Thursday, January 2, 2014

To share or not to share?

I was just talking with a friend the other day about a new method his lab has developed, and about whether it’s better to have a method that is so easy that anyone can do it (and so you lose your competitive advantage), or a method that’s so hard that you’ve effectively cornered the market on those results for the foreseeable future. For the record, both my friend and I are in the former camp, but I’ve met many people who are in the latter.

I think the “keep it for myself" attitude is a natural response to a competitive scientific world, and one in which tenure in some ways hinges on your having developed a particular scientific niche for yourself. I think scientists often think to themselves “This new method is a goldmine! All I need to do is just turn the crank and I’ll get all these awesome papers, one after another!” The corollary is, of course, that you’d have to be nuts to get everyone else up and running with your method.

But in my experience, the novelty of a new method wears off a lot faster than you think. It’ll get you some papers, sure, but within a year or two, your reviews will go from saying “This paper shows an interesting application of an exciting new method from XYZ” to stuff like “… even if some people would find this approach already too old-fashioned for systems biology.” [Latter is a quote from an actual (generally positive, thanks!) review just a couple years after publishing the method.]

In our case with RNA FISH, we never really get anything in our reviews about the method being cool in and of itself anymore, and haven’t for a long time. Maybe if you hold on to the method for a while, you might get another paper or so. But pretty shortly thereafter, you really need to do some new science, and it better be good.

The alternative is to try and get your method out there and into as many hands as possible. Publish complete protocols, answer e-mails, work on commercialization, etc. That’s the tack that we’ve used with RNA FISH, and I think in the end it’s been very good for the lab. Yes, others can do RNA FISH now, but that’s the point! Instead of being the ones with some niche, narrowly defined by the work our lab produces, we can say that we in some small way helped shape a method that has had a real impact. Cool! It helps also that the method is simple, robust and commercially viable. The flip side of that is that now some papers don’t even cite our methods paper, they just say “We used Stellaris probes (Biosearch Technologies)”. But whatever. The point is that our work is out there in people’s hands, and that benefits us, in some cases quite directly. Consider, for example, the following quote from a (nicely positive, thanks!) review of one of our recent papers: "Many labs around the world are already using the Raj probes, in multiple systems, so the methods are there for quick translation.”

Actually, the ultimate compliment for methods stuff is to be essentially a required tool in the toolkit. Like qRT-PCR: a reviewer can easily ask you to do qRT-PCR and that would be considered a reasonable request. Looking forward, I think using CRISPR-based genome editing is likely to have a similar fate–in a couple years, people might just ask you to CRISPR a gene in or something like that, and it would similarly seem like a reasonable request. The case for this is certainly helped by the fact that folks like Feng Zhang have made excellent resources for using this tool widely available to all. Thanks! Meanwhile, time to get busy CRISPRing in the lab…

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