More on Arsenic Bugs - Nature responds to the blogosphere

If you've had your head in the sand for the last 2 weeks, you might have missed the story about arsenic in bacteria and the resulting controversy. If you did go read Ed Yong first.

In an editorial published today in Nature, the editors make a similar point to the one I made yesterday, namely that it's hypocritical for the authors of this paper to parade their research in front of the media to great fanfare, and then refuse to respond to legitimate criticism in the media.

In response to the arsenic bacterium claims, bloggers and researchers raised serious and thoughtful reservations about the paper's methodology and findings. But the authors say that they will not engage with these critics, or with science journalists drawn to the controversy, because such discussion should be moderated in the peer-reviewed literature. Meanwhile, they are urging other scientists to work to replicate their results -- a process that will take many months. "We are not going to engage in this sort of discussion," Felisa Wolfe-Simon, the paper's lead author and a NASA astrobiology research fellow at the US Geological Survey in Menlo Park, California, told one Nature reporter, "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."

Purists who hold peer review as the casting vote in such debates will read her words with approval. But the problem is that Wolfe-Simon's reticence is the polar opposite of the fanfare with which NASA trailed her discovery to the public.

It's great to see one of the major scientific journals give a ringing endorsement of the work that science bloggers do - now if only they'd do something about that pesky pay-wall problem. (though to be fair, at least this editorial is freely available, and my comment hasn't been deleted yet).

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I'm probably your ideal audience -- interested in science, intelligent, but definitely a layman. I got caught up in the NASA press release, and the ensuing speculation in the media. (I still think that NASA was unfairly blamed for the hype -- they wrote an intentionally vague press release, but the rest of the hype was MSM and blogosphere.)

When I read the first nuanced takes on the published paper, it was pretty much what I expected -- some type of unusual terrestrial biochemistry. It wasn't until I read Alex Bradley's guest post here at We Beasties that I realized something deeper and more integral was going on. So, kudos for that. A lot of people pointed to Rosie Redfield's work, but the average interested layman is more likely to pick on the combined feed at Sb.

So, on the one hand, it's nice to see the self-correcting nature of science -- something that hasn't changed since the founding of the Royal Society, at the very least. But the technology available today changes the whole time schedule, and it's sad to see prominent researchers and journals unwilling to acknowledge the new realities.

You guys are my favorite post-Pepsi addition to ScienceBlogs, and I think you've really established yourselves with your outstanding work on arsenate-based DNA.

I'm increasingly liking my own earlier suggestion, that this would have been a great paper to publish in PLoS ONE, and discussed there using the interactive facilities.

I don't blame the authors for avoiding the blogosphere. What happens in the blogosphere is a mixed bag, and the process is still immature. I don't suggest that it is not valuable, but at present there are people engaged in the science blogosphere and, though this may shock many bloggers, many many people who simply are not. For all its value, the blogosphere is not a place I would recommend for a non-blog experienced scientist or team who just produced a paper that everyone in the blogosphere is calling for blood over, in their special over the top eleven!111!!ty way, assuming that they were not already in the game. Adding to the screeching monkeys that they must come here to be called out or they iz doing it rong is really just more of the same monkey screeching.

Having said that, it is not true at all that a discussion of scientific results is normally confined exclusively to the peer reviewed processes.

This is a period of transition. The transition will go more smoothly and productively if we recognize and accept the fact that there are people just arriving at the river Jordon who have not crossed yet. Or the river Styx, as the case may be.

@ HP - Thanks, it means a lot to us that people are enjoying what we write and are learning things that keep them engaged. Keep letting us know how we're doing - it's lovely to get such flattering responses, but we welcome criticism too.

@ Greg - I think the PLoS idea would have been awesome, but I can't think of a single scientist that would publish in PloS One when they could publish in Science. The better argument might be that the other journals need to act more like PLoS. I love the idea of more public interaction but do you have a sense of how many people actually use it?

You're right of course, the blogosphere can be a bit treacherous for the uninitiated, and I agree that it would have been untenable to respond to every criticism. But I still think they could have written (and can still!) a response to some of the criticisms and put it out there for the blogosphere - you're right that a lot (I would venture to say most) people aren't clued in to this form of media, but even something as simple as "we have data awaiting publication that addresses some of these concerns" I think would quell a lot of the heat.

And on NASA: my impression is that a lot of the people in the organization are ringing their hands over this, but officially they're being pretty tight-lipped. It would be nice to see them engage in a public way as well. Most of us know they're well-intentioned, but insisting that everything was as it should be isn't the way to stop the blame.

Your Ed Yong link seems to be badly broken. Feel free to delete this post when fixed.