EteRNA limits scientific fraud

Scientific research is generally understood to be based on well-founded reliable evidence, yet even scientific conclusions have the potential to be affected by fraud. Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University and Stanford University have created an online laboratory that has the potential to reduce fraud in the scientific community.

Conventional research structure mandates that scientists formulate hypotheses and personally test them themselves. Alternatively, Adrien Treuille, assistant professor of computer science and robotics at Carnegie Mellon, and Rhiju Das, assistant professor of biochemistry and physics at Stanford University, proposed the use of online laboratories, in which participants from the general public play online video games that allow investigation into scientific research areas.

Treuille and Das have developed their own online lab called EteRNA that focuses on the structure of RNA, a biological molecule involved in gene expression, protein synthesis, and many diseases among other functions. EteRNA participants play online games and participate in challenges to design RNA that meets certain criteria. These models are then sent to Das’s lab at Stanford where they are processed. The results of this processing are published on the EteRNA website so that participants can analyze and incorporate the results into future designs.

There are several benefits to Treuille and Das’s method of scientific research, namely the separation between research design and testing. Conventional research structure leaves space for bias, since the same individual, or group of individuals, is responsible for experimental design and procedure. In EteRNA and other online laboratories, the general public formulates hypotheses which the researchers test. This separation “makes it difficult for any individual to retrospectively adjust scientific hypotheses to match experimental results, or to cherry-pick data to reflect a scientist’s biases,” explained Treuille in a university press release.

The reduction of scientific fraud, however, is not the only benefit to this method of scientific research. By uncoupling design and testing, there is also the potential to solve the issue of immense quantities of data. In the instance of EteRNA, vast quantities of data are particularly relevant since a single RNA sequence can produce billions of data points. While this abundance of data could be overwhelming and time-consuming for a small group of researchers, when opened to the general public, it becomes less of an issue due to the large numbers of participants.

Despite the success of current online laboratories, there are still some hurdles to overcome, the largest being the legitimacy of video games within the scientific community. While the online-game style design of online laboratories has been successful in engaging the public, video games are generally not associated with scholarly research. This association could potentially cause the research to be viewed in the scientific community as less reliable. The EteRNA online laboratory was backed by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund and the W. M. Keck Foundation and can be reached through the EteRNA website,

Treuille and Das’s study titled “RNA design rules from a massive open laboratory” was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.