Tag Archives: science

Antibiotic confusion in the Wall Street Journal

If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll know I have a thing against antibiotics. I love to take them when I have a bacterial infection, but I think it’s a terrible synonym for ‘antibacterial’, an older word that doesn’t confuse people at all. The problem is that people (as in “folks” who are not scientists, doctors, and science journalists) typically assume that antibiotics can treat non-bacterial infections, and this encourages people to demand antibiotics for anything that ails them. The word itself is a problem. Unfortunately (and this seems to be the bigger problem), scientists, doctors, and science journalists don’t think the word is at all confusing, and thus see my issue as completely irrelevant to the massive overprescription of antibiotics. That’s a problem.

So last week I begged Ben Zimmer (Wall Street Journal) on Twitter to explore the origin of the word “antibiotic”, with the hope that people (folks and otherwise) would listen to him. Here’s his column: A Cure for ‘Antibiotic’ Confusion? It’s short and sweet, so just read it, but here’s my favorite sentence:

In current usage, “antibiotic” is roughly synonymous with “antibacterial,” though technically speaking antibiotics can act on microbes other than bacteria. [italics mine]

Two comments about the column.

First, I wish the article had explored just how common the confusion is. It’s not just that some people are confused. I think most people are confused. Again, I’m talking about “folks”, not the overeducated people who might be reading this nerdy blog post. But to be honest, some of the overeducated people I’ve talked to don’t understand antibiotic specificity, either. Because terrible word.

Second, Zimmer asked two people whether “antibacterial” could ever float as a substitute for “antibiotic”. They answered that it couldn’t because (essentially) the disinfectant lobby would object. That’s an odd reason because just as antibacterial wipes kill bacteriaantibacterial drugs kill bacteria. That’s because they both contain antibacterials, though the sources might differ. Zero conflict. Similarly, disinfectants and pills can contain antivirals. Or antifungals. And if there really was a conflict, I think the original use of antibacterial should trump the wipe lobby. There are also papers using “antibacterial” as synonym for antibiotic, so it’s not like there isn’t a precedent.

The issue is more that it’s hard for older people to avoid a word they have been happily using for their entire life. Good examples are “life preserver” (now “personal floatation device”) and suntan lotion (now “sunscreen” or “sunblock”), words that will probably only fully die when we do. But if properly motivated, people can make switches much faster. Two good examples are demonstrated by the employees of BackRub.com and Beaver College, now Google and Arcadia University, respectively. So I think a bunch of PhDs and MDs can summon the mental power to say “antibacterial” when speaking with impressionable patients. But they’ll only do so if some higher power (CDC, WHO) makes it clear that doing so might reduce overprescription of antibiotics. Even if using “antibacterial” would only reduce overprescription by 5% it would be worth doing.

I’m not suggesting that we can’t use “antibiotic” under any circumstances, of course. It’s fine for conferences, publications, and when socializing with people from the powerful wipes lobby.

Thanks, Ben Zimmer!

Here are my previous posts on the topic, if you’re interested. If you conduct “science literacy” polls, you really need to read them. The reason is that asking something like, “Will antibiotics treat colds?” is a terrible question. You should be asking, “Do antibacterials kill viruses”. That will assess the science literacy more directly.

You keep using the word antibiotic

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Happy birthday, Origin of Species!

On November 24th, 1859, Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, Or, The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. Eventually shortened (thank, God) to, On the Origin of Species. First editions can easily fetch $200,000 at auction. Not all copies have been accounted for, so check your shelves. This one is owned by the American Philosophical Society, which also has a huge and entertaining collection of translations and even the draft title page that Darwin sent to Lyell. If you’re shopping for a gift for a young science fan, get Dr Jan Pechenik’s version, The Readable Darwin: The Origin of Species, As Edited for Modern Readers

Colin Purrington Photography: Charles Darwin &emdash; First edition of Darwin's Origin of Species

Colin Purrington Photography: Charles Darwin &emdash; Origin of Species translations

Colin Purrington Photography: Charles Darwin &emdash; Origin of Species draft title page

Colin Purrington Photography: Charles Darwin &emdash; Tree of life cake for Charles Darwin

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Do antibiotics kill viruses?

