Author: Marco Körner

Ich bin promovierter Chemiker, Blogger und Gründer des Blogs "Der Chemische Reporter", auf dem ich seit 2015 privat publiziere. Seit Januar 2017 arbeite ich in der Presse- und Öffentlichkeitsarbeit der Nationalen Akademie der Naturwissenschaften Leopoldina. Foto: L. T. Flohrschütz

New negative-journal launched by a major publisher

This year, the scientific publisher Elsevier has launched New Negatives in Plant Science, an “open access, peer reviewed, online journal that will publish hypothesis-driven, scientifically sound studies that describe unexpected, controversial, dissenting, and/or null (negative) results in basic plant sciences.” The first issue was published in August this year and is currently in progress.

Journals about null-outcome studies usually suffer from a low attractiveness. Therefore, the fact that null-results are getting acknowleged by a major publisher comes as a very positive surprise. I also think that open access is exactly the right way to tackle this new journal, since that type of journal supposedly publishes curious results that might help many other scientists avoid performing unnecessary experiments.

Trial on antidepressant neglected suicide attempts

The antidepressant paroxetine was reported in 2001 to be effective and safe for adolescents. Now, this trial was re-evaluated following an open call in the Britsh Medicinal Journal (BMJ), as IFLScience reports. The new study was made possible with the help of GlaxoSmithKline, who initiated the original work and made the data accessible for re-evaluation. Paroxetine has been disputed over the last years, which was scaringly justified by the new results.

It came out that not only paroxetine is not beneficial to adolescents, but also that 11 persons from the 2001 study taking paroxetine attempted suicide or showed self-harming behavior, in comparison to only one person in the control group. This had been ignored by the researchers. It also had been ignored that parent- or self-rating by the patients of paroxetine did not show a significant difference from placebos. Here, we have a point that is valid in whole science.

“The investigator assessments always end up looking more favorable to the drug than those from the patients,” Jureidini told IFLScience.

Scientists are considered to be neutral and unbiased while they develop theories and prove or disprove them. But of course, this cannot be true, as scientists – along with all other human beings – have expectactions and are influenced by their opinions. That a researcher will judge results tendentially in favor for his new theory is not the problem, because it is just human. But it is apparently not responsible to legalize a medicine based on a trial wich was not double-checked.

Even though the danger of paroxetine is now revealed, not earlier than 14 years after the initial study, the BMJ call shows how important double-checking of clinical trials is. It should be not too difficult to legalize a drug only if its effectiveness and danger potential has been confirmed by two independent studies. Or, like in this case, the data set being analyzed separately.

A “TripAdvisor” for chemical probes

If medicinists want to test a new drug, they can literally choose between hundreds or thousands of reported molecules. But the real problem they are here facing is the high number of ill-suited molecules, that are not properly described, e.g., compounds that target enzymes other than the desired one, or have unwanted side-effects. Finding a suitable drug for a biomedical study can thus take endless hours before the study itself has even started.

Chemical biologists have now used crowdfunding to start an internet platform that recommends chemical probes, as reported in Science News. This action is in my opinion a very exciting act of self-empowerment, based on the strong impression that the self-correction mechanisms in scientific publishing are not sufficent. I think, one underlying problem might also be the reproducibility crisis, science is still facing. Once a new compound is published, its reproduction (and cross-checking) by other labs is not feasible anymore, since the work would be not original. Problems in reproduction therefore usually occur when the compound is supposed to be used for an application.

Maybe has the potential to provide an alternative metric for science, based on the applicability of drugs and drug-like molecules.

100% Effective: the unrepeated studies

A few weeks back, Ben Goldacre wrote about the reproduction crisis that science is suffering from. As a very descriptive example, he addresses the large-scale use of deworming medication in developing countries which is based on a single, but very extensive study from 2004.

When Godacre described the outcome of a re-evaluation of the data from 2004, which was done in 2013, he listed all the problems found in that study – starting from missing data to wrong instructions provided by the analysis software package that was used back then. It is really no surprise that the new evaluation came to very different results about the effectiveness of deworming medication in schools.

I really appreciate that Goldacre does not take the credit from the authors of the 2004 study, acknowledging that they did a difficult and hard work in all conscience. Instead, he points out how unusual it was that those scientists provided all their raw data for a re-evaluation. And this is indeed astonishing. Goldacres comparison with the probe passing Pluto is well chosen:

Conducting a trial, and then refusing to let anyone see the data, is like claiming you’ve flown a spaceship to Pluto, but refusing to let anyone see the photos.

