ReCon 2016 – my favourite small conference

ReCon has become my favourite small conference about publishing and research. It’s held each June in Edinburgh. I attended it in 2015 and really enjoyed it. There were stimulating presentations on non-trivial topics, and plenty of interesting conversations over coffee and lunch. So I went again this year with high expectations that were not disappointed.

A few librarians attend, plus many researchers (mostly early career), some publishing people and information industry people. It is more research-focused than the UKSG or R2R conferences, and (to my mind) is more focused on cutting-edge topics.  There is also a Hackday on the day after the conference but sadly I wasn’t able to attend that this year. Last year I learnt a lot from the Hackday.

Here is some of what I found most interesting about the conference. You can watch videos of the talks on the ReCon website.


Geoff Bilder (from CrossRef) is one of those people who is physiologically unable to give a boring talk. He promised us a rant but his talk, while vivid, seemed too carefully argued and well-worded to be designated a rant. He called it “The citation fetish”.  He reminded the audience that citations can be inaccurate and distorted, leading to excessive concern with impact factors, h-indexes and the like. Then he complained that these metrics have gained too much influence on decisions about research careers. So far, so familiar.

Then Geoff surprised us by pointing out that we use the wrong words in connection with citations.  When we talk about citations, we are talking about the inclusion of an article in a reference list. This is wrong we shouldn’t use ‘citation’ to denote the number of times an article is listed in a reference list. These are just references. Rather, when counting citations we should count each time an article is cited in the citing article. A cited article may be referred to several times in a citing article – but will only appear once in the reference list. This may seem a nit-picking point (I admit to thinking this) but Geoff suggested it is symptomatic of a problem with our citation habits – a concern with credit over reproducibility.

He also drew attention to ‘citation’ practice in the more informal world of blogposts. Typically a blogpost may include a link (just a hyperlink rather than a formal citation) to another web page (blogpost or something else). Sometimes a blog post may link to something which is in fact a DOI, i.e. a part of the world of formal literature. Sometimes blogposts may have more formal list of references at the end, with in-text citations. Some may include footnotes with links in.  In blogs all of these different styles of citing and linking are intertwingled (I’d not heard this word before, but apparently it was coined by Ted Nelson). As bloggers we’re not thinking that hard about how we cite/link.  We all do it, mixed up-wise.

Now Geoff got serious. He highlighted the Force11 data citation principles. The first three of these are: importance, credit/attribution, evidence. Geoff stated that the principles put too much emphasis on credit/attribution rather than on evidence (reproducibility), putting the cart before the horse.

I think this was the main point of his talk: citation practice should be at the service of reproducibility. Citing should be a way to help readers/researchers to follow through the arguments in a paper, and the execution of the research reported.

Focusing too much on credit/attribution harms this link. It occurs to me that there is a kind of diachronous Heisenberg uncertainty principle at work when we start to measure citations – the act of measuring affects future citation practice and thus deems all future measurements suspect.

Geoff enjoined us not to think magically about citations but to think critically and to doubt everything we think about citations.

After his talk I felt that we could quite profitably have sat around discussing what he said for the rest of the day. But sadly there were more talks to listen to. Luckily they were also thought-provoking.

Research data

Mike Jones (from Mendeley) had the difficult task of persuading us that we should be happy to trust his company (owned by Elsevier) with our research data.

I must confess I had missed the announcement that Mendeley now offered a data repository service.

It seems to have been around for about a year, though it was in beta for much of that time. Mendeley data is setting up as a competitor to broad repositories such as Figshare and Dryad, and will also work with Hivebench, recently acquired by Elsevier. Clearly Elsevier are putting together their own data ecosystem.

Mike rehearsed the well-known reasons underlying the current surge of interest in data sharing and data repositories. I liked his listing of the phases of data curation:

Storage (rescue) – Shared (needs incentives) – Discoverable (metadata) – Comprehensible (well-described/structured) – Valid (curation, review).

Finally, Mike mentioned that  they are developing a search engine called Data Search which will search across multiple data repositories. Jim Procter on Twitter pointed out  that its effectiveness will depend on the metadata.

