ICYMI No. 3: Academic publishing on the radio

This is rather self-serving, even by my standards, but I made a plan with these “In Case You Missed It” posts and I’m sticking to it. I have been on the radio a couple of times in the past month talking about academic publishing. It’s not a topic that often gets aired so I  was pleased to see two radio buses come along in quick succession, so to speak.

A couple of weeks ago I was involved, along with many other contributors, on Alok Jha’s two-part documentary for Radio 4 on rigour and integrity within science – which is impacted strongly by the pressure to publish that is associated with career advancement in academia. Saving Science from the Scientists may have a provocative title but it’s a thoughtful and well-researched exploration of an important topic. Well worth a listen, I’d say.

Free Thinking
Anne McElvoy (left) discusses suits with Shahidha Bari and James Sherwood, while I keep my mouth shut. 

And then last week I was on the late-night BBC Radio 3 programme Free Thinking, hosted by Anne McElvoy. It’s a weekday magazine show that tackles all sorts of ideas. On this particular occasion there were segments on the history of the suit, educational testing and Neil LaBute’s new play, Reasons to be Happy – and, in the last five minutes, a discussion with me on the implications of recent moves to accelerate the publication of research results, which I’d written about for the Guardian. If you want to hear what I had to say, scrub forward to about 40 minutes in…

Of course, having worked my way from Radio 4 to Radio 3, I’m now waiting for the call from Chris Evans

Posted in Academic publishing, ICYMI, Open Access | Comments Off on ICYMI No. 3: Academic publishing on the radio

Review: Heart of the Original

Steve Aylett’s short book on originality, creativity and individuality may conform externally to the rectilinear format of most other books but is otherwise highly elliptical. I found it maddening.

Heart of the Original
Heart of the Original – Alan Moore loved it. 

It has chapters, paragraphs, and sentences – just like other books – but somehow those sentences don’t stack up into a shape that is easy to get hold of. I can’t even put my finger on it. Aylett’s commitment to originality seems total and sincere – he writes with the surety of conviction. Heart of the Original contains plenty of insightful gleams and canny turns of phrase, but they were overlaid with too much opacity for my liking. It is unfair to quote mine but I want you to share in my frustration. Try this for size (from page 87):

“It’s a cliché that with our future ahead of us and our past behind, a manoeuvre to the sides, above or below might expose epic sweeps of terrain to explore, each sideline having different properties and climates. There is one which is made entirely of interwoven targets, one which is a giddy chaos of pop-rocks, one in which everything in one direction is a euphemism for everything in the other, one which is all soppiness and jumper cables, one which is sacred and unbearable, one across which visitors are ricocheted a universe-depth twice per standard second, another where the coincidences are piling up, and yet another which is all and everywhere solid unliveable gemstone without even light to clarify the explanation which stripes it as through a stick of holiday rock.”

I know all the words but I could not uncoil the author’s meaning in these sentences. I kept hoping to arrive at a conclusion but never did. Perhaps that’s the wrong quest – Aylett seems more interested in attitude than instruction. Overall I did get a dim sense of his intention: that true originality is difficult and rare, and often unwelcome in a world dulled and comforted by familiarity; and that this in turn propagates a loss of nerve in many pretend creators. Aylett has a point and often delivers it with some wit. To redress he balance of the excerpt above, try this one (page 120):

“Biological death – the only kind worth bothering with – is met with fighting stances among those who want to dodge it, an urge rarely motivated by a desire for wisdom. […] It’s claimed that advances in science mean the first human to live to 500 years has already been born – if so, he or she was born into wealth and will hopefully use the extended lifespan to mature beyond being a privileged dick. Doris Lessing remarked that human beings do not live long enough to come to their senses.”

But such moments were not enough to gratify this reader. I wanted to like Heart of the Original because it was recommended in the course of a thoroughly entertaining discussion on the BookShambles podcast by Stewart Lee and Robin Ince, both comedians whose work I have greatly enjoyed. Maybe I recognised myself too often in Aylett’s sideswipes at the unimaginative and I’m just a sore loser?

I was certainly discombobulated by Aylett’s book but at least have the presence of mind to know that’s not necessarily a bad thing. So why don’t you try it for yourself, and then write in to tell me how wrong and unoriginal I am?


P.S. The weekly Bookshambles podcast, in which Robin Ince and Josie Long chat to an invited guest (mostly) about their shared love of books, is great fun. This past season I particularly enjoyed the episodes with Sara Pascoe and Natalie Haynes.

