Where was this published? Who cares?

In the good old days, when milk was delivered to your door, 5 cent would get you a house, fascism had yet to ravish Europe, etc., academia was also adorably quaint, and left you brimming with nostalgia. Researchers would subscribe to a handful of journals and (probably) read every article in each. That was the extent of an individual’s exposure to the primary literature; their academic fill, as it were. Hence in the days of old, things like journal reputation and total subscribers were paramount!

Whilst still important in the modern age (under the guise of ‘impact factors’ following a tactical rebranding) there has certainly been a dramatic shift in culture as the way we obtain journal articles. The internet has changed the game. Articles are extracted from all-encompassing search engines with little (if any) thought given to the source journals. Now, the journal in which a publication features is little more than an afterthought when adjudicating a paper’s merit, and I for one approve.

I can personally recall innumerable instances whereby I finish reading an article, hold some serious reservations concerning methods, data, etc., only to find out that it originated from some prestigious journal or another. I have also experienced the reverse, an impressive paper of lowly origins, with similar regularity.  This may infuriate others, but for me, this is exactly how it should be: judging papers on their content.  Reputation has no place in science. It delights me to know that with the increase of e-journals and open access, this unbiased assessment of the primary literature is becoming increasingly common and is well on its way to becoming the norm for such endeavours.

Of course, such a dramatic shift in knowledge acquisition is likely to have myriad consequences for the future of research, the form of which will take a far lengthier blog post to explore…

Pax Academia

Why don’t we have a uniform education system across the globe? Now of course, it is unlikely that History say, or Religious Studies, will ever be made homogeneous worldwide (although I would wholly advocate an all-encompassing impartial treatment to that effect), but what about the rest? Why isn’t mathematics taught the same in Mumbai as in Marrakesh? Biology not the same in Bosnia and Botswana? In higher education, the fields of science and engineering are colossal international collaborations, with all participants reading very much from the same hymnbook.  Thus, it seems strange to me that we provide future academics (schoolchildren) with such disparate training across countries, both in terms of content and style.  Universities are left to redress the inequalities left over from school. This is certainly a hindrance and puts a strict upper limit on the scope and breadth that undergraduate courses can hope to achieve.

Making things worse, we fail to inform our children of these disparities, leaving them to discover on their own as they venture out into the wider world, completely underprepared.  If there is little to no standardization in our education systems, the least we could do is inform young people of that fact. The most we could do, on the other hand, would be to implement an overhaul of the education system to standardize curriculums internationally. Not all, of course would approve of such a drastic move; others may think it may not behove us to move towards uniform education. I would admit that this may not be beneficial to the arts or for creative individualism in general, but the improved efficiency it would lend to STEM fields is tantalizing indeed.

Regardless of the subject-specific nuances that would arise from such a grand plan, if uniform education is even possible or desirable, it will be a long time coming. Just a thought…

Classes for the Masses

School is free. Libraries are free. The western world seems to agree that education should not be a privilege of the wealthy. So why then, is higher education not free?  Now this question is largely rhetorical, but it acts to highlight my concern over the lack of support for a more heavily subsidized higher education. Don’t get me wrong, the focus that many university missions place on inclusivity is comforting; it often feels however, like all mouth and no trousers. Particularly in an age where institutions could readily make all course materials, lectures, and textbooks, available for free online, it seems that increasing accessibility is more talked about than worked towards.

Of course free education is clearly not an economically viable approach, but why should it be? Money is not part of the equation when we talk of fire departments or mental health centers; we invest in them because it is the right thing to do, not because they are profitable. I believe the same attitude should endure when we discuss higher education. Just imagine for a moment: anyone (with an internet connection, granted) can simply browse online through university websites and pick a degree!  From the comfort of your own home, it is entirely possible to receive the highest quality of educational material, follow any penchant or interest, and be in constant contact with professors and experts in the field.  University is a choice that everyone, young or old, rich or poor, can make. What a wonderful world.