I think it is useful to have another service in this general data repository space, but I think Elsevier will have an uphill battle to secure the trust of the research community. One of the questions from the audience highlighted this aspect.

Data viz

A major theme of the conference was data visualisation and there was a group of talks about this. Clearly it’s an on-trend topic as Nature also had a feature about it recently.

Jo Young gave an introduction to the topic, taking us rapidly through the history of data visualisation from 1786. William Playfair  invented several ways of visualising data. John Snow, with his famous map showing cholera hotspots grouped around a water-pump, was another pioneer, along with Florence Nightingale and Edward Tufte.

Jo gave us quite a broad definition of data visualisation, noting that IKEA self-assembly instructions can be categorised as such (personally I’d say they were fiction).  Others include: Barplots, Boxplots, Network diagrams, Choropleths,  Videos, Images / photos, Tables. I realised I am quite ignorant about this subject as I’d never heard of a ‘chloropleth’.

I’d never heard of Anscombe’s quartet either but Jo explained that it is a set of four small datasets having the same statistical features. However when visualised the datasets are revealed as being quite different. This provides a really persuasive example of the value of using dataviz.

Jo finished by giving some simple guidelines for designing data visualisations. She said that we are better at distinguishing different heights than different angles, so pie charts are not always the best choice for displaying data.  Other advice included:

  • consider your audience
  • focus on the substance of the data
  • pay attention to proportions and scales
  • avoid 3D, avoid colour if it’s unnecessary
  • don’t distort
  • don’t add irrelevant data
  • don’t prioritise design over data

Thus instructed in the basics, we then heard  Pawel Jancz from NumberTelling extolling the advantages of the Tableau system. It allows you to interact with your data, link to sources, publish it online. Tableau public is worth a look.

Pawel then gave some more guidelines on constructing visualisations. If interested, I would advise watching the video of this talk as it was quite visual and I can’t do it justice in words.

Next up, Ian Calvert from Digital Science told us to ignore all the guidelines we’d just heard about. We should just get on with generating visualisations. He explained that dataviz can be a tool for researchers to understand and improve their data. I’d not considered this use case before but it makes a good deal of sense.

Ian explained that visualisation can be a path to clean data i.e. to data with fewer errors, that is easy to process automatically, and easy to link with other datasets

He showed us a real example, using data about published journal articles from 1500 to present and highlighting how dataviz can make errors and anomalies obvious.

Innovations in scholarly communication

Next followed the highpoint of the conference – a detailed presentation about research software tools from a pair of Dutch info-wizards:

Jeroen Bosman and Bianca Kramer

They have been looking at tools used by researchers at different stages in the research cycle.  At first their project was called 101 innovations in scholarly communication – you may have seen the diagram they produced:

101 Innovations in Scholarly Communication

101 Innovations in Scholarly Communication: How researchers are getting to grip with the myriad of new tools. Image produced by Bianca Kramer and Jeroen Bosman.

Then the list of tools grew to 400, and now it is over 800. They have categorised each tool as either traditional, modern, innovative, or experimental and then examined whether you can characterise researchers by looking at the tools they use.

Another useful categorisation, aligned to the goals of scholarship, was their enumeration of tools as efficient, open or ‘good’ (or ‘ethical).

  • Efficient – connected tools, publish neg results, speed of publishing, standards, IDs, semantic discovery (text mining), etc
  • Open – peer review, lab notes, language (plain), open drafting, open access, CC-0/BY
  • Good – declaring competing interests, replication, reproducibility, quality checks, credit where due, no fraud

Each tool is associated with one or more stages of the research cycle, divided into 6 or 7 main stages and further divided into 30 sub-stages.

I’d seen this diagram and thought it interesting but not especially useful. Silly me. Their next step was to launch a worldwide survey of researchers (translated into 6 languages apart from English). The survey gained over 20,000 respondents, showing which tools people use.

Their data is in Zenodo and their is a data note in F1000research. Their scripts for analysing the data are also shared.

