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.

The Red Brick Rubric

Napoleon had finally been defeated, and once more Britain sat relatively unchallenged on the imperial throne. Between Napoleon’s exile in 1814 to the onset of WW1, Britain subsumed over 10 million square miles of territory and 400 million people into its already distended empire.  New technologies, notably the steamship and telegraph, were chiefly responsible for this feat, and epitomized the prevailing attitudes of the century. Cue Red Brick Universities. Non-collegiate institutions that favored practical skills to academia sprang up in the major industrial cities of England, fueling tremendous advances in civic science and engineering.  And you guessed it, they were constructed with burgundy building blocks. Originally called Red Brick Universities (RBUs) as a derogatory term, the name stuck and was later adopted by their proponents, much like the Big Bang or the Suffragettes.

Straight from the off, RBUs were reviled by the likes of Oxford and Cambridge. In contrast to these long-standing, prestigious colleges that required the stringent 39 Articles test of loyalty to the Catholic Church for admittance, not to mention a Baron- or Marquis- stapled to the front of your name, RBUs permitted people of all backgrounds; how dare they! Luckily, the snobs at Oxbridge were ignored (the best course of action FYI, it really annoys them), and RBUs now stand as a pillar of higher education in the British Isles.  At present, eight of the nine recognized RBUs are members of the Russell group that receives over two thirds of all research grant money in the UK. Among the alumni of RBUs are Hans Kreb (Sheffield), Peter Medawar (Birmingham), and Ernest Rutherford (Manchester), all titans in their respective fields.

RBUs have overcome the elitism of other institutions, have proven the distinction between pure and applied research to be artificial, and helped Britain cement its position as the dominant global power.  This list of achievements is even more impressive given that these institutions emerged simply to provide a practical education to the working classes. From humble beginnings, as they say.

For the Love of Numbers

Ecology is one of the most quantitative fields in the biological sciences. Despite this, the vast majority of ecologists exhibit an abject fear of statistics of any kind; they are in it for the animals, not the numbers.  Nevertheless, as Galileo knew, “The laws of Nature are written in the language of mathematics”. One must remember that ecologists are trying to understand the most complicated process in the known universe (ie. life), and so the mathematics can be pretty hard-core.  As modelling techniques and analytical tools become more and more advanced, we run the risk of dividing the research community into those with and those without statistical backgrounds. This disconnect is most noticeable, and most worrying, in the peer review process. Far too many “statistically questionable” papers make it to print seemingly unchallenged. I believe this happens for two main reasons:

  • Reviewers are embarrassed to admit to their editors that they do not understand the methodologies of a paper and are therefore unqualified to adjudicate on its merit.
  • Reviewers see a reputable name in the list of co-authors and proceed to skim over the analysis, assuming that the methods are sound.

The first is simply unacceptable. Given that the most common utterance of a scientist is “I don’t know”, no reviewer should be ashamed to admit ignorance and ask for something to be explained in clearer terms. Indeed, this would be beneficial to both the reviewer and the paper. It is extremely likely that if the reviewer cannot fathom the intricacies of the statistical analysis, the bulk of the readership is also going to have a hard time.

On the second point, reputation should never precede content; if the methods are flawed, the methods are flawed. As scientists, we are purely concerned with how nature really is, not how some smart person thinks nature is. The reputation of a researcher should have no influence on how their future work is perceived. In fact, it should be scrutinized all the more closely. After all, “Give a man a reputation as an early riser and he can sleep ’til noon.”

To alleviate these two problems, I propose two recommendations:

  • For each ecological journal, have a resident statistician to review submissions; someone who will not be swayed by co-authors or conclusions, but will purely evaluate the robustness and justification of the methods.
  • Introduce the need of quantitative skills much earlier in the training of ecologists. Statistics need to be taught to undergraduates from day one, to confer the importance of numbers in nature.

With these, hopefully we can raise the standards of publishing and instill a greater love of numbers in future generations. What a wonderful world.

Mission Accomplished – Do alma maters matter?

I completed my undergraduate education at the University of Sheffield amidst the rolling hills of Yorkshire, England. Unbeknownst to me at the time (undergraduates tend not to worry themselves with such matters), the overarching aims of my alma mater were:

“to educate others and ourselves and to learn through doing so, thereby improving the world.”

Since graduating, I have been associated with several other institutions, including a brief stint at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. They see their mission as an effort to:

“create and share knowledge through outstanding research and education, and thus benefit society.”

Instantly, one can see the similarities between the statements. Indeed, what they share is their desire to share.  Both institutions would be classified in the top bracket of research quality (R1) under the US tier system, yet both emphasize the importance of inclusivity and disseminating information to a wider audience.  Gone are the days of ivory tower professors enjoying a castaway level of isolation, of researchers reluctant to publish for fear of their discoveries being subsumed by rival academics; we now find ourselves in the age of ‘publish or perish’. It is becoming increasingly clear however, that even this is not enough to provide societal benefits. My grandmother for instance, does not subscribe to the Journal of Molecular Biology. Clearly for these mission statements to be achieved, academics cannot stop at the primary literature, and must seek an active role in providing this information to the public.  In the UK at least, higher education is still largely restricted to the wealthy. I am curious to know whether the recent hike in university fees in England ($4,500pa to $13,000pa) had a noticeable impact on mission statements and the relative importance placed on outreach. In contrast, NL universities have not seen a comparable increase, but $4,500pa is still out of reach for many people. I am well aware that any unfamiliar American readers will be bordering on the hysterical over these paltry sums, but the lack of affordable education is a salient problem the world over.

With this in mind, I recall an oft-cited quote: “Those that have the privilege to know have the duty to act, and in that action are the seeds of new knowledge.”, often attributed to one A. Einstein. For me, one of the most important skills imparted as an undergraduate was critical thinking; specifically to value evidence above all substantiation of claims. As such, I endeavored to track down the book or interview in which the Austrian patent clerk had made such a remark. Alas, the earliest known use dated to 2001, a mere four decades after his passing! We must presume then, that the statement was attributed to Albert purely for credibility reasons… never mind, it’s still a decent quote that better captures the essence of these mission statements. Whilst I commend both universities for emphasizing inclusivity in their goals, I am disappointed to not find any mention of the critical analysis skills that allow people to teach and think for themselves. This would certainly be more explicit on my mission statement.