ArsenicLife – a deeper shift than meets the eye.

Unfortunately, I don’t really have the time to write this post out in full, so please don’t mind the rough format in which I’ve assembled it.  I’ve been trying to twitter more than blog recently so that I wouldn’t distract myself by spending hours researching and writing blog posts.  Go figure.

However, I don’t think I can keep myself from commenting this time, even if it’s just in passing.  The whole arsenic-based-life (or #arseniclife) affair is really a much deeper  story than it appears.  It’s not just a story about some poor science, but rather a clash of cultures.

First, I read through the list of published critiques of the arsenic paper, as well as the response on the same page.  They critiques are pretty thoughtful and clear, giving me the overall impression that the authors of the original paper just didn’t bother to talk to specialists outside of their own narrow field.   That’s the first clash of cultures:  Specialists vs. interdisciplinary researchers.  If you neglect to consult people who can shed light on your results, you’re effectively ignoring alternative hypotheses.   Biologists have been guilty of this in the past, however, failing to consult statisticians before constructing a story their data doesn’t support.  In this case, however, it’s more blatant because the authors should have consulted with other biologists, the least of them being specialists in microbial biology. (Rosie Redfield’s blog comes to mind for some of the critiques that should have been solicited before the paper was sent to journals.)

If that wasn’t enough, this clash is also underpinned by “oldschool” meets “newschool” – aka, technology.  This isn’t an original idea of mine, as I’ve seen it hinted at elsewhere, but it’s an important idea.  Underneath all of the research, we have a science battle that’s being fought out in the journals, while new media runs circles around it.  It took almost 6 months for Science to print 6 critiques that stretch from a half page to just over a page.  In the world of blogs, that is about 2 hours worth of work.

I really don’t know what’s involved in having a small half-page article go to press, but I’m quite surprised if it would take 6 months to do that amount of work.  In contrast, a great many blogs popped up with serious scientific criticisms in hours, if not days, of the original embargo on the paper being lifted. (The embargo itself was a totally ridiculous, but that’s another tangent I’m not going to follow.)  The science discussion in the blogs was every bit as valid as the critiques Science published.

Frankly, the arsenic life paper leaves me stunned on many levels:  How long will continue to believe they can work in independent fields, publishing results without considering the implications of their work on other fields?  How long will journals be the common currency of science given their sluggish pace to keep up with the discussions?  How long will blogs  (and not the anonymous kind) be relegated to step-child status in science communication?

Given the rapid pace with which science progresses as a whole, it’s only a matter of time before something needs to be done to change the way we chose to publish and collaborate in the open.

For more reading on this, I suggest the Nature article here.


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