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What really happens in the lab, via Twitter

Back when I was in graduate school, I was - how to put it? - not exactly a natural at lab work. For instance, I once spent nine months, or maybe it was 11, troubleshooting a procedure that had worked just fine for a colleague in a collaborating lab. And by "troubleshooting" I mean "doing it wrong, over and over and over again." (This is one of the reasons I now write about science for a living instead of running experiments myself.)

So I am getting a lot of enjoyment today from the #overlyhonestmethods hashtag on Twitter. And by "a lot of enjoyment" I mean "laughing so hard I can't breathe." Scientists are using the hashtag to share the little details of lab life that get elided from the clean-and-shiny Methods sections of scientific papers.

Here are a few of my favorites:

Andrew Welleford @Baltir

Plasma samples were inverted three times, then rotated 90° and vibrated, in a manner similar to knocking the tray over. #overlyhonestmethods

Ben Seymour@benosaka

Blood samples were spun at 1500rpm because the centrifuge made a scary noise at higher speeds. #overlyhonestmethods


We used predator-stress because someone said "bring in a cat" as a joke, and I thought they were serious #overlyhonestmethods

dr leigh@dr_leigh

incubation lasted three days because this is how long the undergrad forgot the experiment in the fridge #overlyhonestmethods

Lindsey Thurman@llthurman

oh THAT missing data point, that's only when the frog jumped underneath the weigh scale and dried up like a prune #overlyhonestmethods

The list goes on and on. There are some recurring themes: We didn't read all the papers listed in our citations; we set the experiment up this way so we wouldn't have to work weekends; we published this paper because we have to get another publication to add to our next grant application; and, perhaps most common, the mistake was made by the undergrad.

The blogosphere has a few serious takes on the message behind all these overly honest tweets - for instance, check out The Mermaid's Tale's analysis of how they reflect the perils of the "publish or perish" culture.

Me, though, I'm just going to keep enjoying the hilarity of these brief glimpses of lab life.

Oh, and if I had to contribute some myself? Here are a few I could write from the land of nutrition research. (Not all of these are based on my direct experience. Fortunately, some are distilled from stories from my scientist friends.)

  • One anesthetized rat was retrieved from behind the refrigerator before procedure because he escaped while being injected with anesthetic  #overlyhonestmethods
  • Non-compliant human subject was dismissed for reeling a roast chicken through the window of the locked metabolic ward on a string #overlyhonestmethods
  • Human subjects made sniping comments to each other for every day of the 14-week diet study #overlyhonestmethods
  • The missing data point is due to the researcher's inadvertently pouring one sample of rat urine all over her lab coat, scrubs and boots #overlyhonestmethods
  • Primates received different flavors of Kool-Aid because some monkeys will only drink red Kool-Aid, while other monkeys like blue #overlyhonestmethods
  • When the human fecal samples were mislabeled, subjects were recalled to the lab, where one identified his sample by shouting "That's mine!"x3 #overlyhonestmethods


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