Coturnix posted an interview with Erica Tsai, a graduate student at Duke University who also has mentored students in the Howard Hughes Precollege Program at her institution.
Part of this program apparently involved blogging about research experiences received in Duke University laboratories. In the interview Ms. Tsai refers to some experiences in which the students' desire to blog freely conflicted with the needs of the host laboratories.
For instance, I think a student blogged about some protein she was working on as her research project. But, oops, the PI didn't want it out that they were even working on that protein!
It got even worse...
A student was working in a lab that performed animal experiments, where different treatments were given and in the end the animals were euthanized. He described some of the procedures in a post, and did so in a very flippant and callous way. The way it was described was horrible! I imagined PETA or some other activist group swarming down -- and with good reason! Obviously, the PI would have used very different language in describing this experiment, as I'm sure he did to an animal ethics board to gain clearance for it. So the short end of the story is that we asked the student to change the language. But the broader point was lost, and I've found myself puzzling over how better to handle these situations in the future. His original crude language was essentially truthful, but highly controversial and embarrassing. An activist would argue that if an experiment shorn of scientific jargon is repellent, we shouldn't be doing it. I'm sensitive to that, but at the same time I wouldn't want to make any lab a target for bio-terrorism. I wish we had encouraged deeper thinking on the matter and had him write a more thoughtful, measured, analysis of the matter.
So first of all I am wondering if the host laboratories were even told that the students would be blogging their experiences. That would seem to be a fundamental requirement of any such formalized program. If the mentors and coordinators of the precollege program were not notifying the PIs, this a big problem as far as I am concerned.
Beyond this, however, an episode like this should remind all PIs who work with vertebrate animals that each and every student, intern, rotron, etc needs to receive the basic overview of the animals-in-research spiel. These are teaching moments, and important ones at that.
It is absolutely necessary to explain to them why poorly thought-out communication about the realities of research with vertebrate animals can have serious consequences. Unlike, say, jokes (or TrueStories) about almost blowing up the chemistry lab, humorous poses with impressive amounts of invertebrate research species or fossil specimens and making light of minor bio-lab radiation sloppiness. This is not a matter of censorship or putting a "glossy sheen" on a putatively real-life, unpolished communication form. It is about actually putting those students into real life. Just as they are finding out that real research is less fault tolerant than are the canned demonstration "labs" they do in class, they need to find out that the use of animals in research is serious business as well. From the hands-on treatment and use of the animals, all the way to the description of the work.
If anyone mentoring such students is putting them into a conflict
There was some disagreement about how appropriate that rule was, but a conservative approach was taken...It was fundamentally about what is the point of the student blogs. The students were asked to do two main things, one stated and the other unstated. Stated: Report honestly and openly about your experiences. Unstated: These experiences should be positive, professional, and noncontroversial.
then the mentors need to do some educating of themselves. It doesn't matter if you are all OpenSkienz2.0eleventy (or a "rebellious type" as Ms. Tsai puts it) yourself. It is improper to tell high-school students that they can just blog absolutely anything about their experiences. It is not a free-for-all just because they are students or are only temporarily associated with the lab. Some labs have genuine publication priority issues which need to be respected. Some have intellectual property issues. Disrespecting these is just as bad as letting some student think they can go in and screw up ongoing experiments because they want to see what happens.