Thursday, 25 August 2016 19:31

Zika Social

Written by 
Published in Zika Diaries
Brain slice from a day 15 mouse embryo stained with DAPI (blue), rabbit antibody against Tbr1 (white) or RFP marking migrating post-mitotic neurons (red). Brain slice from a day 15 mouse embryo stained with DAPI (blue), rabbit antibody against Tbr1 (white) or RFP marking migrating post-mitotic neurons (red).

When I began writing this weekly column in April 2016, my goal was to document our adventures through the world of Zika virus research by describing our goals, findings and thoughts on this emerging virus. I knew that I might run into obstacles while describing our findings, concerns that were confirmed after the 13th post (A Zika Window on Brain Development).

In that article, I described how we are using Zika virus to probe brain development in mice. The illustration (reproduced here) showed how we could look at the cytoarchitecture of brain development with antibodies against cellular proteins, and determine the effect of Zika virus infection on this process.

A week after the article was posted here at Zika Diaries, I published the same image on my Instagram account. That’s when the Zika hit the fan. My Columbia University Medical Center collaborator, Amy Rosenfeld, asked me to remove the image from Instagram. It revealed too much about our experimental trajectory, and in this competitive Zika World, we could not take that risk.

In addition, Dr. Rosenfeld, my collaborator for many years (see 'A Tiny Zika Laboratory') objected to my use of text describing brain development from a grant application that we had submitted.

In response, I removed the image from Instagram, and deleted parts of the text that came from the grant application. As I was a co-author of the grant application, I did not feel that it was inappropriate to use the text in the Zika Diaries post, but in retrospect, I should have added Dr. Rosenfeld as a co-author.

I’ve been writing and podcasting about science for many years, but it’s always been the science of other investigators that has been peer-reviewed and published. Because the information is in the public domain, it can be discussed in public without any repercussions.

Writing about ongoing work is a very different situation. Science is a competitive field, and no scientist wants to give away results or methods before they can be published. The reason is simple—journal publications are needed to obtain funding for research, and without funding, there is no laboratory and no research.

I fully understand how Amy felt about my communicating their work. She is a young investigators hoping to establish a career, and wants to retain any advantage possible. I, on the other hand, am a tenured professor with many years of research experience and much less to lose by revealing results before publication. I’m also very, very interested in communicating science to the public.

Nevertheless, I do feel that it is important to let the public in on the day to day progress of science: after all, they are paying for much of the work and would like to know how their tax dollars are being spent. Somehow I have to balance that objective with Amy’s career aspirations. That won’t be difficult: I can still convey the excitement of success and failure, progress and regression, without revealing any secrets that might compromise careers.

Last modified on Friday, 18 August 2017 13:26
Vincent Racaniello

Vincent Racaniello, Ph.D. is Professor of Microbiology at Columbia University Medical Center. As principal investigator of his laboratory, he oversees the research that is carried out by Ph.D. students and postdoctoral fellows. He also teaches virology to graduate students, as well as medical, dental, and nursing students.

Vincent entered the world of social media in 2004 with virology blog, followed by This Week in Virology. Videocasts of lectures from his undergraduate virology course are on iTunes University and virology blog. You can find him on WikipediaTwitter, Facebook, and Instagram. His goal is to be Earth’s virology professor. In recognition of his contribution to microbiology education, he was awarded the Peter Wildy Prize for Microbiology Education by the Society for General Microbiology. His Wildy Lecture provides an overview of how he uses social media for science communication.