Posted in Book Review | Comments Off on Review: Heart of the Original

Review: The Many Worlds of Albie Bright

After publishing my round-up of the books I’d read in 2015, the author Christopher Edge got in touch via twitter to offer a review copy of his new book, The Many Worlds of Albie Bright.

Cover of The Many Worlds of Albie Bright

It’s a short novel for children which has an ambitious amount of science threaded into the plot. At the beginning of the story young Albie has just lost his physicist mum to cancer. By way of consolation Albie’s physicist father – a somewhat distant figure because of his globe-trotting as a TV scientist –  tells his son about the theory of parallel universes and suggests that in one of these his mum might still be alive and well. With an improbable mix of his mum’s laptop, a cardboard box and a radioactive banana, Albie sets off on a trip through the multiverse, acquiring a smattering of science and a some valuable life-lessons along the way.

Edge shows plenty of invention in telling his tale. I can tell you that I enjoyed it but I don’t consider myself a reliable judge of children’s fiction. So I sent the book to my nephew and niece, who are about the right age to be in the target audience. Here are their rather lovely reviews.

First up, Fergal, (age 11):

I enjoyed the book a lot. I liked that it gave you some interesting information about parallel universes. I liked that you can’t relate it to any other books (that I have read) because it is very different – such as the theme and the characters. And that because it is in a completely different universe all the characters are so similar, such as Albie as a boy and Alba. I liked how that the writer described them as the pretty much the same but they have a different background – I mean there are things that are the same such as the dad being famous and the mum dying at a certain age or way.

I liked the theme because I know there are a lot of sci-fi books but not many of them include actual science and things that scientists are investigating such as parallel universes where all possibilities are happening so in one you are killing nigel garage and in the other Germany may have won world war two, so we could be speaking German.

The final thing that I want to say is that the writer have really gotten into your heart when the mum dies because he wants you to be sharing Albie’s sadness.

And now his sister, Niamh (age 13):

I thought that The Many Worlds of Albie Bright was a great book with plenty of emotion and a wonderful storyline that had me hooked from the beginning.

It reminded me a bit of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime because of its oddly charming writing style of the main character speaking directly to the reader. The narrative itself was interesting and extremely enjoyable to read and had a lovely friendly tone to it throughout the story.

One of my favourite parts of this book is Albie explaining the science and theory of his experiment. It was a beautiful mix of “that sounds like it makes sense” and “but it would never work and makes absolutely no sense”. The writer explained it in such a way that you completely went along with it no matter how ridiculous it sounded.

The story was amazing and made me laugh, smile and cry. It was truly wonderful and I would definitely read again. The only thing that I slightly raised an eyebrow at was the staggering amount of convenience and ex machina but I suppose that it’s all part of the story and the unbelievably believableness about it.


Posted in Book Review | Comments Off on Review: The Many Worlds of Albie Bright

ICYMI No. 2: Time for positive action on negative results

Today I had a short opinion piece in Chemical and Engineering News on publishing negative results, a topic that I covered about this time last year in the Guardian on the occasion of the publication my lab’s first paper on an experiment that didn’t work out.

Basically, I think it’s a good idea. The practice will help to correct the positive bias in the research literature, and to map out territory that has been fruitlessly explored (so avoiding unnecessary re-investigation). Traditionally it’s been hard to do because journals don’t like negative results, but with the advent of megajournals and preprint servers, there are now practical outlets for these valuable if unexciting observations.

Please have a read – and tell your friends.

Posted in Academic publishing, ICYMI, Science | Tagged , | Comments Off on ICYMI No. 2: Time for positive action on negative results

Meeting David Attenborough at the Royal Institution

On Wednesday of this past week I found myself in the presence of royalty and felt quite giddy. It happened at a Royal Institution shindig to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the first televised broadcast of their world-famous Christmas lectures.

As you can see in the photograph below the Duke of York was in the room but that’s not the type of royalty I get excited about. Look closer and you should also be able to pick out Mr David Attenborough. He has no PhD or professorship to his name but can surely be regarded as an emperor of science for all his many contributions in bringing the wonders of natural history into our living rooms. He is rightly regarded in the UK as a national treasure. Even American presidents seek out his presence.


Attenborough at the RI


As controller of BBC2 in the 1960s Attenborough had been responsible for inaugurating the regular broadcast of the RI Christmas lectures (though the celebration last Wednesday was to mark the recent re-discovery that the 1936 lectures by Geoffrey Ingram Taylor on Ships had been broadcast live by the fledgling BBC as long ago as 1936). In 1973 Attenborough himself had the honour of presenting the lectures on The Language of Animals.


