Open access and the humanities

At the end of 2013 and 2014 I wrote blog posts on Occam’s Corner (over at the Guardian) to list and briefly review the books I read in each of those years. I want to develop this practice into a good habit because it spurs me to read; and I hope it might also serve to flag up titles of interest to others. I am planning to do the same thing again when 2015 draws to a close but this time I am trying to ease the task by writing short reviews as I go along.

So here goes with the first one because I have just finished Martin Paul Eve’s Open Access and the Humanities (subtitled Context, Controversies and the Future).

Open Access and the Humanities (cover)

This book will mainly be of interest to humanities scholars, particularly if they have felt overwhelmed or bamboozled by the STEM-led drive to open access modes of scholarly publishing. I hope many of them will read it. Eve is up-front about being an advocate but lays out the issues with care and candour. The implications of the changes under way in academic publishing may be widely disputed but this is no heated polemic. As further incentives to humanities readers, at 152 pages in the printed version the book is concise and, appropriately, there is an open access version that can be downloaded for free.

Open Access for the Humanities is divided into five short chapters that cover the background to open access, the economics of academic publishing in a digital world, the implications of new forms of licensing, monographs (the longer form of academic writing favoured in the humanities) and innovations in peer review that arise from the shift to OA.

Inevitably there is some overlap in the opening sections with Peter Suber’s Open Access (which I reviewed previously) but few of Eve’s readers will have read that book and he serves them well by providing a cogent digest of the history and technicalities of OA. I particularly appreciated his tracing of the roots of OA to the open software movement and, in particular, to Richard Stallman’s innovative thinking about how new models of licensing needed to be developed for a digital world. Throughout, Eve’s examination of how the drive to OA intersects with strong academic, economic, political and cultural cross-currents is studded with insight. He usefully separates the economics of publishing from the economics of academic prestige, questions the shifting perceptions of value of humanities scholarship situated within an increasingly marketised university system and a digital culture that demands greater transparency and engagement, and finds some common ground for humanities scholars and the authors of scientific research.

Although Eve clearly favours an OA future for humanities scholarship, he is careful to explore the counter arguments. Sometimes these are dealt with immediately, as in his challenge to the writings of Robin Osborne on this topic (PDF)); elsewhere it is left to the reader to weigh up the issues.

Ultimately, although he may not have cut the Gordian knot preventing the humanities from warmly embracing OA (which academic community has?), Eve has at least unpicked some of it with his assiduous inspection of the arguments. I would have to read the book again to do full justice to a treatment that engages a complex topic on all fronts but I’m afraid don’t have the time right now. I do know that I shall be returning to Open Access for the Humanities for guidance as the debates rumble on.


Posted in Book Review, Open Access | Tagged , | Comments Off on Open access and the humanities

Impressions of Australia

I have been struggling to write something about my trip to Australia in August, my first visit to that great continent and undoubtedly a highlight of 2014. In my determination to get away from the rather banal what-I-did-on-my-lecture-tour-and-family-holiday trope, I ended up loading the first draft with too much historical and philosophical baggage. By one point I had even included mention of the career-defining voyages of Darwin and Huxley, as if they bore any comparison to our month long flit across the country.

Eventually I came to my senses and realised all I really wanted was to tour through the photographs that I took of a place I thought I knew, from frequent encounters in films and on TV, but which I found at every turn to be delightfully discombobulating.

So here goes.

I knew of course that Australia is filled with weird and wonderful creatures that are not readily seen in Britain but nothing quite prepares you for that first encounter with a Kangaroo, which happened for us at the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary near Brisbane.

They have such an apparently relaxed and thoughtful outlook on life.

That chilled demeanour is also shared by Koalas, Australia’s greatest and most obvious statement of cuteness.

In the seas off Queensland, we came across humpback whales. We have been whale-watching several times before in the coastal waters near Boston in the US but have yet to tire of meeting these magnificent creatures…

…even if they are rather shy.

We flew to Lady Elliot Island at the southern tip of the Great Barrier Reef for a day of snorkelling with the fishes. It’s a tiny place, just long enough for a landing strip.

The day was rather overcast and rainy but, as long as you kept your wetsuit zipped, the sea — and the sea creatures – remained inviting. We dived in from three separate locations around the island, equipped with a high-definition GoPro 3 video camera, which allows me to share just a couple of minutes of a quite wonderful experience:

South of Brisbane, on the recommendation of Jenny Martin, we visited O’Reilly’s Rainforest Retreat. The view from the balcony of our chalet, which was propped up on stilts among the leafy canopy, was quite beautiful.

Just as impressive was the wild-life. We caught our first glimpse of a wallaby, foraging furtively in the undergrowth.

But the birds were particularly eye-catching. You have to wonder why the birds of Britain have to be so drab in comparison.

From Brisbane we flew south to Sydney which felt like an odd blend of London and New York, mixed in with a large dose of something new. The underground stations were at once familiar and unfamiliar.

Of course we paid homage to Sydney’s iconic architecture, first the the opera house where we enjoyed Rigoletto…

…and then the harbour bridge, which we battled across on a grimy day of wind and rain.

