On this #overlyhonestmethods thing

The #overlyhonestmethods hashtag is crazily popular since it started two days ago. Thousands of tweets are flying around, in a beautiful pluridisciplinary ballet. Scientists from all over the planet are cranking their witty jokes as fast as they can, in an interesting mix of behind-the-scenes insights and private jokes. If you’re a scientist yourself, you can often tell whether it’s a witty joke or a scientific confession. If you’re not, it can be a different story. Reading non-scientists tweets and a few comments on non-scientific sites, like here and there, I realized many people took this hashtag as a confession for scientists. That’s not exactly the case. First hint: scientist are humans too, and as incredible as it may sound, some have a solid sense of humor.

In every place I’ve been, people are working way too much. Scientists are passionate workaholics. Working around the clock. On weekends. At night because that’s the only time where the equipment is available. Skipping lunch. So yes, sometime we need to relieve some of the pressure. We get tired. Our caffeine intake is high, but it’s not because we don’t have anything better than hanging around that coffee table the whole day.

Some of these tweets revealed the frustration we all share, in particular regarding some weird conventions of the writing style or the trending topics.

@eperlste: We used jargon instead of plain English to prove that a decade of grad school and postdoc made us smart. #overlyhonestmethods

@biochembelle: We decided to use Technique Y because it’s new and sexy, plus hot and cool. And because we could. #overlyhonestmethods

@Bashir_Course9: method isn’t described here b/c this High Impact Report is 200 words. see Supplement Appendix L for vague description #overlyhonestmethods

@ProfLikeSubst: This paper represents just the sexiest stuff we could skim from the data. The carcass paper will be dumped somewhere #overlyhonestmethods

Science is also expensive, most of the time. And we have to adapt your dream experiment to the practical and financial reality of the lab. We often have to improvise. And no, we don’t have access to each and every article ever published. Paywalls are still a major source of grief for most of us, my tweet on open-access got >230 RT and >100 faves (and counting). I guess I struck a sensitive point, here. If it helps us get the message to the public, it’s all good news. A few major outlets mentioned it (here and here).

@KayLa_D_87: Compound Q was excluded from study, because it was expensive. #overlyhonestmethods

@talesfromlabs: Compound A was preferred to B because there was leftovers from post-doc who left three years ago. (also B costs $$$) #overlyhonestmethods

@paulcoxon: The beam shutter was held stable by an in-house built support made from BluTak & the top off an old Biro #overlyhonestmethods

I have my share of stories like this. When we are working on the beamline at the ESRF, we work around the clock. If our in-house setup is breaking at 3AM, we don’t go to bed and come back in the morning after a good night’s sleep. We fix it. With whatever we have laying around. Oh, and these in situ freezing experiments we did ? The molds were actually straws from orange juice packs. Perfect diameter, ideal thickness. Why bother ordering expensive technical ones ? The orange juice was actually really bad. And BlueTack is a scientist’s best friend.

Science is hard. Often frustrating. People are moving in and out, and it’s sometime difficult to keep track. It often start from a failed experiment or a mistake, and then it takes a long time to understand what’s going on, so that superstition can be invoked at some point, until we figure out why it’s working this way.

@JacquelynGill: The microbalance was so temperamental that an undergrad named it “Larry” in order to yell at it more effectively. #overlyhonestmethods

@AnneOsterrieder: We don’t know how this method was performed because the PhD student’s lab book is written in a foreign language. #overlyhonestmethods

@aivelo: I’m ready to surrender and write “For no apparent reasons, my method works with only half of the samples.” #overlyhonestmethods

@james_gilbert: Apparatus was placed on the 2nd shelf up, approx 1 foot left of the spider plant. Results were irreproducible elsewhere #overlyhonestmethods

@researchremix: Data are available upon request because then we can tidy the spreadsheet only if absolutely necessary #overlyhonestmethods

@AkshatRathi: It took 10 years of work to write this 6-page long paper, but you wouldn’t be able to guess that from reading it. #overlyhonestmethods

A large number of tweets also revolved around the never-ending chase for grants.

‏@multisensebrain: Our results have significant implications for that we are seeking grant funding for #overlyhonestmethods

@dbmoore: Our study used string theory, global warming, and big data because that’s where the grant money is #overlyhonestmethods

@peds_id_doc: We’re submitting this half-finished experiment for publication because we ran out of grant money. #overlyhonestmethods‏

@paulcoxon: This work was made possible by @EPSRC Grant #1234 & @eBay from where we scrounged parts to repair our ancient apparatus #overlyhonestmethods

Finally, some revealed some of the privilege we have. Working in funny locations. Whenever we want. Choosing the people we work with. And considering the many sacrifices we accept otherwise, I don’t feel spoiled doing it.

@Gomblemomble: This part of the experimental work was carried out in Western Australia, because my supervisor has a friend there. #OverlyhonestMethods

So shoud we be worried about the way science is done ? Were these last two days a massive confession of scientific misconduct ? Not really. Partially maybe, at least that’s my feeling.

@Crommunist: I’m just making up a lot of these. #OverlyHonestMethods

We, as scientists, all know it’s a messy business. And guess what, science is performed by humans. Alive. That sometime go to the restroom, enjoy their weekend at home and have babies. But somehow it works and we make progress overall.

@researchremix: The data is old because in between writing the first draft and doing the revisions I had a baby #overlyhonestmethods

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s