Attenborough at the RI (triptych)


Attenborough will turn 90 later this year. He is careful in his movements but his mind is as sharp as ever and he spoke with great animation and enthusiasm about his experience of giving the lectures – and their continued importance in stimulating young minds.

In the press of the drinks reception that followed the celebration I managed to buttonhole him and have a few words. I was under instructions from my daughter to snag an autograph but I didn’t have the nerve for that – or to submit the venerable broadcaster to the indignity of a ‘selfie’. What I did do was tell him that, much as I had loved his natural history programming over the years, what I really appreciated was the fact that while in charge of BBC2 he had commissioned a number of landmark documentary series, notably The Ascent of Man and Civilisation (my reviews are here and here).

Though I was aware of both series as a child, at the time – the late 60s and early 70s – they were a bit beyond me. But I have caught up with them in the past few years and was delighted to find how well they have stood the test of time – and to have the chance to thank Attenborough for having brought them into the world. He was kind and gracious, and remembered Jacob Bronowski, who presented The Ascent of Man, with particular fondness. I told him how I admired Bronowski’s ability (and that of Kenneth Clark in Civilisation) to speak at length to the camera with a passion and a clarity that was captivating. Attenborough concurred and pointed out that the BBC had been fortunate to be able give such talented presenters the space to perform – each series consists of 13 hour-long episodes. We lamented the pressures that curtail factual programming series in the modern era.

And then, mindful that there must be many others in the crowd at the reception who would want to speak to the great man, I thanked him again and took my leave – my heart a little gladder.


P.S. (Mon 8th March): How could I have forgotten to mention this? One of the particular delights of Wednesday evening was that in a video segment used to show off the work of the RI, there was included a short animated film about crystallography that I had been involved in – as script editor and narrator. After a lifetime of watching David Attenborough’s marvellous programmes on the TV, it was nice that he was presented with one of mine*.



*I say “mine” but of course many other people were involved too!

Posted in Science & Media | 3 Comments

Combining preprints and post-publication peer review: a new (big) deal?

Stimulated, I believe, by Ron Vale’s call to preprints last year, various luminaries from the world of science and science publishing will be gathering in Maryland at the headquarters of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) later this month to discuss the way forward.

The meeting, called Accelerating Science and Publication in Biology – ASAPbio for short – aims to focus discussion on:

preprints and the role that they might play in catalysing scientific discovery, facilitating career advancement, and improving the culture of communication within the biology community.

Admirably the organisers are hoping to get beyond just talking about the well-known problems of scientific publishing:

The meeting will identify actionable next steps that emerge around areas of consensus, and the organizing committee and other interested participants will be involved in subsequent follow-through.

So it’s a serious affair. And the work has already started. In advance of the meeting, Mike Eisen and Leslie Vosshall have uploaded a commentary proposing a mechanism for coupling preprints and post-publication peer review. It’s short and to-the-point and well worth reading. The central feature of their proposed system is that authors would post preprints that could then be peer-reviewed along two different tracks:

Track 1: Organized review in which groups, such as scientific societies or self-assembling sets of researchers, representing fields or areas of interest arrange for the review of papers they believe to be relevant to researchers in their field. They could either directly solicit reviewers or invite members of their group to submit reviews, and would publish the results of these reviews in a standardized format. These groups would be evaluated by a coalition of funding agencies, libraries, universities, and other parties according to a set of commonly agreed upon standards, akin to the screening that is done for traditional journals at PubMed.

Track 2: Individually submitted reviews from anyone who has read the paper. These reviews would use the same format as organized reviews, and would become part of the permanent record of the paper. Ideally, we want everyone who reads a paper carefully to offer their view of its validity, audience, and impact. To ensure that the system is not corrupted, individually submitted reviews would be screened for appropriateness, conflicts of interest, and other problems, and there would be mechanisms to adjudicate complaints about submitted reviews.

Authors would have the ability at any time to respond to reviews and to submit revised versions of their manuscript.

This is an interesting and provocative piece of work but I have some questions that I would like to lob into the discussion.

  1. Why would scientific societies, many of which have healthy income streams from journal publishing, contribute to a system that would lead to their demise if adopted widely? Could one create incentives for them to participate or should they be sacrificed for the greater good of research?
  2. Who forms the “coalition” mentioned in the proposal that has the task of approving review groups? This coalition needs to be authoritative for the system to work, but universities are every bit as invested in the current journal system (and JIFs) as researchers. And funding agencies are reluctant to dictate to researchers the routes through which they may publish.
  3. This new scheme does not guarantee that peer review will occur. Under the present system all competent researchers can get their work reviewed – and be reasonably assured  that it will be published. What would tempt them away from journals if the risks of not being reviewed were perceived as tangible?

