by Arthur Ruiz
One of the most important aspects of being a successful scientist is the ability to effectively communicate one’s work to peers and the lay public. Research papers typically take a structured narrative form, similar to the “keyhole” model most of us learned in high school writing classes: start with a broad description of the state of a field and its outstanding issues, narrow it down to one’s own research topic, describe the experiments and results, and then broaden back out to how one’s results add to the field and advance the boundaries of future research. Within this framework, scientists carefully craft a structured flow of experiments, where one finding leads to a logical next step, and eventually a story of discovery and insight unfolds. Fitting certain findings into a narrative can have important consequences on the overall impact of the report and its reception by the field, and researchers can spend months or years building up a critical mass of data that eventually gets molded into a satisfying scientific story.
However, recent work coming out of the University of Wisconsin-Madison is challenging this way of doing things. The Zika experimental science team (ZEST), led by David O’Connor, is studying the progression of Zika infection in macaque monkeys. The goal is to examine the proposed link between Zika infection and microencephalitic birth defects, but as an emerging disease, relatively little is known about Zika’s life cycle, pathogenesis and interaction with the host immune system. Establishing a similar viral infectivity pattern between humans and macaques could allow further work in determining how the virus is able to infect a fetus and interfere with normal brain development. But rather than waiting to complete the course of the experiments, compiling the data and looking for significant results, then finally rolling everything into a paper, the group can publish their raw data as daily updates to a publically accessible website. Anyone with a web browser can follow updates of viral load levels in the saliva, urine and blood of these monkeys. And, importantly, scientists planning their own work involving Zika virus can access critical information about the progression of infection which could help them to design more effective experiments.
Dr. O’Connor says that he was inspired by researchers studying the recent Ebola outbreak, who published genomic sequencing data online, in an effort to share as much information about the ongoing outbreak as soon as possible. This genomic data was able to confirm human-to-human transmission as an important source of Ebola’s spread, and also to identify the emergence and propagation of different mutations that could better inform the design of diagnostics and antibody therapies.
The attraction of such real time sharing is obvious. In an emerging health crisis like Ebola or Zika, sharing as much information as rapidly as possible is ethically imperative, in terms of blunting the spread and devastation of an epidemic. Avoiding “re-inventing the wheel” with a redundant repetition of similar experiments between research groups allows a more effective disposition of limited scientific resources. Real time data sharing could encourage new collaborative links between researchers, where a scientist might be able to discover an ongoing project to which he or she might have some critical expertise or insight to contribute.
However, the drawbacks of such a system are not trivial. Peer-review, where methods and results are examined by disinterested experts, is necessary to minimize the chance of either genuine mistakes or malicious fraud getting passed off as valid science. A restructuring of independent “real time” peer-review would be necessary to ensure the integrity of results shared in this manner. More broadly speaking, the publication record of a research scientist is their bread-and-butter. Anyone applying for grant funding or an academic position needs a robust bibliography of publication, establishing their expertise and impact in a field. While the ZEST group will certainly publish their work in a traditional journal, putting their experimental plans and their findings in the public arena at such an early stage exposes their work to scrutiny by competitors. The dread of having one’s story “scooped” by another lab hangs over the work of every researcher, and exposing one’s findings before getting it wrapped up in a neat package increases the potential of this occurrence. It is true that scientists already share unpublished results with colleagues at seminars and conferences, but even those results have been analyzed and digested to a degree. This kind of sharing is meant to inform and stimulate one’s peers, with the understanding that the results themselves must not be appropriated for a directly competitive study. A scientific environment where raw data itself is freely shared must similarly develop ethical norms of “fair play.” Or perhaps the raw data itself can be cited in a similar manner as a final published paper, so the group working on and generating the results can be fairly credited.
Ultimately, the goal of science is to further our understanding of the world and our ability to affect changes beneficial to humanity. While individual scientists can have personal and professional incentives to safeguard information while building a story, the forward momentum of a given field would be greatly enhanced by the ability to see where one’s work fits in with the ongoing work of one’s colleagues. Rather than a population of atomic individuals working in competition, an integrated network of freely shared information, that does not have to wait months or years to see the light of day, could drastically increase the progress towards universal goals. Is this an overly idealistic way of conceiving science? Maybe. But with the incredible technological capabilities we have of sharing large amounts of information in real time, it would be a shame if we stubbornly clung to doing things “the way they have always been done” for its own sake.
Arthur is working on his Ph.D. at Einstein, studying the interplay of viral and host factors that result in HIV neurocognitive disorders. He grew up in San Diego, California, and earned a B.S. in Biology at UC San Diego. He worked in biotech for a few years in the field of vaccine development, then earned his M.S. in Biology at NYU before coming to Einstein. Besides science, Arthur has interests in history, politics, public policy and social justice.