An open source project aims to crowdsource a common language for experimental design.
Contributing author: Tim Gardner
Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on PLOS Tech; it is republished here with permission.
From Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press to the Internet of today, technology has enabled faster communication, and faster communication has accelerated technology development. Today, we can zip photos from a mountaintop in Switzerland back home to San Francisco with hardly a thought, but that wasn’t so trivial just a decade ago. It’s not just selfies that are being sent; it’s also product designs, manufacturing instructions, and research plans — all of it enabled by invisible technical standards (e.g., TCP/IP) and language standards (e.g., English) that allow machines and people to communicate.
But in the laboratory sciences (life, chemical, material, and other disciplines), communication remains inhibited by practices more akin to the oral traditions of a blacksmith shop than the modern Internet. In a typical academic lab, the reference description of an experiment is the long-form narrative in the “Materials and Methods” section of a paper or a book. Similarly, industry researchers depend on basic text documents in the form of Standard Operating Procedures. In both cases, essential details of the materials and protocol for an experiment are typically written somewhere in a long-forgotten, hard-to-interpret lab notebook (paper or electronic). More typically, details are simply left to the experimenter to remember and to the “lab culture” to retain.
At the dawn of science, when a handful of researchers were working on fundamental questions, this may have been good enough. But nowadays this archaic method of protocol record keeping and sharing is so lacking that half of all biomedical studies are estimated to be irreproducible, wasting $28 billion each year of U.S. government funding. With more than $400 billion invested each year in biological and chemical research globally, the full cost of irreproducible research to the public and private sector worldwide could be staggeringly large. Read more…