More on STAP and social media

by Alexey Bersenev on March 6, 2014 · 7 comments

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While news about STAP stem cell generation method continue to unfold with rapid pace (stay tuned for my weekly pick this Sunday), I’d like to share some thoughts on role of social media in this story. Today’s piece in Boston Globe on STAP brought a lot of provocative points for discussion.

First, the author correctly pointed out:

What can be easy to forget is that it is not unusual for a new technique that upsets conventional knowledge to be carefully and critically vetted. That process is appropriate and part of how science works; it’s just usually hidden from public view.

But isn’t “hiding discussion of new scientific methods from public view” completely wrong? “Public” also means “science professionals around the world”. If scientists are trying to hide something from their peers or general public, they are definitely in trouble!

Second, a quote from George Daley (prominent stem cell researchers at Harvard):

I am concerned about the rush to use blogging and social media to report early experience with a complex biological experiment. Most scientific experiments take time and many replications to work confidently, and early reporting may reflect a negative bias.

I was very very disappointed by this statement! Nobody rush to blog! The rush, to which Daley refers, is a normal reaction of passionate scientists on new outstanding claims. Professionals who really care will discuss it immediately and will use any possible ways of communication! It seem to be very unusual for “old academic school”. Contrary to Daley, I’m deeply concerned about why “big stem cell research papers” with extraordinary claims, are not blogged, not peer-reviewed post publication rapidly, not discussed openly, not reported on reproducibility real time? Why?

The opinion of Harvard’s professor concerns me also in terms of “current state of academic culture in relation to social media and open science”. If he really represents a “current academic opinion”, then academia is screwed! Academia does not understand what is blogging, what is post publication peer review, what is open scientific discussion, that is crowdsourcing. Academia does not value a new progressive way to move science forward more rapidly and efficiently. Community-based social media is a way how science should be done today! Wake up!

Finally, the role of STAP crowdsourcing reproducibility project (emphasis mine):

In an interview Knoepfler posted recently, Teruhiko Wakayama, a highly respected cloning expert who was one of the authors of the work, asked that people wait at least a year for the technique to be replicated before prematurely dismissing it.

Wakayama, didn’t say “prematurely dismissing it“. Nobody is dismissing STAP reproducibility at this point. Everybody would agree that it’s too early to make any conclusions. The crowdsourcing project is a real time documentation of early experiences with reproducibility of STAP protocol. One can read all comments and get a message about ” dismissing” or “prematurity of conclusions”, but it’s up to reader! Of course, folks who is participating in open discussion online, could post biased opinions or make premature conclusions, but exactly the same things going on in conventional “old academic school” science through conferences and publications. The difference is speed, value and expenses – “old academic way” is losing in all three!!
It is also important to note, that blogs and PubPeer, mostly unveiled flaws with STAP paper’s figures and data. Isn’t it important in science? It was done rapidly and efficiently! How long would it take by conventional scientific publishing/ communicating system? Few months or maybe a year to release “the letter to editor” or “opinion piece”.

Final thoughts:
As I said before, I’m really amazed by STAP phenomenon, not because of its potential biomedical significance, but because it brought social media to stem cell research! The wall is finally crashed! Irrespective of STAP story outcome (positive or negative) I’ll be always thankful for this remarkable opportunity to see impact of social media in stem cell research! Real time documentation of flaws in paper and reproducibility efforts is extremely important and should by acknowledged by stem cell researchers. Social media allows to combine efforts, brainstorm and facilitate productive discussion on international level without any delays, related to conventional scientific publishing and communication. New era to communicate science finally arrived to stem cell field… with STAP!

Also read: Social Media Helps Field Deal With Difficult STAP Stem Cell Situation