As a matter of fact, this happens frequently in science. As a chemist, I sometime roll my eyes when I see hundreds of numbers in the supplementary information of a paper, describing every atom coordinate obtained from a crystal structure of a molecule. But at least this tells me that I really get all the data.

When medicine is based on a single study, its effect might have been by chance. credit: BloodyMary  /

When medicine is based on a single study, its effect might have been occured by chance.
Credit: BloodyMary /

The other and even larger problem is indeed the reproducibilty. To be sure that a results is real and well-founded, it actually needs confirmation from different scientists. It is not unusual that scientists find a protocol published, and try to build their work on that. When I go through an interesting paper, I find myself looking for loopholes of missing information that might prevent me from reproducing the result on the first place. When I do a published synthesis and I succeed on the first try, I am surprised. On the other hand, a failure might mean that I am either not skilled enough, or that some piece of information is missing in that paper.

Not to give away all the information can be essential for a scientist under the increasing pressure to “publish or perish”. Since it delays others in reproducing the work, it ensures that the scientist keeps an advantage. Authors have to fear that their manuscripts are rejected, because of a peer-reviewer who reproduces that work in his own lab, and then publishs it first.

So, hoarding data is used as an insurance of the authors, or let’s say as a “copy protection”. As understandle as this might be, this is desastrous for science, as Goldacre clearly emphasizes. Irreproducible science is basically worthless, and in the worst case harmful. I agree that this has no influence on the fact that treatment of children against worms is an urgent and important issue. But it undermines the reliability of science in our society and promotes pseudo-scientific or religious beliefs that claim to be equally justified.

When you are likely to get schizophrenia, you might be creative – or not.

Are creative people likely to carry a genetic risk for mental diseases? A recent study published in Nature Neuroscience, indeed concluded that the genetically carried “risk scores for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder predict creativity”. This study is based on a widely carried collection of genetic samples of the population in Iceland. Living in Iceland, I experienced the discussion about that “data mining” and I also found a sample-donation kit in my mailbox.

My DNA donation kit, 2014.

I don’t want to address the fact that deCODE, the company collecting the DNA samples from about 100,000 Icelanders (which is a bit less than 1/3 of the population) used staff members from the national rescue team to go from door to door and ask people if they want to donate their DNA to a private company for unclear reasons. But in my opinion, there are several things wrong in that partial study derived from the donations:

First, this study addresses about 3% of the population, comparing them with ca. 30% of the countries’ total number. It seemlingly only takes into account Icelanders working in a profession considered by the authors to be “creative”. The icelandic population is quite remotely located, which is exactly why it is so attractive for massively genetic analyses as done by deCODE. Other populations might not be comparable with the icelandic one, since Iceland is a special case.

Second, the definition of creativity that is made by the authors is (and has to be) arbitrary:

Creative individuals were defined as those belonging to the national artistic societies of actors, dancers, musicians, visual artists and writers (n = 1,024 […]).

Are genius and madness genetically connected? Image: Vincent van Gogh

Are genius and madness genetically connected? Image: Vincent van Gogh

I fully agree to that in a study about creativity, that term needs to be defined. The choice of considering members of the artistic societies also seems to be also quite reasonable, but I see there one major issue: Not every creative person might work in a creative job. And vice versa, not every person working in a creative area might be actually creative. This point is also very nicely addressed in the hyperallergic blog, together with an interpretation of the observed correlation between the genetic risk and working in a creative environment:

If the distance between me, the least artistic person you are going to meet, and an actual artist is one mile, these variants appear to collectively explain 13 feet of the distance – David Cutler, geneticist at Emory University

Especially Iceland is famous for its vivid independent music scene and Icelanders are famous for writing and making music – besides working in all kinds of professions. About 10% of all Icelanders are likely to publish a book in their lives, but the study considers only 194 writers. On the other hand, creativity might not be the only prerequisite to work in a creative profession. Artists, actors, musicians and dancers also need a high degree of discipline, passion and self-confidence to persist in those fields.

That being said, I think that this study is a perfect case for positivistic interpretation of a result, suggesting that creativeness is linked to schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. This result can only be valid for people who 1) are Icelanders, 2) participated in the DNA collection and 3) are member of a national artistic society. For all other creative people that primarily work as bus drivers, teachers, farmers, etc., this study does not draw any conclusion. My opinion.

Tim Hunt said the wrong thing at the wrong time

The recent incident about Tim Hunt’s comment on women in science and the viral response of female scientists all over the world was covered by the media in an extent, that was, to my opinion, quite unusual. I think, most surprised by that enormous feedback was Tim Hunt himself, who resigned from his honorary professorship and now claims to have been “hung out and dry”.