Journals such as Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics and F1000Research are using more formal types of post-publication peer review – indeed Vitek Tracz and Rebecca Lawrence of F1000 outline its principal features in another ASAPbio commentary (also worth a read). What they offer is a guarantee that review will be conducted and that is something that I think matters to most researchers. I wonder are these new journal formats a more attractive stepping stone away from the present JIF-infected dispensation?

I would be interested to hear other’s responses to both the commentaries and my questions above. It’s great to see meetings like this taking place and I very much hope that a set of actionable points will emerge.

The meeting will be streamed online to enable as many people as possible to follow proceedings, though I hope some of the attendees will take it upon themselves to write pithy summaries.

Related posts:

Pre-prints: Just do it? (Reciprocal Space)

Peer review, pre-prints and the speed of science (The Guardian)

Posted in Academic publishing, Open Access | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Open access and public engagement: I need your help

Dear Reader,

I would appreciate your help.

I am working on a chapter for a book on openness within science (to be published by Manchester University Press). The book is part of the ‘Making Science Public’ program run by Prof Brigitte Nerlich at Nottingham University and aims to take a critical look at the dilemmas of open science. In my chapter I want to explore how open access publishing has impacted the relationship between the public (in its various forms and groupings) and researchers.

As someone who has supported open access from within the life sciences, I have often expressed the hope that increasing the volume of the research literature accessible to the public might stimulate a public-side demand for more information from researchers, or clearer reports (e.g. lay summaries) – or might in other ways change the dynamic of interaction with the ‘experts’. I’m interested in the question of whether open access has empowered members of the public (broadly defined) in any significant way.

This is likely to be a minority interest among the general public but I imagine that there are special interest groups – patient organisations and campaign groups among them – that have a strong interest in the research literature.

I would very much like to find specific examples. I have made a number of directed enquiries but then thought I would use my blog to widen the net, particularly since the deadline is – what’s the word? – impending.

So, does anyone out there know of cases where open access to the research literature has stimulated contact with the research community? I would be particularly interested in instances where the contact has altered the course of research or clinical practice or public policy.

I would be grateful for all comments and suggestions. Please feel free to comment below or email me via the link on the left hand side of my university web page.

Many thanks,



Posted in Academic publishing, Science | 10 Comments

Anatomy of a blog post on the anatomy of a scientific discovery

At the risk of getting uber-meta, here is a blog post about writing my latest blog post at the Guardian. This was an account of a scientific discovery, albeit a minor one, that occurred during the process of shepherding the latest paper from my lab to publication.

Why write about writing this post? Because maybe it will help others, and maybe it will help me to think it through.

I should know better by now but I underestimated how hard it would be. To tell the story, my blog post had to dig into the molecular details of our analysis of the mechanism of the initiation of translation of the RNA genome that is delivered to infected cells by the norovirus. But, as I have discovered when tackling molecular topics in the past, you can’t start digging until the ground is prepared, and all along the way you have to keep stopping to explain this or that piece of molecular jargon. There is a constant battle between narrative momentum and the desire to keep the reader in the picture, without insulting their intelligence.

Writing about DNA is a piece of cake compared to writing about proteins. It is safe to assume that most readers have an image in their minds eye of the double-helix and a grasp of the idea that it contains coded instructions written in a sequence of bases. It doesn’t really matter if they don’t know what bases are. Most, I believe, are aware that there are four of them: A, C, G and T. Proteins are more complex and sprout jargon from every feature – the peptide bonds that string their constituent amino acids into a polypeptide chain, which starts with an N terminus and ends in a C terminus and folds up into a three-dimensional shape stabilised by non covalent interactions of various types. And pretty much no-one knows has ever heard of any of this.

In the present piece I had to dish up all the detail on protein composition and structure before getting into the nuts and bolts of the interaction between norovirus and the protein synthesis machinery of the cell that was central to my tale. This was no picnic, especially since the main actors all had awkward and forgettable names. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome to the stage VPg, eIF4G, NS6 and – everyone’s favourite – the HEAT-1 domain*.

