'net undermining experiments

Rick Neubig RNeubig at umich.edu
Tue Jul 9 11:56:37 EST 1996

James Kling wrote:
>    I apologise for this cross-posting, but I think its relevant to
> all the groups.  Please respond to 103322.523 at compuserve.com.
>    I'm writing a story on the internet's negative impact on science
> experiments.  We all know how it has made information transfer
> easier.  But what about over-dependence on this information?
>    Has reliance on the net in some way torpedoed an experiment or
> interfered with your science.  A hypothetical example -- a
> biochemist downloads the coordinates for the crystal structure of a
> protein, then does a series of modeling experiments assuming that
> these are correct.  He or she later realizes that someone posted
> incorrect coordinates, and the experiments are nil and void.  You
> can imagine many such examples.  If you've had any such unfortunate
> experience, I'd love to hear from you. 

This problem is not dependent on the net. It is an intrinsic problem 
with the way science is done as a series of advances and retreats. 
Some of the most exciting theories are eventually proven wrong. That 
doesn't mean that it was wrong to advance them. All of science is about 
hypothesis and testing.

At the more mundane level, the same thing happens when data from one lab 
can't be reproduced by another. This occurs often and may have to do 
with subtle differences in the reagents or conditions used.

Along the lines of your example on an incorrect structure from the net, 
my lab spent over a thousand $ to make a synthetic peptide based on a 
published sequence. It turned out that that portion of the sequence was 
wrong (read out of frame) so our peptide did nothing. Luckily another 
colleague told me the correct sequence and we made the correct peptide 
which has been very useful in our studies. This all occurred before the 

It is possible that quick access may give people access to information 
before peer review but they should then (as in the past) take that 
information for what it is worth. 

Just my 2 cents.

Rick Neubig

> If you'd prefer to be
> anonymous, that's fine (I understand). If you have any other ideas
> or insights as to how the internet could  have a detrimental effect
> on science, please let me know.
>    About me: I am a contributing writer to Nature Biotechnology, and
> I've written for numerous other magazines.  I also have a master's
> degree in organic chemistry from Indiana University.
> --
> Jim Kling
> Science Communications
> El Paso, TX
> 915/587-6895

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