By John Dodge
April 7, 2002 | The spats over the unauthorized use of public data often resemble clashes usually reserved for school playgrounds.
One recent flap erupted when Mitchell L. Sogin of the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass., accused Hyman Hartman of M.I.T. and a Harvard University associate of “borrowing” sequencing data on his public Web site. The story first appeared in a February edition of Science magazine.
Sogin temporarily shut down his Web site (www.mbl.edu/giardia) for about a week after Hartman’s paper was published on Feb. 5 to revise the site’s data release policy. The Web site contains sequencing information for Giardia lamblia, a waterborne pathogen that causes diarrhea.
“Our data release policy was very specific,” Sogin says. “The vast majority [of site visitors] have respected that. As a result of this fiasco, we have made our data release policy explicit.”
The dispute arose when Hartman and Alexei Federov of Harvard co-published “The Origin of the Eukaryotic Cell: A Genomic Investigation” in the Feb. 5 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). The paper posits that eukaryotes -- cells with nuclei – inherit some cell structures from organisms that no longer exist.
“In my estimation, [Hartman] did a large-scale analysis based on unpublished data without first confirming the accuracy and without consulting us about the accuracy of the data,” Sogin says. “Some people think that because it appears on a Web site, that constitutes some sort of publishing.”
Hartman and Federov liberally cite Sogin’s research in their paper. Hartman says he offered to e-mail the paper to Sogin before the corrections phase, but was told to simply drop it in the mail. Sogin said he didn’t receive it before it was published in PNAS, Hartman says.
“From February last year until January when this paper went on the Internet, he was totally informed of everything I was doing. I did not do anything wrong,” Hartman says. “I don’t want publicity. I want the paper to live. I would never try to use his work unless he knew I was using it. He did not take me seriously. That’s his one fault. Other than that, he’s a good scientist. He’s done great work.”
Colleagues say that Sogin is burned because Hartman beat him to the punch with his paper. Indeed, when the story broke in Science, the headline said Sogin had been “scooped with his own data.”
PNAS Editor-in-Chief Nicholas Cozzarelli says that Sogin asked him to make certain changes to the Hartman/Federov paper, but that he declined.
“He asked for lot of things,” Cozzarelli says. “I refused his request because I felt he’s begging for people to use his results and then wants to prevent them from publishing them. Who gave [him] that right?”
Cozzarelli has advocated virtually unrestricted use of data published on Web sites. Last July, he authored a PNAS editorial headlined “Unfettered Access to Published Results” that criticized a publication for withholding complete access to the draft sequence of the human genome.
This episode, while illuminating the need for clarity on the use of public data, makes Temple Smith, a Boston University professor of pharmacology and biomolecular engineering, chuckle a bit.
“What’s funny about (Sogin’s) reaction is that these guys are friends and have gone drinking together for 20 years. What happened is that Hartman caught the interpretation of the data that Sogin would have liked to have published himself,” Smith says. “I don’t think (Sogin) has much of a leg to stand on.”