The first step was the first draft. I have learned just to power through this, whatever the quality. Get the story down on the page and work from there. So that’s what I did. Because the paper I was describing was still fresh in my mind and because of my desire – or is it the instinct or bad habit of the scientist? –  to immerse the reader in the flavours and smells of the laboratory, I suspected I may have overdone things. It felt good to have knocked out a draft but I had my doubts and took to Twitter to express them, which provoked a telling reply from physicist Helen Czerski:

Helen is a scientist who is not a structural biologist, so I thought I’d exploit the contact by asking her to read my draft. She was kind enough to agree.

And honest enough to tell me where I was going wrong: too much detail and too many acronyms that were getting in the way and likely to induce the general reader to bail out well before the end.

I took her advice and hacked at the piece, clearing out as much extraneous detail and jargon as I could. Or so I thought.

Not wanting to trouble Helen again I sent version 2 to Jenny Rohn, my co-conspirator here at Occam’s Typewriter and the Guardian. She’s a good editor, with an eye for telling detail and deviations from the rule of “show, don’t tell”. Her annotated version was full of helpful cuts, insertions and comments.

Following Jenny suggestions I re-wrote the start and end of the piece and clawed out some more unnecessary detail. I also added figures since I could not find a way to paint pictures with words alone. A failing perhaps, but when operating at the molecular level with engineered proteins that have no correspondents in everyday life there seems to be little alternative. Figures would hopefully provide support for the reader. At the very least, they would break up the text to make the piece seem less formidable. To counter the risk that they would give it the look of a text book I labelled the images using a font that resembled handwriting.

By this stage I was at version 4 and asked my wife, a non-scientist, to see what she made of it. By this stage most of the problems had been ironed out but she picked up one or two problems with sequencing (especially in the paragraph describing protein synthesis from RNA by the ribosome). She questioned the use of “complex” (to describe a cluster of proteins) and was unsure about “precursor” In the end I got rid of complex but felt that an interested reader could make an educated guess about “precursor”.

There was a final polish – I forced myself late in the day to read the post out loud to myself – and then I published.

Am I pleased with the final product? I’m not displeased, and some readers have left approving comments, but I still think I could have done better. I’m no Horace Judson, even if I might aspire in that direction. By the end I was bored of the piece. Fatigued. It would probably have been a good idea to leave it for a few days and then return afresh. The editorial assistance was a huge help but molecular material requires a level of devotion to make it come alive that I did not have time for on this occasion. But I have tried before and this stuff gnaws at me. It is a world worth exploring in words, so no doubt I will try again.


*Parenthetically, HEAT is officially the worst acronym ever. It stands for “Huntingtin, elongation factor 3 (EF3), protein phosphatase 2A (PP2A), and the yeast kinase TOR1). I kid you not.

Posted in Blogging, Protein Crystallography, Science | Tagged , | Comments Off on Anatomy of a blog post on the anatomy of a scientific discovery

ORCIDs set to bloom in 2016

Have you got an ORCID identifier yet? You should. They’re on the rise – and for good reason.

An ORCID iD is a number (mine is 0000-0002-0552-8870) that unambiguously and persistently identifies you in the digital world of academia. It ensures that your research activities, outputs, and affiliations can be easily and correctly connected to you. They are currently used by over 200 research and workflow platforms to identify and connect researchers with their grants and papers, at universities and research institutions, at funding agencies, and at publishers.

ORCID - SCurry

Around the world over 1.8 million researchers have registered for an iD, many in the hope that it will enhance their digital discoverability and reduce their reporting paperwork. Several funders have started to require ORCID iDs as part of the grant proposal process. In the UK, the Wellcome Trust and the NIHR both do, and ORCID IDs are being integrated with Researchfish, the system used by the Research Councils to track grant outputs.

Universities are getting in on the act too. In 2014 my own institution, Imperial College, a created ORCID iDs for  every member of staff who didn’t already have one, unless they opted out. Very few did so.

The number of publishers using ORCIDs is also on the rise. Today a group of eight publishers have announced that, beginning in 2016, they will require authors to use an ORCID identifier (iD) during the publication process. These are AAAS (publishers of the Science stable of journals), American Geophysical Union (AGU), eLife, EMBO, Hindawi, the Institute of Electrical & Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the Public Library of Science (PLOS) and the Royal Society. The Royal Society has been quickest off the mark, making ORCID iDs a requirement for authors as of new year’s day. The rest will follow suit at various dates throughout 2016.

With luck, this move with spur other publishers soon to join in.

