Evidence-based policy? – A Week in Westminster

Evidence-based policy, this phrase gets bandied about so often, but it is not always clear how it is meant to be applied. Notwithstanding the desire to have scientific evidence inform things that are actually scientifically based, such as better practices in the NHS – it is often far from clear how evidence can be used in policy. What evidence is actually applicable? Often the evidence can point to many conclusions, especially those which look ahead to the future, where many factors are well beyond anyone’s control – no matter how assured the predictions based on past evidence.

This year I was selected to be one of the participant’s in the Royal Society’s Week in Westminster pairing scheme, where scientists are paired with either MPs or Civil servants. (It was great – I highly recommend it to
anyone in science who has even the vaguest interest in how the UK government works). What I was particularly struck by is how people who work in government must balance the needs of many with heaps and heaps of evidence in order to make a decision. The *right* decision or the most *right* decision for the needs of the many. This after all (idealistically) is the job of the government to balance the disparate needs of many and not just those with the loudest voices.

Scientists in Parliament

Scientists in Parliament – during the Royal Society’s Week in Westminster – December 2013

In scientific research, evidence can lead to a myriad of different conclusions, a multitude of theories. Over time, most scientific theories are thrown on the scrap-heap or at the very least greatly modified by the emergence of new evidence. But scientific enquiry moves at a different pace and has for the most part, much more finite questions than government policy. There is often less evidence to balance with a particular theory in research than there is for government policies.

Also, like science, evidence in policy can point to many different decisions and sometimes the *right* decision isn’t revealed until well after the fact. How policies affect any given group of people is not easy to track as life is much more complex for most of us than laboratory experiments.

I am all in favor of evidence, when evidence is incontrovertible, but more often than not it isn’t. Before we all start crying for evidence-based policy, we need to be careful about what we are asking for in each particular instance.

Posted in evidence based, politics, Uncategorized | Tagged | 4 Comments

UK University debates, when gender segregation is OK?

Get real UK Universities

Universities UK have issued some guidance on separating genders during debate,* apparently it is OK if the facilities are separate but equal. Women can be placed separately from men as long as they aren’t seated behind. Because in some sort of alternate reality this is perfectly acceptable equality. Separate but equal.
And where have we heard that nonsense before?

Life is complicated. To segregate or not to segregate based gender, race, creed, colour, sexual orientation, or whatever discriminatory category you choose to pick is not, however, a complex issue. In fact it is pretty straightforward if you are a public body in a democratic society, you don’t do it.

Apparently this is quite a difficult concept for Universities UK, who have magically transported themselves back to mentality of lawmakers in the US South in the 1870s. They have also managed to forget the landmark case of Brown vs. Board of Education where the US Supreme Court deemed that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” (the UK never had such policies).

According to the illustrious UK university leaders, however, this is a really difficult issue viz

Segregation at the behest of a controversial speaker is an issue which arises “all the time” and banning men and women from sitting next to each during debates is a “big issue” facing universities, Universities UK has said.

How on earth can this possibly be a ‘big issue’ ? If the speaker requests that genders (or whoever) should be separated, the answer should be a polite, respectable, PR-compliant form of ‘tough shit’. This is not a hard issue. You don’t do it. Full stop. End of. And please don’t try to couch it as some sort of difficult, soul-searching issue. It isn’t. Segregation is not acceptable, don’t do it.

I ask the leaders of Universities UK, what kind of message does this send? Universities should be the place where ideas are discussed, equality is striven for, openness and debate are applauded, exemplifying the epitome of a free society. Granted this is the ideal, but any University policy should uphold this ideal. You can’t just change your policy because someone *important* requests it. By this guidance, Universities UK give the message that discrimination is OK, if you are famous/important that is, otherwise Universities really should be against this sort of thing.

