The gene that causes Huntington's disease, a neurodegenerative disorder, was identified in 1993. But in the decades since, scientists have not figured out how, exactly, those genes cause the symptoms associated with the disorder: the mental decline, the jerky movements, the emotional changes that make the condition so difficult to live with.
"We know that in some way, [the gene] distorts the protein that’s encoded on it, and it changes its functions," says Rachel Harding, who studies the structure of these proteins at the University of Toronto. "Other than that, it’s pretty limited."
Without knowing how these proteins work, a cure for Huntington's disease is a long ways off.
But Harding has a new idea for speeding up the pace of discoveries. It's radical, simple, and — if it catches on — could change the way academics approach publishing. She wants the field to embrace blogging.
Why blogging could be good for science — and speed up discoveries
Harding's website Lab Scribbles is a test to see if this idea could work. There, Harding is publishing her lab notes on the structure of Huntington proteins in real time, posting data as well as summaries of her breakthroughs and failures.
She hopes the transparency will encourage others in the field to collaborate with her, correct her when she's wrong, and, most importantly, help bring science up to the speed of the internet age.
This is a big departure from the more secretive methods that normally mark scientific research.
Traditionally, academics have earned prestige by publishing new findings in high-impact journals. They have every incentive to keep those findings to themselves before publishing, so that another lab won't copy their tests and beat them to the scoop. (History remembers James Watson and Francis Crick's breakthrough paper describing the double-helix structure of DNA. Less well-known is that it piggybacked off still-unpublished work by Rosalind Franklin, who received few accolades while alive.)
The problem, Harding says, is that excessive secrecy can hinder science. Among other things, it can lead to different labs all duplicating one another's work needlessly. Imagine if a bunch of labs were all trying to discover the formula for the world's perfect cake — but, unknowingly, they were all focused on developing baking soda and no one was working on frosting.
"I’m not saying that people shouldn’t ever be doing the same experiment," Harding says. After all, replication is crucial for science. "But what would be better is if they were more open about the fact that they were, and they were talking about it."
Blogging could potentially increase transparency around research, although Harding admits it's a bit of an experiment. She started posting in February 2016, and while she says her colleagues' reactions have generally been positive, it will take some time to learn whether it's the best format to encourage scientific progress and collaboration. (Her employer is backing and encouraging her in this venture, which makes things easier.)
Lab Scribbles is the latest in a broader push for greater transparency in science
Proponents of data sharing say the internet should encourage more collaboration among scientists rather than have everyone remain in their separate silos. Collaboration and transparency could speed up the pace of significant discoveries and lower the barrier of entry into academic professions.
Detractors, however, are worried about encouraging free riders: people who simply use others' data without doing the hard work of generating their own. In January, the influential New England Journal of Medicine ran an editorial condemning the practice of data sharing. "The aerial view of the concept of data sharing is beautiful, " they wrote, but in practice they worried that data could be misinterpreted or used to unduly advance the careers of these so-called academic parasites.
"Ultimately, I think it’s a risk that’s worth taking," Harding says.
Other areas of science have seen great advances due to adopting a more collaborate atmosphere. Genetic researchers have employed crowdsourced models for genetic sequencing to great effect. (Recently, data sharing helped a team of scientists studying the tardigrade genome to reconsider the findings of a blockbuster paper.)
And it's not like shifting to a blog model would end the practice of peer review, which journals like the NEJM pride themselves on facilitating. A real-time blog opens up Harding's work to a potentially broader world of criticism (constructive or otherwise). If there's a big problem with her work, she might find that out faster from blog commenters than from waiting for peer review.
"I'm really hoping that [readers] do criticize me," she says. "As a young researcher it means I'd be learning more."
There's a final, underrated benefit to science blogging: Patients can become better informed. When people are suffering through chronic illnesses like Huntington's, it's easy to become frustrated at the slow rate of progress. But through the blog, Huntington patients can see that work — incredibly intricate, complicated, and time-consuming work — is being done.
"I’m hopeful if we can turn this [the traditional models of scientific research] on its head a bit, we can generate a community of people who want to work together, which means we’re going to get things done faster," Harding says.