The publication of a paper revealing an arsenic-loving bacterium sent the blogosphere into overdrive.
It started quietly enough. NASA announced a forthcoming press conference “to discuss an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life” that was due to published in Science. Some people put two and two together and made about 57: Jason Kottke, for example, suggested that NASA had “discovered arsenic on Titan and maybe even detected chemical evidence of bacteria utilizing it for photosynthesis”. When the paper came out you could almost feel the hype deflating, but plenty of people still found the “Bacterium That Can Grow by Using Arsenic Instead of Phosphorus” interesting. The column inches in the press and blogs mounted up, but meanwhile people had got hold of the paper, read it carefully and critically. Really quite critically. To take just one fairly prominent example, blogging (micro)biologist Rosie Redfield, whose bottom line on RRResearch was basically “Lots of flim-flam, but very little reliable information”.
With people starting to notice the blogosphere’s reaction, science writer Carl Zimmer contacted 13 experts, all of whom gave the paper a bit of a thumbs-down in an article for Slate. With the juggernaut of scepticism gathering pace, the first author on the paper, Felisa Wolf-Simon, issued a statement that they “welcome lively debate” but that they “invite others to read the paper and submit any responses to Science for review so that we can officially respond”. Indeed, the backlash against the backlash was supported by Dr Isis, who forthrightly told those critical of the work to ‘Put your experiment where your mouth is! […] The language of those discussions needs to be data’.
The whole episode caused many to question the roles of peer-review, press conferences, public engagement and blogging – so many we couldn’t even just list them. For a good round-up, check out Ed Yong’s ‘post-mortem’ post on Not Exactly Rocket Science.
And finally…if you’re worried about the future of peer-review after this, why not read some of Environmental Biology’s funniest reviewers’ quotes. There are gems like this one: “The biggest problem with this manuscript, which has nearly sucked the will to live out of me, is the terrible writing style.”
[This longer version includes a few bits (paragraphs 3 & 4) that we had to cut to fit the physical column. There is obviously a lot more out there on the arsenic bacteria story, but hopefully this will serve as a useful starting point for anyone who has missed all the fun!]