A magazine article New Clues to How the Brain Maps Time reviewed the findings of a 2015 Boston rodent study During Running in Place, Grid Cells Integrate Elapsed Time and Distance Run. The article’s information was mixed such that when the reader arrived at this phrase:
“Moreover, time cells rely on context; they only mark time when the animal is put into a situation in which time is what matters most.”
it wasn’t clear whether the “time cells” referred to grid cells located in the entorhinal cortex (per the referenced study) or some other cells located in the hippocampus.
The hippocampus also has “time cells.” One of the first studies I curated when I started this blog one year ago today was Our memories are formed within a specific context. That 2014 study’s Significance section included:
“A number of recent studies have shown that the hippocampus, a structure known to be essential to form episodic memories, possesses neurons that explicitly mark moments in time.
We add a previously unidentified finding to this work by showing that individual primate hippocampal neurons not only track time, but do so only when specific contextual information (e.g., object identity/location) is cued.”
I attempted to disambiguate the “time cells” location by reading the 2015 study, only to find it was behind a paywall for which the public doesn’t have unqualified free access.
I assert that the study was performed using public funds, and that the researchers’ infrastructure and facilities were paid in part by the US taxpayers. Only US government funding sources were disclosed on the organization Mission Statement page of the study’s lead researcher, whose position is Lab Chief.
I assume that whether or not the study had unqualified free access was the researchers’ decision. Here’s a typical US NIH statement:
“The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.”
There are multiple problems with placing publicly-funded studies behind paywalls. One pertinent to this study and article was the accurate presentation of the study’s findings in news coverage.
The article’s author gave her interpretation of the study and the lead researcher’s remarks. She solicited five other researchers’ opinions, and one researcher provided an appraisal in the Comments section.
Was this treatment of the study’s findings sufficient for the public to understand what the US taxpayers paid for?
It was nice to have interpretations and remarks and opinions and appraisals, but these may have diverged from what the study actually found. Without unqualified free access to the study, there was no base on which to compare and contrast the article’s POVs.
Other news coverage of the study provided further examples of why publicly funded research needs to be freely available without qualification:
- NPR’s coverage also confused the cells’ location: “If grid cells in the hippocampus and entorhinal cortex..”
- An article carried by multiple sites headlined the cells as “Odometer neurons.” Did the study find that grid cells operated cumulatively like an odometer that began at some stage of the subjects’ development? Or did it find that the grid cells operated more like a trip meter?
- In the Discover Magazine coverage the lead researcher stated: “..could point to ways to treat memory loss, whether from old age or illness, like Alzheimer’s disease.” Did the study actually find anything about “memory loss?” Was there anything in it about “old age or illness, like Alzheimer’s disease?”
As the study’s news coverage discrepancies and ambiguities demonstrated, there’s every reason for researchers to provide all the details of their work. We’re well past the days when “wise old men” selectively gate information flows.