Various authors and reports have recently claimed (for example, refs 1–3) that the increasing commercialization of academic science has led to an increase in secrecy. However, our comparison of two surveys of experimental biologists, mathematicians and physicists, conducted about 30 years apart, suggests a more complicated and interesting picture.
As feared, secrecy (measured as unwillingness to discuss ongoing research with those outside the research group) has increased.
In 1966 (ref. 4), 50% of 1,042 respondents reported feeling safe in talking with all others about their current research, but by 1998, when we surveyed 202 scientists from the same three fields (details of methods and results available from J.W.), the equivalent number was 26%. Experimental biologists have become particularly secretive, with only 14% willing to talk openly about their current research in 1998. Secrecy is strongly predicted by scientific competition (measured as concern over having one's research results anticipated). The effects of commercial activity, on the other hand, are quite mixed. Patenting has no effect; industry funding is associated with greater secrecy; but having industry collaborators is associated with less secrecy.
These university–industry collaborations can be viewed as part of a strategy to share findings and expertise with the wider scientific and technical community. For companies, timeliness and customization of information are often more important than exclusivity, so they are willing to tolerate, even encourage, their academic collaborators' participation in the shared conversation of a scientific field, thereby giving the company access to the whole community's expertise. In contrast to these collaborations, industry funding alone is often associated with a university laboratory acting as a subcontractor to a company's R&D project, and may produce associated secretive behaviour.
Thus, there is reason to believe that secrecy has increased among academic scientists, but that the focus on commercialization as the cause may be misplaced. Although commercial activity may reduce formal activities such as publication or sharing of materials, it may have fewer negative effects on informal communication among researchers. As this informal communication is significant in transferring information to companies5 and is at least as important as publication for distributing information among scientists, this is encouraging news.
Although it is right to raise concerns about the negative effects of publication restrictions associated with industry funding, we should not conclude that university–industry linkages per se produce unhealthy levels of secretiveness among academic scientists. Instead, it may be better to focus on alleviating some of the negative consequences of scientific competition.
Recent increases in US government funding for science, if they are sustained, may help to lower the intensity of competition, as well as the dependence on industry funding, and thereby reduce secrecy. Furthermore, although we need to be wary of the strings attached to industry funding, university–industry collaborative research should be encouraged.
We thank Lowell Hargens for providing field-level data from ref. 4.
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Walsh, J., Hong, W. Secrecy is increasing in step with competition. Nature 422, 801–802 (2003). https://doi.org/10.1038/422801c
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