Ways of Seeing

It is the weekend and I have been treating myself to some time with the paper. Usually, I buy the Saturday Guardian. On occasion I will also get The Observer on a Sunday but most weekends I don’t have the time to absorb both. Sometimes even one newspaper is too much.

Reading material on the dining table

The book review section is a particular favourite and one of the reasons I have switched away from the digital version of the paper that is served on the web. Not only does this afford the nostalgic and tactile pleasures of the paper paper, but it also releases me from the linear tether of online searches into the comradely hands of the editors, on whom I rely each week to dish up a collection of the new and the unexpected.

I am rarely disappointed, but the joy of novelty is almost invariably accompanied by sweeping feelings of helplessness amid a rising tide of “yet more stuff”. Not only does each fresh volley of book reviews bring new titles to add to my list of the unread, but the reviews invariably also refer to earlier books and authors previously unknown to me. Worse still for my self-confidence, the reviews tend to be written by people whose learning embraces whole movements and epochs of human history, and whose judgement of the achievements of humankind down through the ages rings with cast-iron assurance. Am I the only reader drowning in information who gawps at such a firm grasp of the world? So much knowledge on show makes me uneasy. It compounds my fear of being a dilettante – flitting here and there across the periphery of the world of ideas without really understanding the centre.

In truth this isn’t so serious fear because it doesn’t put me off my weekend read. I can tolerate the discomfort for the sake of the rewards. Such as last weekend, when, in Mary Beard’s review of James Stourton’s new biography of art historian Kenneth Clark, I was once again pleased and disconcerted to have my ignorance taken by surprise. Although I had thrilled at Clark’s Civilisation, his beautiful 1969 television documentary on the importance of European art, I guess I should have expected that not everyone was so impressed. The teenage Mary Beard was also delighted by it on first viewing but learned quicker than I did to mistrust the “great man” approach to history. And nor was the critic John Berger, whose own later documentary, Ways of Seeing, Beard noted in her review as a important critical response to Clark (who nevertheless still has his defenders).

I had never heard of Berger or his 1972 television series which, it turns out – why did I expect anything else? – is widely regarded as a seminal piece of work. Nevertheless, I was sufficiently intrigued to seek out Ways of Seeing online. All four of the 30 minute episodes are available on YouTube.

As was the style of the time the presentation is rather static – large chunks of each episode consist of Berger in a studio, standing in front of a plain screen, just talking. His patterned shirt and 70’s hairstyle strike a more relaxed tone than Clark’s buttoned-up tweediness, but to my ear the accent was no less posh and the story he had to tell no less riveting.

I would need to watch Civilisation again to triangulate precisely for points of opposition. Although there are clear references to Clark’s interpretation of the meaning of art and, in particular, the nude, Berger’s agenda is radically different. His aim is not history per se, but to interrogate the process of looking.

Each episode is a short essay. The first discusses the importance of context, remarking specifically on how modern reproductions of works in print and on television easily detach them from the artist’s intention. The second brings a thoughtful, feminist perspective to the nude and how such paintings reflect the power imbalance between men and women. The third discusses the development of oil painting as a particular way of representing real objects, especially possessions that denote the wealth and status of those who commissioned works of art. And the last episode shows how colour photography has largely supplanted this function of oil painting, but also altered it through widespread use in advertising to create images that, rather than showing achieved wealth and status, foment modern anxieties of aspiration.

But that is just a potted summary. I will leave you to discover for yourself. As Berger himself says in closing the documentary, everything “must be judged against your own experience.”


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Pride and Prejudice and journal citation distributions: final, peer reviewed version

Today sees the publication on bioRxiv of a revised version of our preprint outlining “A simple proposal for the publication of journal citation distributions.” Our proposal, explained in more detail in this earlier post, encourages publishers to mitigate the distorting effects on research assessment of journal impact factors (JIFs) by providing a simple method for publishing the citation distributions that are so incompletely characterized by the JIF.

Citation Distribution preprint -revised

Since it was first published on 5 July 2016, the preprint has been downloaded well over 11,000 times. It was widely reported in various news outlets and has generated a large volume of commentary on social media (see metrics tab for the article at bioRxiv). As an exercise in post-publication peer review we could hardly have wished for a better response.

In revising our preprint, we have tried to take on board the most substantive criticisms raised online and in follow-up emails from a number of people. These criticisms and our explanation of how we have addressed them are laid out in the Responses to Comments document that is published today alongside the revised preprint (as Supplemental File 4). We are extremely grateful to all those who took the trouble to engage in these discussions and believe that the new version of the preprint provides a much clearer explanation of the rationale behind our work.

