In recent months, there has been a growing, dark cloud of suspicion and mistrust in the biomedical horizon specifically, and in the greater scientific world at large. As is often the case in science, prophetic voices, such as Peter Kranke or Walter Nelson-Rees, have been ignored (or silenced) for years and even decades. But now their forecasts are ringing true as the tribulations which they have previously warned against have finally begun to come to the light of our general awareness and dismay.
Currently, the dominant issue is with antibodies, one of the keystones of any biological or biomedical research. But whether we’re talking today about the antibody issue discussed in Nature last week, or previously about the cross-contamination of hundreds of cancer cell lines that have been used as the baseline for medical studies for decades (you can check to make sure your lines are ok for cross-contamination via ICLAC), or even about the numerous retractions that have begun to increasingly plague every scientific field, it all adds up to a labyrinth of obstacles and stumbling blocks both to publish your work as well as to find valued credence once your work has been published.
Never before have I seen such a need for one of my old PI’s most rigorous requirements/questions: “Where are the controls? I want to see a positive control, a negative control, and sometimes even a reference control for every part of this research." I remember hating all that extra work at the time, sure that the product I isolated last week could not have changed considerably in the time it took me to run the analysis on it! But experience and wisdom (and a host of unintended errors and knowing stares from the much wiser PI) conquered all in the end. But how many of us would really think to double check a product we order from a well-established company? We purchase our reagents on the assumption that what we’re buying is legitimate! Faulty or suspect reagents are almost always the last thing to be tested if an experiment goes wrong. But again, what happens when a “faulty” reagent provides you a false positive? How would you even know? How many of us really take the time and necessary precaution to pre-test every new reagent we receive against a control before using it in the much more critical research experiment? Maybe we should skip cutting that corner from now on.
In our day and age, the nonscientific public has become more aware and jaded to the failures of science. The advent of the internet age has created an unfortunate double-edged sword that is cutting all of science to the quick. To be sure, the internet has become a great medium for swiftly announcing achievements or concerns to the widest audience our world has ever known. But failures and mistakes compound ever faster in our viral age. In the court of public opinion, even one failure requires a Herculean task in order to overcome animosity. And a lifetime of successes can suddenly and irrevocably be replaced with worldwide scorn and derision in the blinking of the WiFi.
But there is also a pervasive push to publish that has set into our scientific culture as well. So much so that we can easily feel like a marionette tethered to the strings of publishing, presenting, and grants. It’s a tightrope of trepidation and any little slip can cause a career calamity. However, publishing or being published for its own sake is just another part of the cause of our current dilemma. Who wouldn’t want just a bit more time to prove a set of tantalizing results, just one more month to show that it’s not a fluke? Which would be better: taking that extra month to make sure, or being discredited and forced to retract the paper on which you worked so hard?
Ever more so, we need to make sure that our work is done correctly and that our results are without question. If that means taking longer to reach a conclusion, so be it. Because, really, isn’t it worth it in the long run?
"Errare humanum est, sed in errare perseverare diabolicum." - Seneca
("To err is human, but to persist in error is diabolical.")
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