Must you collaborate with another scientist?
by Stewart Lyman, Ph.D.  | 

While opening your mail one day at the lab, you receive a request from a scientist whom you have never met. He or she is proposing a research collaboration with you, in which you supply them with a monoclonal antibody that you recently described in a published paper. They will use this antibody to perform several experiments to determine its effect on a particular cell type. Must you collaborate with them? Are you required to supply them with the antibody? What are your ethical obligations?
To begin to answer this question, we must first agree on a definition of what constitutes a scientific collaboration. A collaboration would be some form of mutually agreed upon scientific exchange in which both parties contribute some element, be it a reagent, assay results, data interpretation, or some other entity. There needs to be some desire to work together, to interpret the data, to discuss the meaning of the results, for this to be considered a true collaboration. A collaboration request should contain the details of the proposed experiments, and the input of the person providing the reagent will often be sought. Note that a research collaboration is distinct from the provision of a reagent. In that circumstance, one party is simply giving the other some material that will be used in particular experiments. The proposed experiments may not be described at all. There would generally be no expectation of data review, authorship on publications describing the work, or interpretation of the data. Now our initial question has been divided into two separate types of requests: one for collaboration, and the other for a reagent. How should you handle these?
Let's deal with the collaboration issue first. Must you work with this investigator?
The short answer is no. There are no requirements that I am aware of that would force you to work with another investigator against your will. You may already have a collaboration in place to do essentially the same experiments as the ones now being proposed, or you may have already planned on doing them yourself in your own laboratory. The choice of working with another individual is solely up to your scientific inclinations. The decision to collaborate will likely hinge on your scientific curiosity to have the question answered, your desire to contribute to the goodwill of the scientific community, and similar feelings. It will also be influenced by your own research plans in this area, the reputation of the person approaching you, and the size of your stockpile of the requested material.
Now that you know that there is no collaboration requirement, do you need to send them the requested reagent? In this case the answer is more complex and dependent upon several factors. Most principal investigators in the biological sciences are aware that top-tier journals require, as a condition of publication, that any unique reagents described in the text be provided to legitimate investigators who ask for them. If you refuse to provide these materials, and the investigator complains to the journal, the editors may prevent you from publishing future papers in their journal. The reasoning here is straightforward and logical: your experimental results cannot be shown to be reproducible if investigators lack a key reagent needed to perform the experiment properly. Therefore, you may not need to work directly with an investigator who approaches you for a reagent, but you may still be obligated to supply them with a key reagent.
There are a few "informal" exceptions to the rule that you need to share reagents with all who ask for them. First, are there alternate means of obtaining molecules that you don't wish to share? Perhaps the person requesting the reagent is a competitor of yours, or they have a less than stellar reputation for conducting themselves in an ethical fashion. If the reagent can readily (and affordably) be obtained from a commercial supply house, then you can direct any inquiries to that source.
I focus on the affordability issue as it is quite important: could an academic investigator afford to buy enough material to do their experiments? Spending $200 to buy 5 ug of a protein from a commercial supply company should be affordable to virtually every lab and may be enough for in vitro experiments. However, if the material is to be used in vivo, and an appropriate dose might be 200 ug/mouse, then it would cost $40,000 to dose just 5 animals.  This would clearly place an impossibly large financial burden on almost all requesting labs. In this type of situation you should make your best efforts to supply the requested reagent. Alternatively, you should inquire if the investigator could readily make the material in their lab (e.g. generate monoclonal antibodies using a hybridoma that you supply them). This is a legitimate question because many academic labs will not have the resources to supply a large number of investigators who ask for significant quantities of their prized reagent.  It's one thing to send 1 mg of a monoclonal antibody or a breeding pair of transgenic mice to one lab; it's quite another to send these reagents to 50 different groups. If possible, try to take advantage of programs where you can supply your hybridoma/mice to an organization that will function as a repository and take on the burden of supplying these reagents to other investigators. Examples of such organizations have included the ATCC and the Jackson Laboratory.
Scientists at all levels should make a good faith effort to supply those who request their reagents. It could happen that an investigator that you deny a reagent to will complain to the journal and seek to block your future ability to publish there. A colleague of mine faced this exact situation. A reviewer of a paper that he had submitted to a top journal declined to review the manuscript on the grounds that my colleague did not always provide reagents to all those who requested them (and had clearly not sent them to him or her). The journal editor sent my colleague a letter asking for his side of the story. In response, he gathered up a large quantity of data showing that he had, in fact, supplied a very large number of requests over the years for a number of distinct reagents including cDNA clones, probes, antibodies, and recombinant proteins. He further explained that it simply is not possible to supply all reagents to everyone who asked for them as it was beyond even the resources of our good-sized biotechnology company. The journal was sympathetic to this explanation, sent the manuscript on to a different reviewer, and ultimately published the paper.
Stewart Lyman, Ph.D. is the founder and manager of Lyman BioPharma Consulting LLC. Dr. Lyman has 20 years of biotechnology experience and specializes in helping clients in industry as well as academia with a wide variety of research collaboration issues. His website URL is