Definition of antibioticIf you wonder why so many people think antibiotics can treat colds and flu (viruses), perhaps its because sick people are using search engines to figure out what antibiotics are. Below are some examples of what people will find. I’ve included definitions of “microorganism” because so many definitions of “antibiotic” contain that term.


antibiotic: a medicine (such as penicillin or its derivatives) that inhibits the growth of or destroys microorganisms.
microorganism: a microscopic organism, especially a bacterium, virus, or fungus.


antibiotic: any of a large group of chemical substances, as penicillin or streptomycin, produced by various microorganisms and fungi, having the capacity in dilute solutions to inhibit the growth of or to destroy bacteria and other microorganisms, used chiefly in the treatment of infectious diseases.
microorganism: any organism too small to be viewed by the unaided eye, as bacteria,protozoa, and some fungi and algae.


antibiotic: a substance produced by or a semisynthetic substance derived from a microorganism and able in dilute solution to inhibit or kill another microorganism.
microorganism: an extremely small living thing that can only be seen with a microscope.


antibiotic: A substance, such as penicillin or erythromycin, produced by or derived from certain microorganisms, including fungi and bacteria, that can destroy or inhibit the growth of other microorganisms, especially bacteria. Antibiotics are widely used in the prevention and treatment of infectious diseases.
microorganismany organism, such as a bacterium, protozoan, or virus, of microscopic size.

Britannica Library:

antibiotic:  chemical substance produced by a living organism, generally a microorganism, that is detrimental to other microorganisms. Antibiotics commonly are produced by soil microorganisms and probably represent a means by which organisms in a complex environment, such as soil, control the growth of competing microorganisms.
microorganisms: living things that are too small to be seen with the naked eye. They are normally viewed using a microscope. Bacteria, viruses, and some molds are examples of microorganisms.


antibiotic: Any substance that can destroy or inhibit the growth of bacteria and similar microorganisms.
microorganism: An organism that is too small to be seen by the unaided eye, especially a single-celled organism, such as a bacterium.

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A simple name change for antibiotics could save lives

In depressing medical news this week, the World Health Organization reported that 64% of adults believe that antibiotics can be used to treat flu and colds. That’s terrible because those 64% are likely to pressure their doctors for antibiotics when they don’t need them, which in turn will speed the evolution of bacteria resistant to the drugs … and then people die from bacterial infections that used to be treatable.

Cartoon image of Batman slapping robin for thinking antibiotics can treat common coldThere are several beliefs that contribute to this statistic, and I think it’s important to tease them apart so we can better craft outreach strategies. The one that gets the most attention, of course, is when people (e.g., Robin in the popular Batman meme I based on original by Dr Nick Bennett and his wife) think that colds are caused by bacteria. A second reason is that some people think viruses are a kind of bacteria and thus treatable with antibiotics.

But there’s a third, even more important explanation that gets almost no attention: people thinking antibiotics are effective against a wide range of microorganisms (i.e., not just bacteria). Why on Earth would people think this? I think kids are almost certainly to blame. When young kids are sick, they don’t really care about the whole virus-versus-bacteria thing … they just know something is infecting them and that the parents keep chanting “antibiotic” over and over again. So I think it’s unavoidable that kids construct a definition for antibiotics before they even start kindergarten (pollsters: can you ask?). Kids are also genius at figuring out word meanings when they don’t get full information from teachers or parents, so it is probable that many assume that the anti (against) and biotic (living) parts of “antibiotic” mean that the drug kills all life. (This is, indeed, what the word “antibiotic” used to mean before microbiologists commandeered it to mean something else.) Although kids might be told later in life (in high school, college) that antibiotics target only bacteria, the correction might not stick in the average person’s brain. In addition to the above, ignorance about antibiotic efficacy is probably increasingly pulled from the Internet. If you doubt me, just type “antibiotic definition” into Google and read the top five or so definitions: they all say that antibiotics can kill microorganisms.

