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to Daley, I’m deeply concerned about why “big stem cell research papers” with extraordinary claims, are not blogged, not peer-reviewed post publication rapidly, not discussed openly, not reported on reproducibility real time?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

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Iwona Grad March 7, 2014 at 6:28 am

It is fantastic that science is passionately discussed in public, but I understand Wakayama’s concern, after all media-type discussion usually lead to oversimplification, which might bring a lot of harm. It is easy to post – yeah that did not work in my hands (after throwing some cells into something – full protocol is still not there yet, and many people don’t bother to follow anyway), after it is also easy to make statistics – 57 out of 58 labs are not able to reproduce the experiment, which can quickly become THE EVIDENCE.

I am still not sure what to make of public science communication this way. On one hand it is really fantastic to post, comment and have crowdsourcing in real time, both for science progress and for better science public relations. On the other I am afraid of changing science into pop-science – look for instance at what is happening when science goes into this media – hype of “new cure for cancer discovered by scientists at…”, “stem cells make kidneys reported by scientists at…” etc. Considering that those claims are over-hyped and public gets more and more disappointed with the scientific progress (or lack of it).

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Alexey Bersenev March 8, 2014 at 10:30 am

Iwona,
Wakayama didn’t say anything new about role of social media in STAP reproducibility. He didn’t criticised social media initiative for crowdsourcing, he didn’t blame social media in disseminating a wrong message to public, he was not against social media involvement. We (social media online community, discussing STAP) knew that it’s too early to conclude before his interview by Knoepfler and we are supporting him now – after interview (where he said: “let’s give one year”). Conclusions like “premature dismissal of STAP reproducibility” came from mass media, which failed to interpret social media role and distorted the reality.
The role of social media was and it is now – (1) to document in real time early efforts to reproduce a protocol, (2) discuss flaws in paper figures, data and methods, (3) help peers to understand the method and accelerate independent validation of the study to disseminate a knowledge. It is not about “rush” or “dismissal” or “attacks”. We understand, of course, the potential of negative bias at this stage of debate and we’re discussing it openly.
Instead of criticizing it (without understanding it) conventional academics should be thankful for rapid and productive discussion, should encourage others to participate and join themselves in order to improve discussion, bring more value and clean up the noise.

You don’t need to be afraid of social media, as “old school academics”. If you really care of the future of your field, you have to jump in (try it), bring value to it and improve it. Of course, there is a lot of noise, risk of transformation to “pop-science” and hype. But, pretty much the same things are going on in conventional way to discuss science (conferences, journals) – in “suspended animation” pace. Science is self-correcting and it is in social media. If you come with good intention to make discussion productive and valuable – it will be cleared up. There are a lot of tools and mechanisms how to make it only withing community (LinkedIn private groups) before communicate conclusions to mass media. It could be the first step, if everybody still afraid to go public completely. There are a lot of mechanism to clean up a noise and keep it productive. It up to us – professionals to decide if we really need it.

The era of social media in science and in stem cell research is inevitable, as well as open access. Everybody knows it, but still resist and can’t accept. 10 years from now we will be laughing on our past, where publisher asked you to pay $32 to download and read the paper, where we had to write “letter to editor” to discuss new discoveries and wait few months to see it on a paper or on a web-site. So, why stiff innovation and spreading of knowledge? Why don’t switch right now?

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Marie March 9, 2014 at 4:49 pm

Thank you Alexey, this is an excellent piece. As a person living with MS and RA, I have experienced first hand the consequences of “suspended animation” pace. This is especially hurtful when most of the things that translate to the clinic first comes through proprietary science pathways that hide things the company does not want known and journals choose peers to review who are also funded in other ways, like speaking engagements, by the same company.

My hope is that we will finally begin to see true open peer review and criticism when people that are not hand picked to be “anonymous peer review panel for Journal X” can see and evaluate something freely without fear of reprisal. Real hard science requires this.

In the end it will help everyone.

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Thomas Roll March 24, 2014 at 12:24 pm

Science is slow, some papers take years to write and publish. Reproducing experiments in different labs could take time. A real time system would be immediately flooded with people calling for retraction after their single attempt to reproduce the experiment in their own environment. It would be incredibly open to abuse.

