For those that haven’t heard about the NASA/arsenic bacteria story that’s been exploding all over the science blogosphere over the last couple of weeks, I like the summary over at Jonathan Eisen’s Tree of Life blog:
- NASA announced a major press conference
- at the conference they discussed a new Science paper claiming to show the discovery of a microbe that could replace much/some of its phosphate with arsenic
- initial press coverage of the paper was very positive and discussed the work as having profound implications for understanding of life in the universe – though some scientists in some of the stories expressed scepticism of the findings
- subsequently many science bloggers further critiqued the paper and/or the press coverage
- NASA and the scientists have now refused to discuss the criticisms of their work and press interactions
- News stories have now come out summarizing the blogger criticisms and also discussing the unwillingness of NASA / the authors to discuss their work
So, in the middle of all that I really appreciated Bonnie Swoger’s recent post, Using the ‘arsenic bacteria’ story as a teaching moment for undergraduates. It really warmed my cold, dark science librarian’s heart.
Precisely because it is so perfectly science-librarianish. It combines an interest and fascination with science and the scientific method with the drive to carry out one of the core missions of the academic librarian. That would be what we call Information Literacy instruction. In other words, helping faculty teach their students about the process of scholarly communication in the sciences.
The information literate student critically evaluates the procured information and its sources, and as a result, decides whether or not to modify the initial query and/or seek additional sources and whether to develop a new research process.
The information literate student understands that information literacy is an ongoing process and an important component of lifelong learning and recognizes the need to keep current regarding new developments in his or her field.
From Bonnie’s post:
First, you have scientists on record saying that basically, the peer review system didn’t work as well as we’d like. These scientists are saying that the scientific methods used were not as rigorous as they should have been. In addition, many folks are arguing that what the scientists actually discovered isn’t nearly as important as the hype surrounding it makes it seem.
Second, you have the controversy about where scientific debate should take place. Some scientists see little value in the scientific blogosphere. Many others (including myself) view it as a vital part of the communication between scientists and the general public. In addition, blogger’s comments have led to the retraction of at least one article in a highly respected journal (that I know of).
I agree completely with Bonnie that this type of media event is the perfect opportunity to reach students about both the idealized conception of scholarly communications as well as the more sausage-making aspects of a very human process.
In fact, on December 6th, just a few days after the bacteria hit the fan, I was at a workshop session for a fourth year Science & Technology Studies seminar course here at York. I was there to help the students think about their major projects in the context of the sources they will need and just the practicality of various ideas in the time frame they were looking at.
And wouldn’t you know it. One of the students wanted to do a media analysis of a scientific controversy. Bingo. I don’t know if he’ll end up doing the arsenic life story for his project, but it was a good example for me to talk about finding media reporting (new and old media) and the context that blogs and the web in general brings to that sort of issue.
Which led me to #ArsenicLife #Fail and Bonnie’s post. Picking up a bit where she left off, I started to think in a bit more detail about how I could use the issue as kind of a case study in scientific communications and the media in the 21st century.
I thought about from the point of view of progression of media documents, from the original reporting to the various reactions. I also saw the case more or less mirroring Eisen’s breakdown of the story I quoted above. I wanted my selection of documents to be concise and manageable yet give a good sense of the scale of the controversy and the main themes.
This is what I’ve come up with. Please, feel free to suggest documents and themes that I’ve missed that’ll add to the picture, especially if you think there’s a document that better illustrates one of the themes than the one I’ve chosen. Do keep in mind that I want to have something that will be manageable to talk about and discuss with a class in, say, 30-45 minutes.
Not that I’m ever going to get to do such a class or make such a presentation — but it’s fun to think about.
- Link repositories
- Original reporting of the story
- Initial media response
- The Takedown
- Post-Takedown commentary
- The response — NASA & authors don’t want to talk about it in social media
- The Blogosphere says “yes” to post-publication peer review
- Rosie Redfield: How to harness distributed discussion of research papers
- Christina Pikas: NASA can’t have it both ways
- David Kroll: Post-publication peer review in public: poison or progress?
- Jonathan Eisen: NASA arsenic story – let’s lay off the personal attacks on all sides
- Nature: Response required (asks authors to repond to blogosphere)
- The authors respond to the blogosphere
It’ll be very interesting to see where this goes over even the next few days as the blogosphere digests the authors’ latest response and the fact that they’ve decided to engage at all with non-traditional media.