21 March 2009

Monkeying with Brain Activity Data

In The Art of Living: Vipassana Meditation as taught by S N Goenka, William Hart discusses Lord Budddha's observation 2500 years ago of how in a body (including the brain) "Particles continuously arise and vanish, passing into and out of existence, like a flow of vibrations." Thus, the body as also the brain is always in a state of activity. Modern scientists agree to this. That this has not led them to get out of suffering is another matter. What is more, an experiment on brain activity in Monkeys has led to a debate on usage, interpretation and ownership rights of data.

The experiment was carried out in the Max Planc Institute for Biological Cybernatics (MPIBC) at the Physiology of Cognitive Processes Department headed by Professor Nikos K. Logothetis. Amir Shmuel (who was associated with the project as a post-doctoral scholar) and David A. Leopold (who was also earlier associated with the department/institute as a post-doctoral but not as part of this project) came together to write a paper Neuronal correlates of spontaneous fluctuations in fMRI signals in monkey visual cortex: Implications for functional connectivity at rest, Human Brain Mapping, 29 (7): 751-761 (2008).

In fact, the earlier abstract version which was orally presented in a conference did not have Leoplod as a co-author but included Logothetis and two of his other colleagues. Based on the presentation, the editor of Human Brain Mapping invited a paper for consideration in the special issue on 'Endogenous Brain Oscillations and Networks in Functional MRI'. At this stage, Logothetis was of the view that the data collected were not appropriate for this kind of work - the monkeys were exposed to a flickering screen and one cannot consider them to be at rest.

Meanwhile Shmuel got in touch with Leopold and they both wrote the paper. After six weeks of acceptance, Shmuel got in touch with Logothetis who declined to be associated with the work but also raised questions on the methodological aspects and propriety of data usage. On writing to the Max Plank Society (MPS), Professor Herbert J├Ąckle, a development biologist, acted as a mediator with both parties agreeing that Shmuel can use data for a project that he was associated with.

Logothetis, was however, of the view that the paper should not have been published and should be retracted because of methodological difficulties. See the response How not to study spontaneous activity, NeuroImage, 45 (4): 1080-1089 (2009).

The differences led the editors of Human Brain Mapping to come up with a policy on data usage and post a paper Protecting peer review: Correspondence chronology and ethical analysis regarding Logothetis vs. Shmuel and Leopold, Human Brain Mapping, 30 (2): 347-354 (2009).

Max Plank Society thought that the institute has not been appropriately portrayed and their right to respond has been unfairly delayed. Thus they have uploaded to MPIBC site the one-page Preface - Letter to the Editors, a supporting document The other side of the coin: A factual analysis of the HBM editorial, and communications leading to The history of publication of the one-page letter. The editors of Human Brain Mapping (HBM) would be responding as indicated in the Nature News Society sues journal over right to reply.

This debate has raised a number of issues. The hierarchy between Principal Investigators and other younger colleagues. Data collection should follow certain accepted norms and this may require appropriate institutional set up. Once collected, researchers should have access to it. And, of course, the methodological issues.

There are instances in social sciences as well as health sciences where international agencies or well-endowed researchers in the developed countries take the help of colleagues in developing countries but do not involve them in the post-collection analysis and publication process. These have serious consequences on limiting career opportunities for those who collect data and as a result on the reliability of data. Creating a divide between those who collect data and those who interpret data (based on statistical tools and techniques) has another serious implication. The analysis of data may be superficial in terms of ground level understanding.

Recently I came across a very interesting anecdote. A researcher who had purchased some unit level secondary data and used it for some collaborative exercise with other colleagues. When the other colleagues used the data for a different purpose (which was illegal) the owner of the data (purchaser) considered it to be his/her right to demand and get authorship. Wait a minute, someone said that conflict of interest led to a co-operative outcome. Wow!

Gandhiji's Monkeys convey: "Please do not mess around with our data. It will lead to seeing evil, hearing evil and speaking evil." The 21st Century Monkeys of Gandhiji.

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