In a digital world ORCID iDs make a great deal of sense. Their adoption by institutions and publishers fulfils two of the recommendations made in The Metric Tide, last year’s report of the Independent Review of the Role of Metrics Research Assessment and Management (of which I was a co-author). If we are going to track outputs, we might as well do it systematically and efficiently. I look forward to the day when interacting with Researchfish will be trivial rather than tedious, as at present. In theory, ORCID IDs might even reduce away some of the burden of the ever-unpopular Research Excellence Framework (REF) – though of course we shall have to await the outcome of the government’s re-jigging of HEFCE and the Research Councils before the contours of the next REF become clear. I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Of course by automating the digital tracking of inputs and outputs of ORCID iDs raises the risks associated with   unthinking uses of metrics – something that The Metric Tide was keen to warn against. On that front we need to remain vigilant. But on a personal level, most of us want to be recognised for our work and have an interest in making sure that our published outputs are recorded accurately. The ORCID system also provides handy way of keeping track of your published work. Thanks to the good offices of Europe Pubmed Central, you can use your ORCID iD to follow the open citations to your work. Here, in the interests of transparency, are mine: https://europepmc.org/authors/0000-0002-0552-8870. The profile is perhaps not as complete as that provided through Google Scholar but it is at least open.

If you want an ORCID iD of your own, simply sign up and use the tools to identify yourself and your work (papers, conference proceedings, patents – anything). You can also add your grants, and your education & employment history. For all of the information entered, it’s up to you how much to make publicly visible.

Update (2015-01-07, 14:02): This post was modified to mention the fact that the AAAS will also be requiring ODID iDs in 2016.

Posted in Academic publishing | 11 Comments

Henry Gee’s top ten reads of 2015

At the tail end of 2015 I reviewed the 23 books that had entertained and enlightened me over the course of the year. My friend Henry Gee, formerly of this parish, managed nearly twice that number. In a guest post full of his characteristic wit, he lists his top ten. 

On going through the list of 41 books read this year, I was amazed to come across titles I’d completely forgotten I’d read (which single fact shows the benefit of keeping a notebook.) Some of these books were terrific, by super authors – but they seem to have gone down without touching the sides. Others were old favourites, though most were new (to me, anyway.) Two, including Nick Lane’s ‘The Vital Question’ were sent to me to review by The Literary Review. This is such a fine magazine that I bought my father (a big reader) a subscription. It must be good, After all, they ask me to write things for them.

So here, without further ado, is my shortlist of those titles that in my opinion stand out from the crowd, in that they managed to be enjoyable at the time and are likely to remain long in the memory. All of these were new to me. I have counted them down from ten, though of course such a ranking is pretty rough, especially as the books cover a wealth of subjects and styles.

10. Neil McGregor – A History Of The World In 100 Objects
The chief panjandrum of the British Museum uses objects from that venerable Institution’s vast collections to tell the history of human culture from the earliest times to the present day. It’s the kind of book you feel you should dip into, but when you start you just can’t stop, and end up reading it like a novel, wondering what kind of object awaits you beyond the next page. The fascinating histories of the individual objects and the wider context allow one to forgive a tendency to preachy political correctness here and there.

9. Nick Lane – The Vital Question
The insides of living cells, whether from bacteria or human beings, look remarkably similar, right down to the level of molecules. It’s something we tend to take for granted, but the reason why is perhaps the single most important unanswered question in biology. Scientist Nick Lane goes into the reasons, and in so doing pulls out enthralling conjectures and perhaps unstoppable hypotheses. That he does so with a brio that threatens to boil over is part of the book’s charm, although it repays very careful reading even for those who have a scientific background. An important book.

8. Steve Silberman – Neurotribes
The fact that I have a daughter diagnosed with Asperger’s (notwithstanding inasmuch as which I score well over 30 on Simon Baron Cohen’s Asperg-o-meter) naturally drew me to this comprehensive history of Asperger’s and Autism, from Hans Asperger’s ‘Little Professors’ in pre-war Vienna right up to modern day SF fandom. I knew quite a lot of this already, but before this book nothing I’d read pulled it all together. It’s not Silberman’s fault that I find his particular way with words somewhat grating (he is a journalist for the US magazine Wired and writes hipster bloggy-style) but I soon overcame this. What struck me most about the subject was how much we know about mental illness comes from Jewish doctors who fled the Nazis and flourished in the US – and also how such history, as much as medical knowledge, has shaped our appreciation of what constitutes personality traits and mental health.