The vibe in Melbourne was different but no less lively. It had the most European feel of all the cities we visited. We enjoyed the jangle of old and new…

…and, once again, the proximity to the water…

…which provides endless opportunities for taking photographs that are dead arty.

From Melbourne I took a day trip to Hobart on Tasmania to give a lecture to the local Chemical Society. It was a short visit but there was just enough time to drive to the top of Mount Wellington – a climb that defeated Darwin. It’s a shame he missed such a spectacular view.

And finally we headed to Perth for the last stop of our trip. Perth is sleepier than Sydney or Melbourne but still has its own charms, not the least of which were the heat and the light. All through our tour the Australian mid-winter foxed us with its warm sunshine and six o’clock sunsets.

The birds seemed to be enjoying the sunshine too, either at rest…

…or in the air.

In the last days of our visit, Australia still had surprises in store. No-one quite knows how the Pinnacles formed.

I guess we shouldn’t be surprised at nature when it has triumphed time and again even in the harshest conditions, both in plant…

…and animal form.

That insect – a beetle? – is scuttling across rippled sand dunes…

…that were big enough for surfing, Australia’s final bemusing and amusing gift to us.

Those still not tired by this stage can see more pictures in the Australia album on my flickr account. Here’s hoping that 2015 will bring something to match the excitement of our antipodean adventure.



Posted in Science, Travel | Tagged | 5 Comments

Vanity project

I haven’t written a book. And this is it.

Cover photo

Well, I did write it of course. The words are mine. But there is nothing new here. I’ve just pulled together a selection of my blog posts from the last six years and self-published it as a hard-back book titled A Thousand Nothings using the services of It wasn’t that hard.

Still. It is a bit… awkward. I’m telling myself that I have done this for my parents, which is why the book has been rushed out in time for Christmas. But truth be told, I was also curious to see what a book by me might look like. And maybe, just maybe, it might entice a few more readers to my blog.

Anyway, here is the blurb I came up with for the back cover:

“I won’t promise to post regularly; that way I will avoid the repetition of future apologies for failing to write. I won’t promise to be unembarrassed to admit that I am a blogger. I won’t promise to have anything terribly insightful to say. But I will share my experiences of science – such as they are and as frankly as I can.”

With these words Professor Stephen Curry started writing his science blog in 2008. His aim was to demystify the business of being a scientist working in the UK in the 21st century but the journey turned out to be much more engaging than he had ever imagined. This book contains a personal selection of his most interesting and significant blog posts. It is probably too long.”

All of my proceeds from this vain endeavour will be donated to Amnesty International. If I detect the faintest sniff of interest, I will try to come up with an ebook version. I’m also publishing the book under a Creative Commons CC-BY licence so there is an open access version available as a PDF (8.9 MB).

I don’t know why I feel so exposed.


Update, 08 March 2015: I finally got around to formatting the book so that if could be made available as a ebook, which is now on sale for just £0.99 at  I also took the opportunity to trawl through the text to weed out residual typos and errors. These changes have also been made to the printed and open access versions.


Posted in Scientific Life | 10 Comments

Prize-winning video

Well this is nice. The Celebrating Crystallography video made last year by the Royal Institution, which I narrated and helped to script-edit, has won the the EuroScience New Media award. Full details are available on the RI blog but it’s great to see a project come to such fruition.

The film came about as a result of an STFC grant on which Mike Glazer and I were co-applicants, alongside the Gail Cardew from the RI. The project itself was led by Rob Cawston who was the RI’s web channel manager and worked on it alongside Ed Prosser. Of course the script of any film is a key element but the real genius here for my money is the imaginative and funny way that the story was animated by the folks at 12foot6. Even if I do say so myself, it’s a joyous 3 minutes that gives a great snapshot of an important piece of science.

Ed has promised me a photo of the “ridiculously heavy trophy thing” which I will add in due course. Until then, please have a look at the winning video.


Posted in Communication, Science, Science & Media | 4 Comments

Copyright Infringement

This morning I received an email from a publisher inviting me to write a chapter for an ‘upcoming hardcover edited collection’ on a topic of research to which I have made a number of contributions over the years.

I politely declined because of the terms of the copyright transfer agreement that the publisher was good enough to provide up front. I have obscured the name of the company but otherwise it read:

“I (and my coauthors) hereby assign and transfer to XX all rights of copyright ownership and permissions to the article/chapter, including without limitation or restriction, all rights of reproduction, derivation, translation, distribution, sale, reuse, and display of the work, in whole or in part, including recompilation, cross-publication and stand-alone publication, in any and all forms of media now or hereafter known, including all electronic and digital media, as protected by the laws of the United States and foreign countries and to authorize others to make such uses of the work. These rights will become the property of XX from the date of acceptance of the article/chapter for publication and extend for the life of the copyright. I understand that XX, as copyright owner, has authority to grant permission to reproduce the article/chapter.”

As little as three years ago I might have seriously entertained an invitation encumbered by such conditions. But such agreements are, in my view,  no longer fit for purpose in academia.

I work at a university that receives a substantial portion of its income from the public purse and I rely on public funding for my research. I agree it is appropriate to pay a reasonable charge for the costs of quality publishing services — as part of making the work freely available, which in turn is part of returning value to the public for its investment and adding further value to it by ensuring that dissemination and use of my work within and beyond the academic community is as effective as possible.

