THE Scholarly Web - Confessions of enquiring minds

Weekly transmissions from the blogosphere

August 15, 2013

Not long ago, this column turned a spotlight on the hashtag #overlyhonestmethods, used to highlight tweets from academics confessing the guilty secrets of their research methods.

It was started by @Dr_Leigh, the Twitter pseudonym of a research neuropharmacologist at a “specialized research institute”, who confessed that in one case, “incubation lasted three days because this is how long the undergrad forgot the experiment in the fridge”.

More recently another hashtag, #sciconfessions, has been used on tweets that do exactly what the name suggests – offer startling admissions from supposedly authoritative and respected scientists.

“I have fallen asleep operating a $250 million dollar telescope,” said Alex Lockwood (@AskAstroAlex), a graduate student in planetary sciences at the California Institute of Technology.

Chris Thompson (@centrekicker82), a molecular biologist at Imperial College London, had news for his presumably hyperactive colleagues. “When I make the coffee, I secretly add an extra 2 scoops so that everyone in my group will work faster,” he declared.

Jack A. Gilbert (@gilbertjacka), associate professor (part-time) in the University of Chicago’s department of ecology and evolution, managed to squeeze two confessions into his tweet, demonstrating a worrying inability to learn from his mistakes. “Forgot to secure rotor in old centrifuge which came off at 10,000 rpm causing extreme damage,” he said, “then did it again 2 weeks later.”

Research confessions appear to be common in the Gilbert clan. James Gilbert, a postdoctoral researcher in entomology at the University of Sydney, revealed: “Instead of reporting the feral mouse we found in the lab, we caught it, kept it as a pet and called it Chairman Mouse.”

A PhD student at Oxford Brookes University was one of many scientists who took the opportunity to attest to an ability to make elementary errors. “Poured plates with LB broth instead of agar! Picked up wrong tub! Only twigged when they hadn’t set after 2 hours!” Sam Barry (@Scienceysphynx) tweeted.

Matteo Cavalleri (@physicsteo) showed similar inattention to detail. “I misspelled ‘Department of Physics’ on the back cover of my PhD Thesis,” admitted the editor-in-chief of the International Journal of Quantum Chemistry.

At first David Hughes (@zombieantguy), assistant professor of entomology and biology at Pennsylvania State University’s Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics, appeared to be using the hashtag to brag about his achievements. “In a rainforest i found a parasitoid (wasp) of a parasitic fly that eats parasitic fungi that kill ants,” he said, only to reveal: “THEN I LOST IT!!!!”

Other confessions were less dramatic. “I broke a volumetric flask on purpose to avoid washing it,” said Jessica Wynn (@Jess_chemgeek), a second-year chemistry student at the University of York, while Jon Tennant (@protohedgehog), studying for a PhD in tetrapod biodiversity and extinction at Imperial College London, revealed that he “once hid an ammonite down [his] pants”, although he “can’t remember why”.

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