I often feel compelled to poke fun at the autism research community, but sometimes I have to wonder why I bother, since that community does such an excellent job of making itself look ludicrous.
Case in point: this week's “big” autism research news (not to be confused—although it is admittedly hard to do—with all the previous weeks' big autism research news) is occasioned by the publication of two articles in the journal Nature (Common genetic variants on 5p14.1 associate with autism spectrum disorders (Wang, et al., 2009) and Autism genome-wide copy number variation reveals ubiquitin and neuronal genes (Glessner, et al., 2009)), along with all the ballyhooed press releases that inevitably accompany such weekly big news. In these two articles, the authors put forth their latest findings on genetic risk factors that “likely” account for autism: a barely significant genetic variant found at 5p14.1 (different of course from all the previously announced and much ballyhooed genetic variants), and a mixed bag of copy number variations (different of course from all the previously announced and much ballyhooed copy number variations). We can rest assured, however, that these particular genetic breakthroughs are of great importance—even if by my count they bump the number of such genetic breakthroughs well into the hundreds—because we have the assurance of all the authors and several leading experts that these breakthroughs account for as much as 15% of all autism cases, which means (adding this percentage to the percentage of autism cases accounted for by all the previously announced genetic risk factor breakthroughs) the autism genetic research community has now managed to account for as much as 7000% of all autism cases. Well, yes indeed, that would be a cause for celebration—and of course more press releases.
To get a sense of just how much of a caricature all this autism genetic breakthrough news has become, note that Mark Blaxill—he of SafeMinds and Age of Autism fame—has quite nicely and quite accurately poked a hole in this latest celebration balloon by simply resorting to some simple common sense—and this from a man who does not possess any common sense! If that alone does not give the Nature studies' authors a profound sense of shame, I am not sure what will.
But it gets more laughable still, for now we come to the matter of Geraldine Dawson, Chief Science Officer of Autism Speaks. Dr. Dawson, as it turns out, is a co-author on both the Nature articles (which, as I will discuss below, is not quite the statistical fluke it would seem). What is amazing to me is how Dr. Dawson's name keeps popping up week after week under the heading of so many widely varying autism research ideas. As was discussed here, Dr. Dawson has recently celebrated nearly all the vastly different autism research achievements published in the year 2008, highlighting the great hope and the great promise to be found in all sorts of studies attributing autism to such things as genetic location 16p11.2, pesticides and insecticides, as well as the birth months of April, June and October. But then again...in early 2009, Dr. Dawson has reappeared as the co-author of a paper lending support to hyperactive amygdalas as the definitive explanation behind the mysteries of autism. And now this week...Dr. Dawson has come out as lending her support to genetic location 5p11.4 and a new batch of copy number variations. Talk about hedging one's bets! I get the feeling that although Dr. Dawson is not certain which big autism breakthrough is going to win its research team the Nobel Prize, Dr. Dawson has become absolutely convinced she needs to be associated with that team.
To be honest, I am going to have to quit mocking Dr. Dawson over her profligate support of each and every autism discovery that comes down the pike, because quite frankly it has become tedious. Let me end with an obvious conclusion: whatever autism's big research news might happen to be next week (and the week after that, and the week after that, and the week...), we can rest assured Dr. Dawson will somehow be found nearby, hovering at the edges of the celebration, all too happy to have lent a supporting word and, of course, her co-authorship.
And yet, as hard as this might be to believe, I have saved the most ridiculous feature of the two Nature articles for last. The most ridiculous feature is that the first article has 56 co-authors and the second article has 59 co-authors. You read that correctly—56 and 59 (although come to think of it, you might want to check my arithmetic—it is difficult for me to count that high without making a mistake). When I first noted this exponentially increasing trend of piled-on co-authorship in autism research papers, and challenged the autism research community to create an article in which the list of authors was longer than the report itself, how was I to know the autism research community would take me so seriously! But indeed, that community is now coming nearer and nearer to its goal, because this time, I actually had to get out a ruler and measure the print to be sure. Alas, even disregarding the lengthy list of references (fifty-some authors citing their own works does take up a bit of space) and disregarding the equally lengthy list of acknowledgements (although tell me, exactly how much work is required to merit an acknowledgement in one of these papers, given that such work does not qualify for even 1/59th of the authorship credit)—even disregarding all these tacked-on supplements, the list of authors still does not quite exceed the length of the report itself. Sorry, folks, thanks for playing, better luck next time! (For its next effort, might I suggest the autism research community try reducing the size of the report's charts and graphs, or better yet, strive to achieve the century mark in co-authorship—a feat which, at the rates things are going, can certainly be attained by later this year.)
Yes indeed, Nature was certainly the correct place to publish these two articles, for they are naturally hilarious.