The clause above infringes my capacity to do my duty as part of the scientific community. Could I suggest that publishers still using such clauses contact their lawyers and start re-writing?


Posted in Open Access, Scientific Life | 14 Comments

Digital culture: my so-called week

My week, my cultural week, started last Sunday when I found time to catch up with Radio 4’s five-part series on Dorothy Hodgkin, an extraordinary scientist who was brought vividly to life through readings of her letters. Hearing the words created an immediacy that I am not sure I would have grasped from the printed page. If you have not yet heard it, the series is also available as a podcast.

On Monday I stumbled across Cosmonauts: How Russia Won the Space Race on BBC4, a fabulous feature-length documentary, constructed around interviews with the ageing spacemen and women and reels of archive footage that I had never seen before. What incredible risks they took and what stories they had to tell — at least those who came back alive.

I am still not quite sure what to make of Brian Cox’s latest televisual outing, Human Universe. There’s no doubt that it is sumptuously made, with a cinematic sweep to match the ambition of the story that is being told, and punctuated with Cox’s signature enthusiasm. The chase to locate the landing site of the Soyuz capsule just descended from the International Space Station was a particular delight and the final shot in the first episode of the ancient obsidian spearhead being laid on the snow beside the charred spacecraft was a powerful moment of weapons-grade symbolism.

My problem is local, I think. It’s me. I’ve heard a lot of this story before although, to be fair, the series is drawing on recent research — for example on models of how orbital wobbles may have provoked evolution in new directions — and, quite reasonably, it hasn’t been made with the professorial likes of me in mind. Henry Gee, late of this parish, took great exception in the Guardian to the perceived human exceptionalism of Human Universe and provoked a noisy argument in the comment thread. I take Henry’s point about the lack of a clear narrative in human evolution — I admire his book, The Accidental Species — and the dangers of seeing humans as something apart from the rest of creation, but I didn’t hear those notes so loudly in Cox’s delivery and am perhaps more forgiving of the limited scope of sixty minutes of television.

That said, I fared a little less well with the second episode which grappled with the question of why we are here — how is it that the laws and constants of physics permit a universe that will support life? The revelation that the laws that govern the universe are considerably simpler that those of cricket was cute if not entirely convincing. I got the essence of the big idea, that an infinity of multiverses must eventually produce one that is just right for life but, dammit, why must physics be so strange? I guess I can’t blame Professor Cox for that.

I got a firmer grip on multiverse theory when I watched Particle Fever, my second feature-length documentary of the week. Directed by Mark Levinson and edited by the legendary Walter Murch, Particle Fever gave a riveting account of the theory and practice of the hunt for the Higgs boson at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. The whole quest — and even the theory — came alive through the cast of characters that the film tracked through the tortuous and dramatic early years of the experiment. I was captivated. The film is higher level than Human Universe but by focusing on a single question manages to remain accessible.

Things took an analogue turn on Saturday afternoon when I went to Tate Britain to see the Late Turner Exhibition. I admired his sea-scapes at the National Maritime Museum back in January and was no less impressed by this collection. There were burning skies aplenty. I particularly liked his pictures of Venice and Rome but it was an especial joy to see him capture light and feeling in watercolours painted on his many trips to Europe. On these visits friends would marvel at his industry. It is as if he had to feel the world pouring through his eyes and out through paint and charcoal and ink onto the page.

Not every work appealed. I struggle to connect with the paintings based on stories and heroes from classical antiquity. Other works, formatted into circular or octagonal frames seemed forced or gimmicky. I was relieved therefore in the penultimate room to come across a selection of his sea pictures, including one of my favourites, Waves Breaking against the Wind.

Turner's Waves breaking against the wind (1840)

 Waves breaking against the wind (1840) — Tate Collection

On first viewing I had been puzzled at the yellow colour that Turner used for the sky. At the time I wrote, “What is it about that wash of yellow at the upper right that is so appealing? I’ve never seen a sky that colour and yet it still has me convinced.” Seeing it again yesterday I suddenly remembered that I had seen a sky of more or less that colour during a trip to Australia in the summer and that I had captured it, digitally. I should have known to trust Turner.

Grey cloud and yellow sky

Grey cloud and yellow sky (2014) — Curry Collection

Posted in History of Science, Science & Art, TV review | Comments Off on Digital culture: my so-called week

Debating the role of metrics in research assessment

I spent all of today attending the “In metrics we trust?” workshop organised jointly by HEFCE and the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) at Sussex University. This was part of the information-gathering process of HEFCE’s independent review of the role of metrics in research assessment; the review has a particular focus on how metrics might be used in the Research Excellence Framework (REF) that determines block grant allocations to university departments and research institutes. I was attending because I am a member of the review steering group.

The day promised to be one of vigorous debate because the consultation process that closed earlier in the summer had attracted over 150 responses — soon to be published — and these presented a wide range of views on the dangers and potential of metrics. And so it proved to be, with three panel sessions exploring “The changing landscape for research metrics”, “The darker side of metrics: gaming & unintended consequences” and the question of whether there can be reasonable progress “Towards responsible uses of metrics”. Sandwiched between these was a bazaar in which various metrics vendors displayed their wares.

