The DNA model: Three important lessons

I came across an article in a Google+ post that I found very interesting. Here is the link to the original article:
http://ajrccm.atsjournals.org/content/167/8/1047.long

The article is about the famous paper by Watson and Crick that proposes a model for the DNA. It turns out that they were not the first to propose such a model, and neither were they the only ones working on a model for the DNA. Two other researchers, Rosalind Franklin, and Maurice Wilkins were independently studying the DNA, trying to come up with a structure. Watson and Crick had met these two people, and studied the experimental results by Franklin and Wilkins. Apparently, Franklin and Wilkins, although working in the same university, had a tiff with each other and did not work together. The three groups published their findings in the same issue of Nature. However, it was Watson and Crick’s paper that became more famous and the model of the DNA today is popularly attributed to them. The rivalry between Franklin and Wilkins proved to be costly for them.

People generally tend to work independently in most universities in India and there is little collaboration, even within the same university. People tend to see others as their rivals, but little do they realize that they could increase their research output by working together. This is true not just in research, but in many other fields as well.

Getting back to the DNA story, two other researchers, Fraser and Stokes had come up with a similar helical structure for the DNA. Their structure had some minor fallacies, but they did not publish their findings. Had they done so, Watson and Crick might not have been given so much credit. There have been many such cases, where people came up with good ideas, but did not believe in them enough to publish it, thereby losing the glory.

The article also describes how the paper by Watson and Crick was very well written and neatly presented, in contrast to the two other papers which were littered with jargon. A research paper that is well written, and follows a simple style reaches out to a wider audience and becomes more popular. Paul Halmos deeply emphasizes on this aspect in his essay, “How to write Mathematics” (a link to the pdf can be found here)

To summarize, these three lessons are very important for every researcher:

  1. It is a better idea to collaborate with researchers of the same university than to work independently. It saves a lot of time, and you both get the credit.
  2. Publish all your findings. Unless it is in print, you don’t get any credit, and
  3. When you write up a paper, make sure that it can be easily understood by a wide enough audience. This is probably the most difficult of the three, since writing a good article takes a lot of time and experience.
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