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The practice of secrecy in neuroimaging research

Sat, September 2, 4:00 to 5:30pm, Sheraton Boston, 3, Kent

Abstract

In the field of neuroimaging, scientists often refuse to communicate ‘negative’ results challenging the ideals of sharing and the free circulation of knowledge. Our ethnographic survey on brain mapping in the digital age highlights how publicizing anomalies or failures can be a risky practice. We observe that scientists are involved in strategic data omissions practices, considering them as unpublishable. Specifically, we analyzed cases that excluded the publishing of dysfunctions affecting MRI image processing software. We observed that researchers discovering anomalies found themselves in precarious positions fearing that critiquing the informatics tool could trigger conflicts with the laboratory that designed the device. Also, these “negative” discoveries did not fit with the research team’s priority, whose objective was to discover differences between autistic and “normal” brains. The collective solutions used to cope with these technical problems were informal discussions and avoiding public confrontations. As many authors have pointed out, the gradual disappearance of “negative” results impacts not only the scientific literature but the scientist’s work as well. The growing promotion of spectacular discoveries and “positive” results lead scientists to “tinker” with their results and conceal anomalies.

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