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Call for Anecdotes: Serendipity in Scientific Practice

JOTE is looking for anecdotes on serendipity in scientific practice for a special series on serendipity!

Published onApr 13, 2023
Call for Anecdotes: Serendipity in Scientific Practice

In brief

Call for anecdotes

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Special series on serendipity: Call for anecdotes

Attention all science storytellers! The Journal of Trial and Error is looking for anecdotes from scientists about their encounters with serendipity or failure in scientific practice. Serendipity, broadly construed, is the phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable results not sought for. Therefore, it often accompanies failure since the outcomes of research are not as originally planned. However, regardless of whether the original goal is reached, another purpose is fulfilled. This is namely the production of new findings, which, if discovered under the right circumstances, can contribute greatly to scientific knowledge.

Famous examples of serendipity – such as the discovery of penicillin, the invention of the microwave, and the development of Viagra – show the importance of following up on failures and subsequent perseverance. Alexander Fleming did not by chance find penicillin in his Petri dish. Rather, he found mold which he then started to research – serendipitous discoveries are not ‘chance’ discoveries, but rather unexpected discoveries that are made by hard-working scientists who are open enough to see something unexpected and not dismiss it, which is what is unique about these scientists. It is still not clear what the parameters of the necessary skill set are to make the best use of accidents. A collection of stories describing serendipity in the modern world will be a generative resource.

We, therefore, urge you to share anecdotes about incidents of serendipity or failure during your scientific research. It is important to recognize that even with the right skills and knowledge, factors outside of our control can influence serendipitous moments outside of scientists’ own interests and aims. By analyzing these stories of both serendipity and failure, we hope to develop a deeper understanding of the importance of timing, opportunity, funding, and perseverance in scientific discovery. This analysis will be conducted by three experts on serendipity: philosopher Samantha Copeland, biologist and historian Stuart Firestein, and psychologist Wendy Ross. They are all able to shed light on the process around serendipity through their unique experience and expertise.

In summary, the Journal of Trial and Error welcomes anecdotes about incidents where serendipity occurred and what happened next, as well as reflections on what made these moments valuable and important. By sharing your story, you can help create a community that values the role of hard work in combination with unexpected results in scientific discovery and fosters resilience and persistence in the face of challenges when original scientific goals are not met.

We encourage scientists to send in anecdotes describing their experiences of serendipity, reflecting on what they found valuable during the incident and what made it important enough for them to share.

On top of that, we would like to know what it was that led to the serendipitous discovery or the failure. Was it something outside of your control or not? What effect did this have on your research and how did your surroundings, such as your colleagues, react? These details can help us better understand the conditions and environments that contribute to scientific serendipity.

Practical information

Serendipity Analysts

Samantha Copeland, [email protected]

Stuart Firestein, [email protected]

Wendy Ross, [email protected]

Managing Editors

Stefan Gaillard, [email protected]

Michelle Moonen, [email protected]

Reviewing process

Stage 1: Anecdotes submission

Please submit an anecdote about a serendipitous discovery or a failure that could have been a discovery in different circumstances. The anecdote should contain a brief outline (250 words max), 4-5 keywords, and an indication of the research discipline of the author(s). We aim to provide feedback within a month after submission.

Note that JOTE is a diamond open access journal. You will not be charged article processing fees.

Stage 2: Anecdotes analysis

Anecdotes that are sufficiently interesting will be analysed by one or more of our analysts, depending on submissions in general and the specific submission. Anecdotes might be analysed independently or in conjunction with other anecdotes.

Anecdotes and inquiries should be sent to Stefan D.M. Gaillard at [email protected].

Short Anecdote Example

Ragworms anecdotes

Jim van Belzen

When appointed as PhD candidate to work on coastal ecosystems as nature-based coastal defense I started working on the processes that could limit salt-marsh ecosystems from establishing on tidal flats. Previous research within our department pointed to wave action as a key factor hindering the establishment of pioneer vegetation in salt marshes. Yet, the method used by my predecessors was problematic.

The results were likely influenced by the planting method of seedling grasses into the sediments of the tidal flat. The young plants were grown on sand in the lab. Next, the roots were rinsed out and then on-site pierced in a hole which was created by pushing a finger in the mud. The roots, important for the anchoring of the pioneering plants in the mud, were certainly disrupted by this procedure. We therefore planned to change the procedure. The seedlings would grow up in the mud collected at the place where we would also replant the grown grasses. So, with a small clod to not disturb the roots.

After setting up the pots with mud collected from the transplantation site into an automated flooding-and-drainage system outside, mimicking the tidal inundation, the potted just germinated seedlings however suddenly disappeared. After replanting the seedlings into the pots the next day most disappeared again. We were very surprised as my experienced research assistants and myself didn’t anticipate this sudden disappearance. We hypothesized about various possible explanations. Like flushing due to the mimicking of the tidal inundation or birds eating them. Yet, these could not be confirmed and seemed rather unlikely due to various reasons.

The third time we replanted the few seedlings that were left, our assistant stuck around to observe what would happen with the seedlings. Staying at the tanks watching the pots for about an hour observed what was happening with the seedlings. Suddenly a ragworm came out of the sediment, grabbed the stem of the seedlings, and pulled it into the sediment. This observation put us on a track of various observations and research revealing the key role ragworms can play understanding marsh establishment.

The work in which we found that ragworm can limit seedling establishment by both eating and making the sediment more erodible to waves is currently under revision for the Journal of Ecology.

But we also found that ragworms seem to garden food. The follow-up anecdote:

As a result of the surprising find Zhenchang Zhu and I started doing various follow-up experiments with ragworms, seeds and seedlings. In one such experiment, Zhu put mimic seeds made out of plastic nurdles into the sediment. Another surprising observation. It seemed that the ragworms were selective and removed them from the sediment. At the same time they grabbed real seeds and moved them into the burrow. Yet, after some days these seeds were retrieved from the pots and not eaten. This was strange as the plastic nurdles were not retained in the sediment. After some further experimentation it turned out that ragworm cannot eat the seeds due to a hard seed husk. Yet, once the seed sprouts the food becomes available and is even more nutritious than unhusked seeds. The ragworms grow faster on eating the sprouts compared to unhusked seeds. This work suggested that ragworms had developed a way to rear nutritious food.

Zhu, Z., van Belzen, J., Hong, T., Kunihiro, T., Ysebaert, T., Herman, P. M., & Bouma, T. J. (2016). Sprouting as a gardening strategy to obtain superior supplementary food: Evidence from a seed‐caching marine worm. Ecology, 97(12), 3278-3284.

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