Time for change: open communications in biomedical science

by on April 6, 2008 · 4 comments

in open science

Scientific communications in biomedical fields occur everyday in different forms – chit-chatting (“oh this is bullshit blah blah”), journal club, data club, lab meeting, floor meeting, seminar, lecture, conference, symposium and publication. Despite this diversity, it has come to my attention (as well as others: [ 1], [ 2]) that not many people, from even everyday colleague of mine to those who are influential and respected in different fields, do not seem to communicate freely online in this era of internet and explosion of resources. Hence, knowledge from biomedical research tends to be isolated within the scientific community. This isolation is not because scientists want to keep their knowledge secret. Rather, this is because of esoteric nature of science; and scientists tend not to make an effort to make their knowledge understandable to broad audiences. For example, it was appalling to see how many people do not seem to actually understand about potentials of stem cells, even though the media talks about this matter all the time.


To some scientists, pursuit of knowledge and discoveries just to understand ‘how things work’ are their life-time goals. This indeed is not a harmful intention and stems from human curiosity. However as a scientist in biomedical fields, it would be important to understand his/her role and position in the society given the impact of biomedical research to alleviate and cure human sufferings. Being able to perform procedures to understand how things work that may lead to reversal of human disease is our privilege, but it appears that most scientists do not seem to understand this position. They are focused on getting a grant so that their lab can survive. They are focused on doing science for the grant. They are focused on getting another grant once they get a grant. Once they get ‘enough’ grant, they do not know how to use money for what cause, hence research tends to be ‘basic’ – focusing on understanding how things work. The cycle of these processes seems to go on and on and on… A Nobel laureate Richard Feynman once said, “If physics is like sex, mathematics is like masturbation”. It is up to you to judge a current status quo of biomedical field, whether biomedical field is really producing something for the society (“sex”), or just increasing new knowledge (“masturbation”).

People who are in any privileged position have a responsibility to contribute their expertise to drive the society forward. It is no exception for scientists in biomedical fields to at least think and make an effort about what really matters to our community, society, environment and universe. The first step towards fulfilling this responsibility is 1. to promote open communications with each other and more importantly, 2. to actually do something that arises from these communications.

Open communications in science are not rare among scientists themselves but rare outside. One of the reasons that scientists in biomedical fields rarely communicate online is that they do not consider the internet as their niche of communication – the internet is really not ‘one of their places’ to discuss science. In order to change this, there should be an effort from both sides; scientific community and technology. Scientists should be more open to their roles in the society and be willing to learn new technologies that will benefit not only themselves, but also the society in general. Imagine the day when a lay audience is able to understand what we are doing and comment about an scientific expert’s article. Then the expert gives a feedback that will matter to this person as well as to the expert him/herself. This picture will not be painted if scientists among themselves do not even communicate each other about their findings in an open manner regardless what scientific group (or ‘clique’) they belong to. The best currently available technology to achieve open communication is indeed the internet.

In addition, current commentary/feedback system does not seem to be efficient at exchanging opinions. Structurally, whatever commentary one puts about an article is presented underneath the article with a smaller font. Whoever comments first is likely to be read. It is a human nature that one wants his/her opinion to be taken seriously. A possible lack of attention towards people’s opinions due to this structural drawback may be an important reason why some people just do not bother to comment about an article. For scientists, publication signifies an authoritative piece of work that requires a lot of effort to produce. Unfortunately, under the current technology/system, comments are not considered as serious as original articles. This is why some commenting systems are formalized as “letters to the editor”, etc, which also has its own drawback in that the impact of such letters is not usually high and usually, equally able competitor scientists write this kind of letters. Therefore, in order to make online science communication more open and active, there should be a reward system where a comment that has a high impact on its article should be taken seriously and some sort of modification or addendum of the article must be followed, acknowledging the commentator, whether the commentator is really a scientist or educated lay audience.

Ironically, one problem with open science communication is that some people seem to comment just for the sake of commenting that can degenerate into personal attack (coming back to ‘masturbation’) as can be seen in [ 3]. Promoting open scientific communication is a good stepping stone for any scientific investigation to become relevant to the society in general. However, if nothing productive comes out of such communication, and if we do not consciously make an effort to do this, it may not become clear to scientists as well as general audiences why open science is necessary at the first place, but just simple chit-chatting. A technology which allows immediate transfer of a commentary to an actual modification/application will aid in this process of making comments ‘actually matter’.

People have suggested various reasons why scientists do not comment, including lazyness, lack of time, etc… People are driven by what matters to them first. If something matters to them, they would not mind spending or making a lot of time to pursue it. To me, open scientific communications in biomedical fields will happen if we consciously make an effort to make such activity matter to scientists and general audiences as suggested above. This is a community effort. I anticipate that some of my visions I have presented here will take place soon… sooner if we all take seriously about this issue and collaborate to take an action.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Alex April 9, 2008 at 9:24 pm

to Jae-Won –
good opinion, I’d agree science for science is a problem of modern academy.
I think, developers ahead of the scientists so far, offering many good applications and possibilities for open science. Scientific community so slow unfortunately.
Let them start to comment first then try to change commenting system, ironically

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Jae-Won April 10, 2008 at 7:07 pm

To Alex,
My question is why scientists will bother to comment if nearly all of them value high-profile journal publication a lot? i.e. If people who published in Nature and Science, etc.. get a huge publicity, why should they even be bothered to comment if they are popular already? How can we make them participate in the online community?

Should science be a prestige for those who manage to publish in a high profile journal? Or should science be more public? If you were in that position, wouldn’t you want to publish in Nature, etc.. rather than any new platform for open science? I am just throwing out questions that need to be addressed if open science is to be promoted.

-Jae-Won

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Alex April 11, 2008 at 8:16 am

Science should be more public, no doubt. More visual and more easy to digest. It will make science more popular and prestigious.

Why should author of high impact papers bother?
Well, this is a thing – if comments will able to increase/decrease impact of this work, highlight advantages/disadvantages and ways for improvement…. and even change a content (!) and even meaning of paper it’s will be great!
That’s what future open science platforms are about.

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Andrei November 15, 2009 at 10:31 pm

Jae-Won, you touched a very delicate subject. One of the reasons scientist prefer not to comment on somebody’s else work is positive comments pretty much do nothing for those who praise work of others. The open negative comments are usually interesting but most often are taken very personally by those who get criticized and may reflect on ability to publish or get funded for those who “dare”. I think some journals (Nature) actually provide online discussion boards for recent papers. What I would personally prefer to see published is more original data, not interpretation of data. For instance, if authors publish FACS plots, the original .fcs files have to be deposited so others could see how much data manipulation was applied

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