Well, now that all the excitement‘s dying down (for now), I finally find myself with enough time and motivation to start writing a follow-up post to the inaugural Science Online Vancouver event, which I attended on a very rainy Thursday night last month.
I’d read a lot about Science Online events in London and New York, and was exceedingly excited about Vancouver getting its own version. The first event did not disappoint, despite the unfortunate lack of food or beer for purchase (I think I’ve been spoiled by our local Cafe Scientifique events, which always take place in a pub, as compared to SOVan’s choice of the Science World museum).
The theme was “where do you get your science?”, and we started off with a presentation from UBC researcher and one of Nature‘s ten most influential people of 2011, Rosie Redfield. I’d seen Rosie talk before at a Cafe Scientifique event about evolution, but this time she was talking about her role in debunking the infamous Arsenic Life SNAFU. I’d read a lot about the case at the time, and it was great to hear the story from Rosie herself. Next up was local reporter Lisa Johnson, who covered the original story and some of the follow-up for the CBC. She told us about the hype generated by NASA and the time pressures involved in getting the story out – again, extremely interesting to hear direct from the source.
One of the themes covered in the subsequent discussion – and the main point of this post – concerned the practice of Open Science. Rosie Redfield, who’s been using her blog as an online lab book for years (and described the Arsenic Life saga as her first opportunity to do so “with people watching”), made some compelling arguments in favour of full openness. I can’t argue with the fact that most people don’t know how science is really done and that letting them see the reality is A Good Thing, in principle – nor with the sentiment behind this statement, which many people picked up on and tweeted:
However, I felt that I did need to
speak tweet up with my own experience…
(I don’t know why those tweets have a British time zone date and time stamp, btw. This took place on the evening of April 19th, not at 3 am on the 20th…)
(Cue cheesy flashback harp music…)
It happened just over a year into my postdoc, when I was writing up my first paper. I’d discovered that the transcription (activity) level of a human gene is controlled by a piece of DNA (called a promoter) derived from an endogenous retrovirus; characterised the promoter to find out which proteins were binding to it to control the activity of the associated gene; identified a novel alternative promoter that seems to pre-date the insertion of the virus; and compared the activity of both promoters in a number of different human tissues. I was about a week or two away from finalising a submission-ready version of my manuscript when I got scooped by a paper that showed up as a pre-print publication in the online version of the journal to which I was planning to submit. Using a very similar approach to my own, they’d identified some of the same promoter-binding proteins and done similar analyses of the promoter’s activity in different tissues – but hadn’t spotted that the promoter was derived from a virus, and hadn’t looked for the alternative (original) promoter. So it was a partial scoop – around 75-80%, I’d say – but still a huge blow.
I ran straight to my supervisor, who quickly talked me down from my panic and said that we’d “just quickly reformat it” and send it to a different journal (one with a higher impact factor than the one we’d originally targetted, funnily enough, not that she cares much about such things). Of course, it wasn’t quite as simple as that – it took a few days to reformat the text and figures, and we had to cut a LOT of text to get it down to the right length – but we got it done, with help from sympathetic lab mates, and sent it off with bated breath.
I got lucky. The scooping paper hit the print edition just before we got the reviews back (print vs. online was a bigger deal then than it is now!), and both reviewers had clearly read it. However, because our paper was submitted just a few days after the first one came out online it was clearly independent work, and had enough unique findings (and enough of a different focus in the introduction and discussion, i.e. on the evolutionary implications of the endogenous retrovirus vs. native promoter rather than on the function of the gene itself, which was the source of the other group’s interest in the promoter) that it was accepted with minor textual revisions, including a requirement that we mention the scooping paper and discuss it very briefly. I even managed to turn this into a positive by pointing out that they’d identified the same promoter-binding proteins that I had…
…I got lucky.
A year or so later, a good friend of mine and fellow postdoc in the same lab was not so lucky. He’d been working hard for a long time to set up and validate a system in which to test a hypothesis about the function of a different kind of endogenous retrovirus, and was getting very close to being able to start his actual experiments when the big shot lab in the field scooped him completely. They’d even used an almost identical system. He was understandably devastated; when our supervisor gave him the bad news, he pretty much ran straight out of her office and wasn’t seen again for the rest of the day. He did have some other side-projects running, and was a co-author on a couple of other papers from the lab, but that had been his main project and it was suddenly completely unpublishable. It really was essentially the same study.
(A third postdoc in our lab also got scooped at around the same time, but I almost hesitate to mention it due to her weird response. I saw the scooping presentation at a conference and gave her the bad news myself as gently as I could when I returned to the lab, remembering my panic from the previous year all too well. She said “ah, well, thanks for letting me know!”, and just got on with whatever the hell it was she was doing. Not working, that’s for sure. She was already spending more and more time “working from home” by then, although no evidence of any work was ever forthcoming at lab meetings, which she eventually stopped attending before dropping out completely to join an organisation that sues people who call it a cult, so I won’t do that. It rhymes with Sand Bark Zoundation. I will not link to it. But I digress).
(End flashback. More harp music)
So, while I do understand the very admirable and altruistic impulses behind the Open Science movement, I find it very hard to commit to the cause. As long as careers depend on publications and publications depend on novelty, scooping will remain a major problem in competitive fields, a problem with the potential to completely derail young scientists’ careers. As I said, I got lucky – it wasn’t a full scoop, and I was so close to submitting the manuscript that the work was obviously independent – but my friend’s experience makes me exceedingly cautious. The risk of scooping is field-dependent, of course, and a case could be made for opening up your lab books only once the work reaches a certain stage, but sorry – I can’t get on board. Not really, not in the current scientific publication and careers paradigm.
Anyway… Science Online Vancouver really was awesome. The follow-up discussions were all very interesting, and I met some fabulous people (most of whom seemed to know at least one person I know – as I’ve said before, I swear the Vancouver life sciences community only has two degrees of separation). A few of us went to the pub after the main event ended, but wet feet and jeans, a lack of food, and having to get up in the morning for work sadly sent me home after only one beer, and before I could introduce myself to some of the people I’d wanted to meet. Clearly I just can’t keep up with the young ‘uns any more… but hey, there’ll be more events!