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Debating Science in 140 Characters or Less

When the University of Chicago's Yoav Gilad posted a critique of a Mouse ENCODE paper to Twitter last month, he not only set off a discussion about the paper's merits but also about the role of social media in discussing research results, Nature reports.

The Mouse ENCODE paper from Stanford University's Mike Snyder and colleagues appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in November and reported that mouse tissues had more in common with other mouse tissues than with the human version of the same tissue. That is, a mouse heart is more similar to a mouse brain than to a human heart.

Gilad, however, suspects that the results may be confounded by batch effects. He tweeted about a re-analysis of the PNAS paper's data that he and a colleague performed. They said that removing batch effects reversed the paper's conclusions and that mouse tissue is more similar to the same tissue in people than to different mouse tissues.

Nature notes that the re-analysis is now available at F1000Research, where articles undergo peer review after posting.

Gilad tells Nature that he tweeted about their re-analysis because it would have otherwise been hard to draw attention to it. "Papers that challenge results from ENCODE or similar large consortium projects are never published in the same glamor journals as the original reports, and these papers are usually largely ignored," he says.

Synder, though, says Gilad violated the social norms of science. "If someone has concerns, the normal route is to contact the journal or the authors," Snyder tells Nature.

He adds that his team did account for batch effects and is preparing a rebuttal. As for not replying on Twitter, he says, "I don't think engaging in that medium would have helped us."

Still, Nature says, Twitter and other social media are changing how scientists discuss research results. Through them, the University of California, Berkeley's Lior Pachter says "you can crowdsource discussion and analysis. I think that's very healthy for science."

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