Open science — a transparent and novel way to do research

Published in The Hindu on August 11, 2011

Felisa Wolfe-Simon

Felisa Wolfe-Simon processing mud from Mono Lake to inoculate media to grow microbes on arsenic. — Photo: NASA

At a time when many papers published in reputed journals are being retracted on the grounds of unethical practices like data fabrication and falsification, one scientist is taking a totally different and novel route to do science that gives no room for such practices.

She is Rosie Redfield, a microbiologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

Unlike how other researchers try to replicate in their labs the finding of a scientist, Redfield is trying to replicate the disputed study published in the journal Science last year in a totally different way — doing her research in full public glare, detailing all the elements of her work in an open lab notebook on her blog.

Transparent approach

This novel approach is striking at the very foundation of the kind of research carried out in today’s world where secrecy and confidentiality are considered paramount. While these are indeed required, they also provide scientists sufficient scope to manipulate and fabricate data.

“It is such a great opportunity to do open science. I’ve been doing all my research openly for a while, but nobody pays attention,” Dr. Redfield was quoted as saying in Nature .

Dr. Redfield is performing the much maligned study of bacterium incorporating arsenic into its DNA backbone. According to the study published in Science in 2010, Felisa Wolfe-Simon, a NASA astrobiology research fellow, and other authors claimed that a particular bacterium isolated from California’s Mono Lake was capable of substituting arsenic for a small percentage of phosphorus and still sustain its growth.

Surprising find

This study came under great scrutiny by fellow scientists as it questioned the very basis of our understanding of the necessary ingredients for life. Arsenic is a toxic element and is not one of the six elements – carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, sulphur, and phosphorus – that make up most of the organic molecules in living matter.

Redfield herself had criticised the study. She doubted if the arsenic had indeed been incorporated into the bacterium’s DNA as claimed, and if contamination of the growth medium with phosphorus had helped the micro-organism to grow and sustain in the presence of arsenic.

Redfield’s results are already challenging Simon’s work.

Already exposing

For instance, contrary to the original work, Redfield could grow the bacterium in a very low concentration of phosphorus. And the micro-organism died when arsenic was added to phosphorus.

Again, the micro-organism being studied by Redfield has not been able to survive in a growth medium containing arsenic. This was the first step that Science authors had performed before transferring the bacterium to different concentrations of arsenic and phosphorus growth mediums.

This is not the first time that open science is being done. For instance, Paul Docherty, a chemist, undertook open science in 2009 to debunk a tall claim that sodium hydride could oxidise an alcohol.

Different objective

But Redfield’s work is quite different. She is undertaking this work not to debunk the original work — it has already been debunked and dismissed. But she is trying to replicate the experiment despite knowing that it would be impossible to obtain the same ‘findings.’

According to Nature , though open science risks the possibility of scooping by fellow scientists, the very fact that it is being done in full public glare would make it difficult for that to happen. Plagiarising would also be difficult for the same reason.

On the contrary, a researcher may be corrected or guided if she/he is taking a wrong approach or step.

Possibly, more such open science endeavours can be seen in the future.

To start with they would be restricted to experiments challenging or debunking a study.

But the real open science would be when an original work is done in this transparent manner. It may probably take a long while before researchers mature to reach that point.