STAT has a very interesting profile on Wayne State researcher Zhuo-Hua Pan that contains a number of lessons about innovation and publishing.

The short version is that in the early 2000s several research groups, including Pan’s, began experimenting with the ideas that would lead to the development of optogenetics, a technique for using light to control when cells fire action potentials (more here).

In 2004, Pan succeeded in using a virus to insert a protein called channelrhodopsin into the eye of a live rat and measuring electrical activity. Along with a co-author, Pan submitted a paper detailing this achievement to Nature, but it was rejected. The pair then submitted it to Nature Neuroscience (rejected) and then to the Journal of Neuroscience (also rejected). Pan did present his findings, however, at the 2005 meeting of the Association for Research in Vision and Opthamology

A few months after this meeting, Nature Neuroscience published a similar paper by another pair of researchers at Stanford. When Pan heard the news, he said “I felt terrible. I felt terrible. We didn’t feel very lucky.”

Pan did eventually publish his work in Neuron in 2006, but by then no one seemed to care; he was not first to publish. Pan reportedly asked the editor at Nature Neuroscience why they passed over his paper in favor of the Stanford paper, and the response suggested that his paper was framed too narrowly as a possible approach for restoring vision, whereas the Stanford paper was framed as a new tool for neuroscience.

To the winners in the publishing race went the spoils. Millions in grant funding, press coverage, and talk of a Nobel Prize. And Pan? He largely missed out (though he does have a patent to use the protein to treat blindness).

The article highlights a few interesting lessons about innovation and publishing:

  1. Pan might have found himself in a better position in the court of public opinion if he had posted a pre-print of his work on a server like bioRxiv, which of course did not exist back in 2004. Posting pre-prints is becoming more common, but many journals—especially medical journals—have rules against publishing articles that have been previously posted online. So posting a pre-print might help you to establish your place in history, but it might also make your manuscript ineligible for a peer-reviewed publication in a top journal, which in turn could jeopardize your place in history.

  2. The article features a quote by a senior scientist who commented that “the quality rising to the top is a little more influenced by non-scientific things than it used to be”, meaning that university resources and personal characteristics of the scientist matter a great deal. In other words, the ability to promote your research is up there with the ability to produce the research in the first place.

  3. This is an interesting case of how science can be both basic and applied. Pan framed the results narrowly with a focus on how to restore vision. The Stanford team framed their results in a way that colleagues understood how the findings changed the field. This difference seems to have had as much of an impact on the trajectories of these teams as did the timing of the publications.

Image: Sean Proctor