If “antibiotic” (the word) is the source of so much confusion, replacing it with a better word might cause people to stop asking for it, which could save lives via preserving antibiotics. Luckily, the word “antibacterial” is just waiting there, perfect for the job. The anti and bacterial parts of the word convey its meaning unambiguously, plus it’s an old word (older than antibiotic!), and is already used by the general public. You can even Google the definition if you don’t believe me: all the definitions indicate it is a drug that kills bacteria (and only bacteria). It would join other words such as “antifungal” and “antiviral”, all of which tend to be used and understood by both doctors and patients.

Cartoon image of Batman slapping robin for thinking antibacterials can treat common coldThere would, of course, be a certain amount of work associated with the switch. For example, websites promoting antibiotic awareness would need to run a Search and Replace macro to insert “antibacterial” everywhere instead of “antibiotic”. That might take 10 minutes for a large site. And brochures and cartoonish wall art for waiting rooms would have to reprinted, but the result would be that waiting patients and parents would be measurably less confused on what antibacterials do. And once everything was converted to “antibacterial”, outreach organizations like WHO and CDC could focus on the more important issues such as making people understand what colds are (please see Batman comic #2) and making sure that the full course of antibacterials is taken.

Note that I’m not suggesting everyone stop using “antibiotic” altogether. But in terms of public outreach, discussion with patients, and the names on drug containers, we should give it a try.

What would also be great is if pollsters could replace “antibiotic” with “antibacterial” for half of the survey participants. Currently, most physicians and “antibiotic awareness week” coordinators LOVE the word “antibiotic” and can see no fault in it; they blame ignorance levels on the educated, ignorant masses. But if poll data could show them that ignorance goes down by (say) 50% after adoption of “antibacterial,” they might rethink their opposition to change.

BONUS FACT: Alexander Fleming used the word “antibacterial” 19 times in his paper describing the isolation of penicillin. He used “antibiotic” 0 times. He got a Nobel prize for the work.

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Consortium for Plant Biotechnology Research has finally stopped plagiarizing me

I’m delighted to report that The Consortium for Plant Biotechnology Research (CPBR) has finally decided to stop plagiarizing me. Details below. But first, the back story in case you missed it, which is likely.

For the years 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014, CPBR included approximately four pages of my poster advice (my full version is here) as an appendix in a PDF they emailed to thousands of researchers around the country who wanted CPBR grant funding (the PDF was a call for proposals). A sample page of this appendix is at the bottom of this post, with the plagiarized text highlighted in red. There was no indication anywhere in the entire document that the text had been copied from my web page (e.g., there were no quotation marks around text, and no generous citation like, “Text on how to make a poster courtesy Dr Colin Purrington”). This type of plagiarism would be classified as “blatant plagiarism” and would earn you an automatic F in a college course, with possibility of expulsion from the school (I know this because I had served for years on the Swarthmore College judiciary board, where plagiarism cases were often heard). I was also annoyed that they’d decided to copyright my text: at the bottom of the pages in question there was the line, “Copyright CPBR”, verbiage that claimed legal ownership of the text. CPBR also told recipients of the PDF to not post the document online, effectively hiding it from public scrutiny.

But somebody at Purdue University’s grants office decided to post the document (oops), and I stumbled onto it in 2013. Via email, I asked that the document be taken down (or my content removed), and CC’d the folks at CPBR.

At this point, CPBR might have contacted me. For example, they might have said, “Oh, gosh, we had a moron on our staff back in 2006, and he must have just copied that text because he thought it was funny. So sorry, we’ll remove it. Can we link to your web page??”

Instead, they hired a large law firm (Arnold & Porter) and threatened to take me to court if I didn’t take down my website. Yes, that’s right: CPBR officially accused me of plagiarizing them. They threatened very large legal fees, too. In hindsight, I suppose I should have let those threats play out: it would be really amusing to see them try to get my site unplugged. But because the threat was totally legal (so to say) and could potentially bankrupt me, I decided to hire a lawyer, too.