I was an undergraduate at the University of Tennessee (USA). During my time there, every Summer the university was ‘rented’ as a convention venue by one of the very-conservative-religious groups from somewhere in Tennessee. They paid a fair amount of money to use the place. One summer, this convention happened to coincide with the university art-school exhibit of nudes, which was displayed prominently in the student center. The head of the very-conservative-religious group went to the President of the university to complain and have the art removed. The President said, in a decision that surprised all of us who were convinced the Uni was just money hungry, NO. In no uncertain terms, no.

If you ask me, the ‘leaders’ of Universities UK might just learn a thing or two from old Joseph E. Johnson, who knew how to draw the line between the requests of the few vs. the rights of many. No matter how rich, important or controversial they may be.

*I have linked to a Telegraph article above, but here is a link to the actual advice from UK Universities – see page 27 – Thanks to Ian Hopkinson and Bob O’Hara for pointing this out.

Posted in Academic dishonesty, women in science | Tagged | 31 Comments

Where are all the damn women?

I was lucky enough to get tickets to BBC Radio 4′s Any Questions a few weeks ago held in St. Peter’s College (Oxford) chapel. It was a great atmosphere, if you ever get the chance to get tickets to such an event, go, it’s great. The panel consisted of 4 people, 1 female the other 3 male. While Any Questions might have a dearth of scientists on their panels (you can sign Martin Robbin’s petition here)- I find they are pretty well balanced in the male-to-female ratio department. Then they picked the questioners out of submitted audience questions. They selected 10 people. 9 men, 1 woman (the audience distribution was a bit more balanced). Unconscious bias? or just the nature of the questions? Impossible to tell.

I watched Brian Cox’s the Science of Dr Who yesterday. Which was actually quite interesting. Prof. Cox called on several volunteers during the course of his show. None of them were women. Unconscious bias or just no women available? Impossible to tell.

I had a conversation with a female colleague this week, she obtained her PhD (in Chemistry) a good 20 before I did. When she first went to University, she said there were very few women professors but that didn’t bother her, her generation was much more equal – so she figured it would slowly change. But it hasn’t. Bias – unconscious or otherwise? It’s impossible to tell.

I don’t want to be known as a “women in science”. The scientific queries I choose to pursue have nothing whatsoever to do with what gender I am. Zip. Nothing, Nada. Having an opportunity to do science might do, but I can’t tell because I have a job in science. I don’t feel particularly discriminated against for being a female, personally, I don’t think I ever have felt that way. I certainly have had people say stupid things to me in many jobs I have had, but who hasn’t? This happens to men as often as women – you don’t have to be female to be discriminated against or be bullied. It happens to everyone (sadly).

But where are all the women? My fellow Occam’s Typist, Athene Donald blogs about this issue, thoughtfully, often. My friend Professor Polly Arnold produced a great document (and film) about this issue. They are to name two examples of many who think/write/hope about this issue. But it’s hard to see how things are actually going to get better until we do something more drastic. Gradually doesn’t seem to be working. Targeting institutions is hard because they are institutions not people (not that the tireless work by some to do just this isn’t effective and to be applauded, it’s just a hard thing to do!)

It’s not about promoting women just because they are women – I would never in my right mind have voted for Margaret Thatcher, Elizabeth Dole or Sarah Palin, as I can’t abide their politics. It’s not about hiring someone that isn’t really qualified just because their gender, race, whatever is under-represented.

But still, where are all the damn women? People like Brian Cox should strive to put them on TV, after all they don’t have to be scientists for shows like The Science of Doctor Who – Charles Dance isn’t one and he was a ‘volunteer’ in Cox’s show. The Any Questions panel can pick women just as easily as men. They can say OK, right, – 5 questions from men, 5 from women. It can’t be that hard. Otherwise little girls might, just might, be left thinking … where are all the girls?

Posted in women in science | Tagged | 6 Comments

Kids these days

Sunday Will Self was on BBC radio 4 giving his point of view about the youth of today. He pities them as they are being oppressed by the older demographic or as he puts it – “In my darker moments – of which there are quite a few – I often envision the baby boomer generation as a giant and warty toad squatting on the youth of our society”. He goes on to say in the broadcast that there hasn’t been a real youth movement in years, not like the hippies of the 1960s not like the punk movement of the 1970s.