7. David Adam – The Man Who Couldn’t Stop
A brave and frank account of a crippling affliction by – as it happens – a colleague of mine at Nature. Adam suffers from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and in this short book he tells his own story interspersed with what we know about its genesis and the various ways that mental illness is classified. Adam is now doing well after a long battle, but the wider story is not so happy, for it is apparent (and I know this from my own experiences with depression) that the treatment of mental illness has barely advanced beyond the leeches-and-bloodletting stage.

6. Ben Elton – The First Casualty
I first came across Ben Elton back in the 1980s when he was a comedian, and some of his novels (especially ‘Gridlock’) are side-splittingly funny. ‘The First Casualty’ is very much darker. It concerns a somewhat priggish and sanctimonious policeman, who, in the First World War, finds that a strict regard for logic and truth leaves him the wrong side of the law. Jailed as a conscientious objector he ends up released to investigate a case of murder on the Western Front in the hell of Passchendaele in 1917. The novel brings the horror of trench warfare to life like no other book I have ever read, the aim being to raise questions of what constitutes murder, when people are being blown to bits in the cause of war. The novel stays just the right side of preachy, and is an engrossing and terrifying read.

5. Robert Harris – An Officer And A Spy
A retelling of the Dreyfus Affair as the imagined memoir of one of the (real) people who was there at the time. Almost all the characters really existed, and the events happened more or less as stated. Harris is one of those thriller writers who really does their research and yet wears it lightly, turning the story into a terrific and memorable read. His best since ‘Pompeii’.

4. Virgil (trans. W. F. Jackson Knight) – The Aeneid
I’ve been revisiting the classics this year – Gilgamesh, the Iliad, the Odyssey – so one of these really had to make the cut. I loved Homer, but Virgil (in this English prose translation) was a real surprise. What stands out is the fusion of lush, lyrical phrasing with what – when it comes down to it – is unremitting and graphic carnage. Virgil took Homeric ingredients and polished them to an even more lustrous sheen. Those who criticize as inauthentic a movie such as ‘300’ – a highly stylized rendering of the Battle of Thermopylae – fail to understand that it pays much greater homage to the source material than people might imagine.

3. Wilkie Collins – The Woman In White
I read this after reading a modern novel cast as a memoir by Wilkie Collins (Dan Simmons’ ‘Drood’ – see below.) When I did, I could only ask myself where this Victorian ‘sensation’ novelist and friend of Charles Dickens had been all my life. True, a long time ago I had started ‘The Moonstone’ but hadn’t got far. Perhaps now I am old and wizened enough to appreciate this mixture of terrific writing, trashy melodrama, highly contrived whodunit and gothic styling. The story is a rather ropey mystery but what stand out are the characters (the creepy Count Fosco is the best.) After reading this you realize that Collins was something of a pioneer. ‘The Woman In White’ was a hit when it was first published in 1860. Writers of mystery with a yen for the gothic, from Arthur Conan Doyle to Agatha Christie to Daphne Du Maurier – are in Collins’ debt.

2. Charles Dickens – The Pickwick Papers
When people say that they don’t much like Dickens my usual response is that I never get invited to that kind of party. Like most these days I only ever read Dickens because his novels feature on school examination syllabi. I read parts of ‘Great Expectations’ as a schoolboy; ‘Hard Times’ for my own A-levels; and picked up ‘Oliver Twist’ as it was a set book for my sister’s O-levels. Only later did I realize how much I had enjoyed these, so after having read Dan Simmons’ ‘Drood’ and Wilkie Collins’ ‘The Woman In White’ (see elsewhere in this essay) I felt I needed a Dickensian education. ‘The Pickwick Papers’ was Dickens’ first novel, a rollicking portrait of England in the 1820s, before Victoria and most of all before the railways completely changed the face of England, when people got around by stagecoach and stayed at coaching inns. The social background was, for me, quite an education (helped immeasurably by editorial notes from Mark Wormald: mine was the Penguin Classics edition.) The story – it’s more a soap opera – is basically one damn thing after another as Mr Pickwick and his friends get themselves in and out of various comedic scrapes. It starts a bit chaotically and only gets into its stride when we meet Sam Weller, Mr Pickwick’s valet, confidant, source of homespun wisdom and everyday superhero, a cross between Falstaff and Sam Gamgee. The various meetings between Sam and his father are pure comedy gold, like Peter Cooke and Dudley Moore, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett – or Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow and Keith Richards in the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ movies. Amazing to think that Dickens wrote it when he was twenty-four. With little of the tub-thumping social crusading of his later works, Pickwick is pure enjoyment.

