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The power of ideas on a day of violence

This morning when I got to work I was reviewing my twitter feed when I came across a tweet linking to a rebuke to an open letter by Larry Swanson, the president of the Society for Neuroscience. You can find a link to the letter and the response here (http://blog.justinkiggins.com/2013/04/15/an-open-letter-to-larry-swanson-why-it-is-important-for-neuroscientists-to-debate-the-brain-initiative-in-public/).

I have been critical of the BRAIN initiative, but I’m not dead set against it. I want to be part of the community that shapes how we move science forward, but I don’t need everything to go my way. That is, if my concerns are heard, but ultimately the community decides that its scarce resources should be spent on the BRAIN initiative, I’ll be disappointed, but not angry. The key is having a voice. And social media has been incredibly powerful in enabling that voice. I started using Twitter just a few months ago, but have already had fantastic discussions with people I’d likely never have an opportunity to meet. While I doubt our critiques of the then BAM, now BRAINI, were at all involved with the changes to it, I still felt involved.

Like Justin, I have specific concerns about how the project is being sold to the public. At a time when trust in scientists is at an all time low, we just cannot afford to oversell the feasibility of our research leading to cures for specific diseases. We need to be seen discussing science. Let the public see how it works, how decisions are made on where to apply resources, the dissent, the agreement.  In sum, let them see how the sausage gets made. It may reveal us to be petty and unforgiving at times, egotistical and pedantic at others, but in reality, it demonstrates that we are human. That we are just like every other person who has to make decisions, difficult decisions where the outcome is uncertain.

As the morning went on I kept thinking about this event. But my reading of the letter from Larry Swanson was a little bit different than Justin’s. I’ve worried that the BRAIN is the emperor’s new clothes. Now I think the SfN president thinks so too. I don’t think that a decorated scientist would worry about a well conceived project being held up to the light of day. But, if the public thinks that they are being sold a bill of goods, then the repercussions could be very bad indeed. And to head that off, he tried to control the debate. Instead, we are left with another distraction, and an deeper chasm between groups who feel enfranchised and included and those who feel like their on the outside looking in.

Of course the morning turned to afternoon and my Twitter feed quickly became comprised of news (plus rumor & lies) about the events in Boston, and of the tweets of people who had yet to hear. Of course it’s far to early to speculate on what motivated a person or persons to do what they did. But, whether it was personal, political, religious or psychotic, it was done to make some sort of point. The point could be, they hate the USA, or they hate taxes or fags or just that they can hurt us. It doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t matter to me, nor will knowing likely bring any comfort to those killed, maimed or terrified by the event.

What does matter is that whatever their purpose, it is now beyond compassion. They have created a tidal wave against whatever idea drove them to commit such a heinous, cowardly and despicable act. Perhaps they too felt marginalized, on the outside looking in, never to get a chance to be part of the debate. Now they will be forever. Whatever the motivation for trying to commit mass murder, I know this – people will run the Boston Marathon again, people will laugh and share joy with their friends as they do so again, they will celebrate the goodness that they witnessed during the day.

And isn’t that the real tragedy of the world we live in? We are alive at a time when it’s possible to engage strangers from thousands of miles away. We can keep in touch with people orbiting the planet in the International Space Station (follow @Cmdr_Hadfield if you aren’t already). And yet, people in power, whether it be something as banal as Larry Swanson trying to keep debate about BRAIN out of the public eye or something as serious as Barack Obama trying to move the squash questions about drones, they are completely missing the point. Engage us. Hear what we have to say. If at the end, your decision is unchanged, at least we will know we are part of the process. The technology is there, please use it.

Open Access, Self-Publishing and Scientific Impact

Is publishing broken? Do we have a better model? If the answer to both of those questions is yes, why the hell are people still publishing the traditional way?

As a member of the academic establishment, it’s clear that I’m writing this from inside the asylum. Having said that it is also clear, to many of us, that the current model of distributing  our work is in dire need of repair. Many journals, via editors I’ve spoken to, are aware of the problem. Scientists are well aware of the problem, and yet it continues. We know as a community the current model of publishing discrete units of data is based on a century-old necessity.  And, do you  know what?  It didn’t work all that well back then.

