When the social web gets involved in science: the case of Arsenic Life
In 2010, some researchers claimed that bacteria (found in a lake which contained more arsenic than normal) could incorporate arsenic in their DNA instead of phosphorus, which had been thought to be a necessary requirement in the constitution of any DNA. These results made a big impact on the scientific world and beyond: for the first time, the arsenic which the wider public rather knew to be a very efficient poison was considered as an element of life. Arsenic being present in space, the possibility of extra-terrestrial life was thus demonstrated.
Science edited the result of this research. The peers chose to agree with the conclusions of the article, but it was not to be published until a NASA conference on extra-terrestrial life. It was published during the conference – the authors and publishers of the article probably expected Twitter and the blogs to provide tremendous resonance for their discovery. But that is not what happened:
As we are reminded by the Slate article giving an account of the story, the tweeters and bloggers who attended the conference were not "amateurs in their pyjamas", but scientists in white coats who, no sooner had the Science article been published, began to criticise the method and question the conclusions, even going as far as suggesting complementary tests to confirm or rather contradict the ideas put forward.
The controversy ended after the said tests were performed and ruled out the possibility of incorporating arsenic instead of phosphorus in a DNA.
The main interest of the Arseniclife affair, which took place mainly on Twitter (#arseniclife), was to question a few principles of the scientific community:
- The embargo on publications may negatively impact the quality of articles
- Corollary to the first principle: a limited peer review is no warranty of reliability, quite the opposite
- Scientists are now present all over social networks including Twitter. Fast communication through blogging or microblogging is not necessarily contradictory with the extended time of scientific development, fast communication being intended as a part of this extended time.
A short history
frieze: Damien Belvèze, June 2013 CC-by
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To cite this guide
Belveze, Damien, Le Men Hervé. "Social networks for researchers". In UEB (Université Européenne de Bretagne). Form@doct. Rennes: UEB, May 2013 (last updated on 03.07.13). Available on: