#OverlyHonestMethods is not an indication of broken science.

A few days ago, neuropharmacologist @dr_leigh tweeted:

“incubation lasted three days because this is how long the undergrad forgot the experiment in the fridge”

The tweet was posted with the hashtag
#overlyhonestmethods and was written in the style of the methods section of a scientific publication, a usually dry and technical section of a paper where detailed methods of the experiments are laid out. The methods section is always logical and every step was done for a good scientific reason. Well as this tweet indicates, it is not always the case.

This hashtag subsequently exploded. Scientists with a twitter account around the world came out of the woodwork to offer up their own overly honest methods from the lab. I myself have contributed a few. It is the single most hilarious hashtag on twitter for a very long time. This storify post have accumulated some of the best tweets.

Most of these tweets are tongue in cheek, a bit of a joke. They are all in-jokes in science. Scientists of different disciplines will understand the overly honest methods in their own field, but not necessarily others.

For example, life scientists will all understand and appreciate that antibody incubation times are not always determined empirically, but by convenience, that is, the duration of lunch or coffee breaks. Or that a particular polymerase was used not because they are tried and tested, but because the rep was bending over backwards to sell them to you on the cheap.

The meteoric rise of #overlyhonestmethods has caught the attention of the main stream media. The Guardian and The Telegraph have both picked up on this. This topic has also spawned a number of blog posts, and it is good – because it is hilarious.

Ed Yong calls it “one of the most wonderful pieces of scientific communication I’ve seen in a long time.”

io9 calls it “the funniest thing you will read today.”

The Scientist as well as the Scientific American blogs also have entries on #overlyhonestmethods.

While this hashtag was providing a lot of us with laughs and endless entertainment, there are some who are a bit too keen to take this too seriously – or to put simply, to piss all over this fantastic parade.

This post by Dr Simon Williams from PLOS Blogs insisted on calling these in-jokes – confessions. Or whether #overlyhonestmethods will cast doubt in the public eye regarding the authority of the scientific method.

Dr Williams used carefully selected tweets to make the point of something sinister happening in scientific research. At times these points appear to come from someone getting a bit too comfortable on their high horse.

It is time to hop off.

These tweets are not confessions – they are jokes. And the authority of the scientific method is not in danger just because scientists around the world have decided to put down their pipettes and have a little fun for a change. To suggest that science is not trustworthy because of these tweets hints at someone who fundamentally misunderstands how science works.

Scientists are not naïve individuals. In fact the majority of us are pathologically sceptical about new stuff. When a ground-breaking piece of research appears in the literature, we generally do not lap it up like they are the fundamental laws of the universe. This piece of research needs to be repeated and verified.

And then repeated and verified again.

Shoddy and questionable research eventually gets sidelined and discredited within the literature, because it will not be supported by further research. It is exactly this which makes the scientific method rigorous and self correcting.

And again, #overlyhonestmethods is a joke. Don’t over think it.

About dbaptista

Postdoctoral researcher trying to make it as a scientist. Views are of my own.
This entry was posted in postdoc life and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to #OverlyHonestMethods is not an indication of broken science.

  1. Delft says:

    It’s a lovely tag, and I agree it doesn’t indicate science is broken. But we shouldn’t dismiss it as “a joke” because many of the tweets aren’t that far from the truth.

    I think we should come out into the open about two things:
    What undergrads do is not science. Because they will “excise the DNA band, drop it on the floor and scrape it into an epitube for extraction” or “shake the eppendorf like polaroid until that part of the song ended”. It’s fine, as learning science is and should be fun. But the results shouldn’t end up being quoted as evidence in real papers.
    There is a real problem with the (mis)use of statistics in the life sciences. p being chosen to match the data, data points being explained away and dropped, publication (and therefore grant) bias agains negative findings…

    Unless it’s discussed openly, it can’t improve. So don’t pretend it’s all a joke. It isn’t.

    • dbaptista says:

      I agree that some of the tweets are not too far from the truth and that the mis-use of stats is rife in a lot of publications. However I also think that science has a very efficient way of correcting itself and findings bourne out of mistakes or even misconducts do eventually get sidelined and discredited.
      That is not to say that these issues do not need to be addressed or discussed openly. They certainly do. I just do not think over-reacting to #OverlyHonestMethods will improve anything. The current issue of Nature actually details a promising approach to scientists who mis-behave – a sort of rehab for mis-guided scientists. More details here: http://www.nature.com/news/rehab-helps-errant-researchers-return-to-the-lab-1.12165

  2. stitchscience says:

    I enjoyed this post. The hashtag certainly doesn’t show science is broken , for me it just shows the quirky sense of humour working in research can give you. For the most part I do think that it is a joke. I don’t think the hashtag is something that is meant to be taken overly seriously, all field have problems which off course need to discussed openly but all fields should also be able to laugh at themselves once in a while. Science can be quite isolating when you get wrapped up in the research etc, sometimes it has to be said that it is nice to come together. #Overlyhonestmethods has provided another means of communication , one that is a little more light hearted than the usual methods between scientists.

  3. Julie Gould says:

    I agree that the hashtag shouldn’t be taken seriously, but there can be an underlying message behind some of them. The scientific method, in general, will not be contested, but it will be the perception of what a scientist is, that will be. Like stitchscience says, it shows the quirky sense of humour that science can give you. The non-scientific public will not get a glimpse of that, rather than seeing scientists as boring/nerdy/overly obsessive etc. So although some of the “confessions” may be a joke, the overriding message is an important one. I interviewed @dr_leigh about the hashtag, take a look: wp.me/p2UTA8-7z

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