And here we go again, invoking the age old argument “What is wrong with kids these days?” Kindly, Will Self doesn’t blame them but rather all of the oppresive older adults around them, but still it’s the same argument. Which kind of runs like – ‘I am old, you are young, I was so much more _____________ (cooler, with it, angry, in touch, respectful, disciplined… the list goes on) than kids these days.

Lots of old folks love to complain about the young, as if it is sort of an inalienable right of getting older. We old folk have been having a good old rant about kids since the beginning of time. Allegedly even as far back as the 500′s Gregory of Tours (540-604) was pretty negative about the youth of today (I say allegedly only because I can’t find the quote, even though I am quite sure I have read it).

Now that I am getting older, I get it. Life seems easy for younger people, they seem carefree and like their life experience is so limited it is easy to think ‘what could be wrong with them, right?’ But this is false. Young people have pressure on them that people like me cannot imagine (I am not young, I grew up in the 70s) I don’t know what it is like to be 18 or 20 in 2013. Not to mention, the older I get, the more selective my memory becomes. I think of my days working for the Great Smoky Mountain National Park service as carefree and easy, which in a way it was. It was a cool job but I was skint, I was having some problem with some boy in my life and exhausted all the time because I was also working my way through school. But of course now I remember myself skipping in the woods being carefree.

I think Will Self might have a bit of selective memory problem here – was he not around for the Student protests a few years ago? Or maybe he thinks this isn’t the right kind of protest? Also, what is it about every generation makes them think their particular youth movement was ‘the real thing’. I remember those older people who used to be hippies (not my parents, they were Depression era/WW II kids) from my youth waxing on and on about where they were when JF Kennedy was shot (I wasn’t born) and where they were when Man landed on the Moon (I was 2). I didn’t care. They all seemed to be pretty well off when they were talking to me – peace and love seemed to have gone on the window somewhere. Oh and free love (though the exception that proves the rule was an ex-hippie woman I admired telling me that she thought the free love movement was designed by men so they could sleep with who they wanted openly and their girlfriends couldn’t get pissed about it). But the underlying theme of all of these ‘my youth movement is better than yours’ soliloquies is that somehow your generation is superior to whatever it is today. That the past was some kind of idyllic time when life was better, more simple. But mostly what these stories boil down to is simply MY GENERATION HAD PRINCIPLES while yours does not.

Old (ish) people, need to realize how condescending we sound to the younger generations when we start talking like this, even if we are blaming ourselves. It not only tells those younger than us ‘I am better than you’ but also treats them like they aren’t smart enough, or motivated enough or what ever enough to make any changes or decisions for themselves. This is not easy to remember when you are older, really it’s not, but it is well worth keeping an eye on.

For instance, I don’t see the appeal of Miley Cyrus – I actually saw her video ‘Wrecking Ball’ this weekend, which I am sad I can’t unsee. To me, she looks like a weirdo swinging naked on a ball, licking a sledgehammer and sticking her tongue out. But I am not Ms. Cyrus’ target audience and I don’t get it, I don’t get her appeal – but I am well aware this might be because I am 45+ and have used a sledgehammer for its intended purpose so don’t find them particularly sexy. Equally, I am grateful the internet wasn’t around when I was a youth, allowing me the illusion that no way, no how did I ever do anything that wasn’t cool, dignified and unprincipled, because in MY generation we had real ideals and principles.

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On watching my country go crazy – and why science is important

Like much of the rest of America (and the world) I have been watching US shutdown theatre in horror. I posted a few years ago about how I didn’t think the Tea Party was the end of Democracy as we know it, boy was I wrong. Hopefully not totally wrong, the US (really) does have a way of righting itself after it drifts into crazy, in the end.

