Telling Science's Stories

In case you didn't realize it, biology is built on an oral tradition.

By | January 1, 2008

Recently, when I needed to understand the details of how the MAPK signal transduction pathway is regulated, I did what I believe most biologists would have done: I spent several weeks trying to dig the information out of over a dozen papers published during the last decade. Many of the papers contradicted each other, making it necessary to pick sides in scientific disputes that had long since died. So my picture of the science behind the pathway regulation was murky, at best. Fortunately, toward the end of this ordeal, I went to a scientific conference on receptor tyrosine kinase signaling attended by Walter Kolch and Rony Seger, two experts in the field. A 15-minute conversation with them provided the information that had eluded me for weeks.

Every biologist has been frustrated by an inability to find a specific piece of information in the literature. You are planning an experiment and you want to know whether factor X modifies the cellular response to factor Y. How do you find this information? Reference books and review articles are little help because most are supremely superficial, and any specific information they might contain is hopelessly out of date (not to mention the problem with constantly changing biological nomenclature). Online searching is only useful if the data you are looking for happen to be in the title or abstract. Unless what you're looking for is the main subject of the paper, perusing the literature is almost hopeless.

The universal struggle that biologists undergo to find information in published papers indicates that the literature is not the actual repository of most biological knowledge. Most useful information, it seems, is not actually written down, but is passed orally between investigators. In other words, the best way to find biological information is to talk to other scientists.

The primary reason for this oral tradition is the lack of a formal structure for most biological data. Few biological principles can be written in terms of mathematical equations - instead, heuristic rules dominate. (There are exceptions, such as online databases that in most cases supplant journal articles for communicating information in the field of genomics.)

For most of biology, however, oral communication is the dominant way to transmit knowledge, with unappreciated side effects. It is well known that the best way to make rapid progress in a field is to have a big laboratory with many postdocs. Besides the advantage of having a large pool of relatively cheap labor, there is a huge advantage to being able to share and discuss relevant information with a large group working in the same area of research. Achieving a "critical mass" of investigators working and talking in a laboratory is essential for achieving rapid progress in a complex new area of research.

Small scientific conferences, too, can be an exceedingly useful way to learn a new area of research or catch up on current happenings in your own field, all via oral communication. Gordon Research Conferences are particularly useful in this respect, with their ample opportunity for exchanging research information in a more social session. Poster sessions at large meetings can also serve this purpose, but are often more hit or miss, depending on who is doing the presentation. And another benefit of networking in biology is that it helps you identify knowledgeable colleagues who can later help you with thorny questions. One day, they may come to you.

I have found it extremely rare for anyone to take advantage of verbal information. Many scientists eschew scientific meetings as a waste of time, or are afraid of sharing their knowledge, out of concern of getting "scooped" by a competitor. I believe that open and free exchange of information is essential to drive progress in biology. Although good verbal communication skills might not be a formal criterion for career advancement, it can have a profound impact on your research. Talking with your colleagues might not be as esteemed as writing papers, but it can be just as valuable in helping everyone move their research forward.

Steven Wiley is a Pacific Northwest National Laboratory Fellow and Director of PNNL's Biomolecular Systems Initiative.


Avatar of: Colin Anderson

Colin Anderson

Posts: 3

January 7, 2008

Steven Wiley makes excellent points regarding the reasons behind the missing information in the literature that is passed on only by verbal communication.\n\nHowever, the current functioning of the peer review system may create an additional major reason for the absence of certain information from the literature. Peer review forces researchers to tell a simplified story. As much as we favour parsimonious explanations, complexity can often be the reality in biology, but the complexity needs to be weeded out if the work is to be understood by reviewers in a short enough time for them to give a stamp of approval. Peer review leads to partial truths in the literature, with much of the reality left in the researcher's notebook to be passed on only via the oral tradition. If peer review could move beyond recognition of soundbites and oversimplified stories, the reality of biology would be much more readily available in the literature. Perhaps switching to a non-anonymous peer review system would go along way to reducing the need for the oral tradition.
Avatar of: Sergio Stagnaro

Sergio Stagnaro

Posts: 59

January 8, 2008

Steven Wiley writes rightly ?Most useful information, it seems, is not actually written down, but is passed orally between investigators. In other words, the best way to find biological information is to talk to other scientists?. Fist of all, that is valid also for other Medicine disciplines, like Clinics. To the precise comment of Colin Anderson, I agree with, obviously, I?dd like to add a distressing fact, that occured in my country, in Italy. Notoriously, all around the world, Cardiologists as well as General Practicioners, are unsuccessfully striving for both define and recognize Coronary Heart Disease (CHD) real risk, in order to prevent CHD.In other words, recognizing CHD real risk, especially on a large population, best of all in every individual, apparently symptomless, could play a central role in CHD primary prevention. Although I partecipated to the V International Congress of Cardiology, organized by FAC, Argentine Federation of Cardiology, in internet untill November 2007 end, with a Lecture giving information on Inherited Real Risk of CHD, diagnosed since birth with a clinical tool, i.e., using a simple stethoscope, SIC cardiologists, I tried to contact (except the Past-President, Prof Maria Grazia Modena,I thank once again), did?nt answer, avoiding to discuss on such as vital topic ( conclusion, in my opinion, communicate with italian colleagues is far more difficult than convinving peer-reviews Editors.\n\n
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 2

January 8, 2008

An oral tradition is indispensable to a scientific methodology embodying not just specialization and reductionism, but, necessarily also, dedicated to the growth of knowledge by accretion. The life sciences are investigatory like an explorer, and so are more inductively driven, unlike the physical sciences. While the two might both embody hypothetico-deductivism, in the physical sciences the experimental results are seen to test an hypothesis, while in the life sciences the results might lead to an hypothesis. The physical sciences are more deductively oriented, and are marked by the pursuit of refutation and revision. In the life sciences untested and tested hypotheses are super-ceded by new facts and hypotheses. This is why an oral tradition is so important in the life sciences where individual, personal communication between specialists obviates long hours over journal articles reporting new facts. As Mr. Wiley says, "The primary reason for this oral tradition is the lack of formal structure for most biological data. Few biological principles can be written in terms of mathematical equations - instead heuristic rules dominate." The oral tradition provides the rules for the exploration, and a heads-up on the most recent facts for the specialty.\n The deplorable part of a scientific methodology so closely-tied to an oral tradition and so mathematically challenged in terms of biological principles, is that not only are such principles unlikely to be hypothesized, but also, when they already exist, they are not likely to be revised or revisited. The classic example of this is the 1902 institutionalization of the Nernst equation to model the electrical functioning of the motor neuron. The model is known today in the form of the ionic channel model of nerve impulse propagation, or in the form of chemiosmosis, and plays a key role in the field of bioenergetics. The oral tradition informed by this equation has a pedigree that includes at least three Nobel Prizes. The author of the equation, Walther Nernst, said of it in 1888 that it was not about electricity at all, but was a thermodynamic equation meant to estimate entropic pressure. The oral tradition behind its supposed relevance to the electricity of the body is exceeded in endurance by the clinical tradition of the ineffectiveness of electrical medicine to affect any salubrious reactions.\n

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