1. Dan Simmons – Drood
Another tale – qua ‘The Dreyfus Affair’ – done as an imagined memoir of real characters and events. This time the narrator is the novelist, hypochondriac and opium addict Wilkie Collins, and the tale is of the last years of his friend Charles Dickens. Brilliantly researched, it manages to be playful and fantastical within the confines of history. Simmons uses Collins’ opium addiction to give the fabric of reality a thorough work-out: reminiscent of Peter Shaffer’s treatment of Mozart and Salieri in his play ‘Amadeus’. Only more gothic. Lots more gothic. (I do LOVE gothic.) This novel got me back into the classics – I read ‘The Woman In White’ immediately afterwards, and ‘The Pickwick’ Papers’ soon after (though I have yet to tackle Dickens’ last, unfinished novel ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’.) I award ‘Drood’ the enviable accolade of my Read of the Year.


Posted in Book Review, Science & Art | 3 Comments

ICYMI No.1: Preprints for biologists

Since I have developed a habit of writing elsewhere, which necessarily takes time and words away from the blog here at Reciprocal Space, I thought I would try to make amends by developing the habit of linking to the pieces that appear in other corners of the internet. 

To kick off therefore, permit me to alert you to a short article this week published in The Biologist, the house magazine of the Royal Society of Biology. The piece – The power of preprint – follows from an earlier article on this topic in the Guardian and reprises the call, by myself and others, for more of us in the life sciences to adopt the practice of publishing our research quickly in preprint form. It’s worked in many branches of physics, maths and computer science for many a long year and I see no reason that we should deny ourselves the benefits of preprints in other research disciplines. And nor does Ron Vale, as I mentioned here a few months back.

Posted in ICYMI, Open Access, Science | Tagged , , | Comments Off on ICYMI No.1: Preprints for biologists

Jolly good fellows: Royal Society publishes journal citation distributions

Full marks and a side order of brownie points for the Royal Society: they have started publishing the citation distributions for all their journals.

This might seem like an unusual and rather technical move to celebrate but it matters. It will help to lift the heavy stone of the journal impact factor that has been squeezing the life out of the body scientific. The Royal Society has now joined the EMBO Journal in committing to be more transparent about the origins of this dubious and troubling metric.

I don’t wish to rehearse the details in full since I have previously described the pernicious effects of scientists’ and publishers’ obsession with journal impact factors and the value of making citation distributions available. But in brief: I hope that the ready availability of these distributions – to show the skew and variation of the citation performance of the papers in any journal – will enable researchers to develop a more sophisticated approach to the evaluation of the work of our peers.

The image below shows the citation distribution for the Royal Society’s Proceedings B journal – you can find the original by clicking on the ‘Citation Metrics’ link in the ‘About Us’ tab. As is the case for every academic journal, it shows that the impact factor, an arithmetic mean, is an indicator that over-estimates average performance and conceals a huge range in citation counts.

ProcB Citation Distribution

As I wrote back in June:

…the IF is a poor discriminator between journals and a dreadful one for papers. Publishing citation distributions therefore directs the attention of anyone who cares about doing evaluation properly back where it belongs: to the work itself.

So three cheers for the Royal Society for having the courage to be so open with these data!

Now: who’s next?

I have been discussing the idea of making citation distributions available with a number of other publishers and have heard some encouraging noises. It seems likely that there will be further significant moves in this direction in the new year, which I will be happy to report.

I dare to be optimistic that before too long the practice may become widespread, and that we may have at our disposal a tool that helps us to do a better job of assessing research and researchers. This is by no means a revolution and we all know that old habits die hard. Even so, this is a step in the right direction and I will take what I can get.

Update (05/12/15, 00:55): Better late than never, but I really should have thanked the Royal Society’s publishing director, Dr Stuart Taylor, for taking this initiative forward.

Update (05/12/15, 01:05): Well I didn’t have to wait long to find out which would be the next journal to join the club. Nature Chemistry’s editor Dr Stuart Cantrill crunched the numbers, posted the distribution and has written up his analysis on the Sceptical Chymist blog. He tells me there’ll be a link to his post from the journal homepage when it’s next updated.

Update (11/12/15, 11:26): Stuart Cantrill has clearly caught the citations distribution bug. He’s now also done a very nice comparative analysis of a selection of chemistry journals. It shows, as expected, that the distributions are all approximately of the same shape and helped to re-infornce the message that journals with low impact factors can be relied on to still have papers that attract large numbers of citations.

Posted in Open Access, Science | 4 Comments