Check out the #overlyhonestmethods twitter hashtag. In addition to being humorous, #overlyhonestmethods tweets provide insight into the real world of science. Science is “supposed” to be about carefully controlled conditions. We contrast what happens in the laboratory to what happens in the real world to illustrate that the real world has many variables and unpredictable conditions. But scientists are real people and the laboratory is a place in the real world just as much as any other place.
When we write up our data, our description of the methods we used is typically cut and dry. We only explain why we selected the details if something diverges from what most other scientists do—or if the reviewer asks why. Here are the real reasons behind the methods.
Scientists are human, with human needs.
“I picked a different solvent because I was tired of inadvertently huffing ether fumes all day”
“my timepoints were 1hr and 24hrs not because they made sense, but because i have to eat and sleep”
“We stirred the Lith-Al reaction for 1.5h to ensure completion of lunch.”
“Samples incubated at RT for 15 minutes so I could get a coffee and update my Facebook status.”
Sometimes scientists make mistakes.
“Cells were incubated with transduction virus for 17 instead of 18 hours becausw it was Saturday and I overslept.”
“Samples were held at 4 degrees Celsius because I forgot them in the centrifuge”
Have you ever tried to adjust the pH of a solution? It’s easy to miss the mark. “pH of buffer B was adjusted with HCl… then back a bit with NaOH… then a bit more HCl..”
Unsurprisingly, trainees are more prone to mistakes.
“Exact concentrations were not reported because we realized the new grad student can’t calculate molarity”
When scientists don’t have the resources they need, they get creative.
“The reaction was cooled in a snow-ice bath because the ice machine was broken”
“All the control blood samples came from lab members.”
“Taq purchased from colleague b/c sending postdoc for pickup via vespa is cheaper than Roche’s shipping”
Or just make do.
“Blood samples were spun at 1500rpm b/c the centrifuge made a scary noise at higher speeds.”
Sometimes they simply don’t have enough resources.
“the editor doesnt understand the reason I didnt run additional experiments is because I knew my PI wouldnt pay for them”
“we didn’t read half the papers we cite because they are behind a paywall” The paywall limitation came up a lot. Most people are not aware of how hidden much of science is. Your taxpayer dollars don’t buy you the right to learn the results of the science you funded! Recent legislation decrees that any publications resulting from research funded by the government must be made publicly available, so this limitation is changing.
Or they have some resources but not quite enough.
“We kept using this reagent despite problematic results, because we already paid for it and couldn’t afford another one”
“Only the descriptive statistics are presented, b/c I don’t know how to analyse data that is not normally distributed.” Google it! Ask someone! Take a class!
But sometimes they have too many resources.
“We used a neural network to model the system because the industry sponsor thought it sounded cool”
“Experiment 2 was done as an excuse to use a bizarre piece of equipment we ‘inherited’ from a closed lab”
Or too many chefs!
“Experiment 2 will test the hypothesis that used to make sense before it was contorted by my committee.”
“Experiment was repeated 12 times at the insistence of an irrational PI who disagreed with the result.”
Sometimes we realize that we haven’t really known why we were doing what we were doing. This is my favorite #overlyhonestmethods.
“All the experimenters and authors were blinded to the study’s hypotheses.”
Rather than work out every method anew, researchers rely on scientists of the past who—we hope—optimized the method.
“We use this dilution because that’s what the other dude did.”
“im unsure why the method was chosen,every1 involved in the decision has now left.but im sure there was some logic to it”
Scientists are subject to the vagaries of the real world.
“Assay M&M said “room temp” (i.e.20C) but heatwave that week so on the bench it was 28 C”
Scientists lose faith in science all the time.
“Compound was isoluted by removing solvent in vacuo, and saying a short prayer to the gods that the reaction worked”
“Mice were sacrificed on d3, entrails read, prayers offered to Quetzacoatl, and PCR begun.”
Finally, scientists just wanna have fun.
“the eppendorf tubes were “shaken like a polaroid picture” until that part of the song ended”
“All optical components were purchased from Thorlabs because of their free “Lab Snacks”.”
Some might decry the waste of taxpayer money when scientists make mistakes, but no one is more frustrated than the scientists, whose careers depend on lost data. If we want scientific progress, we have to accept that mistakes are part of that. And how else would we train the next generation of scientists if we don’t allow them their share of newbie errors?