Argh, Clinicians!

by Ralf Neumann, Labtimes 04/2017

Oh no, I can feel another rant coming on – right here and right now… What are you so baffled about? Ahh, I see, you’re still trapped in your overly romantic cliché that we owls always wisely watch the world around us with a deep philosophical calmness, being unflappably at one with ourselves and life in general...

Chickenshit! Believe what you want. I, on the other hand, know the facts. And for one, we owls actually have extremely short fuses. Sometimes a mere word or a phrase is enough to immediately ruffle up our feathers and cause our huge round eyes to narrow down to intimidating slits. The term that has just unleashed exactly that reaction in me is: ... clinical researcher!

The whole thing started several minutes ago when, by pure chance, I stumbled across an article in Avian Nature about the publication frequencies of bird scientists. Obviously, a bunch of young finches have had some dubious fun in analysing bibliometric databases in an aim to rank individual avian researchers by the sheer numbers of their article outputs. And now guess who, in this respect, are the “leading figures” in their category “Life Sciences”? Bingo: clinical researchers throughout; as far as the eye can see.

Just take Professor Peacock, apparently the most efficient “paper pooper” of them all. Being a clinical heart specialist, this “super bird” has supposedly authored an unbelievable 651 publications over the last seven summers. That makes about one paper every four days for this period, on average! Think what you like but that is simply IMPOSSIBLE. In particular, if you take into account that you have to fulfil quite a few clear criteria regarding substantial contributions and intellectual input before you even come close to any justified co-authorship, at all.

No, no and no! Ibis, our great Fly-Through Prize winner (which is at least as important as your Nobel Prize), once expressed it perfectly when he said, “Well, as you know, I am a basic researcher in biology. And as such, I am happy if my group and I are able to publish three or five good papers per year. At the same time, however, those clinical researchers usually spit out the tenfold. Sorry, but there must be something rotten here! For whatever reasons, they are getting way too many papers for way too little effort. And that’s also why most of them contain way too little substance. Or in other words: a whole lot of them are poor science, according to our standards.”

Hah, what loud and excited shrieks from the medical research mafia did Ibis immediately earn himself with this statement. But he was the Fly-Through Prize winner, he had the freedom to name this for what it is and call a branch a branch, whilst us basic biologists did our best to hide our smirking beaks under our feathers.

Speaking of feathers, mine still haven’t de-fluffed. Obviously, recalling this ridiculously outrageous and awkward gaggle from the clinical research corner has not exactly helped to soothe my current anger. But there was little chance of that anyway, since the buzzword “clinical research” has also brought another, way darker memory, bright and clear to the forefront of my mind...

About a dozen winters ago, there was an old jay living and working a couple of trees further down in my forest. A chemist, he was always busy, and well-paid by the Dodo & Moa Research Foundation. One day, while studying the spatial structure of a pharmacologically active molecule with the name Pennatinib, suspicion suddenly grabbed him...

Pennatinib was actually old hat; already being applied to treat bacterial cloaca infections for more than ten years. But that was not what nagged at Jay. A few weeks previous, as he told me, his friend Plover, a parasitologist, had shown him the structures of some enzymes from specific metabolic processes of a certain bird parasite – one of those typical monsters that cause much disaster, especially in the tropical regions. Days later, pure coincidence had brought the Pennatinib structure to Jay’s table – and immediately he got that unmistakable chemist’s gut-feeling that Pennatinib would fit perfectly in the binding pocket of one of the essential parasite enzymes. And he was right.

The in vitro tests worked and a few weeks later, he and his colleague Stork, from our biology section, even succeeded in eradicating the parasites from infected frog models, using Pennatinib. (You may wonder how a frog could be a model for a parasitic bird disease. Well, believe me, storks can do almost anything with frogs – especially when it comes to creating mutants).

Sounds good, doesn’t it? So, you might be surprised that Jay was only able to publish the whole story in The Journal of Mediocre Results. Why? Well, it didn’t exactly fit the scope of a good chemistry journal and, in medicine journals, chemists traditionally have a hard time when submitting something.

Of course, Jay’s paper was, nevertheless, noticed. The fastest reaction came from Hornbill, the “big beak” of clinical infection medicine. With absolute instinct, he adopted the project and immediately arranged what was... well, the obvious thing to do. Within a short time, he had activated his powerful global network and coordinated a large clinical study. The result exceeded all expectations: Pennatinib healed 95 percent of the infected test birds.

Hornbill and his 178 network colleagues published the results in the oh-so-noble The Birds Journal of Medicine and it finally became one of the most-cited medical papers for years. Our chemist, Jay, however, who actually had the original idea, was cited only scarcely in glorious Hornbill’s shadow...

Stuffed chickens! I’ll spare me any more comments here. It’s almost dark; I don’t want to waste valuable hunting time. But I can tell you, the first mouse this night will definitely not only serve to quell my hunger...


Last Changed: 28.08.2017