The Art of the Artefact


Definite highlights in the career of a scientist are the bursts of elation that come with successful publication. Still, for sheer knee-trembling excitement, you can't beat the "Oooh, that's interesting!" moment that is finding that extra band on the gel or that beautiful statistical correlation on your graph. This could well be the beginning of a glorious career, but before you get too dizzy with visions of first-class publications, remind yourself that your success as a scientist depends on producing meaningful results in the shortest possible time. So before you embark on a new experimental journey, make sure you're not heading for a dead end.

You may have already experienced the following scenario. Experiments get done; time passes. Gradually the horrible realisation dawns: You've just spent weeks, if not months, chasing an artefact. Your dreams of scientific fame shatter, while you try to figure out how the hell you are going to explain this to the boss.

Artefacts are those bizarre quirks in science that seem to exist solely for the purpose of sending researchers into spirals of frustration. And because artefacts are my area of research expertise, I bring to you a guide for coping with them.

When presented with a peculiar or unexpected result, ask yourself the following questions:

Where Are the Controls?

A central tenet of good scientific practice is the meticulous use of experimental controls. In the real world, however, controls are deeply boring, and all but the most essential ones are often overlooked. Although some bolder souls may argue that doing controls takes all the fun out of science, please remember this: They are crucial for keeping your sanity. I learned the hard way, as a desperate Ph.D. student nearing the end of my second year with no tangible results.

One day I stumbled upon a fascinating antibody-staining pattern and decided promptly that I had to study it further, taking samples every 6 hours for 5 days. Night and day I trundled wearily to the lab, snatching catnaps in the tearoom and subsisting on chocolate from the vending machine.

For some inexplicable reason, I decided to wait until the end of this woeful week of sleep deprivation before doing any controls. Needless to say, the whole thing turned out to be an artefact. Today I can look back on it and laugh, ruefully, but at the time I came very close to committing hara-kiri with a pipette.

What Do Other People Think?

When you make an earth-shattering discovery, it's very tempting to rush straight into your boss's office, waving your results triumphantly in the air. If your boss is remotely excitable, this is not a good idea, in case your "discovery" proves to be nothing but an artefact.

Or, if you're feeling brave, you may decide to present your data at a lab meeting. But be prepared to experience shame and humiliation as the entire group bursts into laughter at your conclusions. A much better plan is to subtly tout your results around trusted colleagues, particularly senior postdocs. If they have been in the lab for several years, it's likely they've already made the same "discovery," saving you days of pointless frustration.

Is It Beautiful?

It is a sad fact of scientific life that the most beautiful data are often the most meaningless. Bands on gels that form the Manhattan skyline, graphs that resemble comedy breasts, or smiley faces hidden in the nuclei of cells are the mainstay of every lab notice board, but they rarely make it to publication.

Still, these findings may not be completely useless. For example, some antibody manufacturers offer prizes for the best pictures generated using their products. So try your luck and send them your artefacts. No one needs to know that the images are utterly irrelevant.

What Do the Papers Say?

When faced with a curious result, the literature can help you decide between one of two explanations. Either you find that your new data conflict wildly with published studies, or, if you work in an emerging and controversial field, you hold out hope that your findings may be real. At the very least, you might get into some interesting arguments at conferences and generate an air of infamy. However, if your results suggest that DNA is, in fact, shaped like a map of the London Underground rather than a double helix, there's probably a flaw in your method somewhere.

Can You Publish It Anyway?

Alternatively, while searching the literature you may find that your bizarre (and frankly unbelievable) discovery is already in print, appearing in, say, the Journal of Obscure Results (1984). If not, there's always a chance of getting your weirder results published in the (in)famous Journal of Irreproducible Results . And if you are a Ph.D. student, consider yourself lucky. A Ph.D. thesis is an excellent repository for artefacts of all kinds; in fact, it is likely to be the only time in your career when "preliminary data" are looked upon with compassion.

Could It Actually Be Real?

The writer Isaac Asimov knew what he was talking about when he said, "The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not 'Eureka!' but 'That's funny.' " In other words, if one should beware of the curse of the artefact, success in a scientific career often comes down to an exceptional ability to sift the gold from the dross. Speaking from personal experience, it is galling to see results that I dismissed as weird and inexplicable turn up in competitors' papers several years later.

A last piece of advice is that as long as there are experiments, there will be artefacts. If you are the victim of one, simply grit your teeth and get on with your next project. Just don't forget to add your beautiful, but sadly unreal, data to the lab notice board for posterity.

Kat Arney is currently wondering if her entire life is just an artefact.

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