I don’t have time tonight to capture the range of points and insights that were offered during the course of a interesting day but was somewhat reassured by the widely shared expressions of belief that any use of metrics in research assessment — or as a probe of the propagation or impact of research into the wider world — has to be done with care. The mantra that metrics should inform judgements and not replace them was repeated by many participants and will hopefully soon be enshrined in set of principles to be known as the Leiden Manifesto.

Almost a lone voice, Prof Dorothy Bishop presented a provocative case for supplanting the cumbersome system of peer review in the REF with a much lighter touch analysis of departmental h-indices calculated for research-active staff — an idea that she has previously outlined on her blog. Dorothy showed that, at least for some disciplines (including natural sciences and psychology), use of this metric generated scores that correlated well with resource allocations from the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise (the forerunner of the REF). (Update: as David Colquhoun points out below, Dorothy showed today that most of the correlation is actually due to the the number of people in each department — and she has since detailed her proposals in a new blogpost). The particular advantages of this approach are the cost saving — reckoned to be somewhere between £60m and £100m — and the elimination of the bias that arises from panel members’ affiliations. But it remains to be seen if the method is applicable across all disciplines; or if it fulfils some of the other purposes of the REF, which include examination of broader impacts and demonstrating the commitment of UK research to quality control through periodic self-examination (a feature that plays well at the level of government).

I hope others might chime in with their impressions and analyses of the day. Already there is a Storify aggregation of some of the tweets that tracked the different sessions. I include below my contribution, which was part of the session on the darker side of metrics. It has been lightly edited to clarify and sharpen some points but remains brief and incomplete. This debate is far from over.

“I come here today very much with an open mind on many aspects of metrics, though I fear that may largely be because I am still somewhat confused. So I am glad to have the opportunity to participate in today’s discussions. Already, I am beginning to see some interesting things.

On some topics my mind is made up. I remain sick of impact factors, for example, because of the way that they are so commonly mis-applied in the assessment of individuals or individual pieces of research. I don’t need to rehearse the arguments that I laid out in a blog post of the same name in 2012, except to say that impact factors are a powerful illustration of how a relatively innocent innovation in quantitation can be perverted and do real damage to the research community. I don’t think there is much dispute on that point (though I was surprised and disappointed to come across defenders of this metric in the discussion at the end of this session).

I am worried about people being seduced by the apparent objectivity of numbers. We saw something of that last week in the excitement whipped up by the announcement of the World University Rankings in the Times Higher Education (THE). In the preamble to its explanation of the methodology  the THE describes the ranking process as a “sophisticated exercise”, that is “carefully calibrated” to provide “the most comprehensive and balanced comparisons”. It ranks universities on a composite score drawn from estimates of a range of indicators of teaching, research volume and influence, industrial income, and international outlook.

The Times Higher are good enough to be open about the methodology but when you read exactly how they assemble and weigh the various components, you read statements such as “we believe…”, “UGs tend to…”, “our experts suggested that…” or worse: “the proxy suggests that…”. And so you can see that, although it may be sophisticated, the measure is clearly also subjective. It is not sophisticated enough to assign error bars or confidence intervals to the scores given to universities and I think that’s unhealthy. It seems as if the rankers are laying claim to a level of precision that cannot be justified.

And that tendency for numerical ‘measures’ to wrap themselves in an pseudo-objective authority is a longstanding problem with metrics; in the end people adopt them without thinking hard enough about where they came from.

As a result, I am worried about the word ‘metric’. It implies measurement but, although there are now an increasing number of things that we can count — thanks to the increasing computerisation and connectedness due to the internet — there is still much uncertainty (as we heard this morning from Cameron Neylon) about what those numbers are measuring or what they mean. We still struggle to define quality and impact, never mind being able to measure them. But that is OK and we should not be shy about admitting the difficulty of making judgements about quality or impact — or conceding the limitations of the things that we are counting.

But I think it would be more honest if we were to abandon the word ‘metric’ and confine ourselves to the term ‘indicator’. To my mind it captures the nature of ‘metrics’ more accurately and limits the value that we tend to attribute to them (with apologies to all the bibliometricians and scientometricians in the room).

As someone who is from Ireland, where we have been telling stories for thousands of years — from a time before stories were written down, never mind cited and counted — I was pleased to have heard the word ‘story’ (or its posher cousin ‘narrative’) mentioned so many times in the session this morning. Stories matter to people and although it is now a commonplace to assert that ‘the plural of anecdote is not data’, I wonder if that is always true.

I think that in some ways the diversity of activities and qualities and impacts that are part and parcel of the academic enterprise can only be captured in stories and in narratives. We should be honest about our limited abilities to describe these attributes with quantitative indicators. More than that, we should not be shy about celebrating the wonderful stories that we can tell. I look forward to the publication of the REF2014 narratives (sorry, stories) because I think many of us will be pleasantly surprised to find out about the different ways that research work has vaulted over the walls of academia and into the real world — where it matters.

And finally, wearing the hats associated with my involvement in Science is Vital (SiV) and the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE), I want to emphasise the important political dimension of the REF, which is that it provides a mechanism for the research community to demonstrate that it is accountable — to government and to the tax-payers who fund us. I think that is important. (And I think that is it important for the researchers on the ground buy into the process and participate — it is not sufficient to leave this to provosts, vice-chancellors and research managers).

