Telling Science's Stories

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

Jan 1, 2008
Steven Wiley

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are little help because most are supremely superficial, and any specific information they might contain is hopelessly out of date (not to mention the problem with constantly changing biological nomenclature).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.