This nightmare shutdown – has happened before – in the 70s it was four times, three when Jimmy Carter was president and once with Ford. I am old enough (just) to remember these shutdowns and I definitely remember what it did to scientific research. Cuts, cuts and more cuts and some of it damaged entire fields or research irreparably for at least 40 years. There was an OPEC oil crisis in the 1970s in the US, I remember the lines (queues) largely because I was a bored 6 year old sitting in a car.

OPEC_gascrisis

As a result of this oil crisis, the US embarked on an educational Energy Saving campaign and started pumping research-money into research for fossil-fuel alternatives – wind, solar, nuclear, bio-fuels even the dreaded gasohol – a very bad idea.

After a series of similar shutdowns, and of course Reagan being elected, bye bye alternative energy research. Nuclear reactor research in the 70s and 80s was pretty much entirely halted. Money was yanked from bio-fuel research. Why? Because the USA struck a deal, oil was cheap (and it is still the best bang for your buck in running you car) and decided not to worry about it. Or rather the government decided not to worry about it. Ronald Reagan famously took down the solar panels Jimmy Carter had put up on the White House. Obama has since put them back up – 20 years later!

And that is kind of the point. 20 years later, here we are again. Gas prices have gone up in the last 5 years in the US (yes i know they are higher in Britain but Britain has MUCH more available public transport) and they are just going to keep rising. And, eventually, the oil will run out. And those last 40 years where there was no funding for energy-related doing basic research? They are gone. More worryingly all of the expertise which was being built up in the 70s – is also gone.

These things are important, they affect EVERYONE. Not just scientists, everyone. Not just Americans everyone.

It’s time for the US to right itself and stop following the usual pattern of shutdowns and subsequent death by 1000 budget-cuts. Go ahead Congress – especially you Tea-Partiers, put those solar panels up on your house and do the right thing.

Posted in science funding, US shutdown | Tagged | 1 Comment

On Dawkins and Ignorance

Racism – it exists.  It’s not easy to talk about, it’s something most of us don’t want to talk about in the hope it will just go away.  It hasn’t.  I find it awkward to talk about it myself, largely because I grew up in a majority; so I am not sure I can really understand, though I try to be empathetic with, the direct effects of racism.  Being raised a white, protestant female in a region of the USA which is pretty dominated by white protestants, doesn’t exactly put me in the minority.  Yes I am female, but I have also had advantages.

I was born during the Civil Rights Movement in the USA.  I don’t remember segregation, I was a baby, but I am a product of the after effects of the US South trying to heal.  I grew up watching Sesame Street – a Children’s program which was a champion of diversity. I grew up with an LP of ‘Free to Be You and Me”.  I grew up in a time where all children were required to read To Kill a Mockingbird.      

I am not saying racism disappeared during this time, or in any sense the Southern USA is a paragon of equality, sisterhood and brotherhood, but in the 70s the way the State thought best to combat racism was through education.  To this day, I am a firm believer that much racism is a result of ignorance. Ignorance isn’t synonymous with stupidity; Ignorance is a lack of knowledge.  But to behave in ignorance usually isn’t the best thing to do.  

This is what is so devastating about Richard Dawkins’ recent tweet about Muslims. He may not be intending to be racist, but it is pretty ignorant and willfully uninformed not to realize that is what he sounds like.  Saying something like Interesting concept: a simple statement of undeniable FACT can be offensive, is just ignorant, yet many people believe that Dawkins is among the world’s living geniuses.  His PR says he is supposed to be really smart and thoughtful.  Dawkins, who identifies himself as a Humanist and is in fact highly educated, most of us think (myself included) should know better.   

I do understand the counter-argument to this will be – ‘he was just stating a fact’.   But this again is somewhat ill-informed as Martin Robbins points out; factual statements are always made in some sort of context.  He argues this much better than I could even attempt to in his article for the New Statesman.  Though his fact is ‘true’ it is still an incredibly ignorant thing to say.  Life, as the man who wrote Unweaving the Rainbow should know, is complex.  Most of the Nobel prizes are won by people in the developed world – no surprises there – which has to do with all sorts of things. Better opportunities for those in the establishment (at least historically), exclusion for so many years of anyone but white males.  The list could go on.  

