Tweeting Science

April 24, 2014

By Alan Regenberg


Last fall, I was invited to write an editorial for Regenerative Medicine. I decided to write about science and social media. In “Stem cell science should be tweeted“, I argue that “tweeting and other forms of social media-based outreach and engagement can be effective tools to help fulfill individual and institutional obligations to make stem cell science broadly and well understood”.  It was published online this week.


In a bit of an ironic twist, while my editorial was in production (I can only imagine, being manually typeset by an older bearded gentleman with an apron), there was a major development in stem cell science where social media ended up playing an important and somewhat controversial role.


A team based at RIKEN in Kobe, published two papers in Nature at the end of January demonstrating a unique method for cellular reprogramming using mouse cells. The method, stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency (STAP), involves, as the name suggests, reprogramming mature cells into an embryonic stem cell-like state of pluripotency by exposing the mature cells to “sublethal stress” like pressure or an acid bath. This offered such a simple, potentially powerful tool that it immediately drew a great deal of attention.


Enter social media.


Pubpeer hosted an active discussion that helped uncover some errors in the two papers. This helped prompt RIKEN to form a committee to investigate. The committee found numerous errors including two which they felt constituted scientific misconduct. Lead author Haruko Obokata ultimately apologized for these errors at a well-attended press conference. She maintains, however, that “these mistakes do not affect the conclusions of my paper, and above all, the experiments have been solidly conducted and the data (proving STAP cells) exist.”


While sorting out these errors was important, more interesting, I think, was a crowdsource page set up by stem cell scientist and active blogger, Paul Knoepfler, on his terrific Knoepfler Lab Stem Cell Blog. Here Knoepfler posted findings of efforts to validate the STAP method almost in almost real time. By March 24th, predominantly ‘discouraging’ findings were submitted from eleven labs.


Not all stem cell scientists were thrilled with this social media-fuelled experimentation. Notably, George Daley aired concerns, in an interview with The Boston Globe,


“…about the rush to use blogging and social media to report early experience with a complex biological experiment. Most scientific experiments take time and many replications to work confidently, and early reporting may reflect a negative bias.”

 

While Daley’s concerns about reporting and bias are valid, I think that blogging and social media are the wrong targets. Not surprisingly, given my editorial, I believe that the best way to help improve broad understanding of science is through public engagement, and that “social media can provide a broadly accessible venue for thoughtful, civil engagement”.


In addition, I think that a reasonable argument can be made that the “rush to use blogging and social media” has, in this instance, sped up and enhanced efforts to validate a major claim.  Without the social media workspace, labs would have worked on validation more slowly, in relative isolation. Without social media, I would have expected that similar early findings might have been shared at the ISSCR meeting in June.


In response to failed efforts to reproduce the STAP technique, Obokata and colleagues published additional protocol in early March with essential technical tips, cautioning that “the method requires special care”, despite its “seeming simplicity”. I can’t see how this responsive exchange would have happened so quickly without social media.


I think there is an important distinction to be made between this sharing of early findings via social media as the start of validation efforts versus any sort of final statement on the matter. Here, social media is facilitating early, broad collaboration that should result in enhanced and more efficient validation. Already, this has helped the stem cell scientific community to air significant concerns, but ultimately, we are waiting on a final judgment about the STAP method, the jury is still out.


I am not suggesting that social media should replace other mechanisms for publishing and validating science. Rather, that social media can enhance existing mechanisms, like presenting papers at meetings and peer-reviewed publication, without replacing them (at least – not yet…).


Finally, the STAP story drew a lot of attention before the added controversy of errors and scientific misconduct. Daley is right to worry about traditional media reporting that oversimplifies and rushes to judgment. But, it seems to me that the best way to encourage nuanced media coverage is for scientists to remain engaged in the public debate, providing an accessible voice that is responsive to both the media and the public more broadly. Social media provides an effective tool to accomplish just that.


regenbergAlan Regenberg, MBe, is the Director of Outreach and Research Support at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics. He is currently developing and implementing strategies to use social media as a tool for broad public engagement around issues in bioethics. You can follow him: @aregenberg, and he curates the twitter feed: @bermaninstitute


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Regenberg, AC. Stem Cell Science Should Be Tweeted. Regenerative Medicine (2014), 9(2), 125-7.

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  1. [...] role of social media (twitter in particular) in stem cell research. In his following piece “Tweeting Science” he also criticizes George’s Daley famous quote “rush to use blogging and social [...]

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