It is essential to keep such an idealized view of what higher education could be at the forefront of our thinking. We are, after all, charging headlong into the age of technology. Yes, there are myriad problems with implementing this imagined utopia, a thorough review of which is beyond the scope of this blog. One particularly prickly obstacle is that of certification; adjudicating on whether an individual has met all of the requirements pertaining to their degree becomes demonstrably more challenging with free education. These issues will have to be addressed as we move into the era of open access anyway, so I think we should be having the discussion regardless.  ‘Classes for the Masses’ (as I have coined it) are achievable, and seem to be high on the agenda for many academic institutions. We must not let greed prevent us from exploring socialized higher education, nor let fear stall us from embracing advances in communication.  Let us hope that in this instance fortune does not favor the brave, and instead we can proclaim: Bravo! new world.

Open Access All Areas

I will start by asserting my unwavering support for open access journals. If I was in charge, there would be no subscriptions. Zero. Regular readers will know my socialist tendencies. Knowledge should not be a privilege. Things are better than what they were, yet still the vast majority of primary literature is unavailable to the vast majority. I am a big proponent of making all forms of education completely free and widely accessible.  I hope that the trends continue, and as more and more journals migrate online freeing them from printing costs, the savings are passed on to the consumers.

PLOS One is a glowing example of how to do open access right and I believe, a glimpse into the future. The benefits of open access, online-only formats are immediately apparent. The breadth of research far exceeds that of any traditional journal. Articles range the gamut of disciplines, and encompass all article types (review, research, methods, etc.). What’s more, this style permits the reporting of replication studies and negative results; two neglected areas, the importance of which have only recently been fully realized.  Sounds great, doesn’t it? So why are so many people, if not fully opposed, ostensibly reluctant to open access?

Good all capitalistic greed ranks highly. Involved parties assert that they won’t make as much money if they are required to provide their products for free. A shrewd observation. But I have yet to hear a convincing argument against government subsidized publishing. The money is there. If we can rustle up $54,000,000,000 to buy shiny new tanks and missiles (for the sole purpose of terrify anyone who can’t remember the lyrics to The Star-Spangled Banner), then the ‘we can’t afford it’ proclamation carries no weight whatsoever. Most people are agreed however, that some things are more important than profit: healthcare, emergency services, etc. And for the most part, education is usually included in that list too. I think a concerted effort to make all primary literature open access is one of the most important cultural advances currently facing the scientific world. Once we have achieved this feat, it would not be long before we will look back with a mixture wonder and pity at the way things used to be.

Open Data: The Credit Crunch

What do you fear most?

Ask a normal person and they might say: the dark, a clown attack, or (my personal) spiders with wings. (As a humorous aside, I was once having a philosophical discussion with a friend about the afterlife, when I remembered being told that people are born with only one fear, that of dying. I thought it apropos, and began: “I’m told that people are born with only one fear…”. Before I could finish my thought he suddenly exclaimed “Bees! It’s got to be bees!” That still makes me laugh.). Ask a scientist his greatest fear however, and most likely they will talk about not receiving credit for their work. Terrifying!

Joke’s aside, this is a legitimate concern, and with the rise of ‘open data’, publicly available data and methodologies, discourse surrounding the regulations that ensure accreditation has resurfaced. These are undoubtedly legitimate fears, and we must make sure things are kosher as we move into the future. However in this blog I would like to raise similar fears stemming from the opposite end of the credit debate that are likely to exacerbate with more and more people sharing data: namely, people receiving credit for things they would rather not take credit for.

Last year, my lab lent some data to be included in a nationwide analysis investigating the effects of climate change on amphibian communities in the US.  The researchers were gracious and assured us that we would be credited as co-authors for our trouble. A year goes by, nothing more has been heard about this paper until one day, out of the blue, a final draught arrives in our inboxes. The lead investigator has sent it to us as more of a courtesy, to check for any last minor errors before sending it out for publication. But for all intents and purposes, it is complete. Excited and surprised, we read over the paper… oh dear. Grade-A nonsense. From start to finish. Wacky methods, dubious conclusions, and worst of all, our names proudly at the top. Immediately we replied voicing our concerns, as politely as we could. But our plea fell on deaf ears, the PI was not going to budge; he had fallen in love with his analysis and was all but ready to submit the thing. Being a young naïve graduate student I wasn’t particularly worried, I just assumed the paper would never make it past review. My advisor was not as confident. The ‘climate change’ hook, combined with some of the big names listed as co-authors, would give it a really strong chance she argued. Scandalous!

