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20

Lab Times

4-2016

Essay

Once upon a time, scientists needed a well-woven story if they

wanted to publish in high-ranking journals. Could there be a

happy ending to this tragic tale? Lawrence Rajendran tells us

why we should start to cherish single observations again.

Academic publishing

Photo: pixabay/Hermann

End of Story!

Lawrence Rajendran

studies neurodegenerative

diseases at the University of Zürich. In particular, he's

interested in the cell biology of Alzheimer’s disease. Be-

sides his research, he is the founder of raise.rural, a non-

profit organisation dedicated to support rural students

in India to pursue research, and ScienceMatters (

www.

sciencematters.io

), a new publishing platform, on which

scientists can publish single observations.

S

cience works best when everyone has

free access to data, publications and

deliberations arising from scientific

studies. Advances in information technol-

ogy have made the implementation of the

Open Science principles possible but their

adoption has lagged, due to structural and

social limitations in the scientific enter-

prise. One notable limitation is the current

science publishing system, which arose at

a time when ‘closed science’ policies of pri-

vate data, confidentiality and restricted ac-

cess were the norm. Today, billion-dollar

publishing companies actively perpetuate

these ‘closed science’ policies, which is a

central part of their business models. Cur-

rent publishers also impede Open Science

through their ever-increasing demand for

long, sexy stories, which incentivise some

of the biggest problems in science today.

Told for entertainment

Stories have been at the heart of fiction-

al and biographical literature. However, sto-

ries have also crept into science more of-

ten than we would have liked. “Story”, as

defined by the Oxford English Dictionary,

is “an account of imaginary or real people

and events told for entertainment”, which

is in stark contrast to the “fact” or “data”,

which should lie at the heart of scientific

narratives. A cursory look at some of the

“advice” given by journal editors to scien-

tists aiming to publish in high-ranking jour-

nals, suggests a disturbing coincidence of

the terms “story” and “success”. My con-

tention is that this is a problem – you can

argue whether this is the core causal cog in

the wheel of the current, perpetuated prob-

lems of scientific irreproducibility and infi-

delity of data or is a necessary evil, but it is

in the inner zone of the core problem area

and associated with frustrations related to

science publishing.

How many stories are we told, in the

name of science? Take the acid-induced

stem cell differentiation – this didn’t last

long enough to survive its own acid test. Or

the famous example of the gay conversion

study. There are not only these “stories”

but numerous others where, we, the scien-

tists, have cured multiple cancers, Alzhei-

mer’s and other diseases in impressive num-

bers. Sadly, some remain what they are, fic-

tional numbers without any solid, repro-

ducible scientific data to back them. These

studies are no different than the claims of

a religious leader to have cured diseases by

prayer alone.

Sharp edges removed

What contributes to this irreproducibil-

ity problem? I think only a small percent is

due to scientific misconduct and fraudu-

lence. However, the desire to tell a smooth,

round-edged story is not only inherent to

wanting to earn credibility in the scientif-

ic community but also highly demanded by

the current publishing ecosphere that we

created and live in. Unless you tell a story

that answers all the scepticism/concerns of

the reviewers and remove all the unfitting,

edgy pieces, presenting a coherent, pruned

and linear main plot full of good news and

positive data, you can’t publish high these

days. This desire to tell a full story as well

as the demands and attempts to perpetuate

this, contribute to mainly two things: unfit-

ting, negative or non-story worthy observa-

tions are not published and only data that

fit the narrative or non-robust pieces of data

to convince the reviewers and quality con-

trollers are presented.

While story-telling for entertainment

purposes can include all the elements of

fiction and figments of imagination (and

story-tellers have the rightful and enviable

license to do so), science shouldn’t rely on

the ability to weave or tell stories. Narration

only plays a minor part in science. So why

are we forced to narrate a coherent story al-

ready when we submit papers? While I am

not entirely against story-telling (I am suck-

er for Game of Thrones, Alan Ball’s screen-

plays and many other fictional works), my

concern is this need to tell stories from the

beginning and that these stories have to be

coherent, cogent and well-rounded.

The narrative of the future

We can do better than this. We can do

something different. Instead of demand-

ing a long, winding story from a simple

observation, where it often starts, we can

now enable researchers to create a narra-

tive online, with observations as some sort

of nodes that constitute a network. Start-

ing from single observations, scientists can

publish these, one after the other in a linked

manner, each one of them peer-reviewed,

independent of the story-line, to eventual-

ly become the narrative in the future. We

live in a digital world that makes it possible.

From that idea, ScienceMatters was born.

Not so much as an enterprise against sto-

ry-telling in science but to enable scientif-

ic narration in its entirety. With Science-

Matters, there is now a space, dedicated to

publishing single, well-validated observa-

tions. The platform eliminates the need to

spin big stories from simple observations

as there is no pressure to create stories, no

reason to delay publication, no reason to

omit ‘inconvenient truths’, thus providing

10

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