We discussed the option of submitting the revised preprint to a peer-reviewed journal but decided in the end not to do go down this route. This decision is primarily motivated by the fact that the preprint has already received extensive peer review from more than a dozen commentators and is unlikely to be altered significantly by further scrutiny. We also feel, given the core message of the article (which is in any case more of a policy paper than a research paper), that there is symbolic value in sticking with a publication venue that does not have an impact factor. However, that choice should not be taken to imply any veiled criticism of the more traditional practices of publication through a scholarly journal, in particular also of work previously posted as a preprint. The mores and modes of academic publishing may currently be the subject of lively discussion but that is a debate for another time and another place.

Finally, we hope that our preprint will continue to be read and discussed, and that its recommendations will be implemented widely by research journals to improve clarity in reporting citation metrics (as some of the journals associated with the undersigned have already done). This is the last revision that we intend to post (barring corrections for any residual errors of fact), so it should be treated as the version of record. Like any traditional journal article, our preprint must now stand or fall on the merits that it has today, the moment of publication.

Vincent Larivière, (Université de Montréal, Canada)
Véronique Kiermer, (PLOS, USA)
Catriona J. MacCallum, (PLOS, UK)
Marcia McNutt, (National Academy of Sciences, USA)
Mark Patterson, (
eLife, UK)
Bernd Pulverer, (The EMBO Journal, Germany)
Sowmya Swaminathan, (Nature Research, USA)
Stuart Taylor, (The Royal Society, UK)
Stephen Curry, (Imperial College, UK)


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ICYMI No.7: a day in the life of a naked scientist

In case you missed it last week, I had a segment in the Naked Scientist’s 15th anniversary radio show. Or rather, three segments, based on a day-in-the-life-of-a-scientist piece that I wrote a few months back on the Guardian, that were woven into an hour-long programme devoted to (and titled) Scrutinizing Science.

If you have the time I’d recommend listening to the complete show because the whole is very much greater than the sum of its parts, most of which, I’m bound to say, are better than my contribution.

Naked Scientist Web Page

For the program I reworked my original article to pull out themes linked to scientific careers, scientific publishing and dealing with the media – and recorded them in a studio at the university (the links take you to the audio and text for each segment). The pieces don’t quite have the lightness of touch of the original. Plus, I’m not a huge fan of my own voice and winced here and there at my phrasing, but your mileage may vary.

I’m not really selling this, am I? It’s probably just a bout of impostor syndrome and everything’s fine. Anyway, my thanks to producer and presenter for Graighagh Jackson for the chance to contribute to the Naked Scientists’ anniversary programme.


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ICYMI No. 6: What is the meaning of Brexit?

Today EMBO Reports has published my commentary on the implications for scientific research of Britain’s recent decision to leave the EU. It’s free to read. The piece is trying to be more analytical than the more personal response that I posted at the Guardian. 

EMBO Reports Commentary (OCgrey)

Update (16:14, 04 Aug 2016): The original version of this post contained the full text of the  article, which is now freely available from EMBO Reports.

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Pride and Prejudice and journal citation distributions

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a researcher in possession of interesting experimental results, must be in want of a journal with a high impact factor.

It is also true – and widely understood – that journal impact factors (JIFs) are unreliable indicators of the quality of individual research papers. And yet they are still routinely used for that purpose, despite years of critique, despite the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA), despite the Leiden Manifesto, and despite The Metric Tide report.

But today sees the arrival of a new initiative to challenge the mis-use of JIFs in research assessment. I have joined forces with bibliometrician Vincent Larivière, and co-authors from PLOS, eLIFE, the Royal Society, EMBO Journal, Science, and Springer Nature, and together we have published a new paper, A simple proposal for the publication of journal citation distributions, on the BioRxiv preprint server.


The JIF, calculated each year as the mean number of citations to papers published in a journal in the previous two years, is the metric that will not go away. Its longevity has at least two sources. First, it is beloved of journal publishers (despite the criticisms often voiced by journal editors), who see it as a valuable tool in brand management. The good opinion of authors and readers is, quite reasonably, good for business. Second, the JIF is easily elided with prestige in the minds of researchers and their institutional managers. Pride in our reputations matters to us, and for good reason – science is quintessentially a human endeavour. But that elision confers on the JIF a seductive legitimacy in research assessment, giving rise to the well-known prejudices with regard to its influence on career progression.

Our proposal aims to bring some cool reason to this troubled situation. We are asking journals to publish the citation distributions that underlie the JIF (using the simple protocols detailed in the paper). The move is avowedly pragmatic: we recognise the reality of impact factors but, by facilitating the generation and publication of journal citation distributions, we aim to raise awareness of the broader picture that JIFs conceal. In doing so, we want to focus the attention of assessors on the merits of individual research papers.

I have already laid out the reasons for publishing citation distributions in three previous posts, so won’t repeat the details here. In any case, the argument is summarised in our brief preprint, which I would very much like you to read.

