Saturday, January 17, 2009

A new education site in genetics by NPG

I was pleased to read in my January 1st issue of Nature that NPG (Nature Publishing Group) has launched an 'online teaching tool for undergraduate biology and genetics'. This site is called Scitable and hosts a number of articles in all areas of genetics, from molecular to evolutionary genetics. The site describes itself as a 'free educational resource for faculty who want to help their students develop a deeper comprehension and appreciation for science'. This is a very laudable initiative and I'm glad that NPG supported such an endeavor.

An interesting thing is that as an educator, you can upload items to the site (presentations, etc). I don't know, though, how they are reviewed (or if they are indeed reviewed, for that matter).
In general, this is a very good idea, although I'm less convinced about the fact that faculty will indeed post their presentations there or even take the time to review the articles. Time will tell.

The thing I didn't like, though, is that you cannot comment (or at least not publicly) on the articles posted. You can, however, start a discussion, but I got the feeling that the 'discussions' section was created not to post feedback on the articles, but to reply to general questions/topics posted by the Section editor.
If this is an educational site, we should make sure that the facts are accurate, and if any mistake shall appear there, we (the site visitors/users) should be able to point them out directly.

What errors could there be in a site created by the publisher of Nature, you may ask. When asked about his opinion of the site, Laurence Moran (Professor in the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Toronto and the author of the fantastic blog, Sandwalk), pointed out:

"It's better than a lot of other sites but it suffers from some of the same flaws, namely an overemphasis on "new" discoveries. This distracts from the core material".
Regarding specific errors, he mentioned:

"It discusses random genetic drift under "Neutral Theory." While the author does point out that beneficial alleles can be eliminated and detrimental alleles can be fixed, he doesn't seem to grasp the implications. He also makes the fundamental error of implying that drift only works in small populations".
Another thing Larry mentioned, is something I also noticed the exact second I started browsing around the site: Scitable gets the 'central dogma of molecular biology' wrong. This is a widely misinterpreted concept and considering that the one and only Francis Crick published a paper on Nature itself to re-explain what the dogma actually means (Crick, Nature 19701, after his original proposal of the concept in 19582), this is unacceptable. I won't elaborate on the concept here, mainly because it gets way off the purpose of this post (although I may address this issue in a later one), but for a nice discussion on what the concept really means (and what it definitely does not), you can check Larry's clarification [Basic Concepts: The Central Dogma of Molecular Biology]

Take this into consideration as well (taken from Crick's 1970 paper):
"It (the central dogma) is not the same, as is commonly assumed, as the sequence hypothesis, which was clearly distinguished from it in the same article (Crick, 1958). In particular, the sequence hypothesis was a positive statement, saying that the (overall) transfer nucleic acid → protein did exist, whereas the central dogma was a negative statement saying that transfers from protein did not exist".
Anyway, there are a series of interesting tools in the site, like 'create a classroom' or 'student q&a room'. Further, all topics have sections with titles such as
"What do we know?", "How do we know it?" and "Why do we care?".

I invite you all to check it out and then come back here with your comments.

UPDATE March18 2009:
Ryan Gregory has pointed out some other factual errors he have found in Scitable. Check his comments here [Scitable again].

1 Crick, F. (1970) Central Dogma of Molecular Biology. Nature 227, 561-563.
2 Crick, F.H.C. (1958) On protein synthesis. Symp. Soc. Exp. Biol. XII:138-163