what the arsenic effect means for scientific publishing

I don’t know very much about DNA (and by ‘not very much’ I sadly mean ‘next to nothing’), so when someone tells me that life as we know it generally doesn’t use arsenic to make DNA, and that it’s a big deal to find a bacterium that does, I’m willing to believe them. So too, apparently, are at least two or three reviewers for Science, which published a paper last week by a NASA group purporting to demonstrate exactly that.

Turns out the paper might have a few holes. In the last few days, the blogosphere has reached fever delirium pitch as critiques of the article have emerged from every corner; it seems like pretty much everyone with some knowledge of the science in question is unhappy about the paper. Since I’m not in any position to critique the article myself, I’ll take Carl Zimmer’s word for it in Slate yesterday:

Was this merely a case of a few isolated cranks? To find out, I reached out to a dozen experts on Monday. Almost unanimously, they think the NASA scientists have failed to make their case.  “It would be really cool if such a bug existed,” said San Diego State University’s Forest Rohwer, a microbiologist who looks for new species of bacteria and viruses in coral reefs. But, he added, “none of the arguments are very convincing on their own.” That was about as positive as the critics could get. “This paper should not have been published,” said Shelley Copley of the University of Colorado.

Zimmer then follows his Slate piece up with a blog post today in which he provides 13 experts’ unadulterated comments. While there are one or two (somewhat) positive reviews, the consensus clearly seems to be that the Science paper is (very) bad science.

Of course, scientists (yes, even Science reviewers) do occasionally make mistakes, so if we’re being charitable about it, we might chalk it up to human error (though some of the critiques suggest that these are elementary problems that could have been very easily addressed, so it’s possible there’s some disingenuousness involved). But what many bloggers (1, 2, 3, etc.) have found particularly inexcusable is the way NASA and the research team have handled the criticism. Zimmer again, in Slate:

I asked two of the authors of the study if they wanted to respond to the criticism of their paper. Both politely declined by email.

“We cannot indiscriminately wade into a media forum for debate at this time,” declared senior author Ronald Oremland of the U.S. Geological Survey. “If we are wrong, then other scientists should be motivated to reproduce our findings. If we are right (and I am strongly convinced that we are) our competitors will agree and help to advance our understanding of this phenomenon. I am eager for them to do so.”

“Any discourse will have to be peer-reviewed in the same manner as our paper was, and go through a vetting process so that all discussion is properly moderated,” wrote Felisa Wolfe-Simon of the NASA Astrobiology Institute. “The items you are presenting do not represent the proper way to engage in a scientific discourse and we will not respond in this manner.”

A NASA spokesperson basically reiterated this point of view, indicating that NASA scientists weren’t going to respond to criticism of their work unless that criticism appeared in, you know, a respectable, peer-reviewed outlet. (Fortunately, at least one of the critics already has a draft letter to Science up on her blog.)

I don’t think it’s surprising that people who spend much of their free time blogging about science, and think it’s important to discuss scientific issues in a public venue, generally aren’t going to like being told that science blogging isn’t a legitimate form of scientific discourse. Especially considering that the critics here aren’t laypeople without scientific training; they’re well-respected scientists with areas of expertise that are directly relevant to the paper. In this case, dismissing trenchant criticism because it’s on the web rather than in a peer-reviewed journal seems kind of like telling someone who’s screaming at you that your house is on fire that you’re not going to listen to them until they adopt a more polite tone. It just seems counterproductive.

That said, I personally don’t think we should take the NASA team’s statements at face value. I very much doubt that what the NASA researchers are saying really reflect any deep philosophical view about the role of blogs in scientific discourse; it’s much more likely that they’re simply trying to buy some time while they figure out how to respond. On the face of it, they have a choice between two lousy options: either ignore the criticism entirely, which would be antithetical to the scientific process and would look very bad, or address it head-on–which, judging by the vociferousness and near-unanimity of the commentators, is probably going to be a losing battle. Shifting the terms of the debate by insisting on responding only in a peer-reviewed venue doesn’t really change anything, but it does buy the authors two or three weeks. And two or three weeks is worth like, forty attentional cycles in the blogosphere.

