The AAAS believes the public should read press releases not papers

There’s been a lot of media coverage of and discussion about a recent paper from Bert Vogelstein and Victor Velvulescu about the utility of whole-genome sequencing to predict disease. Using previously published data on disease occurrence in identical twins, and a relatively simple mathematical model, the authors conclude that not only isn’t sequencing very useful for predicting disease occurrence now, it will never be.

It’s a provocative claim, and the paper was aggressively press-released. Vogelstein even held a press conference at a major cancer meeting to discuss it. And the media clearly loved the iconoclastic spin, giving the work a lot of exposure that largely parrots the authors’ anti-personal genome sequencing message.

From a strictly scientific standpoint, the paper does not deserve so much attention. It presents no new data, and its conclusions are not novel (Erick Check Hayden has a nice blog post about objections to the paper itself). If the work has any value, it is in framing the issues around the value of personal genome sequencing in a useful way for a non-technical audience.

The authors seem to recognize this. Not only have they sought popular press coverage of their work, but they led off their discussion in the paper with thoughts about the impact of their findings on public perceptions:

The general public does not appear to be aware that, despite their very similar height and appearance, monozygotic twins in general do not always develop or die from the same maladies . This basic observation, that monozygotic twins of a pair are not always afflicted by the same maladies, combined with extensive epidemiologic studies of twins and statistical modeling, allows us to estimate upper- and lower- bounds of the predictive value of whole-genome sequencing.

It is thus the height of irony that the actual paper is effectively not available to the public. Indeed, even with all the privileges of my affiliation with one of the largest research universities in the world (UC Berkeley), I could only read the abstract, and was instead offered “24 hours access to this Science Translational Medicine article for US $15.00″.

It is a shame that the authors who so clearly want their work to impact the public chose to publish it in a journal that even many of their colleagues – let alone the public – can not access. Prominent scientists like this should never let this happen – particularly when they view the public as part of their audience and they have a written a paper that likely would engage the public if they could read it.

But I reserve most of my disdain for the publisher – the non-profit American Association for the Advancement of Science, the world’s largest general scientific society. The AAAS talks a good game about the importance of engaging the public in scientific discourse, but they evidently don’t care about extending this engagement beyond the shallow platitudes of press releases.

I am sure the AAAS realize that the many in the public are actually interested in learning more about the details behind science stories they read about in the popular press. But rather than view this interest as a great opportunity for public engagement, the AAAS seems to view it as nothing more than an opportunity to make a quick buck.


The citation to the paper is:

Nicholas J. Roberts, Joshua T. Vogelstein, Giovanni Parmigiani, Kenneth W. Kinzler, Bert Vogelstein, and Victor E. Velculescu, “The Predictive Capacity of Personal Genome Sequencing”, Sci. Transl. Med. DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.3003380. 

And here is the PDF for those of you who don’t have friends who can access it and email you a copy.


[UPDATE: AAAS has changed the access rules for this paper, making it available for free to registered users.]

[UPDATE II: Since someone questioned my original statement that the article was not available to me through UC Berkeley, I am posting a screenshot I took this morning of the landing page for the full text of this paper followed by what it looks like now, both taken from within the Berkeley network, showing the original $15 pay for 24 hour access, and the new free access with registration]

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  1. Posted April 4, 2012 at 4:44 am | Permalink

    Indeed. Previously (, I argued:

    “If journals are worried about losing their subscriptions, I suggest this: Keep the technical articles free and print other, original content that people will pay for.

    “For instance, let’s go back the the journal Science, which I suggested would be a good target to convert open access. Only a small fraction of the original technical articles in Science are going to be relevant to any particular reader. As it stands, a subscriber to Science is getting a lot of non-targeted articles that are irrelevant to them.

    “What Science has been really good at is providing news and commentary. That is much more widely relevant to a broader spectrum of readers. I think if all the technical articles were still free, people would probably still be willing to pay money for all the other original writing. The conference reports, the policy analysis, and so on. That original work by professional writers is something that people realize should not be free. At least, the arguments for making it free are different than the usual ones used to justify open access, that is that publicly funded scientists are doing all of the intellectual work.

    “But oddly, the tendency for general journals has been to do the exact opposite. Journals have tended to make a few of their comments freely available, while locking down all the original science.”

    Also about AAAS:

  2. Anonymous
    Posted April 4, 2012 at 6:29 am | Permalink

    This paper features substandard typesetting of mathematics, as well as other ridiculous formatting errors (for example, the URL for the supplemental materials is broken _in the middle of a number_, and somehow the line break was left in the link so if you click on it, it doesn’t work). This makes me wonder what on earth the publisher contributed. The only obvious contribution I see is the speed lines added to “Rapid Publication” on page 1, and while they do indeed make it look blazingly fast, I’m not convinced that 24 hours of access to the speed lines is really worth $15.

  3. dcgent
    Posted April 4, 2012 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    Really? I’m a bit skeptical that you only have access to the abstract. Are you saying U-Berkeley doesn’t have a site license for Science Translational Medicine? or were you trying to access it off your university newtork. I appreciate you want to promote the open access position and there’s a legitimate debate about whether AAAS should go that route, but too often people exaggerate the extent to which people don’t have access to such work. Yes, your broader point is about the general public but is there really a scientist at a U.S. research university who is blocked. Truly curious.

  4. Posted April 4, 2012 at 8:03 pm | Permalink

    @dcgent. I assure you that I do not have access through UC Berkeley. This is not a quirk. Science and its subsidiary journals have weird subscription setups where some articles are available through our institutional subscription, but others require membership in AAAS or a separate subscription.

  5. gswanson
    Posted April 5, 2012 at 4:11 am | Permalink

    Check whether you get the same access page when you try to go directly to ‘Science’ itself. At our institution we have to access the journal via the Library portal, otherwise we get the same page that suggests we do not subscribe.

    • Posted April 5, 2012 at 7:18 am | Permalink

      This is true no matter how I get there. It’s not a quirk. I can access the regular content of the journals, but Berkeley does not pay the extra free required to get access to rapid release papers (where this paper is) or to the Science archive (to which we have access through JSTOR).

  6. John Travis
    Posted April 11, 2012 at 7:35 am | Permalink

    Hi Michael–I’m told Berkeley just signed up for STM so that may be why access has recently changed.

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