Science blogging: what’s it all about? Part 1 of an ongoing series.

I’ve been posting pretty much nothing but verse, photos and linkdumps for a while now, partly because I’ve been exceedingly busy and, if I’m honest, mostly because serious original posts are a lot of work. The main reason, however, for the blog name change and the switch to my real name was that I want to start using this blog for talking about, thinking about, and even doing science, and recent posts by several other bloggers have prodded me into action.
I want to come back to issues and ideas raised by YoungFemaleScientist, Chad and Dr Free-Ride, but for today I’ll mostly just point to Science and Politics.
Bora recently posted an elegant, scholarly, professional level discussion of Chossat’s Effect in humans, complete with preliminary data, an hypothesis and an explicit request that the post be cited as a scientific communication; I noted this in a linklog and said he was helping to “usher in a new era of scientific publishing”, and I wasn’t kidding. I got online in about 1993, before there were blogs as we know them now, and my immediate reaction to this new medium was two-fold: “my people!” and “eee, publishing revolution!” I was right on the first count (even met the spousal unit online), and it’s been slower than I’d have liked but I still think I was right on the second count as well. I’m not the first to observe that blogs are conversations, and conversations between scientists are where a lot of the creative action is; collaboration is a fun and powerful way to extend one’s intellectual and practical reach. What better way to keep up with what’s happening on relevant benches around the world than a well-connected network of lab weblogs (lablogs)?
Today, Bora has gone further with this idea. By way of answering the question “what are science blogs doing now?”, he sets out a pretty comprehensive taxonomy of the current community. The category that interests me right now is “hypotheses and data”, and I agree with Bora that there are two kinds of blog post in this category:

A) “This is my hypothesis and I am staking the territory here. I intend to test this hypothesis in the near future and you BETTER NOT try to scoop me!”
B) “This is my hypothesis, but I have no intention to follow it up with actual research. However, I’d love to see it tested. Please someone test it! And if you do, you will have to cite me in the list of references as your source for this hypothesis”

I would rewrite (A) to read: “This is my hypothesis and I plan to test it; if you can contribute, with ideas I haven’t had or reagents I don’t have or whatever it might be, great: let’s collaborate. There’s no need to steal when you can share.”
Here we run into a personal bete noir of mine: “scooping”. This means what it sounds like: taking advantage of someone else’s work, to which the Scooper had advance (pre-publication) access by way of a conference presentation, visiting lecture, conversation, manuscript review, blog post or whatever, in order to slam a rapid publication into press ahead of the Scoopee, the person who actually had the idea. In Bora’s comments, PZ Myers provides a personal example:

I got burned several years ago. I had a complete description of the protocols we were using in a teratology study, with some preliminary pictures of some of the results, all on the web. A few months later, my students found a paper published describing similar results in a fairly big name journal, and the protocols, which they had worked out by trial and error, were identical right down to the fraction of a percent of various reagents. It was damned obvious that they’d found our description and literally copied every step of our experiment…and there wasn’t so much as an acknowledgment. The authors hadn’t even bothered to contact us.
It was particularly galling to go to meetings afterwards and have people ask me, “Oh, so you’re doing experiments like so-and-so?”

I’ve said elsewhere, I said in Bora’s comments, and I’ll say again: those assholes should be shunned. To do that to another researcher should basically mean the end of your career, by way of community opprobrium if not active sanction. I asked PZM what he did about his scoopage, and I’ll be interested to hear his response. What typically happens is nothing: the scoopee shrugs and says something like “I couldn’t prove they didn’t think of it themselves, and it’s too much trouble, and I don’t want to rock the boat”.
NNNNNNNGGGGGGGGHHHHHH!!! That galls me nearly as much as the initial assholery!
Of course, you don’t want to smear “SCOOPER” all over an innocent researcher’s reputation, and of course there will be grey areas and cases that are difficult to prove. But we are scientists, ferfucksake: we evaluate evidence for a living. It’s what we do. Case in point: PZ lays out good-looking evidence of guilt in his comment, and as I said in reply:

As Bora points out, a blog post is a timestamped piece of evidence, a well-pissed-on territorial tree. It shouldn’t take more than an hour or two with the lab books from the suspect lab to tell whether or not they stole your protocols — unless they made up very careful fakes, which frankly would be more work than doing the damn experiments and not nearly as interesting.

You don’t have to go screaming over to the offender’s lab, punch him in the face and carve “SCUMBAG” into his forehead with a rusty scalpel. Simply contact the apparent scooper and lay out your evidence in a calm, straightforward manner. Frame it as an enquiry: my work shows considerable similarity to yours, how about we work together on some of these questions? If he blows you off, take it to the senior editor of the journal he published in; the journal has a vested interest in evaluating your claims, because they need a reputation for impartiality. While you’re at it, cc: the apparent scooper’s boss/es (dept head, dean of school, whatever). If you’re wrong, that should become clear pretty damn fast — and you haven’t carved anything into anyone’s face, so a sincere apology is all that’s required. (Speaking for myself, if I were the innocent apparent scooper, at this point I’d be happy to talk about future collaborations, and possibly adding an acknowledgement about independent prior art to the paper in question.) If you’re right, you may or may not get active satisfaction in terms of having the paper rescinded, or your name added to it, but you will have taken a stand against an unacceptable but all-too-common practice and, in doing so, nailed a big stanky turd to the scooper’s reputation. Science, like all human endeavours, runs to a certain extent on reputation, so the mechanism is already in place to deal with this problem. The risk associated with scooping is currently very low; if you’re willing to do it, you can probably get away with it. And there are always assholes in every field, so there will always be someone willing to do it. The good news is that collaborations are already CV fodder, in many cases regarded even more highly than individual efforts when it comes to promotions, grants and so on. We therefore do not need to raise the risk associated with scooping very high — we can be absolutely scrupulous about proof, and about avoiding witch hunts — before sharing becomes a more attractive option than stealing.

5 thoughts on “Science blogging: what’s it all about? Part 1 of an ongoing series.

  1. When my colleagues learn that we try to publish everything we can onto blogs and wikis as soon as possible, the first question is usually about the fear of being scooped. I think that it is sort of like talking about work not yet published in a journal at a conference. If you are going to talk about it make sure that you make lots of noise so it will be hard to ignore. And I think in the blog world the analog of this is repeated discussion at many levels of research (raw experimental data, short-range analsis and discussion of those experiments in a larger context). Search engines tend to reward this kind of activity and make you hard to ignore. In our research, for example, a Google search today for “antimalaria compounds” pulls up our site as the first hit.
    I look forward to the rest of your discussion on the subject.

  2. On scooping, one of the more glaring, though not very well known examples in my field concerns the Milgram shock experiments. Another psychologist, Arnold Buss, was doing the same experiments as early as 3 years prior to Milgram’s, but had not yet published them when Milgram, who knew of Buss’ work, published his versions. To this day, Milgram is famous, even outside of psychology, whereas Buss is known only as his son David’s father.

  3. Buss and Milgram were using similar apparatuses, but they were studying completely different phenomenon. Buss studied aggression and used the machine to evaluate the willingness of people to shock another person under various circumstances, accepting the speed and severity of shock delivery as an indicator of their aggressiveness. Milgram studied obedience and used willingness to continue to participate in the delivery of shocks as an indicator of obedience.
    Milgram is remembered because, at that time, no one expected that so many people would be willing to inflict pain on another human being simply by being prompted to do so by an authority figure whom they had just met and who had no apparent means to coerce or to reward them.

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