Tim Hunt. source: The Daily Beast.

Tim Hunt. source: The Daily Beast.

I also wish to make clear that his comment is not to be justified. Especially the part about crying remembered me of my studies, when it was not uncommon that people did cry after some oral exams which were frequently held over a lab course. Studying was tough. However, the stress put onto the students was hopefully irrespective of the gender, and I think that females and males most often simply have different strategies to deal with that. Even so, it clearly states that something with the critics might be wrong when it causes such emotional reactions. In his comment, Hunt simply assumed that being a male labworker is “normal”, while being a female labworker is a deviation. This is an in insult to all people working in the lab – female and also male.

Let me tell you about my trouble with girls … three things happen when they are in the lab … You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry.

My impression is, that, in addition, Hunt’s comment on women in science was simply the last straw that broke the camel’s back: Females have to face discrimination since the very beginning of science. And since recently, sexism in science was already in focus of the scientific community and also in the public. I do think that this intense anger and dispute is not harming academia. I think, it is quite healthy. Females are showing their contribution to science and call this kind of harassment what it is: patriarchalic and unfair.

One thing that seems to be not considered in the one thing is that this issue is not only concerning the lab: It applies to all fields of work, where women are a minority. There are a lot.

#distractlinglysexy. source:

#distractlinglysexy. source:

His own defensive reaction after being that harshly treated and criticized seems a bit ironic in that context. Yes, he did something wrong. Yes, he was maybe tired and did not think before speaking. Yes, he was also maybe speaking about his personal experience. And yes, he may have even apologized. But this does not mean that everything is alright now. It seems like Tim Hunt is now the scapegoat of an angry, female Twitter mob, just because he spoke his mind. But speaking your mind does not mean that you cannot be an asshole. The same goes for having a Nobel Prize.

Hunt is 72 years old, having/being resigned from his honorary professorship. I think that this might be not a too great loss for him. I give him, that his feelings might be severely hurt. But so are many others’ feelings, too.

We don’t know (yet)

A few weeks ago, the Royal Society of Chemistry published the results of a survey about the public view on chemistry and chemists. This is the first study of this kind considering chemistry and the results were as interesting as surprising: Most people (84 %) consider chemistry to make a valuable contribution to society. On the other side, only 12 % of the chemists expected the public to say so. In general, the public opinion sees chemistry as something positive and useful, and considers chemists as reliable and to be trusted. Being a chemist, I would also have expected a far more negative view. One other key results is that most people simply don’t understand chemistry and feel emotionally neutral towards it. I think, that these result might be similar for science in general.

There is a “disbelieve” (or mistrust) in science – which, again, puts science along with pseudo-sciences or religious believes; and I think this is due to the inaccessibility of how research works. One argument that I frequently hear, let’s say, from opponents of vaccination, is that “the scientific discourse is not yet finished”. This is true but beside the point, because no scientific discourse is ever finished. Science, by definition, is difficult to understand and often contradicts itself, overthrowing and questioning everything. Studies are published, and later neglected. Phenomena are observed and explained, until something new comes up. And honestly, science is far from truth, but this is still as close as we can get. Of course, this must create a high uncertainty and also discomfort, for the public as well as for scientists.

A problem that arises from that is that pseudo-scientific and religious explanations start to mix into scientific views, as it happens in biology classes where creationism is taught as a theory alternative to the theory of evolution. But here is a big misunderstanding: creationism is no theory at all. To qualify itself, a theory must be based on observations, must be provable and falsifiable, and should therefore allow predictions. It is quite simple: The hypothesis that all species were created by an omnipotent God who tries to test our faith might be based on the observation of our sheer existence. I agree that the fact that we exist is extremely unlikely and totally astonishing. But the existence of God cannot be proved, or disproved (anyone who wants to object here, please send me your comments and consider to contribute to the according wikipedia article). This is maybe why it is called “faith”. The fact that there is an ancient collection of edited and translated reports about talking, burning shrubberies, is no proof. Also, creationism allows no predictions, maybe excluding the Book of Revelation.

source: wikimedia commons

The Platypus. source: wikimedia commons

My point is that the scientific discourse always is not finished, while the religious usually is. There are discussions about how to interpret the holy texts, but the text itself remains rather static. We might learn some day that the first spark of life came from an asteroid, or that our planet is indeed just a gigantic supercomputer operated by extraterrestrial mice in oder to find the question to the answer of “42”. We might also finally encounter that one of all religions was indeed correct. We do not know yet. Until then, we just assume that our current theories are working fine within their limits; until we get a better idea.