With that in mind, and not forgetting the limitations of quantitative indicators, researchers shouldn’t be too prissy using numbers that have some meaning — especially if they are aggregated at levels that can attenuate the noise in the system. At SiV and CaSE, the case for continued investment in UK science is based in part on the productivity and quality of our research base. In part that is estimated through numbers of publications, and citation rates. The UK has 1% of world’s scientists but produces 6% of publications, and about 14% of the most highly cited papers. Do we really believe those numbers are meaningless? They are not the whole story of course. It is just as important — I am aware of the presence of sophisticated policy analysts such as Ben Martin and Andy Stirling in the room today — to be able to talk about the need maintain a research and university infrastructure so we have generative and absorptive capacity for innovation. (Not to mention the intrinsic value that research gives to human existence by satisfying our curious nature).

So although there are risks, I think we should count on some indicators to inform our judgements, to test and challenge our stories (so as to mitigate our biases), and to help us tell those stories to ministers and the public. Those risks are real but I think they can be counteracted by transparency and debate. I am optimistic that the research community is up to that challenge.”


Posted in Science, Scientific Life | Tagged , , , | 9 Comments

Popular neuroscience book suggestions

Neuroscience isn’t really my thing, so when my teenage daughter came asking for suggestions of a good popular book on the subject I took to Twitter. Several people kindly made suggestions, while others asked to be notified of the outcome of my quest. It seems to be a popular subject.

Here, in no particular order are the titles that were offered.

Graham Steel, one of my OA buddies, was first off the mark and ‘highly recommended’ Barry Gibb’s The The Rough Guide to the Brain (2012). 

Dorothy Bishop, an Oxford professor of psychology suggested Eric Kandel’s In Search of Memory (2007) as ‘autobiography with historical account, so you appreciate where understanding came from’.

Steve Black, a friend from my college days, offered Vilayanur Ramachandran’s The Emerging Mind (which are his 2003 Reith Lectures and are available from the BBC website) and his earlier Phantoms in the Brain (1999).

I myself had been thinking of David Eagleman’s Incognito (2012), which science writer Amy Harmon told me she is presently reading. Eagleman chimed in on Twitter* to confirm the sagacity of this choice.

Many thanks to all who made recommendations. If you have read any of these titles (or others not listed), please let me know what you thought. My daughter will be much obliged.


Update 1 (15 Sept; 08:52): After posting this, several other suggestions have come in through the comments (see below) and on Twitter.

Steve Royle enjoyed The War of the Soups and the Sparks (2007), which focuses on the discovery of neurotransmitters.

Ron Reid felt Christof Koch’s The Quest for Consciousness (2004) to be worthy of consideration even if it is a bit more academic. He also recommended various titles by Oliver Sacks, including The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, Awakenings and Uncle Tungsten; Nicole Slavin would add Musicophilia to that list of Sacks favourites.

Mirco Musolesi called Sebastian Seung’s Connectome (2013) ‘a great read’, a view with which Amy Harmon concurred.

John Tweedle declared Paul Broks’ Into the Silent Land (2004) to be ‘brilliant’.

And finally (for now), Peiro Raimondi recommended Ramachandran’s The Tell Tale Brain (2012) as a ‘beautiful compendium of all his other works (see above).


Update 2 (15 Sept; 21:17): The recommendations have kept on coming, so here is another slew.

Tom Pollard (and several others) judged the graphic novel approach taken by Matteo Farinella and Hana Ros in Neurocomic (2013) to be ‘beautiful’.

As an undergraduate, Matthew Apps was inspired by Daniel Dennett’s Consciousness Explained (1993).

As a PhD student, Narender Ramnani was influenced by Steven Rise’s The Making of Memory (2003). 

Ned Jenkinson recommended Neuroscience: an historical introduction (2014) by Mitch Glickstein. The single reviewer on Amazon also seemed to be impressed.

Aidan Horner thought Charles Ferneyhough’s Pieces of Light: the new science of memory (2013) was great. It was shortlisted for the Royal Society Winton Prize 2013 and the 2013 Best Book of Ideas Prize — and recommended by Frank Norman in the comments below.

Divija Rao mentioned (but did not assess) Rhythms of the Brain (2011) by Gyorgy Buszáki. However, Amazon reviewers called it ‘scholarly’ and ‘dense but readable’. Science writer David Dobbs declared it to be ‘an amazing book’. But it may be a bit pricey for the casual reader.

Olga Rodriguez recommended Michael Gazziniga’s Who’s in charge (2011) but, cryptically, not for teenagers who she thought would be better off with the works of Oliver Sacks (see above for titles).

For Shane O’Mara Carl Sagan’s Broca’s Brain (1988) was the book that hooked him on psychology.

And finally for now, @eegrapher really enjoyed the bite-sized chunks in Mo Costandi’s 50 Human Brain Ideas You Really Need to Know (2013).

Thanks again to all who took the trouble to share their favourites. Now, which one shall I get for my daughter…?


