Aug 19, 2011

Following Negative Results of Arsenic Life

“Give me a fruitful error over a barren truth anytime”

The biggest story in science in the last year, would have to be the Arsenic Life (#arseniclife) story. The possibility of a second branch of life on Earth - the ability of certain bacteria to incorporate arsenic into their DNA instead of the - until now - irreplaceable phosphorous. Announced with much fanfare, only to be met with sceptic eyes, launched scathing attacks from the scientific community, not to mention bloggers and science writers calling into question the peer-review process.

Felisa Wolfe-Simon, lead author on the original paper, during many press conferences, TED talks and various magazine cover stories, had always stated that she would address claims the way science is often addressed and debated - through more peer-review science. The science commentating community didn’t like this at all. You can see the slight hypocrisy. If you are going to partake in “science by press release” then expect to have your findings questioned by anyone and everyone rather than science by peer-review.

Ergo, earlier this year Science published peer-reviewed critiques of the infamous paper. But that in itself was by no means the end of the story. Sometimes in science we forget why we publish peer-reviewed articles. Sometimes we forget that publication, for all the time, effort, and money it took us to get there, is in no way-shape-or-form the end of the road. Publication is not the end of the scientific process. In many ways, it’s just the beginning. The faults of the paper will be exposed for what it is not by science commentators but by further science.

And this is exactly what Rosie Redfield, one of the paper’s early critics has done. Like all good scientists she has set out to replicate and probe further the initial findings of the original paper. The scientific process in it’s truest form at work for all to see. Although this is by no means the first refute-by-blog example, this can be seen as an exercise in negative results - following the scientific process, what works, what doesn’t, as openly as possible, from inception to final publication.

The next paper on the subject of arsenic life, and the ones after that will go a long way on building on the research presented in the arsenic life story. But none of them will get the trumpet fanfare they deserve. We invite all researchers with negative results on Arsenic life to publish them on The All Results Journals.

Written by Dr. Charles Ebikeme for The All Results Journals. 

1 comment:

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