Sunday, September 8, 2013

Lead or Follow?

The twitter feed for many of the people I follow is often filled with critique of other scientists.  Typically, the tweets are critical of the process of science, with a little self-rightous tone.  Nothing that I take too seriously, but I know there is an underlying reality to the criticism.  From where I stand now, as there is a conflict between my early training (undergrad and graduate school) and my later senior postdoc experiences.  Much of the conflict has to do with scientific integrity, reproducibility, and authorship.

When I was an early post-doc, one of my dual mentors warned me about sharks in the water.  "Learn to swim with them while you are a fish" my mentor would say, "but do not trust them not to eat you".  I resisted this advice early on, not wanting to be distrustful of my fellow scientists.  After all, our efforts at the bench speak for themselves. But it seems that our field has bottomed out in integrity.  I am not certain that we value bench work.  Instead, we reward the project manager approach, where a theorist gleans the experimentation in the lab, department, university, or field of study.

When experimentation is undervalued relative to interpretation, we lose the fundamental aspect of research, namely "observation".  Very little space is allocated to experimental methods in many high impact journals.  Details are very brief and reagents are hard to track.  Worse yet, in silico data is harder to track when much of the bioinformatics are in-house and code is guarded closely.  How can we advance a field of study without discussing the methods used?  How did we get to this place is science?  Is experimentation a dirty word or did we become so adept at incorporating so many small projects into one big paper that we lost sight of the individual experiment?

The knee jerk reaction is to have journals, such as Nature, define policy.  But I think the bigger issue is the lack of outrage by all of us in the field.  If we want reproducible science from our peers, we need to expect reproducible science from our peers.  This means we need to ask for the details when we review papers, attend meetings, and collaborate.  We need to take pride in the details rather than hide behind reputation and big stories.  When a researcher replies that the experimental method is unimportant, we need to be suspicious that the researcher either does not know the details (thus is actually a project manager not the experimentalist) or is hiding something.  We also need to demonstrate good science when we publish our own data.

Lead by example and the field will follow!

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