Reading and writing and super-mussels

Don’t tell me how to interpret your results!

super musselsThe other day, I stumbled on a climate change skeptic website while doing research for my ocean acidification post.  This ‘skeptic’ article included a summary of a peer reviewed article by a prominent scientist on the effect of an acidic ocean environment on mussels near deep sea hydrothermal vents.  The summary included this description of the results of that paper:

[…] there is ample reason to believe that even the worst case atmospheric CO2-induced acidification scenario that can possibly be conceived would not prove a major detriment to most calcifying sea life. Consequently, what will likely happen in the real world should be no problem at all […]

Well, that’s amazing!  If that was the only summary I read, I might be led to believe a few things:

  1. There is rock-solid evidence indicating that ocean acidification, though it may be happening, is totally not a big deal.  Dude, look at those mussels!  They are doing great!
  2. The mussels adapted to environments even more acidic than the most dire projections by acidification “alarmists”, and
  3. the scientist who did that work is well-known and well-respected, and is clearly a climate change skeptic also.

I was curious, so I looked up the original paper to learn more [1]. This is the first sentence of the abstract by Tunnicliffe et al. (2009):

Increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are causing ocean acidification, compromising the ability of some marine organisms to build and maintain support structures as the equilibrium state of inorganic carbon moves away from calcium carbonate.

Seems pretty reasonable to me.  Carbon dioxide is increasing, the ocean is becoming more acidic, and marine organisms are having a hard time because of it.  So I read on:

Few marine organisms tolerate conditions where ocean pH falls significantly below today’s value of about 8.1 and aragonite and calcite saturation values below 1.

So far they don’t seem very “skeptical” of ocean acidification.  Reading further:

We identify four-decade-old mussels, but suggest that the mussels can survive for so long only if their protective shell covering remains intact: crabs that could expose the underlying calcium carbonate to dissolution are absent from this setting.  The mussels’ ability to precipitate shells in such low-pH conditions is remarkable.  Nevertheless, the vulnerability of molluscs to predators is likely to increase in a future ocean with low pH.

Woah.  It actually seems like she’s found this remarkable organism who lives in a unique environment that can survive massively acidic conditions.  But she is NOT extrapolating these results to other types of calcifying organisms.  And in fact, even these tough mussels do in fact suffer from the increased acidity – they have far thinner shells than nearby mussels living in less acidic waters, which leaves them more vulnerable to predators.  If you read on in the paper, you learn that part of the reason these mussels have such incredible survival rates in these conditions is due to a lack of predators:  typical predators in nearby (less-acidic) waters are crabs, but the crabs can’t survive in the very low pH environment.

All this got me thinking about the differences that exist between authors’ intended message and how their work is subsequently portrayed and disseminated to the public.  What was Dr. Tunnicliffe trying to communicate?

I see a couple of different problems:  1)  The language used in peer reviewed literature is technical and often uses a lot of field-specific jargon, and 2) Access to peer-reviewed scientific articles is limited (by cost, mainly).

Easy on the jargon!

Was the “climate skeptic” summary accurate?  Was my summary accurate?  Were we both wrong?

I thought Dr. Tunnicliffe’s article was really well-written, clear, and informative, and even so – look how easy it was to subjectively interpret and share her results!

A lot of the time, scientists write peer-reviewed articles for each other.  That’s not to say they’re intentionally being exclusive – it just makes sense to try to aim their writing to other scientists who will use the work as a jumping-off point.  And, as a reader, if you’re not sufficiently familiar with a particular field, it can be difficult to glean the relevant information and to parse the jargon, particularly when you don’t have several hours to critically read it.

So what’s a scientist to do?  I really would like to know. It’s important to have rigorous and peer-reviewed documentation of your research so that others in the same field can build on or question your findings. That’s basically what makes science tick.  But what if authors could also write summaries intended for non-scientists (or scientists in other fields, for that matter) to accompany their more technical papers.  Like Cliff’s Notes of their own work.  So my blog readers could look up the Tunnicliffe paper and easily see for themselves whether my simpleminded take on it was total hooey.  (it might very well be…)

If a scientist publishes a peer-reviewed article and no one reads it, is it really science?

Of course, I think I’d be remiss not to mention that I am one of those privileged few who have almost unrestricted access to any peer-reviewed literature I care to get my grubby hands one – while I’m a student at a large American university, I can log into my school’s library website and look at anything I want instantly.  And if I can’t get it instantly in PDF format, I can ask the library to order it in for me, free of charge.  So without even getting to the fact that scientific papers are dense and difficult to synthesize, they’re simply off-limits to almost everyone unless they’re willing to fork over the cash.  For example, the Tunnicliffe paper on the Nature Geoscience website costs $32.  Whew.

And we wonder why there’s a mistrust of the scientific community:  we write as cryptically as we can (hey – in scientists’ defense – getting all those technical details into a reasonable number of pages for publication is not easy, people), and then we publish in peer-reviewed journals that charge people $30-40 for the PDF.  Ugh.

But!  The peer-review system is important in maintaining a certain standard and ensuring the credibility of published results.  I don’t know how to change that.  So:  until we figure out how to make peer-reviewed articles more open, maybe some “published-article Cliff’s Notes” or “cheat sheets” wouldn’t hurt.  (I guess now that I’ve said it, it would be shameful of me NOT to do it for my own paper.  At least I’ve only got the one.)

I’d love to have feedback!  It would help me figure out if anyone is thinking the same thing or if I’m totally out to lunch on this one.


More on open access:

Some interesting thoughts on the future of the scientific journal industry (think social media-style):


[1]  Tunnicliffe, Verena, et al. “Survival of mussels in extremely acidic waters on a submarine volcano.Nature Geoscience 2.5 (2009): 344-348.

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