NASA can’t have it both ways

Not to anthropomorphize a government agency or anything, but NASA is really confused in their social media actions.

I’m the millionth person to point this out but it seems worthwhile for me to do so if for no other reason than to be able to find the information later by searching my blog.

NASA has had the policy and practice (and mandate?) to share their science with “the public.”  The public being US taxpayers, but also related scientists worldwide, children, and lots of other groups. They do this through websites and tv shows and more recently podcasts, blogs, and twitter. They publish scientific findings in scholarly journals, present them at meetings, and share scientific data freely through many different archives.  Organizations that receive funding from NASA are required to do the same.* NASA typically does a pretty good job of this – partly because their stuff is so very fascinating that it would be hard not to have a cool and interesting message about it but mostly because they have lots of professional communicators, outreach professionals, and experienced scientists who work hard at it.

With that said, what on earth (or in space, ha!) are they thinking in this reaction to Dr. Redfield’s evaluation of their recent microbiology/arsenic research? David Dobbs has a good blog post describing this. Dobbs quotes

From “NASA’s arsenic microbe science slammed,” at CBC News:

When NASA spokesman Dwayne Brown was asked about public criticisms of the paper in the blogosphere, he noted that the article was peer-reviewed and published in one of the most prestigious scientific journals. He added that Wolfe-Simon will not be responding to individual criticisms, as the agency doesn’t feel it is appropriate to debate the science using the media and bloggers. Instead, it believes that should be done in scientific publications.

My immediate concern isn’t whether the science is good or that the criticisms are valid, but certainly if NASA intends to engage with the “public” and not just broadcast to us, they need to respond to these criticisms.  Further, these responses should be in an appropriate manner – a blog post or a comment on Dr. Redfield’s blog. Dr Redfield’s blog is well known and well-respected and she registered the post with ResearchBlogging. Her comments section is also very informative. I agree that NASA shouldn’t necessarily be expected to engage on all fronts with people linking to their work, but as Dobbs says, this blog is different.

Moreover, this paper is being reviewed on many blogs by scientists who are expert in this field and adjacent fields, and has been reviewed on F1000 (some links from Code for Life blog).  If you have a press release on a paper, then you should be prepared to continue the engagement after you have broadcast your message.

The paper’s author has also stated that replies should be in a “scientific venue.”**  My dear scientist, the web is a scientific venue! Haven’t you heard? This is the #altmetrics or post-publication peer review we’ve been talking about for quite a while.

Interestingly, some of the comments on the original post by Redfield basically indicate that responding on blogs is only for those who don’t have standing or who are not qualified. Grrr. That person needs to be educated! (I do hope that the technical comment or whatever that is eventually sent to Science attributes some credit to the commenters of that thread – a lot of good stuff there).

Update: Randy left a nice comment (thank you) which caused me to go and look at updates on the Guardian site. This caught my eye:

"'Any discourse will have to be peer-reviewed in the same manner as our paper was, and go through a vetting process so that all discussion is properly moderated,' wrote Felisa Wolfe-Simon of the NASA Astrobiology Institute. "The items you are presenting do not represent the proper way to engage in a scientific discourse and we will not respond in this manner."

So the proper way to engage in scientific discourse is to hold press conferences (2 now)? Gosh, maybe I should toss my entire dissertation because I've been witnessing scientific discourse at conferences, in conference hallways, on twitter, in blogs, on wikis, on post-publication peer review sites... Hrumph.

* One more time for the record. My place of work of course (google me) gets money from NASA. This post is my opinion only and does not reflect that of my place of work or any of the employees there. This post is purely from the point of view of an observer of scholarly communication.

** Do note that I am American. I put my . in my “” Canadians, Australians, and Brits for some crazy reason put it outside.

11 responses so far

  • Randy Reichardt says:

    .: Well-written critique, Christina. I wasn't aware of the backlash until I read your post. Here's a link to the Guardian page that is tracking this story:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2010/dec/02/nasa-life-form-bacteria-arsenic

    It appears many scientists are agreeing with Rosie Redfield. I read the Wired article, which is also quite good.

  • erik says:

    great post - especially the astute anthropomorphizations of NASA! ; )

  • Thanks, Christina, for following these things. As I'm mentioning on Twitter, this is a real use case for the Social Semantic Web. What if NASA could view only the comments from the top scientists in the area, and follow the discussion from a simple interface that aggregated comments? I think that would mitigate the problem. Peer review on the Web can be accomplished post-publication--so if peer-review is the real issue, that's something they could attack by, well, asking the help of reviewers!

  • Grant says:

    In similar vein, I found that Felisa Wolfe-Simon had tweeted,

    “Discussion about scientific details MUST be within a scientific venue so that we can come back to the public with a unified understanding.”

    See: http://twitter.com/ironlisa/status/11579028288839680

    Taking nothing away from David Dodds excellent piece, to date I think that Carl Zimmer’s round-up of opinion on this work is one of the better (the best?) efforts to sum things up thus far: http://www.slate.com/id/2276919/

    About your grammar nitpick, I’ve always thought closing periods belong within quotation marks. (Provided that the end of the quote is the end of a sentence.) This from a New Zealander: we use what is basically ‘British’ English, if that makes sense, albeit with different slang! ;-)

    • Christina Pikas says:

      The grammar nitpick is actually a very obscure reference to a commenter on the original Redfield post. Someone basically said that because she put the . outside the "" early in the post, it made her work look sloppy and therefore less credible.

      If it's not a Brit thing, maybe it's a Canada thing? I do know that I've argued this point with someone and both of us were able to cite style guides so I thought it was regional.

      • chrisj says:

        British usage is that the stop belongs outside the quotation marks unless it is part of the quotation; I'd imagine that Canadians and others use the same rule. Of course, if the quotation does actually finish at the end of a sentence, you can argue whether it's better to include the stop in the quote or not. The usual argument for having the stop outside the quotes is to prevent ambiguity (although there aren't many cases where there'd be any). Another argument I've seen for not including the stop in the quote, and having a stop outside the quotes instead, is that that's what you'd do with brackets (because having a sentence end like this one looks weird and wrong.)

        • It's not just periods, it's also commas--and you can think of it as "typographic vs. syntactic." U.S. printed English follows typographic rules--the comma and the period always come inside the quote because it looks ugly to have them outside--where most other English versions follow syntactic rules, that is, the period or comma only comes inside the quote marks if it's actually part of the quote (and not part of the surrounding sentence. if any).

          Note that all variants, as far as I know, follow syntactic rules for question marks and exclamation points--and, I believe, always put semicolons and colons outside the quote marks.

          All offtopic, of course, but I have nothing to add to your actual post.

          • chrisj says:

            The thing is, of course, that the version that looks ugly is the one you're not used to - whichever one that happens to be. This is true of a huge range of human activities, because somewhere deep in our brains we know that things that don't look the way we expect them to are wrong (and, ultimately, might indicate a predator).

  • Felica Wolfe-Simon is in a very tricky position right now, and I don't blame her for deciding to keep her head down until the furor settles. The wording of her response sounds like the work of NASA's PR people.

    p.s. I never remember where I'm supposed to put the period (with respect to the quote mark); I think I invent a new rule every time.

    • Christina Pikas says:

      Thanks for commenting! It could be that her reply was worded (or edited? or written?) by the PR people, but she tweeted it! Ironic, no? It does make sense for her to lie low for a bit and then come out with a more thoughtful response.

      I've been corrected on the . "" too many times by American English teachers, so I tend to remember it, but then again, I'm weird.

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