If social medias involvement in post publication peer review is repeated attempts to stir up controversy by a rival, then I for one am not sure it deserves to be “how science should be done today”. Knoepflers witch hunt is bordering on obsessive and I feel he is now using this position to inflate his own image, and disgrace his peers.

This article you have posted is both poorly formatted and hysteric. Using emboldened fonts, and and nested quotes all over the place makes it hard to read. Frankly it comes across as you frothing at the mouth hammering on your keyboard in rage at those old fuddy duddys with their journals and peer review. If this is how you envisage real time peer review, I think you need to go back and think again. I would not appreciate your over reactionary commentary being publicly associated with any of my work.

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Alexey Bersenev March 24, 2014 at 1:23 pm

Thomas,
As I said in the post – “Nobody is dismissing STAP reproducibility at this point. Everybody would agree that it’s too early to make any conclusions.” The main issues with STAP, which were brought by social media (in particular http://stapcell.blogspot.com/ blog and @JuuichiJigen investigations), are related to figures (duplications and manipulations) and plagiarism. It is obvious for everyone in the field that 2 months is not enough for judgement call on reproducibility. I thought it’s clear from my post, but you’re bringing it up again. Media coverage of STAP over-hyped and distorted reproducibility at this point and should be blamed for it, but not sci social media folks.

I don’t see the role of social media in steering controversy. I don’t believe it was an incentive for @JuuichiJigen investigations. I think, the reason was to analyze the discovery and discuss any issues (if there are any) with it. I’m sorry if you got a wrong message from my post.

I’m not judging (unlike you) Knoepfler if he is on a hunt (or mission) for controversy and disgrace his peers. I’m linking to his posts and initiative, because, I think, they are good. As for STAP reproducibility he offered a platform and call everyone to try and post. I think, it’s great opportunity to see in real time attempts to reproduce findings.

Yes, I think, it’s how science should be done in the future. An element of it. I think, the time when social media a part of peer review is inevitable. This is just my opinion. I’m not screaming that this is only right way to do it. I’m opening discussion by provocative post. I’m inviting everyone to discuss openly and productively for the benefit of stem cell research and patients. You have your opinion, Daley has his opinion – all fine. We always can be agree and disagree with each other. This is normal for science.

Thanks for the note about “poor formatting”. But for sake of good discussion, you may refrain to make personal judgement of me “being hysterical” and in a “rage”. I express my disagreement with Daley’s opinion without personal attacks (I didn’t call anyone “old fuddy duddy”). I called the current practice of “letter to editor” as “old school” – how does it reflect my “rage”?

Finally, I don’t understand yours “I would not appreciate your over reactionary commentary being publicly associated with any of my work.” I have no idea who are you and how this post could be associated with your work.

I think, you got my message from this post completely wrong. I’m willing to discuss more in comment, if you can keep polite tone.

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Thomas Roll March 28, 2014 at 10:52 am

As I said in the post – “Nobody is dismissing STAP reproducibility at this point. Everybody would agree that it’s too early to make any conclusions.”

Noone is dismissing it, for fear of being caught red faced if it turns out to be true. But saying everyone would agree it is too early to make conclusions is simply not true.

The most vocal critic Knoepfler is typing out statements like this..

“Betting on STAP to be entirely true today would be akin to wagering on a 100-1 shot 3-legged horse in the Kentucky Derby. Of course just about 2 months ago that horse was looking more like legendary horse Secretariat.(http://www.ipscell.com/2014/03/clues-as-to-the-real-stap-cell-scoop-a-trio-of-biosci-traps/)

How then can you still claim that social media is not steering controversy. To me it seems like it has become less a genuine “analysis” and dicsussion, and more akin to gossiping and character assassination. Blogs have to get hits somehow right ?

Finally, I don’t understand yours “I would not appreciate your over reactionary commentary being publicly associated with any of my work.” I have no idea who are you and how this post could be associated with your work.