*I would have embedded some of the tweets I got but can’t seem to get Twitter to play with WordPress tonight. 
Posted in Book Review | Tagged , , , | 11 Comments

Advice on presentations: I’m not as clever as you think

I spent the last two days in Leicester at Translation UK, a two-day conference that is an annual gathering for scientists working on all aspects of translation — the protein synthesis kind. The conference is friendly and informal. It is kept short so that it is cheap enough for labs to send postdocs and PhD students who dominate the roster of speakers.

As one of the older heads at the meeting I was collared on arrival to act as a judge of the oral presentations. This I was glad to do. It’s just the sort of discipline I need to make me pay full attention for the entirety of the proceedings.

The standard of talks was pleasingly high. Most people seem to have mastered the elements of PowerPoint and if any of the speakers were nervous, it didn’t really show. But there were a few elements of inexperience on display which I wanted to address while my impressions are still fresh.

Your title: compose with care — ask a question or make a statement — and make sure to refer to your title right at the beginning of the presentation. Don’t just tell the audience they can read it off your first slide, even if they can.

Your introduction: establish right at the start of the talk, especially if it’s a short one, the problem that your work is addressing. Outline the background and context to set the scene, and then tell the audience what your work is aiming to achieve. If you are feeling bold, state your conclusion right up front. This will help the audience keep on track for the rest of your talk, though it may reduce your scope for a dramatic reveal of a surprising result. That one is up to you but remember that the main purpose is to convey information effectively.

Your results: Less is more. This is perhaps the hardest lesson of all, one I still struggle with. Yes, you may have been labouring for a year or more on the results that you are about to present but you won’t have time in a short talk — 10 or 12 minutes is typical these days — to do them complete justice. So you have to give edited highlights. Pick out the most important findings and the most important pieces of data that support them. A talk is not a paper so you do not have to present every single piece of data that supports your thesis. Some people think they need to cram in all the data to make their talk seem substantial — though some crammers are just showing off — while others believe they are flattering the audience’s intelligence by presenting complex data at a galloping pace. But let me tell you this: I may be a professor but I am not as clever as you think I am. I would rather be taken through selected data with care. If my interest is sparked, I’ll ask you for more information after the talk. Trust me.

Your slides: Less is more. Try not to stuff too many results onto a single slide. By all means build up a complex figure piece by piece but make sure to give yourself the time to talk about every element that you show. Don’t put things on slides that you are not going to talk about as this will only distract the audience. And don’t forget to explain your figures; it is all too common to assume that the audience is as familiar as you are with your data formats — figures, photos, gels, etc. — but they will thank you for taking the time to make their meaning clear.

Your voice: Speak slowly and with feeling. If you pack in too many results you will feel pressured from the off to talk quickly for fear of running out of time. This is counterproductive. Give yourself the time to punctuate the talk with emphasis on the most important points, or those that make you most excited. Genuine excitement is infectious and audiences love it.

Your eyes: Try to spend as much time as possible speaking to the audience rather than to the screen. Look at them — make eye contact when driving your message home.

And that’s all there is to it, apart from forcing yourself to rehearse in front of a critical friend, of course. I look forward to these lessons being universally adopted at next year’s meeting, though feel free to take issue or to suggest additional pointers in the comments. There is an element of personal taste in all this.

Finally, for those with the time (27 minutes, to be precise), a more detailed video version of this little sermon is available on YouTube.


Posted in Science | 8 Comments

Australia Tour 2014

It’s funny how one thing leads to another. The video of my Friday Evening Discourse at the Royal Institution last year caught the attention of a former colleague and produced an invitation to contribute a lecture to her plans to celebrate the International Year of Crystallography at the University of Western Australia in Perth this summer.

And then, because my wife has family in Brisbane whom we have never visited, the organisers of the International Biophysics Congress, which will be held there this August, were good enough to offer a slot for a public lecture in their opening program.

And then, to help justify the expense of the trip, which is being part funded by the Society of Crystallographers of Australia and New Zealand, stopovers in Sydney and Melbourne were added. (Update, 23/07/14: after this was originally posted, I got a further invitation to talk at Hobart, which has now been included in the itinerary). All in all it is going to be quite a month for me and my family.

Australia Map

The four five talks are all free and open to the public, so if you find yourself in the area next month, please do come along. I hope to offer an eye-opening answer to the question, “What is X-ray Crystallography and how did it transform our view of the world?”

The tour dates (I am sotempted to have t-shirts printed) are:

We are looking forward to the trip immensely. Never having visited Australia, we would be glad to have suggestions of things that we must see or do.

Posted in Protein Crystallography, Science | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

The REF: what is the measure of success?

Science has been extraordinarily successful at taking the measure of the world, but paradoxically the world finds it extraordinarily difficult to take the measure of science — or any type of scholarship for that matter.

That is not for want of trying, as any researcher who has submitted a PhD thesis for examination or a manuscript for publication or an application for funding will know. Assessment is part of what we do and not just at the level of the individual. The UK research community has just prostrated itself for the sake of Research Excellence Framework (REF), an administrative exercise run by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) that has washed a tsunami of paperwork from every university department in the country into the hands of the panels of reviewers now charged with measuring the quality and impact of their research output.

