Tina Hesman Saey discusses research reproducibility

By Guimel Sibingo

Science writer Tina Hesman Saey usually does not write about the culture of science.

Science reproducibility is an emerging topic causing debate in the scientific community. Photo courtesy of pixabay.com

Science reproducibility is an emerging topic causing debate in the scientific community. Photo courtesy of pixabay.com

“I usually focus on the physical aspects of science,” Saey said recently. Saey typically covers molecular biology for Science News, a bi-weekly magazine that features the latest research in science.

But lately, she has been engaging in some heavy-duty reporting concerning the feasibility of science research being reproduced and what that says about the vetting process for science journals. She described her work in a guest lecture to the Science, Health, and Environmental Writing class at the University of Missouri School of Journalism in March.

One article, Is redoing scientific research the best way to find truth?” gives witness to the debate in the science community about whether reproducibility is a viable option for making sure that scientific studies are accurate. Reproducibility deals with the question: If this scientific study or experiment were to be done again by the researcher or someone outside the study, would it produce the same results?

According to Saey’s article, the science community seems to be somewhat divided on this issue but most agree that the search for improved vetting processes should continue.

This article was part of a three-part series on the subject.  In “Big data studies come with replication challenges,” Saey tells the story of how different lab results can be. In reporting a story on her own microbiome – microbes that live in the human body that are believed to have an influence on our health – she got completely different results after sending stool samples to two different microbiome sequencing services.

“I thought, ‘How can this be?'” she said. “The DNA is the same, so why is it so different?”

As she delved more into the microbiome story, she discovered the reproducibility crisis in the scientific community. She wanted to figure out why this was an issue.

“It’s been unclear whether that was merely a statistical problem or if there was something fundamentally wrong with the underlying science,” she said. “The fear is that there is a problem and that you can’t trust your results,” she said.

Saey told the class that she spent six months producing almost 7,000 words.

“Every thread I tugged, unraveled huge balls of yarn,” she said. Her editors talked about cutting it down but eventually decided to break it into three pieces. 

Students also asked Saey about her about her general reporting process and how to best go about finding story ideas. Saey said that she often goes to scientific conferences and gets story ideas from conversations she has with researchers.

“I’ll be talking to somebody who is commenting on a story that I’m writing and then I’ll ask them about their research,” she said. “They usually tell me cool things.”

Doing this, however, has posed some problems for her when it comes to journal embargoes.

Photo courtesy of Tina Hesman Saey.

Photo courtesy of Tina Hesman Saey.

She usually finds out about their research way before publication. Some journals only allow journalists to write about research after its published. The wait time can be up to a year.

“It can be exceedingly frustrating if you’re a good reporter,” she said. “If you’re lazy, then hey, it’s quite alright!”

One of the ways to bypass that, she says, is to look at e-journals with quicker turnarounds.

Saey also gave some advice about job hunting and ended the session on a positive note.

“Just keep your eyes out,” she said. “Make as many contacts as you can in the science writing community and if you’re looking for a job, let people know. I think people are generally inclined to helping each other.”

For more science writing advice from Saey, check out another talk she gave our class last year.

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