Richard Dawkins has often complained in writing, on Twitter and in speeches – that we give religion much more respect than it deserves.  Perhaps he is right, but in my estimation it is pretty ignorant to combat this by being deliberately offensive.  His defense of he’s just “stating of facts” just makes him appear even more ignorant.  I find this rather sad and in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.
 

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Scientific road maps for the future – proceed with caution.

roadmap

I spent the last week at the ICNS (International Conference of Neutron Scattering) in Edinburgh. This particular conference is only held every 4 years – bouncing back and forth between North America, Europe and Oceania. It is particularly fun, when you have spent a few years scattering neutrons, as you get to see all the folks you have met along the road, all in the same place, preferably with some adult beverages.

At the conference I was asked to be on a panel about ‘Impact’. In particular, all of us on the panel (and most of us in the room) were interested in how to increase the impact of neutron science or rather spread the word and show the world how important using neutrons for science is (and can be).

I think ‘impact’ is a dubious word – it isn’t always so straight-forward to deliver impact as it means different things to different people and different things altogether depending on what/who you are trying to impact. Of course I know what the government wants it to mean (Build the Economy, Stupid!), what I – and I would wager a large proportion of the academic community – wants it to mean (See my science!) and what sci-communicators (and scientists who do outreach) want it to me (Tell the rest of the world!). This seems like a simple recipe, but it isn’t. For one pretty simple reason, most of the time we have no idea how much impact any piece of science is going to have in the future. This is almost impossible to predict.

We all know the stories. Tim Berners-Lee and the internet from data sharing for science. Velcro, the ball point pen and Tang from NASA. There are many many serendipitous science inventions which couldn’t even be thought of 20 years before they happened (by most of us anyway) but this point can’t be emphasized enough.

On the panel, we spent some time discussing having a ‘road map for science’ or in essence a road map for future impacts of science. This makes me nervous. While of course you have to plan, especially when it comes to designing and building large facilities of the future (like neutron scattering facilities), I think we have to be a bit careful. A scientific futhre plan needs to be a bit more like a guideline than a road map, unless of course your road map contains the flexibility to drive your car in reverse across the desert.

If we set out too many rules we will probably not be able to deliver what we say we can deliver but also it will kill the base of scientific creativity. A similar problem exists if you try to force all science into being applied and have a link to industry. Most science which has a link to industry is already into the later stages of discovery. Early new discoveries will likely not have an immediate link to anything – now or ever – and that is part of the way science works. Most scientific theories fail, and most of them seemed like the big thing of the future at the time.

Science isn’t orderly, it doesn’t do so well with road maps. Its a bit like what John Lennon said about life – it’s what happens while you’re busy making other plans.

Posted in impact, science communication | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Richard Dawkins – man of literacy (you only need the special key)

Dawkins

I try to ignore Richard Dawkins, I really do. I think his stance on religion vs. science is a misinterpretation of how science works – apples and oranges and all that. This week on Twitter, the man had some sort of word meaning argument concerning racism. Alom Shah has written a thoughtful gentle response to this, about the meaning of words and why definitions matter.

Dawkins is also a bit frustrated with his favorite nemeses the creationists… also on Twitter this week:

@RichardDawkins I get so bored by the mindless recitation, “Evolution is only a theory.” Evolution is simply a FACT.

As a card-carrying science enthusiast you might think, wait that’s wrong ! But no it isn’t because FACT doesn’t really mean FACT if you are Richard Dawkins it means this (from the horse’s mouth):

Question to Dawkins: How would you correct the understanding that evolution is a theory?

Richard Dawkins: The word “theory” can be used to mean something speculative and tentative. In everyday speech it probably usually is used in that sense. Scientists very often use it in a much more positive sense. I think the easiest way is to use the ordinary language word “fact”. In the ordinary language sense of the word fact, evolution is a fact.

