European and U-S researchers are being accused of putting their careers above the social good. British and South African professors say researchers often gather data from developing countries, and then fail to share the information so those countries can benefit.
Professor David Hulme of the University of Manchester says researchers at many universities and organizations are “stealing” information from the poor.
He says, "When researchers are collecting information and collecting data, they take up poor peoples’ time. Now, almost always, poor people are not paid for the time that they set aside to answer researchers’ questions. But when you look at the researchers, they are paid to do that research. If you collect that data and then you don’t make maximum use of it, then you’ve been taking poor peoples’ time without effectively using the time you’ve taken from them."
He says researchers often withhold data for years.
"When data is not released relatively quickly to other researchers and put in the public domain," he says, "then that causes a number of problems." He says, "The first thing is it means it’s not possible for other researchers to check whether the conclusions that the first researcher has reached are actually correct. The other problem is that if it’s several years before data is released then often when people do analyze that data the findings are not relevant to policy because policy has moved on."
Dr. Cobus De Swardt (CWUR-bus des SWAR) of the University of Western Cape in Cape Town says by withholding the information researchers often act in their own best interests.
He says, "It is a reality that for most academics the world over today, their bread and butter is in their publications. They survive; they get promoted on their track record in terms of publication. This necessitates to some extent researchers holding on – making whatever data they have really pay off for them. This is, however, not in the public interest."
Dr. De Swardt is leading a campaign to pressure researchers to release their data while it is still current and beneficial to the developing countries where it was collected.
He says, "Well, we have decided to commit ourselves that all the data that we collect will be in the public domain within six months of the completion of our data collection. In other words, when we go into an area and we finish our data collections say in January – by July we will make that data available publicly. In other words, not only to other colleagues and other researchers, but also to the wider scientific community through the Internet and whatever other means that appear appropriate to distribute data as wide as possible."
The professors say if the research data is released earlier, officials in developing countries have a better chance of making their policies more effective. For example, in one case in South Africa, research data was released nearly seven years after it was collected. By that time it was useless to policymakers. They also say that those who take part in the research fully believe that the information they provide will improve conditions in their country. Therefore, researchers have an obligation to those who helped in their surveys.
Professor Hulme says funding agencies and non-governmental organizations should pressure researchers to release their data in a timely manner. Professor De Swardt says researchers also need to pressure each other.
He says, "When we meet with other researchers and we put forward to them the idea, saying we’re going to release our data sets within six months. Without an exception, everybody said hallelujah! That’s fantastic. When you then take the next step and say, I also know that you’ve collected some data in the same province that I’m three years ago. Can I also have a look at your data set? It becomes more tricky there. You’re right in saying that some people will not like this practice."
The professors admit that collecting data is expensive and time consuming. So they say one other possible solution is rewarding researchers who do release their findings early.