A rather cool dashboard allows you to interact with the data (though it can be a little slow).

Now they can say how many tools a typical researcher uses: the median is 22, but the distribution follows a typical bell curve, slightly skewed to a higher number.

The number of survey responses to each sub-area also shows which are the busiest in terms of tool development and use – search and write win out, peer review is least busy.

They are now starting to work on a heatmap analysis to find out which tools co-occur.

This talk started all kinds of hares racing in my mind and I advise you to read some of their material, or look at the video of the talk. They will also be presenting at Internet Librarian International in October in London.  I’m hoping to see them again at that time.

I recommend any librarian involved in publishing or research support to check out ReCon 2017 (no details yet but follow ReCon on twitter). See you there next year.

Posted in Information skills, Journal publishing, Research data, Research tools, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Important conversations and confusing journals

A few weeks back I was a roomful of senior librarians, having Important Conversations about Publishers (ICP). More recently I sat and listened to a number of ICPs at the UKSG Conference – bookended by talks from Ann Rossiter and Cameron Neylon, each with important things to say to publishers.  So far so momentous: the tectonic plates of scholarly communication are shifting and no-one is quite sure what the end result will be.

It is surprising to reflect that ICPs are a relatively recent phenomenon. Until about twenty years ago libraries’ key relationship was with their serials agent rather than with any publisher. I remember in about 1987 I had a visit from the rep for a major publisher and I didn’t really have much to say to him, certainly nothing in the ICP mold. Librarians back then did talk amongst themselves about publishers – mostly complaining about the daft things that publishers did to make librarians’ lives difficult. Generally the daft things relate to changes made to journals.

Journals can be confusing things. They differ from each other in myriad ways. They may be published monthly, weekly, semi-monthly, biweekly, quarterly, bimonthly, or at some irregular frequency (my favourite is sesqui-monthly). There may be split issues, combined issues; there may be volume numbers or not; there may be cover dates or not; the cover date may or may not correspond with the actual date of issue. We get used to all these things. And of course every journal needs its own title.

Changes can cause particular headaches for librarians, and for readers. Some changes are not too disruptive: a change in the frequency is only mildly confusing. Minor changes in title (adding a word or two) are not too troublesome, but major changes can mean that  readers fail to find the journal unless clear signposts are in place to redirect from the old title to the new title (and vice versa). In the days of print libraries could put signposts in their catalogues and lists, and even on the shelves themselves. Now we rely more on publishers to put the signposts in their websites. It gets worse when journals merge or split.

Some journals create confusion by having multiple sections, almost amounting to separate titles. One prominent example is Biochimica et Biophysica Acta (BBA). Currently it has ten separate sections, but over the years other sections came and went. On ScienceDirect about 20 different sections (past and present) are listed in total.

The confusing thing about BBA is that there is a single sequence of volume numbers through all the sections. So volume 1804 might be in one section, volume 1805 in a different section and volume 1806 in a different section again. Elsevier, the publisher of BBA, had a number of journals with this kind of structure; Mutation Research springs to mind as another prominent one.

This complex structure created challenges back in the days when we handled print issues of journals. We needed to know which issues to expect and in which sections they would fall; we had to decide how to shelve the issues (by title or by volume number); we had to decide how to bind them (different colours for each section?). All this is pretty much a non-problem now, in the days of online journals. But, as noted already, we rely on publishers websites to provide easy navigation.

This week a confused reader came seeking assistance in tracking down an article in a Wiley journal, Biopolymers. The article was in Biopolymers volume 94. Someone sent him the reference in an email, so he went to the Biopolymers website to find the article, but could not see volume 94 listed there, thus he sought my help.

I wondered if it was perhaps a supplement volume, with conference abstracts, as these are sometimes published separately from regular journal issues. It wasn’t. As I inspected the listing of volume numbers on the website it struck me that only odd volume numbers were listed there, which seemed rather odd.

I was intrigued by this mystery. I searched PubMed and found the article listed there, then followed the link to the full-text and easily found the article on Wileys’ website.