The point was not that you have any idea who I am or my work, rather that if I were to publish a an openly accessed peer reviewed paper and underneath was a comments section akin to this, I would not feel comfortable publishing that as the comments would be associated with my work. It is well known that any open access comment section on the internet becomes a colossal cesspool of idiot thought and spam. Look at the Nature website comments now, I am sure you will find all manner of adverts and pseudoscientific lunatic opinions. Your own social media post has been commented on by Dr T. Roll twice now. T. roll… Troll. And this is somehow supposed to make science better ? Avoiding the hypocritical approach of not publishing my last comment, designed to just be generally annoying, you have highlighted what a mess open access review would be. Will you publish this one too ? If not then why ? Because is it not constructive ? Who decides what is constructive ? You, the original author ? Should scientists be allowed to moderate their own peer review ? the Journal ?

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Alexey Bersenev March 30, 2014 at 12:39 pm

You are probably right about this particular quote from Knopfler, but it still debatable to me who and how steering controversy more. Aren’t academics, who involved in STAP making silly comments for media or staying silent? It also steer a controversy to me. You should know what to read and how to interpret social media, covering the subject. You have to look at credibility/ authority/ expertise/ bias of every source to get a real picture. You keep giving Knoepfler examples, as he is the only one example of “stem cell social media”. But what is his authority in STAP? That’s why I’m emphasizing the role of @JuuichiJigen investigations and PubPeer discussion (and now live updates from Ken Lee) in STAP story. You should start from studying these sources and then criticize/ support social media efforts in STAP story. Knoepfler is playing a minor role in it. He is just an individual from the field with opinions, who cares about the field. I like some of his opinions and I don’t like others. He is getting and (allowing it) a lot of criticism from his peers – this is normal for science. The difference is mass media picking up on him for public attention. Media made a symbol from him, but this is a problem – I want to see hundreds professors discussing discoveries online! The real judges here is “stem cell community” (professionals), not mass media and not public. And btw, I don’t know why he may play around with wording (maybe for traffic, maybe not), but I’m pretty sure my statement on “too early to judge reproducibility” is correct. You can look at Knoepfler’s interview with Wakayama, where he agrees that we should give probably a year or so to make a judgement call -
http://www.ipscell.com/2014/02/interview-with-dr-teru-wakayama-on-stap-stem-cells/

Yes, at this point “professional social media” still messy. But this is point of its infancy! One thing you have to realize and you probably missing it – exactly the same mess we can see in traditional academic science communications – publications and conferences. Different groups with biases are fighting for authority and for money, steering controversies, hate each other, using inappropriate language (see example here – http://stemcellassays.com/2013/09/vsel-controversy-ratajczaks-response-criticism/). The difference is (1) it is 10 times slower than online discussions (I call it “discussions in suspended animation”) and (2) it’s less visible for public, because mass media is not picking it up.

What I’m advocating on this blog for years is to bring “high quality” social media in stem cell research to benefit a field. There are a lot of tools to make it possible, but critics (I guess you are one of them) don’t want to try. You can run many experiments to pick the best tools available and test them, you can set different levels of publicity and test them, you can test levels on anonymity and membership and test them, you can test different ways to moderate discussions and make it 100% valuable. “Old school” academics are reluctant to do it. NPG and other publishers have experimented a lot and gained valuable experience for future development. We totally can make it 100% clean and valuable for everyone – for professional community and for public.

Yes, I guess there are some examples of social media in stem cells with messy discussions, trolls and “adverts and pseudoscientific lunatic opinions”, but as I said we are in testing mode and there are a lot of ways to clean it up completely. Now, if you have examples of these messy discussions in stem cells, please bring them up for discussion and I can give you examples of good productive valuable discussions, including those underneath of articles.

All of your last few questions are good and all of them should be answered and tackled. I’ve been asking the same questions here for last few years and trying to find the answers. The answer is in collective wisdom and experience, not just in my experiments with it. After we clean up the system, create tools and make it constructive, every author of every paper would like to be associate with such post-publication peer review discussion. I’m sure this is the way to go. Social media, as well as open access is inevitable in science, so why don’t get it work and improve it now?

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