The REF has convulsed the whole university sector — driving the transfer market in star researchers who might score extra performance points and the hiring of additional administrative staff to manage the process — because the judgements it delivers will have a huge effect on funding allocations by HEFCE for at least the next 5 years. The process has many detractors, though most might grudgingly admit that the willingness to submit to this periodic rite of assessment accounts at least part for the high performance of UK research on the global stage. That said, the enormity of the exercise is reason enough to search for ways to make it less burdensome. So before the current REF has even reached its conclusion (the results will be posted on 18th December), HEFCE has already started to think about how the evaluation exercise might itself be evaluated.


The metrics review

As part of that effort and at the instigation of the minister for science and universities, David Willetts, HEFCE has set up an independent review of the role of metrics in research assessment. The review is being chaired by Prof James Wilsdon and, along with eleven others from the worlds of academia, publishing and science policy, I am a member of its steering group (see this Word document for the full membership list and terms of reference).

Metrics remain a tricky issue. In 2009 a pilot of a proposal to supplant the REF (or rather, its predecessor, the RAE) with an assessment that was largely based on bibliometric indicators concluded that citation counts were an insufficiently reliable measure of quality. How much has changed since then is a question that will be considered closely by the steering group, although this time around the focus is on determining whether there are metrics that might be used meaningfully in conjunction with other forms of assessment —including peer review — to lighten the administrative load of the assessment process. There is no appetite for a wholesale switch to a metrics-based assessment process. To get an overview of current thinking on metrics from a variety of perspectives, I would recommend this round-up of recent posts curated by the LSE Impact blog.

One thing that has changed of course is the rise of alternative metrics — or altmetrics — which are typically based on the interest generated by publications on various forms of social media, including Twitter, blogs and reference management sites such as Mendeley. The emergence of altmetrics is very much part of the internet zeitgeist. They have the advantage of focusing minds at the level of the individual article, which avoids the well known problems of judging research quality on the basis of journal-level metrics such as the impact factor.

Social media may be useful for capturing the buzz around particular papers and thus something of their reach beyond the research community. There is potential value in being able to measure and exploit these signals, not least to help researchers discover papers that they might not otherwise come across — to provide more efficient filters as the authors of the altmetrics manifesto would have it. But it would be quite a leap from where we are now to feed these alternative measures of interest or usage into the process of research evaluation. Part of the difficulty lies in the fact that most of the value of the research literature is still extracted within the confines of the research community. That may be slowly changing with the rise of open access, which is undoubtedly a positive move that needs to be closely monitored, but at the same time — and it hurts me to say it — we should not get over-excited by tweets and blogs.

That said, I think it’s still OK to be excited by altmetrics; it’s just that the proponents for these new forms of data capture need to get down to the serious work of determining how much useful information can be extracted. That has already begun, as reported in a recent issue of Research Trends and I look forward to finding out more through the work of the steering group. Though I have already written a fair amount about impact factors and assessment, I don’t feel that I have yet come close to considering all the angles on metrics and claim no particular expertise at this juncture.

That’s why I would encourage people to respond to HEFCE’s call for evidence which is open until noon on Monday 30th June. The review may have been set up at the behest of the minister but it remains very much independent — as I can attest from the deliberations at our first two meetings — and will take a hard look at all the submissions. So please make the most of the opportunity to contribute.


Beyond the review

Although the remit of the review is strictly limited to consideration of the possible role of metrics in future assessment exercises, I can’t help wondering about the wider ramifications of the REF.

The motivation behind the process is undoubtedly healthy. The validation of the quality of UK research and reward of those institutions where it is done best, instills a competitive element that drives ambition and achievement. But however the evaluation is performed, the focus remains on research outputs, primary among which are published papers, and that narrow focus is, I think, problematic. I hope you will indulge me as I try to pick apart that statement; my thinking on this topic has by no means fully matured but I would like to start a conversation.

I know from my time making the arguments for science funding as part of Science is Vital that it is hard to measure the value of public spending on research. As shown in classic studies like those of Salter and Martin or the Royal Society The Scientific Century report, this is in large part because the benefits are multi-dimensional and hard to locate with precision. They include the discovery of new knowledge, realised in published papers, but within the university sector there are many other activities associated with the production of those outputs, such as training of skilled graduates and postgraduates, development of new instruments and methods, fostering of academic and industrial networks, increasing the capacity for scientific problem-solving and the creation of new companies.

There is a whole mesh — or is it mess?  — of outputs. The latest incarnation of the REF has made a determined effort to capture some of this added value or impact of UK research but has wisely taken a pragmatic route. Realising that a metrics-led approach to measuring impact presents too many difficulties, not least for comparisons between disciplines, HEFCE instead asked departments to produce a set of impact case studies, which give a narrative account of how published research has impacted the world beyond academia. Although there has been much carping about the introduction of impact agenda, which many see as boiling the research enterprise down to overly utilitarian essentials, the retrospective survey of the wider influences of UK research output embodied by the REF has been a surprisingly positive experience, not least because it has unearthed benefits of which many university departments were previously unaware. Collectively, the case studies might even provide a rich resource with which to argue for continued and increased investment in the research base.

