NATURALLY SELECTED

[ Fri. Apr. 30. 2010 ]

 

Many thanks to readers who responded to my inaugural editorial (in the February issue), calling for feedback on the “next new thing.” To some, the thing was the t-shirt (we’re working on that), others wanted hats, while the more persnickety called for a total revamp of scientific research, publishing, and reporting. Here ideas ran the gamut from ditching peer review, to mandating interdisciplinary-infused research, to less US-centricity, to investigative myth-busting, to crowd-sourced experimental design, to a “Journal of Fantastic Failures.” And there resonated a need for context and depth. Instead of, or in addition to, pouncing on what’s new and now, you said papers should be examined retrospectively—after weeks, months, and even years to reveal which hypotheses and experiments have shone light upon the dark and vast terrain of the unknown.

Every generation of scientists must keep the enlightenment flame alive, and much has been written about whether those weaned on the Internet will cause that flame to flicker and dim or to burn more brightly. Yet 150 years ago, certainly pre-Internet, Thoreau had premonitions:

I fear that the character of my knowledge is from year to year becoming more distinct and scientific; that, in exchange for vistas wide as heaven’s scope, I am being narrowed down to the field of the microscope. I see details, not wholes nor the shadow of the whole. I count some parts, and say, “I know.”

Back to the future, in a stimulating debate on Edge.org, based on Nicholas Carr’s Atlantic Monthly article “Is Google Making Us Stupid” (Jul/Aug 2008), W. Danny Hillis opined:

Our problem is not so much that we are stupider, but rather that the world is demanding that we become smarter. Forced to be broad, we sacrifice depth. We skim, we summarize, we skip the fine print and, all too often, we miss the fine point.

There’s no doubt that as today’s science fragments into ever more specialization, the breadth required for smartness is overwhelming. Can the molecular biologist afford to ignore developments in systems biology, bioinformatics, structural biology, and now even physics? And can the stream of science news and commentaries in all their incarnations—including RSS feeds, blogs, and Twitter—fulfill this requirement and spark the leaps forward?

“It’s not information overload, it’s filter failure,” said Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody, at the Web 2.0 conference in 2008. For biomedical researchers, it turns out, Faculty of 1000 is the made-to-order filter, with depth to match its breadth. It’s a post-publication review service by 5,000 of the world’s top biomedical researchers, who select, rate and comment on the top 2 percent of papers (soon to reach 90,000!) in their specialties. In this issue of The Scientist, and appearing at http://www.the-scientist.com, we introduce ourselves as the magazine of F1000, with the aim of spotlighting, de-jargonizing, and providing context for the Faculty’s highest-rated papers.

For instance, list lovers can check out the latest top-rated papers on Page 30, as well as a featured “Hidden Jewel”—this month, a description of biotechnologist Alex Shneider’s classification of four scientist-types, from innovator (Stage 1) to synthesizer (Stage 4). In the Literature section, Suzanne Pfeffer of the Stanford University School of Medicine, a cell biology Faculty Member (FM), describes intriguing findings about molecular events underlying protein transport in the Golgi complex. Additional “surprises” are revealed in three papers from the Faculties of molecular, structural, and developmental biology. Of course we’ll continue our brand of investigative journalism—see the feature on the FBI’s newfound and increasingly invasive interest in biology research—to provide a perspective on trends that individual top-rated papers cannot offer.

Our Web offerings are expanding, too. Introduced last month, “Naturally Selected: Biology’s Personal Best” at http://blog.the-scientist.com, provides a highly selective coverage of scientific news, evaluations, books, trends, and cultural events that will prompt those “Aha” connections. And with that, we may have the germ of an idea for a t-shirt.

Correction (April 29): When originally posted, the article listed the author of an article in Atlantic Monthly as David Carr. The author's name is Nicholas Carr. The Scientist regrets the error.

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