We just published a paper in PNAS that showed something really cool. In summary, we identified the small molecules produced by an inedible bacterium and used as weapons against other clones and secret sauce for the host Dictyostelium discoideum clone. Second, we showed that the host also carries a variant of that weapon Pseudomonas fluorescens clone that has become edible by losing a whole suite of defensive pathways with a single stop codon. Third, we showed that the food probably evolved from the weapon.
What do I mean by we? The work was a wonderful collaboration between two labs, one with a focus on small molecules in symbioses and the other with a focus on social evolution in microbes. The two postdocs that did most of the lab work were chemist Pierre Stallforth at Harvard, and biologist Debbie Brock at Washington University in St. Louis. Also involved were a graduate student at Harvard, Alexandra Cantley, and another postdoc, Xiangjun Tian, at Washington University in St. Louis. The lab heads who were very invoved were Jon Clardy at Harvard and David Queller and me at Washington University in St. Louis. We all contributed hundreds of hours to this project which began more than two years ago.
I could tell you exactly what each of us at Wash U did, down to all the lab meetings, discussions, email exchanges as we struggled to get everything just right after we had spent two years in research. I could show you earlier versions of figures that needed to be changed. I could simply leave it at the 86 between-group emails I have in my mail from Pierre. Written and verbal communications with Debbie would be in the thousands. The point is, this really was a team effort. Remove any member of the team and the paper would not have existed in anything like its current form. Fundamental insights on the significance of the discoveries that helped meld the paper came from everyone. We worked well together.
So why am I so cranky? It is because reporters end up telling the story that is seen by most people and this time one of the best messed up. I understand that a reporter wants to tell the story and doesn’t really care about who did what. But if they are going to use names, they should get it right. They cannot assume that the work was done only in the lab of the last author, for example. Sometimes the last author isn’t even the lab head, even when that head is deeply involved in the research and secured the funding for it.
In this particular case that has me so bothered, Ed Yong initially made the work sound like it came entirely from the Harvard lab and left us out completely. Someone must have told him how inaccurate this is, or maybe he saw my Facebook post. He fixed it by adding in our postdoc, Debbie Brock, calling her the team leader and the Harvard postdoc Pierre Stallforth a postdoc. It is fine to keep the names to the two main postdocs, I suppose, if he called them that. You would think the brilliant Ed Yong would get it right the second time around. Remember that he is one of my very favorite science writers.
The public misunderstands both the content and the process of science so much, reporters should take care to get both right. Every author on that paper did something important. I feel sad when the human side of the story gets corrupted.