Even so there are other problematic aspects to the REF. In the past year, as well as generating all the paperwork needed for our REF submission, our department has undergone an external review of its undergraduate teaching. As the current Director of UG Studies (DUGS) I was required to take a leading role in preparing the voluminous documentation for this further assessment exercise — a 58-page report with no fewer than forty appendices — and organising a site visit by our assessors involving many different staff and students. As with the REF, the process is administratively onerous but the exercise nevertheless has significant value: it provides an opportunity to take stock and serves as a bulwark against complacency.

But the question that now looms in my mind is why are these assessment exercises separated? The division appears arbitrary, even if it makes some kind of logistical sense, given the strains that they place on university departments. From that perspective it might be difficult to argue for any kind of unification but there is a fundamental issue to be addressed: is it sensible to isolate research performance from other valuable academic activities?

These other activities include not just UG teaching but also postgraduate training, mentoring of young postdoctoral scientists, peer review of research papers, grant and promotion applications, institutional administration, the promotion of diversity, and involvement in public discourse. Arguably the separation (which in reality means the elevation) of research from these other activities is damaging to the research enterprise as a whole. It creates tensions within universities where staff are juggling their time, more often than not to the detriment of teaching, and is responsible for a culture that has become too dependent on publication. This distortion of the academic mission has been worsened by the reification of journal impact factors as the primary measure of scientific achievement.

Evidence published last Tuesday shows that, in biomedicine at least, the most important predictor of ’success’ for an early career researcher is the number of first-author papers published in journals with high impact factors. The measure of success here is defined narrowly as achieving the independent status of principal investigator running your own lab (usually by securing a lectureship in a university or a long-term post at a research institute). It should come as no surprise that the well-known rules of the game — publish or perish — should produce such an outcome. But what is missing here is consideration of the negative impacts of the artificial separation of research from other facets of the job of academic.

In recent months I have spoken to more that one young researcher who has abandoned the dream of leading their own research group because of their perception of the extreme intensity of the competition and the sure knowledge that without a high-impact paper they are unlikely to make it in such a world. A ‘pissing contest’ is how one memorably described it. Is anyone counting the cost of those broken dreams? Should not these losses be counted in our research assessment processes?

It has often struck me that an academic career is a tremendous privilege; it offers the chance to follow your curiosity into uncharted territory and to share your love of your discipline with the next generation. There are still plenty of people who derive great satisfaction from their work in the academy — even I have my good days — but I detect increased levels of stress and weariness, particularly since becoming DUGS. The responsibilities of that position have had some impact on my own research output but I was willing to take it on because I believe in the multifaceted role of ’the academic’ and in the broader value of the institution known as the university*. However, it has not been an easy task trying to promote the value both research and teaching in a culture — promoted in part by the REF — that places such a supreme value on research output. In such an environment, research cannot do other but conflict with teaching and that is ultimately to the detriment of both. And to the student experience. And to the quality of life for staff.

These issues are not new, and have been addressed previously by the likes of Peter Lawrence and Ron Vale. The San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment, which has just celebrated its first anniversary (please sign up), is the latest attempt to rein in the mis-measurement of research achievements. But while there may be local efforts to hire and promote staff based on performance across the whole range of academic activities, research remains an international business involving the exchange of people and ideas across national boundaries, so a coordinated effort is required to solve these problems, or at the very least to identify and promote instances of best practice.

To that end, what are the chances that the REF might take a lead — perhaps even by using metrics? If we are going to take some account of citations or downloads in discussions of research quality, why not consider adding other measures designed to capture the student learning experience, or staff satisfaction, or good academic citizenship, to create a basket of measures that might rebalance the incentives for universities and their staff? There are huge and obvious problems with such an approach that need careful consideration; I am not proposing that we submit thoughtlessly to the whims of student satisfaction surveys, but am intrigued by how measures of workplace quality might play a role).

There are no easy answers. I anticipate some will argue that switching the tight focus of the REF away from research risks undermining the power of the UK research base. But to those tempted to follow that line, please evaluate the cost of not doing so and report back.



*Though I cannot deny that my motivation for applying for a lectureship back in 1995 was to secure a permanent foothold that would enable me to start a career as a PI. At the outset I was prepared to pay the quid pro quo of teaching hours demanded but was advised not to get over-enthusiastic about teaching if I wanted to get promoted.





Posted in Scientific Life | Tagged , , | 17 Comments

Mars Attacks (the senses)

Last night on Twitter someone posted a ‘selfie’ taken by the Mars Curiosity rover.

It’s quite a photograph, particularly since it captures a fantastic piece of human technology amidst the landscape of another planet. The detail is what makes the picture. If you click to get a larger view you can see the nuts and bolts holding the rover together and the waves of sand on the Martian surface. My reaction was immediate.


And it set me hunting for even higher resolution pictures, which didn’t take very long at all. The one below from the Wikipedia page on the Curiosity rover and was taken in November 2012 on a nice sunny sol.

Curiosity Self-Portrait

Curiosity Self-Portrait. Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech.


The picture is a composite of several photographs which I think explains why it appears to have been taken by someone standing to one side of the rover. Better still, the original is a huge image of over 5000 by 7000 pixels so if you click here you can zoom in and have it fill your entire screen. It’s not quite the same thing as being there but is still a breath-taking visual feast. Enjoy.

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