There is nothing especially new or original in our approach –  except, and this is something that gives me particular pleasure and stirs my expectations, that it is the product of a constructive collaboration with several well-known publishers. I hope their example will soon be followed by others.

We harbour no illusions about this paper quickly neutralising the distorting pull of JIFs on research assessment. Nevertheless, our proposal is simple, transparent and reasonable. It is a feasible step in the right direction one that – with luck – will soon be universally acknowledged as such.


P.S. Our paper is a preprint and we would very much welcome critical comments and suggestions as to how it might be improved. Please comment at bioRxiv.


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Letters from Europe

This weekend’s Guardian has a quite wonderful feature comprised of letters to Britain from European writers about the decision to be made in the upcoming referendum. It offers a fresh and little-heard perspective on a debate that has become worn out and embittered over the past few weeks. I urge you to read it.

What you will read is that every contributor – from France to Bulgaria – has a vision of a vibrant but flawed European community that is desperate for Britain to remain part of the family. I was surprised how often the war was mentioned – in relation to the terrors and the bloodshed that the EU has helped to heal, but also in gratitude that Britain was prepared to stand firm in the face of Nazi aggression (see especially Jonas Jonasson’s contribution).

Ireland’s Anne Enright, married to a Brit, and with two daughters of complex loyalties (given that the family relocated from Britain to Ireland) gives a lovely pen portrait of the UK that resonates also with this emigrant:

“I like Britain very much. I mean, I like whatever Britain is – a shifting thing, a landscape, a language, a library full of astonishing books, a mosaic of peoples stalled in one migration or another, from the raw Saxon faces you see in East Anglia, to the sari shops of Bradford, to the eyes of my two children, who came from God knows where.

They like the trees, by the way. Also, and in this order: curry, cousins, Yorkshire pudding, “the way that everything is better funded”, the BBC, Bristol, sarcasm, the pub, AFC Wimbledon, Edgar Wright, Topshop and “how the politicians seem very polite but are really furious”. So now you know.”

And then there is Yanis Varoufakis from Greece who pleads with Britain to stay despite the EU’s poor handling of the crisis in his home country.

“Rather than escaping the EU, Brexit will keep you tied to a Europe that is nastier, sadder and increasingly dangerous to itself, to you, indeed to the rest of the planet.”

Amid all the acrimony of the present debate these missives from across Europe made me think that more than ever, it is time for Britain to roll up its sleeves and plough once again into the theatre of conflict (not so bloody this time around, thankfully); to stand beside our European friends and family in defending democracy – yes, this will require some reform of EU institutions – and to help point the way to a brighter future for the continent.

For some of my own musings on the scientific side of the EU referendum, try these two pieces in the Guardian.


Posted in International | 2 Comments

How to look at Art?

I was sneered at on Twitter yesterday for sneering at people taking pictures of the Impressionist paintings on display at the Musée D’Orsay in Paris.


Fair enough perhaps. I had adopted an exaggerated version of the pontifical tone that comes so readily when composing tweets and not everyone saw the funny side. But behind my mock outrage was a genuine note of annoyance.

I don’t have a strong objection to people taking pictures. Indeed I took a few myself. But it was odd to observe those who only took pictures. Those who paused in front of a work with their smartphone or tablet or – more rarely – an actual camera just long enough (quite a while in some cases) to focus and compose the shot before moving on.

Thankfully these were a minority. But then there is the crowd that does not know how to turn off the flash on their phone, or the red light that some cameras use to aid focusing or the fake shutter noises that digital devices insist on retaining as a default setting. As a result, even if you can mentally block out the phones constantly being thrust into you peripheral field of vision, the viewing experience is degraded by random illumination and manufactured mechanical noise. It is a marked change from a couple of years ago.

The people vs art

Our guide book had advised us that photography was strictly forbidden at the Musée D’Orsay in order to prevent bottlenecks forming in what is clearly a popular attraction – we had queued for 40 minutes to get in. This seemed like a sensible restriction, one that serves a greater good.

But clearly the museum has abandoned this policy, ceding defeat to the inexorable rise of digital technology. This technology is undoubtedly a boon in many other areas of life but I wish the museum managers had found a better accommodation, perhaps allowing photography during a happy-snappy hour each day. Because much as I enjoyed my visit yesterday, the abiding memory is one of digital interference.


Posted in Science & Art | 1 Comment

ICYMI No. 5: Asking universities to be open about research assessment

I first wrote about the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA) when it was launched in May 2013. DORA is a simple statement asking the different players in the business of academic research to free themselves from the damaging effects of relying on journal impact factors when assessing researchers and their research. It suggests straightforward ways in which they might do so.

