Sunday, December 14, 2014

Origin and impact of stories in life sciences research: is it all Cell’s fault?

I found this article by Solomon Snyder to be informative:

Quick summary: Benjamin Levin realized in the 80s that the tools of molecular biology had matured to the point where one could answer a question “soup to nuts”. So his goal was to start a journal that would publish such “stories” that aimed to provide a definitive resolution to a particular problem. That journal was Cell, and, well, the rest is history–Cell is the premier journal in the field of molecular and cellular biology, and is home to many seminal studies. Snyder then says that Nature and Science and the other journals quickly picked up on this same ideal, with the result that we now have a pervasive desire to “tell a story” in biomedical research papers.

I was talking with Olivia about this, and we agreed that this is pretty bad for science. Many issues, the most obvious of which is that it encourages selective omission of data and places undue emphasis on “packaging” of results. Here are some thoughts from before that I had on storytelling.

I also wonder if the era of the scientific story is drawing to a close in molecular biology. The 80s were dominated by the “gene jock”: phenotype, clone, biochemistry, story, Cell paper. I feel like we are now coming up on the scientific limitations of that approach. Molecular biology has in many ways matured in the sense that we understand many of the basic mechanisms underlying cellular function, like how DNA gets replicated and repaired, how cells move their chromosomes, and elements of transcription, but we still have a very limited understanding of how all this fits together for overall cellular function. Maybe these problems are too big for a single Cell paper to contain the “story”–in fact, maybe it’s too big to be just a single story. Maybe we’re in the era of the molecular biology book.

As an example, take cancer biology. It seems like big papers often run from characterizing a gene to curing mice to looking for evidence for the putative mechanism in patient samples. Yet, I think it is fair to say that we have not made much progress overall in using molecular biology to cure cancer in humans. What then is the point of those epic papers crammed full of an incredible range of experiments? Perhaps it would be better to have smaller, more exploratory papers that nibble away at some much larger problems in the field.

In physics, it seems like theorists play a role in defining the big questions that then many people go about trying to answer. I wonder if an approach like this might have some place in modern molecular biology. What if we had people define a few big problems and really think about them, and then we all tried to attack different parts of it experimentally based on that hard thinking? Maybe we’re not quite there yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this happened in the next 10-20 years.

(Note: this is most certainly not an endorsement for ENCODE-style “big science”. Those are essentially large-scale stamp collecting expeditions whose value is wholly different. I’m talking about developing a theory like quantum mechanics and then trying to prove it, which is a very different thing–and something largely missing from molecular biology today. Of course, whether such theories even exist in molecular biology is a valid question…)


  1. Re: the need for theory to guide, say, cancer biology, maybe we already have some--but not from cancer biologists:

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