Changes and challenges in scientific publishing: 12th of June 2015, Vienna

At 12th of June, the University of Vienna will host a talk by Eva Amsen, the F1000 Community Strategy Manager. She will give a presentation about “Open peer review, open data, negative results: Scientific publishing is changing.”

This talk will look in more detail at the beneftis of these apects of open science, but also discuss some the challenges, such as lack of time or fear of sharing ongoing research.

It is very interesting to see that these aspects are more and more also addressed by publishers. If it becomes more rewarding to publish “the other” results, too, this would clearly be a benefit for all scientists and their work.

A lesson in academic gender bias

Last week, the Times Higher Education reported about a a paper rejection due to the fact that the two authors are female. Thankfully, this has ignited an outrage against the affected journal PLOS One, which in consequence ousted the anonymous reviewer.

The rejected study focuses on gender bias in academia and concludes that there is indeed a gender bias. In this context, the rejection gives proof to that in a stunning way. But besides joining the outrage, I would like to add my opinion, since gender bias (i.e., patriarchy) is a highly sensitive and complex topic.

As a matter of fact, the majority of scientists is male and it was not too long ago that women were not accepted to be scientists at all. Also, I hardly believe that the publication would have been rejected with the same argument when all authors would have been male. The reviewer’s phrasing does not seem to imply a gender-balanced author team. Instead, it seems to aim on a contribution of supposedly missing male opinions, which is a big difference. This can only mean that the reviewer assumes that male researchers are more objective than female ones and that the female interpretation is more prone to “ideologically biased assumptions” than the male one.

The other problem is that from a man’s view, patronizing is not an issue, since we are not getting patronized. But this is also a misinterpretation, since we (men) also are affected by a gender bias which expects males give their work first priority. I think, the cases of male scientists taking one or two years off to take care for their family are rarely seen. And why? – Because it would kill our career, which is exactly what is expected from women.

Last but not least, this event also demonstrates the power of social media in science. This discussion started with a tweet, exposing the biased devaluation and insult that many authors have to face from anonymous peer review. However, double-anonymous peer review might not always be an answer – many research areas are so small that it is easy to guess who might be the author, or the reviewer, respectively.

Judging from the impact of that story, it might be worth to start a project similar to the highly acknowledged Retraction Watch. Maybe something like a “Rejection Watch”, where biased and unfair reviewer comments can be dicussed openly.

Confessional science**

In the beginning of this month, a blog hosted by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung* reported about a scientific april fool hoax: On the pre-publishing platform, the author Ali Frolop published what was called “A Farewell to Falsifiability“, where one of the main criteria for scientific theories is questioned. The publication date and the author name (“Ali Frolop” = “April Fool”) make clear that this is actually a joke. However, having read that quite amusing text, it appeared to me more than a seriously meant satire, than just a cheap fooling joke.

Astrology is falsifiable, and there is nothing magic about this demarcation criteria.

The concept of Falsifiability is, in my opinion, on of the most important aspects that separates science from religion. In brief, it means that a theory must allow a prove that can contradict it. Is the sun always going down every day? (Living in Iceland with the summer coming closer, I would argue about that.) The Frolop paper gives also a good overview about other criteria for scientific theories, of course putting them into question: repeatability, simplicity and a testable correctness.

So what is going on in science? The trigger for this ongoing discussion is the string theory and the resulting multiverse theory. While the string theory can be used to explain observations, it can neither be falsified, nor predict observations, which are major disadvantages for a good theory. The same is true for universes other than ours, which also are not observable yet and allow any explanation to describe a maybe not-yet-known reality.

I agree with George Ellis and Joe Silk, who rise serious concerns about the reputation of science, when the criteria for theories are weakened. For example, the theory that there is a god, is also not falsifiable, nor is it sufficient to make predictions. Which is exactly is the purpose of religion. One danger that arises from mixing these aspects of science and religion is already there: Very often, defenders of a creationist god refer to the evolutional theory as just a theory. This is absolutely correct, since evolution is testable, repeatable and simple. The hypothesis that a concious super-powerful being willingly created and altered life, is neither of them. In so far, the Frolop paper might be less a hoax than a serious concern.

This battle for the heart and soul of physics is opening up at a time when scientific results – in topics from climate change to the theory of evolution – are being questioned by some politicians and religious fundamentalists.

* I have to excuse myself for referring so frequently to the german media. I also follow international news, but my native language is closer to me.

** My acknowlegdment goes to Philipp Scharf, who showed me the article in the Planckton blog.