One day in March 2005, Reed Cartwright jotted his thoughts on his blog, De Rerum Natura, after reading a paper that had just been published in Nature. Cartwright, then a PhD student in genetics at the University of Georgia, was skeptical.
Susan Lolle and colleagues at Purdue University had found a peculiar phenomenon regarding a mutant gene, called hothead (hth), in Arabidopsis. In parents carrying the mutant hth gene, 10% of the progeny ended up not carrying it, and instead carried a reverted grandparental allele not found in their parents. They postulated that the pattern was due to a non-Mendelian inherited cache of RNA that served as a backup for restoring ancestral alleles (S. J. Colle et al., Nature, 434: 505-9, 2005).
Cartwright didn't agree, and he blogged about an alternative hypothesis. He argued that the hothead gene mutation may cause an increase in mutagenic compounds - which would increase mutations over the entire Arabidopsis genome - and that the reverted progeny were just a selection of rare cells. "It was stream-of-consciousness thinking," says Cartwright. "I'm not a plant geneticist and had no interest in really publishing it, so I wrote it up on the blog."
That wasn't the end of it, however. Six months later, Cartwright received an E-mail from Luca Comai, a plant geneticist from the University of California, Davis, who had independently come up with the same idea and was in the process of publishing it in Plant Cell. "A friend of mine just brought to my attention your blog on hothead," Comai wrote. "I have developed an explanation for the described phenomenon that is nearly identical to the one you posted ... I think that I should acknowledge your work in some way. One way would be for you to be a coauthor."
Out of the blue, Cartwright had blogged himself into a scientific publication. "I was completely surprised," says Cartwright. "It was a different medium, but I guess I sort of scooped him." The situation still amuses Comai. "We came up with virtually the same hypothesis," he says, "and in discussion with the editors at Plant Cell it seemed most appropriate to coauthor the paper" - a decision Comai made partly because blogs are not commonly referenced in scientific papers (L. Comai, R. Cartwright, Plant Cell, 17: 2856-8 2005.).
While it's debatable whether Cartwright's blog post scooped Comai or Comai was just being noble, it does seem to be one of the first cases of a blog entry leading to a formal scientific paper, says Laurence Moran, a professor of biochemistry at the University of Toronto. Moran recently started experimenting with his own blog, Sandwalk. He says that nobody at the North Carolina Science Blogging Conference in January had an example like Cartwright's.
Cartwright relayed his experience to the conference and also on his blog. The incident points to blogs, and their open-source ethos, becoming more widely looked at (and written) by scientists.
Blogs are not just for commenting on published papers; they are also used for posting novel data. In April 2006, Bora Zivkovic posted an undergraduate paper about aggression in crayfish on his blog, Circadiana. "It was undergraduate research that was impossible to continue," says Zivkovic, a graduate student at North Carolina State University at Raleigh, who coorganized the blogging conference. It took a lot of work to get permission to post the paper, he says, but in the end people thought it better for the paper to be accessible than to collect dust.
Zivkovic concedes that he has had less luck in convincing people that he should post his dissertation on his blog before he publishes it. "But if and when I get to having my own lab I'd like to be completely open," he says, "having a live blog where everyone posts what happens in the lab every day."
Jean-Claude Bradley and his colleagues at Drexel University are already experimented with such a live lab-log. Their blog, Useful Chemistry, is being put forward as "an attempt at open source science in chemistry." They post their raw data and ideas for experiments on tropical diseases in an attempt to build collaborations, hoping it will spark pharmaceutical development on neglected diseases.
It's that type of interaction and community building that is the real draw of blogging about your science, says Moran, although he doesn't expect blogging to be recognized as a first stake on a published scientific work anytime soon. "It's nice to think that people are going to be as generous as [Comai]," says Moran, "but overall you can't expect to get as much credit for a blog as an idea going through the rigor of a peer-reviewed article."