In 1979, the French sociologist Bruno Latour attempted to carry out an ethnographic study of research scientists in their working environment. He spent entire days in their laboratory, observing them “at work”, and in their interactions with each other. Over forty years later and scientists are starting to change the way they communicate with each other and, by doing this, are helping to provide an unparalleled insight into the world of scientific research.
In the last few years scientists have begun to make use of social media outlets such as twitter and blogging to share comments and information on international research and discuss the data and results of their own research with others in the field. Social media has helped create a unique form of dialogue between scientists themselves and with those lying outside the territory of scientific expertise.
An interesting example of this kind of dialogue taking place is on the Computational Chemistry Group on the professional social network site LinkedIn.The group is used by computational chemists around the world, allowing them to share methodological problems and critical discussions in materials modelling. However, this web space is, nonetheless, restricted to the scientists themselves, making use of a technical jargon that is only comprehensible to the expert “insiders”.
Other websites such as OpenWetWare (http://openwetware.org/wiki/Main_Page), are more “open”, aiming to maintain an exchange of scientific information among biologists and bio-engineers that is at the same time informal and easily accessible to a wider, interested audience.
An interesting case that pushes the borders of this form of communication a bit further is the website set up by Professor Rosie Redfield, a microbiologist from the University of British Columbia, in which she presents plans, procedures and the results of her experiments in such a way to give other scientists the opportunity to access the data and, drawing on their own expertise, give suggestions, comments and criticism.
The website (http://rrresearch.fieldofscience.com) was initially launched with the aim of verifying the results of a controversial study lead by scientists at NASA in December 2010. The results from this study suggested the possible existence of a bacterium (GFAJ-1) with DNA that contains arsenic elements in place of phosphorous. The study, published on Science (http://www.sciencemag.org/content/early/2010/12/01/science.1197258) received big attention from media outlets such as The Guardian (http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2010/dec/02/nasa-bacteria-arsenic-phosphorus)) and New Scientist (http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn19805-arsenicbased-bacteria-point-to-new-life-forms.html).
However, many scientists raised concerns about the reliability of the results: Prof. Forest Rohwer from San Diego’s University said that ‘none of the arguments are very convincing on their own’ and Dr. Alex Bradley, a microbiologist from Harvard University, spoke out with confusion about the coherence in interpreting the results from the experiment.
Professor Redfield was one of the first scientists to call the study into question and other scientists shortly supported her criticisms on the blog “We Beasties”.
Interestingly, scientists decided to use the web as a tool to vehicle their criticism instead of by way of the more usual, internal peer-review process. In doing so, they acknowledged the web as a more efficient tool for directing their criticism towards a potential paradigm shift in chemistry. According to Dr. Steven Bennet, a biologist from the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution, the study ‘would, if true, set aside nearly a century of chemical data concerning arsenate and phosphate molecules’.
Conversely, the authors of the study and those who supported the conclusions chose not to reply to the criticisms voiced on the blogs and instead raised the issue of the internalisation of science.
The study author, Dr. Felisa Wolfe-Simon, said: ‘Any discourse will have to be peer-reviewed in the same manner as our paper was and go through a vetting process so that all discussion is properly moderated’.
Eventually Prof. Redfield wrote a formal comment on Science (http://www.sciencemag.org/content/332/6034/1149.8.full), in which she made the editor aware of the weak points of the study. At the same time, she worked on reproducing the experiment herself,with the same sample of bacteria used in the original study. During this time, she used the web as a space to report all the steps of the technical procedure and upload her results. On 11th of August 2011 she posted results that clearly contradicted the paper initially published on Science.
Professor Redfield might have paved a slightly uncomfortable way within the scientific enterprise, a path that to some degree disclosed the underlying subculture of work in the scientific field. Although scientists are far from rejecting the peer-review process per se, they seem to be becoming more aware of its flaws and willing to explore new routes for sharing information and data. And these have been opened up significantly by new forms of science communication, such as social media, which could lead to a style far from the formality and of the peer-reviewing process.
On one side, print media and peer review journals are aware of these new territories of communications as highlighted by Brian Owens, assistant news editor of Nature, in the article “On The Record” for Materials Today:
‘These sorts of online interactions are only going to become more common. A new generation of young researchers has grown up in a digital world, and is quite comfortable with putting their lives, and their work, online.’
(Materials Today, 2012, 15 (3), 78)
On the other side, I can imagine a quiet smile appearing on Bruno Latour’s face on thinking that scientists themselves paved the way to a unique unveiling of their social nature.
Antonio Torrisi is currently studying for an MSc in Science Communication and is one of the editors of Refractive Index.