Month: June 2012

Example of Blogging Impact on Conduct of Science

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It has been previously suggested that science blogging has facilitated the finding of collaborators for joint authorship (Batts, et al., 2008) or the gathering of benefits from users’ comments (Butler, 2005).

In various posts found in the blogosphere claims have been made about the influence of science blogging on the practice of science itself.

The story that’s usually mentioned is about a scientist blogger who becomes a co-author on paper as a result of his blog. The story is of the PhD student in genetics at the University of Georgia, Reed Cartwright. In 2005 he disagreed with, and consequently wrote an alternative interpretation of a published paper about the mutant hothead gene of Arabidopsis (Lolle, et al., 2005) in his blog De Rerum Natura. Luca Cornai, at the University of California, Davis was publishing a similar interpretation in the journal Plant Cell, several months later, when he found out about Cartwright’s blog and the already published similar interpretation. Cornai extended the offer of co-authorship on the Planet Cell paper to Cartwright (see Comai & Cartwright, 2005).

This story has been told in The Scientist (Secko, 2007), by Bonetta (2007), by Batts, et al., (2008) and most recently mentioned by Trench (2012).

I think there may be another story to add to this list.

I came across this story in the blog Retraction Watch 28 June 2012. The blog post is entitled, ‘Controversial paper on life-extending buckyballs corrected after blog readers note problems.’

In a nutshell, a group of researchers published a paper (Baati, et al., 2012) in Biomaterials, which claimed that Buckyballs coated in olive oil could extend the lives of rodents.

Adam Marcus of Retraction Watch explains that this news was then picked up by Derek Lowe’s In the Pipeline blog. Lowe expressed both puzzlement and praise towards the work in question.  However, as soon as the next day, a problem was identified. Lowe’s readers directed him to a blatant case of image duplication within the article. Sure enough, that was the case! Do refer to the post from Retraction Watch for more details.

The journal ended up printing a correction for the article.  (It addressed the histology of the article as well as another image.)

So blogging can indeed have an impact on the conduct of science.


Baati, T. Bourasset, F., Gharbi, N., Njimb, L., Abderrabba, M., Kerkeni, A., Szwarc, H., Moussa, F. (2012). ‘The prolongation of the lifespan of rats by repeated oral administration of [60] fullerene,’ Biomaterials (in press): 1-11. (Found here.)

Batts, S.A., Anthis, N.J., Smith, T.C. (2008). ‘Advancing science through conversations: Bridging the gap between blogs and the academy,’ PLoS Biology 6(9): e240. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0060240

Bonetta, L. (2007). ‘Scientists enter the blogosphere,’ Cell 129(3), 443–445. doi:10.1016/j.cell.2007.04.032

Butler, D. (2005). ‘Joint Efforts,’ Nature 438 (1 December): 548-549. doi:10.1038/438548a

Comai, L, Cartwright, R. (2005). ‘A Toxic Mutator and Selection Alternative to the Non-Mendelian RNA Cache Hypothesis for hothead Reversion,’ The Plant Cell 17: 2856-2858. doi:

Lolle, S.J., Victor, J.L., Young, J.M.,  Pruitt, R.E. (2005). ‘Genome-wide non-mendelian inheritance of extra-genomic information in Arabidopsis’ Nature 434 (24 March 2005), 505-509. doi:10.1038/nature03380

Secko, D. (2007). ‘Scooped by a blog,The Scientist 21(4): 21.

Trench, B. (2012) ‘Scientists’ blogs – glimpses behind the scenes,’ In: Rodder, Simone and Franzen, Martina andWeingart, Peter, (eds.) The Sciences’ Media Connection – public communication and its repercussions, Sociology of the Sciences Yearbook. Springer, Dordrecht, pp. 273-290. ISBN 978-94-007-2084-8

Future of ‘Fake Meat’ will depend on Scientists Communicating

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On 22 June 2012, The Guardian published a fascinating article about the race to develop fake meat, entitled “Fake meat: is science fiction on the verge of becoming fact?

The article tells a story of two scientists on opposite sides of the world who are leading the race to create the so-called ‘fake meat’.

There is Professor Patrick Brown is a tenured Stanford University molecular biologist. He has been working for the past two years on the creation of meat and dairy products. The San Francisco based researcher is leading the way on an approach that uses plant-based material in order to create a meat reproduction.

The alternative approach is to actually grow animal muscle tissue in a factory without the animals. It is being developed in Europe. Building on a body of past research, Dr. Mark Post from the University of Maastricht is spearheading this initiative.

Without retelling the entire article,  it will suffice to say that there is a  potential for the science to succeed in achieving it’s aims thereby leading to what would be potentially described as a ‘revolution’ of one sorts or another.

As recently as February 2012, the two researchers gave a joint presentation at the AAAS conference in Vancouver. As is often the case with competing scientists at the forefront of their research in the same area of research, there is a tension between the pair. Nevertheless, Dr. Post concedes that Prof. Brown may win the race, but leaves a suggestion that he will have trouble selling the idea.

He is a genius, but he has a personality issue. He is very defensive. He is much smarter than I am, but he is not going to get this across to the public. He needs a PR adviser.

The foregoing quote caught my eye.

The relationship between science and society is in large part mediated by communication. It is often argued that scientists do not possess the greatest communication skills. Variable anecdotal and academic evidence suggests this to be true in a lot of cases. In the above quote Dr. Post paints Prof. Brown to be lacking the personality to be able to get his message to the public and would require PR assistance.  Here one scientist (Dr. Post), whose communication skills we don’t know about, accuses another scientist (Prof. Brown) of lacking in them.

Communication of scientific research is especially important when research with societal implications of risk is in focus. It is therefore necessary to avoid the pitfalls (such as assuming that ‘the publics’ are ’empty vessels’ waiting to be filled with knowledge; conceptualising the communication process as a way to ‘sell’ science to the publics; attempting to persuade the publics to take one side or the other in scientific debate) in the communication process and openly communicate with the publics about the science, its potentially risks and uncertainties and societal implications without ‘dumbing it down’. Many people are willing to attempt to understand (and some do understand) complexity of  the science and are open to multiple interpretations of societal implications. Consequently, if the approach with ‘fake meat’  will be one of straight up PR and marketing (if it gets to this stage), the public will potentially feel that they are simply being marketed to (For an alternative take on ‘science marketing’ see post here.), which will cement the existing polarization between science and society and reinforce the ‘perceptual gridlock’ (Nisbet & Scheufele, 2009).

Therefore, the future of ‘fake meat’ will be in large part contingent on effective communication by the scientists, who have a plethora of examples in history of good and bad practices, to inform the development and implementation of their communication strategies.


Hanlon, M. (2012). ‘Fake meat: is science fiction on the verge of becoming fact,’ The Guardian (online edition), 22 June 2012.

Nisbet, M.C., Scheufele, D.A. (2009). ‘What’s next for Science Communication? Promising Directions and Lingering Distractions,’ American Journal of Botany 96(10): 1-12. doi:10.3732/ajb.0900041