Right – who understands that, I don’t. Setting aside something being called ‘only a theory’ is hardly an insult, it just may be that Dawkins is just seriously misunderstood – in order to get it you have to read all Dawkins writing through a special code key that he redefines at will to understand the true meaning of what he is saying – he said as much on Twitter (again this week)

@RichardDawkins If I wish to discuss with you, I must make sure I mean same thing by words as you. Don’t have to use a dictionary, but we must agree.

Fair enough, I guess; but it doesn’t really work unless you actually agree, does it? Prof. Dawkins has a bit of a history of cleverly re-defining things meet his particular needs. In the God Delusion (yes I have read it) Dawkins redefines dead scientists as really being atheists – ‘Great scientists of our time who sound religious usually turn out not to be so when you examine their beliefs more deeply’ (God Delusion, Black Swan (Random House) 1st edition, 2006 p. 35).

He particularly picks on Stephen J. Gould’s Rock of Ages - a book in which Gould (an evolutionary palentologist and an agnostic) explains why science and religion are apples and oranges or non-overlapping magisteria as Gould likes to call them. Clearly Dawkins disagrees with this view, but disagreement isn’t good enough – full submission to Dawkins world view is required. So in the end Dawkins decides that Gould probably, really actually agreed with him or as Dawkins says himself:

I simply do not believe that Gould could possibly mean much of what he wrote in Rock of Ages (God Delusion, pg 81) and decides Gould is strongly inclined toward de facto atheism rather than being a true agnostic, despite the fact that Gould was pretty damn clear about what he did believe. Too bad we can’t ask Gould how he feels about this as dead men tell no tales. So as many dead scientists as Dawkins needs can be conveniently re-baptized as atheists, really. It’s a bit like what Mormons do with their dead ancestors; you know when you need safety in numbers.

Now this, you might could argue, is fair enough really as Dawkins is trying to build his argument about religious belief gaining non-deserved respect from non-believers. Or OK he describes genes as ‘selfish’ but that doesn’t mean selfish like someone who doesn’t want to share their toys. Genes are a different kind of selfish – if you read the Selfish Gene and Unweaving the Rainbow, Dawkins spends many pages trying to really define what he means by selfish. I have to admit the man is good with language – but he doesn’t really follow his own advice about the meaning of words and discussion.

Or then again maybe he does and I just don’t happen to have this week’s special key.

Posted in evolution, richard dawkins, Stephen J Gould | Tagged , , | 21 Comments

Am I having impact?

For the last few days there has been some buzz around the non-use of Impact Factors as a criteria for the UK’s Research Excellent Framework. Richard Catlow (head of the Chemistry REF panel) put it in writing here in an article in the RSC’s Chemistry World. This is a nice thing to know as an academic, your work should be judged on its quality not where it is published.

Stephen Curry is Sick of Impact factors too, where you can just take one look at the comment thread and see he’s not alone.

I have written about being concerned about impact factors before as a judgement of my worthiness as a scientist and as a relatively early career academic I haven’t stopped worrying. I have no idea what publications in high-impact vs. lower-impact journals will mean – in terms of a future career, not only for me but for my students and post-docs. I still am afraid that yes high impact publications do matter, even when I see the official reassurance. I do trust and believe my more established colleagues, but I gotta admit I immediately think is ‘what about unconscious bias’? Sort of like in the movies when some very crafty lawyer leads a witness into saying something that they shouldn’t and the judge tells the jury to ‘strike that from the record’ and that it can’t be used as evidence. Does that really ever work? This may be cynical on my part.

I just had a paper rejected from a high-impact journal this week, before it was sent out to review by the editor filter. This happens (to everyone) and I tried and I will try somewhere else. I am not feeling too bad about it. Partly because I know I am not the only one familiar with this experience, it is relatively common in academia. You tend to get rejected (a lot) for paper submissions if you try for higher impact journals; before it is even sent to review. So why do we bother? I have been asking myself this question often lately and I don’t really have an answer. But

High impact isn’t all bad. And as Homer Simpson (allegedly) says ‘If you don’t try you can’t fail’.

