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Thursday, 25 August 2016 19:31

Zika Social

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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). Photo by David Doobin. 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). Photo by David Doobin.

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 two Columbia University Medical Center collaborators, Amy Rosenfeld and David Doobin, asked me to remove the image from Instagram. They thought that 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 and David felt about my communicating their work. They are young investigators hoping to establish careers for themselves, and they want 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 the career aspirations of Amy and David. 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, 02 September 2016 12:26
Vincent Racaniello

Vincent Racaniello is a virologist at Columbia University and science communicator. He is using Zika Diaries to communicate the personal and behind the scenes experiences of his laboratory as it moves from working on poliovirus (for 35 years) to Zika virus.

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