of this blog) event here in the past year. They do get the best people. This article is from the “Science Times” section of the “New York Times” last Tuesday (Jan. 22).
In my opinion, the author’s conclusions are an insult to all the men and women who have participated in clinical trials with the hope of making a difference..
ESSAY: Cancer Data? Sorry, Can’t Have It
As a statistician who designs and analyzes cancer studies, I regularly ask other researchers to provide additional information or raw data. Sometimes I want to use the data to test out a new idea or method of statistical analysis. And knowing exactly what happened in past studies can help me design better research for the future. Occasionally, however, there are statistical analyses I could run that might make an immediate and important impact on the lives of cancer patients . . .
Given the enormous physical, emotional and financial toll of cancer, one might expect researchers to promote the free and open exchange of information. The patients who volunteer for cancer trials often suffer through painful procedures and harsh experimental treatments in the hope of hastening a cure. The data they provide ought to belong to all of us. Yet cancer researchers typically treat it as their personal property.
I’m sometimes told that sharing data would violate patient privacy — though changing names to codes is easy enough. Other requests are killed by red tape . . .
Most refusals are more blunt. “I am not prepared to release the data at this point,” one researcher wrote me, even though he was a government employee and his trial, which had been published several years earlier, was federally financed . . .
Dr John Kirwan, a rheumatologist from the University of Bristol in England, has studied researchers’ attitudes on sharing data from clinical trials. He found that three-quarters of researchers he surveyed, as well as a major industry group, opposed making original trial data available. It is worth restating this finding: most scientists doing research on how best to help those in pain, or at risk of death, want to keep their data a secret.
Dr. Kirwan went on to ask his subjects why. Their reasons were entirely trivial: one cited the difficult of putting together a data set (wouldn’t this have to be done anyway in order to publish a paper?); another was concerned that the data might be analyzed using invalid methods (surely a judgment for the scientific community as a whole). This is something of a clue that the real issue here has more to do with status and career than with any loftier considerations. Scientists don’t want to be scooped by their own data, or have someone else challenge their conclusions with a new analysis.
Yet this is exactly what cancer patients need. They want new results to be published as quickly as possible and to encourage a robust debate on the merits of key research findings . . .
With the rise of the Internet, sharing data has become a simple matter. Geneticists, for example, publish their raw data on a central Web site. The data from medical trials are given freely by patients. They should insist that these belong to science as a whole.