May 26, 2020

The Niche

Knoepfler lab stem cell blog

Social Media Helps Field Deal With Stressful STAP Stem Cell Situation

harry potterI believe that social media has on the whole had a strongly positive impact on the STAP cell situation that the stem cell field has been grappling with for 5 weeks.

If the STAP method is proven to be correct at some later date, which is possible, it’s almost certain that those replication efforts will have been aided and speeded along significantly because of social media.

Update and hat tip to commenter Bob: Social media also has facilitated international communication about STAP including Japan, the US, and countries all around the world that simply wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

My stem cell research colleague Dr. George Daley was quoted less enthusiastically about this topic today in The Boston Globe:

“I am concerned 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.”

It sure sounds like he is at least in part referring to our STAP stem cell crowdsourcing efforts here.

Dr. Daley is certainly right that there are risks and downsides to taking a social media approach to something as complicated as STAP. I also believe he is right that social media-based early reporting of STAP efforts has a risk of negative bias. It makes sense that anyone getting a positive result might be more inclined to save it for later publication.

However, it seems we disagree on the overall merit of stem cell social media here. I believe that there are also some great potential positives to social media in these kinds of situations and there absolutely are serious risks to the alternative–silence–as well.

To me, the idea of blogging about the rapidly evolving STAP situation seemed logical from the get-go and I hoped that it could make a positive impact through providing information and a forum for dialogue.

Despite some complexities to the blogging and to associated comments from the community, on the whole blogging has fulfilled its mission of educating people and aiding them to stay informed about the complicated, rapidly changing STAP situation in ways that traditional journals could not hope to achieve. Journals are far too slow and frankly just too politically correct.

Crowdsourcing people’s initial attempts at STAP also seemed like a logical idea to again provide for rapid education and dialogue. Even though our crowdsourcing page has reports that varied a great deal in depth and specific methods, I believe on the whole this effort has provided valuable information for people and it connected people together who were trying STAP so that they could provide each other feedback and tips.

Again, this kind of thing could never be achieved by a traditional journal.

Ironically enough, our crowdsourcing page had almost 10 largely negative reports on STAP-related methods posted well before a Nature News piece came out on STAP saying that a survey of bigwig stem cell labs around the world had found 10/10 negative responses as to success with STAP attempts. If our page had negative bias, then it was no more so than did Nature‘s own survey of top stem cell labs around the world, right?

PubPeer also played a key role via post-publication review of the STAP papers.

Now if you step back for a moment and ask yourself hypothetically what the STAP stem cell situation would be like today about 5 weeks after the Nature papers came out in the absence of all of this social media mentioned above, I think the situation would be far worse.

Say Harry Potter had waved his magic wand on STAP Cell day 0 and cast a spell to remove all social media from the STAP situation, what would have happened?

We’ll never know for sure, but I suspect that in that hypothetical social media-less reality there would be no Nature or RIKEN investigations going on to help clarify certain elements of the STAP situation. I’m convinced there would also have been no detailed STAP protocol put out there in the public domain as we saw pop up yesterday. The two STAP Nature papers would also almost certainly still be behind paywalls instead of openly available via my request to Nature to make them that way.

Yet at the same time dozens of labs would still be trying STAP-related experiments relatively in the dark and unconnected to each other, wasting time, reagents, and other resources.

For a long time, in that hypothetical scenario, only Nature, RIKEN, and the STAP authors themselves would have entirely controlled the flow of information about STAP cells. With all due respect I don’t think that would have benefitted the stem cell field.

Again, social media has its downsides and there are risks, especially with anonymous Internet users, including some who might be prone to launching personal attacks.

However, on the whole social media has had and will continue to have a positive impact on the STAP stem cell situation. In the future other similar rapidly developing high profile science stories will almost certainly be illuminated by social media as well.

Note: the original title of this blog post included the word “difficult”, which I changed to “stressful” just for the heck of it.

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