DORA Article

But in the three years since then, a dispiritingly small number of universities in the UK (and elsewhere) have signed up. In a piece in this week’s Research Fortnight I invite the remainder to show their support – or to demonstrate how their assessment practices take them beyond DORA.

I don’t think for a moment that most universities aren’t interested in doing a good job of evaluating their researchers or the work that they do. My piece isn’t about apportioning blame. But impact factors remain a deeply embedded problem in academic culture and this anniversary is an opportunity for our universities to show how they are tackling it.


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Transitory Mercury

I wasn’t sure I was going to get to see today’s celestial encounter. The forecast was for blanket cover by early afternoon and the blue skies of the morning had largely filled with cloud by lunchtime, when the transit was due to start – 12:12 pm to be precise — this stuff runs like clockwork.

Transit of Mercury

From the bus-stop I scanned the heavens with an anxious eye. There were still breaks in the clouds but a large mass of grey was moving in from the South. I willed the bus to arrive. Come. On.

The first one to do so was the 162 which dropped me at the bottom of the hill, a seven minute schlepp to our house. I climbed up the road, eyes up, watching as a large blue clearing drifted slowly towards the sun.

And then I was home, bag dropped, jacket off, back doors flung open. I lifted my 5-inch reflector telescope – primed for action yesterday – placed it gently on the patio and swung the barrel round and up, the motor whining at the effort. Aiming at the sun is easy because it’s really rather obvious, but tricky too because you have to squint right at it to make sure the telescope is precisely trained. By the time I was ready to peer down the eyepiece, switching the motor to fine control for the final phase of the hunt, splotches of green were dancing in my eyes.

But then there it was. The bright orb of the sun slid into view, already in sharp focus, and there, unmistakably (it hadn’t been there yesterday), was the tiny black disk of Mercury, to the right of a large sunspot (which had). With trembling hands – that schlepp up the hill had taken its toll – I grabbed my iPhone and snapped repeatedly. This is best picture I got in that first foray.

Transit of Mercury

After a few more tries and experiments with different eyepiece lenses I got the picture below. Mercury’s disk is clearly visible as it transits across the blazing sun. The attenuation of the sun’s brightness by the filter, necessary to protect my telescope and my eyes, cools its appearance to a smooth, almost unblemished globe. But what a monster it is beside the tiny planet. Kudos to little Mercury for not getting swallowed up.

Transit of Mercury

I know enough of such encounters not to spend them just taking photographs – it was the same with the transit of Venus a couple of years ago. I like to take the time to just look, to try to form a mental imprint – not least because the image in the viewfinder is sharper than any of my photographs. I want to remember this moment. So, in the breaks between the clouds over the course of about an hour, Mercury and I became acquainted. I had seen it before of course, a bright speck low on the horizon at sunset but this was different, more intimate. Against the glaring background of the sun, tiny Mercury revealed its form.

I was glad I had disregarded the weather forecast and taken my chances. Mercury will come round again in front of the sun in 2019 but that will be a November crossing, as will the following two in 2032 and 2039, with a much greater likelihood of cloudy skies. Today was perhaps my last, best hope. It is good from time to time, amid the distractions of work and city life, to meet with forces and phenomena that are far greater than any human enterprise, but on which we are utterly dependent.


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ICYMI No. 4: Books to read before university

This week’s Times Higher Education has a nice cover feature listing books recommended by various scholars to students preparing for university. More particularly, as the author of the piece, Matthew Reisz, explained to me in an email, “We are asking some leading academics to recommend a single book which they believe those towards the end of their high school career should read in order to ease their transition into university life.”

Review of Matthew Cobb's bookRecommended book. (Photo posted on Twitter by Matthew Cobb)

I’m not sure what definition of “leading academic” he was working to but my recommendation, made very much with life science students in mind (though it has broader appeal), was Matthew Cobb’s Life’s Greatest Secret, published in 2015. I had reviewed the book at length in the Guardian last year but a short summary of my reasons for choosing it is given in the picture above.

Anyway, the whole list is as interesting and varied at the scholars doing the choosing. There were a few titles that have long been on my to-read list – Maxwell’s On Poetry and Tartt’s The Secret History to name but two.

The piece is rounded off with a commentary by headteacher Geoff Barton who presumably knows a thing or two about the bookish interests of 18 year olds these days. He is highly skeptical of Tim Gowers’ choice of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations (a title I suspect I may never tackle) but then undoes himself somewhat by recommending “anything by Malcolm Gladwell”, whose popular approach – or should that be populist – been widely criticised.

But perhaps we scholar’s shouldn’t be so picky. As I said to Reisz in the course of our interview, I was always glad to see students reading any kind of book in these internet-infested times. Even the flaws make for a good starting point for the next phase of the conversation.


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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 weekly 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

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