How to read and understand a scientific paper: a guide for non-scientists

Violent metaphors

Update (8/30/14): I’ve written a shorter version of this guide for teachers to hand out to their classes. If you’d like a PDF, shoot me an email: jenniferraff (at) utexas (dot) edu.

Last week’s post (The truth about vaccinations: Your physician knows more than the University of Google) sparked a very lively discussion, with comments from several people trying to persuade me (and the other readers) that their paper disproved everything that I’d been saying. While I encourage you to go read the comments and contribute your own, here I want to focus on the much larger issue that this debate raised: what constitutes scientific authority?

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The truth about vaccinations: Your physician knows more than the University of Google

Violent metaphors

“A cousin of my mom’s survived Polio and lived the rest of his life with its effects. He was not expected to live past his teens but made it to his 40s. I am grateful that modern science can protect us from Polio and other diseases and I choose to take advantage of modern science to give my kid better odds of not dying from a preventable disease. I had heard a lot of noise from people claiming vaccines caused Autism, but never saw any clear evidence. It just seemed to me like people really wanted to point to something as the cause and they latched onto vaccines.”–Jennifer

I have been getting into a lot of discussions about whether vaccines are safe in the last few days. I’m not sure if it’s because of a post going viral about a (terrible) Italian court ruling last year (In contrast, American courts

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Stem cells out of urine? I smell something fishy about it (unless I am just an unfair reviewer)

Everyone has heard about the famous “artificial teeth grown from differentiated stem cells grown from urine (!)”, making the news outlet everywhere. When I see big science make big news, I am always here like…”wait a minute” and go to the source as journalists often make so much distortion of the facts to make their article juicier.
First of all, some articles mentioned that the article was published in “Cell Stem Cells” journal that is a stellar journal with a stellar impact factor (in brief it is the “Science/Nature“, the holy Grail for any stem cell researcher). Indeed the paper was published in Cell Regeneration, an open-access journal and I found surprising that it got accepted straight forward (submitted on May 9th, accepted on June 8th that a pretty fast turnaround and no revision was mentioned).
Second thing is the choice of the stem cells and their technique. Why to choose urine cells for hiPSCs where almost everyone use either skin fibroblasts, cord blood stem cells or bone-marrow mesenchymal stem cells? They claim to use the urine of three patients volunteers but also lack to explain how they obtained the pluripotency at first place (non-integrative approach) that is a bit fishy if you want to have other researchers do the same in more common cells.
Then the tooth engineering seems very strange but here I cannot discuss much as it is out my research expertise but why would you implant your differentiated epithelial cells with the mesenchymal cells (from an embryonic tooth) into an adult kidney? The exploit here would have to have these cells calcify on a bioengineering tissue (a biomaterial scaffold as published to have stem cells differentiating into bone cells).
My conclusion is in science follow the same proverb “not everything that shines is made of gold” and usually Big Science avoid the breaking news unless it gets published in behemoths peer-reviewed journals.

That’s not plagiarism, it’s an “administrative error”

Retraction Watch

Front June 2013Our list of ways that authors and editors find to dance around writing the word “plagiarism” seems to grow longer by the week. Today, we can add “administrative error” to that collection of euphemisms, thanks to authors from South Africa and the editors of an education journal.

Here’s the notice for “Development studies students as constructors of classroom pedagogy in practice: Observed classroom dynamics from the Kingdom of Lesotho,” published in Educational Research in October 2010:

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