Accession Numbers – Anything to Declare?

Some people get very exercised by accession numbers – the unique identifiers associated with genes and proteins.

When publishing results in a paper it’s accepted, and indeed rightly mandated by scientific publishers, that all associated accession numbers should be declared, so enabling follow-up analyses by other groups.

Should the same apply to conference presentations? In this case, results are often incomplete, representing work in progress, which may not enter the published record for months or even years. In contrast, peer review and publication gives a scientific paper public recognition, and also endorses its quality and contribution to the field. Papers also tend to represent complete or near complete pieces of work. Not being peer-reviewed, and rarely being complete, conference presentations have nothing like the cachet of a scientific paper.

In spite of this, many groups declare the accession numbers of the proteins they’re working on, even in conference presentations. However, others don’t. Instead, giving their proteins catchy names, so protecting their identities, while still sharing the results that make them worthy of study.

Some people find this irritating, believing that such behaviour contradicts the collegiate and collaborative foundation of science.

They believe that if you want to present your work you should present all the details, including the full identity of the protein(s) that are its subject. The assumption being that if you’re willing to present your data in a public forum, you must be so far ahead of your competitors that it won’t be worth their while jumping on the band wagon that you’ve just wheeled out! And anyway, if they did, it would be so obvious to the rest of the community that their reputation would be hammered; though what the real world consequences of this would be are anyone’s guess.

Maybe, whether or not you’re a ‘declarer’ depends on the nature of the work, the competitiveness of your field, or the characters within it – or at least your preception of any or all of these elements. After all, some results have the potential to have a huge impact on a field, but many more are incremental; though all are worthy, the former have the potential to cement reputations and make careers. Some fields are fiercely competitive. Others are populated by individuals of whom, rightly or wrongly, the moral majority are wary. Or, maybe we’d simply rather not put temptation in others’ way, and have to spend the next months (or years) worrying about what might or might not happen.

In my view, an idealistic one-size-fits-all rule can’t apply, and, ultimately, the decision to declare (or not) should be down to the individual. As long as the data are honestly presented, I’ll happily look forward to reading the published paper, if and when it comes out. When it comes to my own research, I’ll continue to deal with this issue on a case-by-case basis, depending on just how close I think I am to a complete story of any significance.

Probably, the idealists shouldn’t rush to judge, and the rest of us should be a little less paranoid. But, perhaps, as scientists we’re all just a little conflicted – wanting to work for the wider community, and often doing so, but at the same time knowing that we have to look after ourselves. After all, it’s inherent to a system where funding is short-term and hard to get, and for the most part insecurity is the only guarantee, that we sometimes feel the need to guard our most important discoveries, in the hope that we’ll be able to keep doing the science we love for the long term.