Breaking down the walls of scientific secrecy

Breaking down the walls of scientific secrecy

This is an excerpt from Second Opinion, a weekly roundup of eclectic and under-the-radar health and medical science news emailed to subscribers every Saturday morning. If you haven’t subscribed yet, you can do that by clicking here


Getting scooped by a competing researcher is one of a scientist’s biggest fears. And some of the most important discoveries in medical history have been tainted by competitive controversy.

Back in 1952, before he co-discovered the structure of DNA, James Watson got access to Rosalind Franklin’s revolutionary X-ray image of DNA without her knowledge.

That image, known as Photo 51, was a major clue that helped Watson and Francis Crick complete their Nobel Prize-winning discovery. The lack of credit given to Franklin remains a stain on the story of their breakthrough.

But what if Franklin had been informally publishing her research notes all along?

“She would have gotten credit instantly for her contribution,” said Susan Lamb, a historian of medicine who holds the Hannah Chair in the History of Medicine at the University of Ottawa.

“Would we have identified the structure of DNA even sooner? Could open [research] notes have changed the course of history in terms of DNA?”

Patent-free science

Sharing science in real time is the radical concept behind the Open Lab Notebooks initiative by the Structural Genomics Consortium (SGC), a Canadian research group at the University of Toronto with a team that also does work out of Oxford University in the U.K. The SGC is trying to break down the walls of scientific secrecy by encouraging its scientists to post their research notes every few weeks.

It’s hugely counterculture.– Aled Edwards, director of the Structural Genomics Consortium

The goal is to speed up science and develop low-cost drugs faster in a patent-free system, where research discoveries are immediately available for anyone in the world to use.

But opening their research notes to the public is daunting for many scientists in biomedical research.

Rosalind Franklin’s work was key to understanding the molecular structures of DNA. But she didn’t get credit for it at the time because her revolutionary X-ray image was accessed without her knowledge. (MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology)

“It is really, really scary in our field,” said Aled Edwards, the director of SGC and a professor at the University of Toronto. “It’s hugely counterculture.”

Just a few days ago, Alfredo Picado, an organic chemist, posted the results of a failed experiment.

“I basically said [that in] the last set of reactions I carried out, the last step didn’t work.”

Picado is developing and testing compounds to see if they activate certain proteins. Normally, a failed experiment would not show up in the scientific literature. But by reporting that his experiment didn’t work, he hopes he might save another scientist some time.

“At least now it’s written there, so if someone wants to reproduce that, well, you don’t have to go all the way in the sequence to find out, because — at least in my hands — it doesn’t work out.”

Some sharing of unpublished research has always happened at conferences and seminars, but months and years can elapse between those gatherings. It can take even longer for the polished research to be published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

Alfredo Picado, an organic chemist and researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, hopes to speed up science by making his research notes public for other scientists to use. (UNC-Chapel Hill)

Jong Fu Wong is with the SGC U.K. team at Oxford. His research is aimed at accelerating the development of a molecule for a rare pediatric brain tumour, and he’s been posting his research notes every few weeks for over a year.

“It’s pretty radical, from the perspective of a traditional academic scientist,” he said. “The traditional way would be keeping everything more or less secret, and only when everything is finalized, and there’s a final result, only then would a researcher try to submit it to a scientific journal.”

The original concept of open-notebook science is attributed to a Canadian chemist, Jean-Claude Bradley, who, working alone, began publishing his research in real time. He died in 2014.

If we documented everything online in real time, we would preserve that knowledge that would otherwise be lost.– Rachel Harding, SGC scientist

Two years later, while working with SGC at the University of Toronto, Rachel Harding built on Bradley’s idea after she was about to repeat a series of experiments on a protein involved in Huntington’s disease.

“We knew other labs had done it but had never published on it, so there was no evidence in the literature to see what other people had done. And it was quite a technically challenging project,” Harding said.

An image posted by Picado on openlabnotebooks.org describes a failed experiment. (SGC)

“If we documented everything online in real time, then we would preserve that knowledge that would otherwise be lost.”

Harding said she was amazed by the feedback, especially from Huntington’s patients.

“It was very humbling. There’s no cure or disease-modifying therapies for Huntington’s. And the patients are incredibly well-read on the science,” she said.

“So, even though it wasn’t directly clinically relevant, they were just keen to see people working in the field. It was really incredible. It was so touching to receive so many amazing emails.”

When the researchers post an entry on openlabnotebooks.org, they provide a summary of their work in plain language for non-experts. But they also make all of their raw data available, including technical details of their experiments.

For example, “You can find out … what concentration of salt and what pH was experimented,” said SGC’s Edwards.

Jong Fu Wong, a postdoctoral cell biologist with SGC at Oxford University, is part of the Open Lab Notebooks initiative. Even though he risks getting scooped by other scientists, he posts his research notes online in real time. (Jong Fu Wong)

Both Picado and Wong admit they still worry a bit about being scooped by other researchers.

“Did it make me nervous? Yes, a little bit,” said Picado. “The good side is that we publish in such a way that we already have the credit for that.”

Taking profit out of the equation

“There are some concerns about [companies] coming in and using our data and bringing it to market,” said Edwards, adding that once the research is in the public domain, it can no longer be patented, which removes some of the profit-seeking incentive.

“Remember: people only steal things when they think they can make money.”

Edwards said taking money out of the equation changes everything. SGC’s research is funded by governments, charities and the pharmaceutical industry. But none of the funders gets special access to the discoveries.

So what’s in it for the drug companies? The overall advancement of science, Edwards said, because SGC is focused on understudied genes and other areas where knowledge is sparse.

Aled Edwards calls open-notebook science and patent-free research a ‘micro-hand grenade’ intended to speed up progress in science and drug discovery. (SGC)

“The purpose of our organization is to focus on the parts of science that nobody else does. And that’s how we made that ‘value proposition,'” said Edwards.

“We put science in the public domain without restriction, without patents, so that the world can take our research and run with it.”

The ultimate goal is to develop drugs that can be put on the market at the lowest possible price.

“We’re making too little progress, and it’s a lot because of the structures we put in place to carry out science,” Edwards said. “Our little effort of sharing is a way to try and throw a micro-hand grenade into it.”

There’s been some criticism of the data-sharing movement, including the potential to pollute the scientific record with incomplete work.  

“I could counter that argument by saying, well, at least every single thing is in there: all my raw data, materials, methods, everything,” said Harding.

“So even if I’ve done something wrong, we should be able to understand it.”


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CBC | Health News

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