The reason why I sent this publication to this particular journal is because I would have liked it to be read by the particular audience that reads this particular journal. Or more realistically, the audience I want to believe reads that journal. Really. I didn’t do it for the pleasure of high-impact smugness or spin but because actually I wanted to try and get my work more widely read by a different (bigger) audience. I work at an interface of three disciplines – biology, physics and chemistry – there is no particular ‘journal’ for interdisciplinary work; as a result I am fairly omnivorous in my journal choice. That being said, there are places I can send work to get a fairly-wide readership, but I was shooting for a slightly different audience; a more general audience. It is hard to achieve that goal if the paper doesn’t even go to review.

I think having a widely-read paper in a high-impact journal is a good thing, if it is actually widely read. I doesn’t mean you are science big-wig but what it does mean your work might get read by a new broader audience – you know preaching to the choir and all that, avoided. At least I still have this hope which is, perhaps, slightly naive on my part. I do know that even if a paper is in a high-impact factor journal, this doesn’t actually mean it will get read – or indeed get more citations and as Dorothy Bishop pointed out. In fact sometimes your work actually gets less exposure and less citations in high-impact land, my most highly-cited paper is not in the highest-impact factor journal I have even published in.

But high impact can be bad, when you are judged by that alone.

I think is this is the real issue, and why we are all feeling a bit relieved in UK academia about the upcoming REF-judging statements by panel heads like Richard Catlow. But I am still on the fence about how important high-impact papers are, and honestly whether or not I want to try for them. It is a huge amount of work to re-craft a paper for a new journal, just to have it rejected before it even goes to review. Reviews are key. Equally, I do want my papers more widely read, I want other people in other fields to look at my work and tell me what they think. But I wouldn’t want high-impact papers to be the sole judge of my work . Honestly, at least in my estimation there are plenty of good papers in high-impact journals, they are not all horrid, but some really,really are. The only thing I do know for certain is that my favorite paper I have ever written is in a low impact factor journal and has a pretty low number of citations.

Posted in Impact Factor, science writing, scientific publishing | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Let me give you some advice….

on advice

If I were to offer a new academic advice it would be to not be afraid to take advice from your colleagues; especially with respect to writing. I was talking to one of my collaborators the other day and they told me ‘I never let anyone in the Department read my grants before I submit them; I am too scared‘. I can definitely understand this point of view. It is scary to be critiqued and expose your writing style to the world. Also, if you are working on something that is a hot topic then you may not want the rest of the world to see your creative ideas just yet.

But that grant/paper/cover letter is going to get read, by somebody, and I would rather have one of my colleagues (that I trust) give me advice than just simply leave that to an unknown committee.

My view is quite the opposite of my collaborator’s, I actively try to get people to have a look over of my grant, my publications, my cover letters – everything and anything. I would much rather have a friendly colleague tell me when my ideas don’t make any sense on paper, than a less friendly review panel. A bit of advice helps improve your writing style and conveyance of tricky topics. It also helps with clarity, sometimes when you have read something over and over again it says to you what you think it should say not what it actually does say. Someone else might read it and think – WTF? This is something you need to know.

The other good thing about soliciting advice, is you don’t have to take it. You can ask people for a read, but just because they suggest that you do something doesn’t mean you have to. Even bad advice allows you to think about exactly why you don’t want to change something and again improves your ability to express yourself.

Unsolicited advice, on the other hand, can be really annoying. As often as not, I find unsolicited advice rather useless as it seems to be given by a deliverer who just wants to tell you about how well they think and how well written they are rather than providing anything helpful. Still there is some honesty and helpfulness even in unsolicited assertions – such as on blog post comments; I have had all manner of useful advice through this venue – who says the internet isn’t useful?

Posted in science writing | Tagged , | 5 Comments