“They claimed merely to be scientists discovering facts; [I] doggedly argued that they were writers and readers in the business of being convinced and convincing others.”

“By being sufficiently convincing, people will stop raising objections altogether, and the statement will move toward a fact-like status. Instead of being a figment of one’s imagination (subjective), it will become a “real objective thing,” the existence of which is beyond doubt.”

Latour, Laboratory Life

When reading any review article in science, the most interesting thing is not what is said, but what the reviewer has chosen to say. Scientific knowledge is both vast and deep and every author surveying this territory must pick and choose from among it. More importantly, what the author chooses to say broadcasts both what and how they are thinking about the topic. Like a philosophy, this can give a careful reader a new way to think about, say, retinal ganglion cells, or information maximization, or, I don’t know, the history of CRISPR.

So: if you are Eric Lander, eminent biologist, who would you go about shaping your history of CRISPR? Especially given that it is in the midst of a vicious patent battle between Berkeley and the Broad Institute (that you happen to head), between Doudna and Zhang (your colleague)?

Apparently you would do it in a way that would piss a lot of people off.

Furthermore, Jennifer Doudna of the University of California, Berkeley—who, along with Emmanuelle Charpentier of the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research in Germany, is currently locked in the patent dispute with the Broad’s Feng Zhang and colleagues—called Lander’s account “factually incorrect” in a January 17 PubMed Commons comment. Doudna wrote that Lander’s description of her lab “and our interactions with other investigators . . . was not checked by the author and was not agreed to by me prior to publication.”…

One of those scientists was George Church, who has appointments at Harvard and the Broad and has collaborated with Zhang and others on CRISPR research. “Eric [Lander] asked me some very specific questions on 14-Dec and I offered to fact check (as I generally do),” Church wrote in an email to The Scientist. “He sent me a preprint on 13-Jan (just hours before it came out in Cell).  I immediately sent him a list of factual errors, none of which have been corrected.”

Everything that I would say about this has already been said in voluminous form, mostly by Lior Pachtor:

All of the research papers referenced in the Lander perspective have multiple authors, on average about 7, and going up to 20. When discussing papers such as this, it is therefore customary to refer to “the PI and colleagues…” in lieu of crediting all individual authors. Indeed, this phrase appears throughout Lander’s perspective, where he writes “Moineau and colleagues..”, “Siksnys and colleagues..”, etc. It is understood that this means that the PIs guided projects and provided key insights, yet left most of the work to the first author(s) who were in turn aided by others…

But in choosing to highlight a “dozen or so” scientists, almost all of whom are established PIs at this point, Lander unfairly trivializes the contributions of dozens of graduate students and postdocs who may have made many of the discoveries he discusses, may have developed the key insights, and almost certainly did most of the work. For example, one of the papers mentioned in the Lander perspective is

and also by Dominic Berry:

My historical muscle reflex was provoked by a case detailed in Graeme Gooday and Stathis Arapostathis’Patently Contestable (2013) from the history of wireless telegraphy. After key patents were awarded to one Guglielmo Marconi at the end of the nineteenth century, a range of different histories of wireless telegraphy began to emerge, ones that more or less stressed the greater importance of other individual scientists, or the international collective. The ‘Arch-builders of Wireless Telegraphy’ as John Joseph Fahie called them in one of the earliest of these histories (1899), are brought together most evocatively in this visual representation from his book on the subject. Fahie’s intention, so Gooday and Arapostathis argue, was to decenter Marconi from this history, making his patent claims look less legitimate or at least less worthy.

And now on to the fun stuff: dirty dirty gossip.

Read this storify of Michael Eisen’s rant on the review.

Note that Jennifer Doudna had to comment on Pubmed because Cell didn’t approve her comment.

Note also that the Doudna lab retweeted this snarky tweet amidst other more scientifically-minded ones:


There were two recent popular press articles, one profiling Doudna and the other Zhang (with their own set of problems assigning credit). Turns out the one profiling Doudna was written by a Berkeley employee and didn’t have a COI statement (the backstory here is that this is being seen as going from Doudna vs. Zhang to a broader Berkeley vs. Broad Institute).

Go read the PubPeer comment thread which has fun facts like:

He also omits the fact that Doudna had already published 10 papers on CRISPR before her paper with Charpentier. “She had been using crystallography and cryo-EM to solve structures….” – no mention of any of the many insights from her work, in striking contrast to the detailed accounting of virtually all other investigators. The intended impression seems to be that she was a minor player, putting out a couple of technical observations, before her chance meeting with Charpentier.

Paul Knoepfler asked whether people thought Lander gave enough credit to Doudna and the twitterverse says no.


I feel like I’m missing something. Anything else? I do love gossip.

More seriously, this is your chance to see how history is actually made.

5 thoughts on “Doudnagate

  1. Great argument for the internet democratizing science. If this happened in the 70s we wouldn’t hear anything until certain people were overlooked come time for awards & glory.

  2. I just wanted to own up to the “snarky retweet.” The @doudna_lab account is managed by multiple lab members, not including Jennifer Doudna. I retweeted that because I found it humorous and it does not reflect the views of the lab or Jennifer Doudna. The dearth of other retweets is because of infrequent use as opposed to specific endorsement.

    Great article overall!

  3. All reviews have some kind of bias, and they’ve long been a site of credit-jockeying. What makes this stand out is that the piece was almost certainly vetted and perhaps shaped by lawyers engaged in the patent battle…lawyers who are apparently using Google Ngrams and journalism write-ups as evidence of scientific priority with straight faces.

    The fact that Lander, the Broad, and Cell Press would present it as some noble (but badly misjudged–as Lior pointed out–by ignoring everyone who is not a PI) mission to give credit where it’s due rather than shape the discussion to benefit a partisan view on IP and prizes is really gutter behavior.

    Whether under institutional advisement or of their own accord, I’m glad Doudna and Zhang are participating minimally. Lots of people did great science here, but the distortions and degrading behavior created by financial interests and prestige is one of the more depressing things to happen in science recently. Yet somehow there are always people like Lander who engage in it with what seems like almost glee.

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