Friday, March 07, 2014

Science and Blogging: A STAP Stem Cell Case Study

It is a story that has to do with high priests, cloistered discussions and the glacial pace of scientific research.

The tale involves George Daley of Harvard, Paul Knoepfler of UC Davis and Japanese and Massachusetts researchers who say they can create STAP cells with an acid bath.

Let's start with the acid bath research, which rocked the stem cell world a few weeks ago. The apparently simple method of generating cells surprised nearly all researchers, some of whom expressed skepticism.

Paul Knoepfler
Paul Knoepfler is one scientist whose analysis of the research was available for the world to see on his blog, Knoepfler is also one of the few stem cell researchers to blog about their field, a matter that troubles some scientists.

In recent weeks, Knoepfler has carried polls about the STAP research, interviewed two of the researchers involved and encouraged efforts at replicating the findings., among other things. He has even drawn some tentative conclusions. All of which does not necessarily meet with the approval of George Daley. He was quoted in the Boston Globe yesterday by Carolyn Johnson as saying,
“I am concerned about the rush to use blogging and social media to report early experience with a complex biological experiment. Most scientific experiments take time and many replications to work confidently, and early reporting may reflect a negative bias.” 

Within hours Knoepfler, whose blogging on STAP has drawn widespread attention, took a politely different view about the use of the social media and science. He wrote that social media has had a "strongly positive impact" on the discussion of the STAP cell research. He said it has facilitated international communication in a way that the traditional venues could not have done. Knoepfler wrote,
 “Journals are far too slow and frankly just too politically correct.”

He continued,
 “I suspect that in (a) hypothetical social media-less reality there would be no Nature or RIKEN investigations going on to help clarify certain elements of the STAP situation. I’m convinced there would also have been no detailed STAP protocol put out there in the public domain as we saw pop up yesterday. The two STAP Nature papers would also almost certainly still be behind pay walls instead of openly available via my request to Nature to make them that way. 
“Yet at the same time dozens of labs would still be trying STAP-related experiments relatively in the dark and unconnected to each other, wasting time, reagents, and other resources. For a long time, in that hypothetical scenario, only Nature, RIKEN, and the STAP authors themselves would have entirely controlled the flow of information about STAP cells. With all due respect I don’t think that would have benefited the stem cell field.”

Jeanne Loring
As of this writing, Knoepfler's item on the use of social media has drawn six comments. One came from Jeanne Loring, head of the Scripps stem cell program. She said,
“I think this was a successful experiment – a lab meeting without borders. Imagine that a STAP researcher was reporting her results at a lab meeting – you and the hundreds of others in your worldwide lab would be obligated to give critical feedback. The authors shouldn’t feel any more personally attacked than they would if their colleagues in the meeting were criticizing their work. This should be familiar to everyone who works in a lab.”

Our take: Every major enterprise, but perhaps more so in science, contains its high priests, individuals who control discussion and formally or informally lay down rules. Then there are institutions and vested interests that collaborate on setting the standards, such as permitting discussions in only certain cloistered venues, away from the untidiness that might involve the public or those deemed to be ill-informed or whose views are unwelcome. Along with that comes inertia, an unwillingness to change and resistance to new techniques. All of which leads to glacially slow dissemination of information that could speed research and development of therapies that could save lives.

Michael Eisen
Michael Eisen, a scientist at UC Berkeley, weighs in on this topic regularly. In a blog item September 2012, he noted that most papers that had been submitted 10 months earlier to journals were still languishing on some editor's or reviewer's desk.
“Consider that most papers submitted to journals last November 26th have still not been published. That’s not a random date – it happens to be the day NASA launched an Atlas rocket carrying the Mars Scientific Laboratory from Cape Canaveral.
“While, on Earth, scientific papers were languishing in editorial purgatory and peer review, bouncing back and forth while authors attempted to cater to some reviewer’s whim, maybe went to another journal, and then sat around in production for months while the awaited online publication, an SUV-sized robot made its way to another planet, landed with pinpoint accuracy on the surface and started beaming back pictures. NASA 1. Publishing 0.”

Use of the social media is unsettling to many scientists. Nonetheless, it is a fact of life. Its use will inevitably grow. Like newspapers, the reach and role of the journals are diminishing. The only question is how fast. For researchers to turn their back now on a key information sharing tool such as social media would be like rejecting the microscope because of wariness about new-fangled gizmos and their reliability.

There is another bottom line on all this: Money. One of the reasons for the financial plight of the NIH and research funding is the lack of widespread, public enthusiasm for research. If research funding had the kind of constituency that Social Security and Medicare have, there would be few problems with cash for scientific grants. While research funding is unlikely to ever achieve that sort of support, it can improve its public standing by artful use of social media. Mastering those techniques should be high on the agenda of every researcher in the country.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous3:49 PM

    Francis Collins, the Director of the NIH, has a blog:‎


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