Mind you, I’m not saying we should sympathize with the NASA researchers just because they’re in a tough position. I think one of the main reasons the story’s attracted so much attention is precisely because people see it as a case of justice being served. The NASA team called a major press conference ahead of the paper’s publication, published its results in one of the world’s most prestigious science journals, and yet apparently failed to run relatively basic experimental controls in support of its conclusions. If the critics are to be believed, the NASA researchers are either disingenuous or incompetent; either way, we shouldn’t feel sorry for them.

What I do think this episode shows is that the rules of scientific publishing have fundamentally changed in the last few years–and largely for the better. I haven’t been doing science for very long, but even in the halcyon days of 2003, when I started graduate school, science blogging was practically nonexistent, and the main way you’d find out what other people thought about an influential new paper was by talking to people you knew at conferences (which could take several months) or waiting for critiques or replication failures to emerge in other peer-reviewed journals (which could take years). That kind of delay between publication and evaluation is disastrous for science, because in the time it takes for a consensus to emerge that a paper is no good, several research teams might have already started trying to replicate and extend the reported findings, and several dozen other researchers might have uncritically cited their paper peripherally in their own work. This delay is probably why, as John Ioannidis’ work so elegantly demonstrates, major studies published in high-impact journals tend to exert a disproportionate influence on the literature long after they’ve been resoundingly discredited.

The Arsenic Effect, if we can call it that, provides a nice illustration of the impact of new media on scientific communication. It’s a safe bet that there are now very few people who do anything even vaguely related to the NASA team’s research who haven’t been made aware that the reported findings are controversial. Which means that the process of attempting to replicate (or falsify) the findings will proceed much more quickly than it might have ten or twenty years ago, and there probably won’t be very many people who cite the Science paper as compelling evidence of terrestrial arsenic-based life. Perhaps more importantly, as researchers get used to the idea that their high-profile work is going to be instantly evaluated by thousands of pairs of highly trained eyes, any of which might be attached to a highly prolific pair of typing hands, there will be an increasingly strong disincentive to avoid being careless. That isn’t to say that bad science will disappear, of course; just that, in cases where the badness reflects a pressure to tell a good story at all costs, we’ll probably see less of it.

3 thoughts on “what the arsenic effect means for scientific publishing”

  1. NASA’s position re: blogs is unsustainable. The criticisms are out there; a lot of people know about them, whether by reading the blogs or indirectly; they will have to respond. If they choose to respond via the usual channels, that just means they respond later.

    if that gives them time to run additional experiments and formulate a stronger rebuttal, that’s good for them; otherwise, by not responding to blogs, they are not helping themselves, because the cat is out of the bag.

    As for the NASA scientists, I am sympathetic. because I can’t believe that they were the ones who pushed for a big press conference. No scientist I know would go for that unless they’d run every possible check because if it back fires, it would look terrible.

    But I know a lot of PR departments who wouldn’t appreciate that, and who’d want to go for it.

    So the scientists may be the victims here, although, not innocent ones, as they must have agreed to go along with it. But I doubt it was their idea, unless NASA’s working culture is very different to any I’ve encountered.

  2. Neuroskeptic, I don’t think the issue is so much who’s idea the press conference was, as why the researchers agreed to go along with it (which they surely must have–I can’t imagine NASA administrators would have gone ahead with it if the researchers had indicated there was a chance NASA would end up with egg on its face). No matter who suggested it, you’d have to be pretty confident about your work to announce it in that way. And I think the point of a lot of the criticism isn’t just that the research is wrong, it’s that the authors really should have known better, and didn’t do their due diligence. So in that sense, I find it hard to be sympathetic. I mean, none of my own work is remotely important enough to call a press conference for, but I think even if it was, I would be very apprehensive about ever agreeing to such a thing unless I’d made absolutely sure to dot all my i’s and cross all my t’s. I think that’s the heart of the complaint here–the lack of dotting and crossing.

    gameswithwords, I think we’re mostly on the same page, except that I don’t really think the idea here is to exclude people like Jenny McCarthy (or the microbiological equivalent, if there is such a thing) from the debate–it strikes me as simply a practical ploy on NASA’s part to buy time to respond (or just hope that the whole thing blows over to some extent).

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