Consider the case of Santiago Ramon y Cajal, the father of modern cellular neuroscience. Cajal used Golgi’s method to investigate the developing nervous system, and contrary to the firmly held belief by the scientific establishment, had evidence against the Reticular Theory of the nervous system. Rather he proposed that neurons communicated across gaps, which later came to be known as synapses (a term coined by Charles Sherrington). As a Spanish scientist, Cajal was far away from the centers of the scientific earth, largely Italy and Germany at the time. He had trouble getting his manuscripts even examined because they were written in Spanish. Therefore he traveled to a scientific meeting with his data and drawings and, through force of will, found some people to take time to examine them. Finally, his work started to gain traction and eventually others took note, and now we have a much better understanding of the nervous system. Famously, Golgi himself refused to believe the evidence, and insisted on his model. Today we know that both Cajal and Golgi were correct, neurons communicate both by synaptic transmission and gap junctions.

Do we need to be concerned by the lengths Cajal had to go to to get scientists to examine his work? How many other scientists had brilliant insights, but lacked the ego to push their way into the establishment and demand attention? Were there cures for diseases ignored? Did novel ideas about biology, chemistry or physics get lost because of the hierarchical nature of science? I think we can safely assume yes, and I’d be grateful for anyone with examples of ignored genius to post in the comments.

Still, you might be thinking, well it’s much better today, right? Sadly, no. Science is still largely  hierarchical, top-flight journals demand submissions in English, articles are required to have a specific structure, and,  usually, need to be contained within a “story.” That is, it in no way actually reflects the scientific reality. And, what if you’re later data suggests an error in your original submission, well then, you’ve got quite the moral dilemma. Publish a retraction? Publish a new piece of information saying you were wrong? Why should people believe you this time, if you’re capable of making mistakes?

Scientific Impact

sneetchlogoBeyond those questions, the real problem is the use of articles as professional currency. The dreaded scientific impact. Journals have used a convoluted, and archaic, metric, called impact factor, to tout their bona fides. Journals with high impact factors are considered to publish “good science,” while those without publish the rest of us. This is of course the Star-bellied Sneetch approach to judging the value of science. Simply the imprimatur of the journal marks the science as good/not good. How can we determine the value of science immediately? Such judgments take time and space. Look at the example of Cajal and Golgi. Cajal’s work was groundbreaking, and disputed Golgi’s hegemony on the structure of the nervous system. But ultimately both of them were correct. It took decades of time, scores of researchers and communication within the community to not only confirm the information, but to expand the findings into a useful, and functional framework. Today we understand a lot about the nervous system, how it functions, disorders of it, etc. All because people took the data produced by Cajal and Golgi and ran with them. That’s true scientific impact. Of course I don’t think that the only science of value is Nobel Prize winning. Nor though do I think that just because a paper is in Cell that it is necessarily bad. The problem is that when it comes time to parse out what limited rewards we can get in science (academic jobs, grants, invitations to speak), publications in high-impact journals are all too often used as a proxy for whether the science is good. For those outside the same hierarchical system that Cajal had to rage against (which is still in effect, make no mistake), it’s incredibly frustrating and demeaning. And because of it, we lose good scientists (and bad) to other professions. Once again, we risk the loss of the next Cajal because the system works for a few, incredibly fortunate individuals.

Open Access vs. Self Publishing (Not a choice in my mind, rather a progression)

Do we have solutions? Of course we do. It’s the internet age for God’s sake. If we can find a way to post videos of cats (and get millions of views) and argue with complete strangers about the meaning of trivial matters (and get thousands of trolls) we can definitely find a better way to communicate scientific results. Not only that, we can do so in real time. Start a website (they’re cheap), put data online, show your friends. Ask them to comment. Fix any issues and then submit it to an open access journal. I’ve been reviewing for PLoSOne a lot the last two years. Their model of ignoring whether the science “has impact” is exactly where we need science to go. Put it out there and let the community decide. If it’s worthwhile, people will find it, and use it and expand on it. There are many journals out there  now with Open Access credentials. Although the publication costs are still quite high in my mind, I don’t have any qualms about paying it to make the data freely available. While we still have a ways to go in terms of assigning value to our science, I’m excited to be a part of this new frontier. I’ll be regularly posting information about ongoing projects in my lab on my blog/website. I’d sincerely like any feedback you care to give on the data I present. And I’m happy to return the favor if asked.