Elsewhere in Science, 31 January 2014

Each week, Science publishes a few articles that are likely to be of interest to career-minded readers. But because those articles aren’t featured on Science Careers, our readers could easily overlook them.

To remedy that, every Friday we’re pointing readers toward articles appearing in Science—the print magazine as well as the other Science-family publications (ScienceInsider, ScienceNOW, Science Translational Medicine—Sci. TM—and Science Signaling)—that hold some relevance or nuggets of advice for readers interested in furthering their careers in science. (Please note that while articles appearing in ScienceInsider and ScienceNOW can be read by anyone, articles appearing in Sci. TM, Science Signaling, and Science may require AAAS membership/Science subscription or a site license.)

This has got to be a new record: A paper in the had more than 37,000 authors.

The formation of collaborative groups is, of course, very useful in any professional setting, especially research. The new study reduces the dynamics of the formation of such groups to bare essentials, finding that it depends on two familiar traits: Helping colleagues, and trusting friends of trusted colleagues.

There is an obvious corresponding downside: The forces that lead to the formation of groups of insiders inevitably leave people outside and lead to the creation of opposing groups. But—this is me talking, not a result of the study—researchers can choose to be inclusive.

• Changes may be afoot for biomedical scientists as a result of efforts at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to improve the reproducibility of preclinical research. On Monday in ScienceInsider, Jocelyn Kaiser reported on these efforts, which NIH Director Francis Collins and Principal Deputy Director Lawrence Tabak describe in a comment in Nature:  “[T]he checks and balances that once ensured scientific fidelity have been hobbled.” They blame the problem on poor training, an emphasis on provocative conclusions in papers, a dearth of experimental details, and an overemphasis on publications in high-impact journals.

NIH is starting several pilot projects, including a training module that aims to teach young researchers how to design better experiments and medical-style checklists that grant reviewers will use to check the design of proposed experiments. NIH may change its biographical sketch requirements to emphasize scientists’ particular contributions, instead of publications. The agency is also looking at funding more scientists via long-term grants and making peer review anonymous.

• This has got to be a new record: A paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences had more than 37,000 authors. Even more interesting—as John Bohannon wrote in this week’s News & Analysis section—is that only 10 of the authors are professional scientists. The rest are players in a video game—EteRNA, which grew out of an earlier game called Foldit—in which players make predictions about how RNA molecules will fold and then remotely test them in a real, automated laboratory. The huge author list, the innovative medium, and the high profile journal make this work a milestone in the emergence of citizen science. 

• The roles of scientist and advocate can sometimes seem—indeed, be—in conflict. But as demonstrated in Kai Kupferschmidt’s News Focus profile of David Nutt, a neuropsychopharmacologist at Imperial College London and an adviser to the British government on drug policy, combining the two roles can make sense when it’s done right. Nutt seems an ideal role model for aspiring scientist-advocates, standing up for rational, practical, science-driven approaches to policy in place of the much more common moralistic, ideology-driven approach.  When you’re standing up for those principles in a principled manner, there’s probably not much conflict with your scientific role.

Not everyone loves him, however, because he’s not moralistic enough. Nutt wants to create a synthetic alcohol substitute with all of the usual advantages but without the negative health effects. “We know people like alcohol, they like the relaxation, they like the sense of inebriation,” he says. “Why don’t we just allow them to do it with a drug that isn’t going to rot their liver or their heart?” In Nutt’s vision, this alcohol replacement comes with an antidote so you could sober up before you drive home. But some people dislike the idea of removing the negative consequences of what they consider sinful behavior.

• You can make major discoveries no matter your career stage, and you can never know when it’s going to happen. On 21 January, University College London’s Steve Fossey and four of his undergraduate students discovered a supernova during an evening telescope workshop. “One minute we’re eating pizza then five minutes later we’ve helped to discover a supernova,” one of the students said. The supernova, named SN2014J, is 12 million lightyears from Earth, which makes it the closest of its kind to be discovered in 4 decades. Other telescopes around the world soon confirmed that it was a type Ia supernova, one of the brightest events of the cosmos.

• Those who think the toll of scientific misconduct is limited to science should read a paper in the European Heart Journal (EHJ) that claims that tainted research from the labs of Don Poldermans, the “disgraced cardiologist who was at Erasmus MC in the Netherlands, may have led to the deaths of” as many as 800,000 people in Europe. Or maybe they should just read this week’s News & Analysis article by Gretchen Vogel, since the EHJ article was pulled from the site within 24 hours of publication.

Apparently, the article had not been peer reviewed, but it is now in the process of being reviewed and revised. The authors, Darrel Francis and Graham Cole of Imperial College London, hope it will be reposted soon. Poldermans declined to comment, saying that he would wait for the new version.

“Poldermans, a prominent researcher who published more than 300 papers, was fired in November 2011 after a university investigation concluded that he had engaged in misconduct, including data fabrication,” Vogel wrote. Two of his studies influenced 2009 treatment guidelines from the European Society of Cardiology, which recommended the use of β-blockers in “patients undergoing surgery that doesn’t directly involve the heart.”

Critics of the new work say that the 800,000 figure is wildly inflated, but the authors defend the figure, saying that it’s based on a meta-analysis of published data, which shows that people who take the drug have a 27% chance of dying.

• Finally, in this week’s editorial, Martyn Poliakoff, Foreign Secretary of the Royal Society of London, calls for global action to ensure the mobility of researchers as they travel to conferences and foreign laboratories:

The history of major scientific breakthroughs is littered with accounts of seminal Solvay Conferences, Faraday Discussions, Gordon Research Conferences, and so on, where key ideas were articulated for the first time. Young researchers need to travel to widen their horizons and build up their skills by experiencing the scientific cultures and approaches in different countries. Most countries, including the United Kingdom, recognize this and do welcome young scientists when they arrive. Nevertheless, the bureaucratic visa labyrinth still sends a subliminal if not explicit message of “Stay at home.”

*Top Image: EteRNA players win points by submitting experiments to a real lab and using the data.

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