And this is when the story gets completely unsatisfying: I haven’t heard from CPBR or it’s lawyers for over a year. I suspect CPBR’s lawyer became furious at CPBR, because CPBR probably assured its lawyer that I was the guilty party. But I provided crystal clear proof of the contrary to their lawyer, so their relationship probably soured rather quickly. I was hoping to eventually hear from the lawyer that the threat had been lifted, but I guess that’s not going to happen. And CPBR has never contacted me, either.

My only evidence that CPBR admits to the plagiarism is that they’ve finally stopped using my text in their most recent PDF (kindly sent to me by several of the member universities).

So that’s the update.

What continues to depresses me about this whole experience is that CPBR and Dorin Schumacher have faced zero consequences for (1) plagiarizing me rather extensively and (2) falsely accusing me of copyright violation. Most people roll their eyes about (1), viewing advice on “poster design” as far too boring to care about (note: my goal was to craft advice that was less boring than other how-to guides; the theft of my text suggests I might have been successful). But (2), making knowingly false allegations about copyright infringement is really terrible regardless of the topic. I would have thought that after the story went public last year, that Dr Schumacher would quickly lose her job or that CPBR would stop getting government money. But Dr Schumacher still gives herself $250,000+ per year (she owns the company, it turns out) and CPBR still gets millions of dollars each year from the USDA, Department of Energy, and EPA. Some — perhaps tens of thousands — of that money went to a lawyer directed to pursue a legal claim she knew was false. That’s public money, some of it contributed by me (!), a taxpayer. If there was any justice in the world there would be a high-level governmental liaison who would say, “Dr Schumacher, this use of public money is objectionable and you are officially defunded.” (I’ve contacted all the government officials that give the checks to CPBR; they all have told me they cannot get involved.)

What makes this especially bizarre is that CPBR’s goal is to get plant biotechnology research ideas into trademarked products. Hence there’s a lot of talk in CPBR’s documents about trademarks, privacy, and copyrights. For an organization that clearly values intellectual property, it’s really shameful it engaged in blatant plagiarism. And it’s shocking that such an organization would falsely accuse somebody else of copyright infringement as a way to bully the weaker party (me) into ceding legal ownership. Simply shameful.

It’s also rather strange that CPBR would ever choose to plagiarize me in the first place. First, when in doubt, don’t plagiarize from sites that have “please don’t plagiarize” verbiage on their pages (I do), especially if the author also has a page dedicated to the evils of plagiarism and how to stop fight it (I do). There are thousands of sites on how to craft conference posters (plus plenty of articles and books), and the vast majority have no such verbiage. Second, don’t ever plagiarize from people who might reasonably come across your stuff. I’ve actually published on plant biotechnology (e.g.), and it would be completely likely that I’d eventually read CPBR’s PDF on funding sources (and thus discover the plagiarism). So odd, on both counts.

If you’d like to see the PDFs with and without the plagiarism, just let me know and I’ll send them to you (I don’t want to post them). If you have questions for Dr Schumacher, here’s her email: info@cpbr.org. And here’s her lawyer’s: david.metzger@aporter.com. And, just in case you’re curious: I do have official copyright on my text from the US Copyright Office; CPBR most certainly does not.

Thanks to all the people who’ve sent kind words of support to me during over this issue, or who’ve sent messages to member universities or governmental officials. I’m truly grateful for all.

By the way, The Consortium for Plant Biotechnology Research is on day 2 of its annual symposium today (March 4th). If you’re in DC, please stop by the (posh) George Town Club (1530 Wisconsin Ave, NW) if you have a few minutes to spare. It’s fully funded by US taxpayers so I’m sure they’d let you come in. Oh, and there’s a poster session! And I’d love to know if the posters are any good this year, so if you go, please drop me a line.

Plagiarism by The Consortium for Plant Biotechnology Research



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