In the end our consciences gave way and we asked for our names to be removed from the paper. But what if we hadn’t been sent the final edit as a courtesy? What if the first we heard about it was from reading the paper in print? Nor is this a benign issue. Imagine I borrow some of Stephen Hawking’s data, and then credit it him as a co-author. Publishers and readers alike are going to look extremely favorably on that paper, not knowing the minimal extent of the professor’s contribution.

With credit we walk a tightrope; leaning too far in either direction can prove disastrous. This balancing act is by no means new, but in the age of ‘open data’, we will likely have to walk the line far more often.

Tear Down That Wall! B.C.P. Snow 60 Years On

In a previous blog post (The Red Brick Rubric), I described the role of the industrial revolution in increasing the number and breadth of universities in England; bringing higher education to the masses. Aside from the steadfast conservatives at Oxbridge, this was widely seen as an inclusive, progressive step in the evolution of higher education. However, as Baron Charles Percy Snow so masterly conveyed in his seminal 1959 lecture “The Two Cultures”, the industrial revolution was also chiefly responsible for one of the biggest splits to ever befall academia.

The disconnect between scientists and literary academics is well known, however its origins less so. Indeed, there is a tendency to assume that such a split has always existed in the collegiate world. Not so. In classical Greece, during the Renaissance, or any period before circa 1800 in fact, mixing between science and the arts was commonplace; polymaths abounded. Not until the 19th century did the two cultures begin to drift apart. Scientists were the only intellectuals that embraced the industrial revolution. All other academic fields either failed to understand, or never attempted to understand this phenomenon. This fact is remarkable enough, that the majority of intellectuals failed to notice the biggest upheaval in society since the emergence of agriculture!  Alternatively, they did notice, but simply didn’t like what they saw.

How then, can we bridge these gaps? I fear we have a lot of catching up to do, especially given our current position. We are in the midst of another technological revolution. In time, our current revolution will produce its own divisions if we are not careful. Indeed the tell-tale signs are already beginning to show if we look at the adoption of data-management software across the disciplines. We do not want to repeat history trying to make amends for history.  Academia is more than the sum of its parts; if we are not working as one cohesive unit, we are all doing a disservice to the stated goals of higher education.

Treasure Island dot com: In Praise of Online Swashbuckling

We have the world at our fingertips. We are the first generation to be able to make that claim; the first generation to have constant access to virtually all of humanities acquired wisdom. As such I will quote Spiderman: ‘with great power comes great responsibility.’ Unfortunately, it seems, when given the responsibility most people will panic and google ‘how to pass the buck’. If we take it for what it is, the internet could be (should be!) the greatest leap forward in public education since the invention of the printing press. So why are some so reluctant?

The internet is the high seas, and we are buccaneers in search of the greatest treasure of all: knowledge. As with real treasure, it is not easy to get your hands on. We must sail across oceans of nonsense in our quest; dangerous waters indeed. What’s more, we should be extremely weary of the stories and claims of other adventurers; one must remember that fisherman’s tales can be some of the tallest. Instead of sirens hoping to steer us off course, we are instead faced with news articles of Nazis on the moon, Tom Cruise’s new eyebrows, and cats playing pianos. Only those steadfast, exhibiting the utmost restraint, ignoring all distractions on their journey, emerge from the internet unscathed and enriched.

Some have argued that the perils that face internet travellers are not worth the risk, especially in a formal educational setting. Whether Luddite or simply overly-cautious, I strongly disagree with these people. I have always been a “glass half full” kind of guy. Social media platforms provide an excellent opportunity (particularly in the current climate) to teach students how to critically evaluate sources. I can think of no better demonstration of the value of references, the disconnect between primary and secondary literature, and the role of scepticism in the scientific method.  Indeed, it seems redundant to argue over the pros and cons of using new technologies in higher education, rather ‘academic’ you might say. Young people have forced our hand.

The ubiquitous presence of social media and portable computers in our day to day lives is not a remote possibility, it is an actuality. The digital age is upon us, so one could argue that any protests as to its merit are somewhat belated.  Instead we should embrace the technology, expose children to the wonders and dangers of the internet, so that all can enjoy its bountiful treasures. Yo ho ho, a pirate’s life for me.