So, I had the article but was still perplexed as to why I couldn’t see it (or any even-numbered volumes) on the Biopolymers web page.

Looking more carefully at the page for the article, I saw it had a large blue Biopolymers’ banner image at the top. But there was also a prominent red banner below it, showing the words Peptide Science prominently, and the word ‘Biopolymers’ in a smaller font running vertically up the red banner.
I looked up Peptide Science in Wileys’ alphabetical list of journals, followed the link and found all those even-numbered volumes listed, that were missing from the Biopolymers page.


In PubMed (and Scopus and Web of Science) all articles published in Peptide Science are listed as articles published in the journal Biopolymers. But on the publisher’s website, they are listed only under Peptide Science and the image of the cover clearly shows only the Peptide Science brand.
That seems a bit unhelpful to me.

I see that Peptide Science is the official journal of the American Peptide Society, so perhaps that is the reason it holds fast to a separate identity. It might be better to separate from Biopolymers more completely but I guess there is some brand advantage in associating with it.

In the world where we only ever click on a link, or follow a DOI, maybe it doesn’t matter so much. But if someone emails you a reference, or you scribble down a journal reference, and then go about trying to find it you will fail.

Publishers love to claim that everything they do is for the good of the academic community.  But making it difficult to find articles, charging high prices for subscription journals, and putting barriers in the way of open access are all signs that this is an empty claim.

Posted in Journal publishing, Scientific literature | Comments Off on Important conversations and confusing journals


I first came to work at NIMR Mill Hill back in the blessed innocent times of 1989. After a few months my boss sent me on a course about ‘Motivation’. The course was organised by Aslib, and was held at their grand HQ in London’s Belgrave Square. It was good to be out of the office dor a day, having some thinking time with a group of other librarians, but I wasn’t entirely sure what the course would do for me.

One of the first exercises we had to do was to explain our motivation for coming on the course. In my typically spiky way I told the unadorned truth, explaining that I had only come along as my boss had pushed me into it. The trainer couldn’t fault my logic, though I suspect he marked my card as an awkward sod.

Back in those days my motivation for work was pretty high. I was in a new job and was settling into the organisation and role. I found plenty to get on with and was given a good degree of freedom to do it in whatever way I saw fit. I absorbed as much as I could about the activities of the institute, and got to know people. I also closely observed what was happening elsewhere, to see what other institutions were doing. Then it was copy, paste, edit. The results were generally good. As time went on I went off-piste quite a bit, straying from straightforward library tasks into web management, research data, public engagement, and publishing.

This motivational honeymoon lasted a good 20 years. Over the last few years my motivation at work has gradually declined. Slowly at first, but then more rapidly, until by 2015 it had shrunk to something very small. Uncertainty about the future of the Institute (it was closing and becoming part of a new Institute), and my role in its future, were at the heart of this shrinkage.

To some extent it was a failure of nerve, a loss of confidence. Before, during the 20 good years, I was unafraid to strike out in new directions at work. I was confident of the core of my responsibilities, my room for manoeuvre and my ability to take on new things. There was no-one else in the space – I took on tasks that no one else was interested in.

Now I am less confident of my core. The concept of a library is apparently no longer valued while ‘information’ has become something that everyone knows about and does for themselves. Information skills are nothing special, it seems. Other players have entered the broader information space and some have their own specialist expertise (communications, research data, training). My room for manoeuvre is more limited.

In 2015 my motivation to blog also evaporated. I jotted down notes, and mapped out some ideas for blogposts, but finished nothing. This post is an attempt to break out of my unmotivated straitjacket. I thought if I wrote about my lack of motivation then that might help to release more writing. A meta-post about why I wasn’t posting could turn the tap on.

It didn’t quite work like that. This post has been waiting to be finished off for nine months, so it suffered the same fate as all the others. But I think today is the day. Motivation is bubbling up. Fingers crossed, there will be more coming.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Metavation

In an instant, in the twinkling of an eye

It’s the last trumpet.

It’s been an intense few months up on the Ridgeway; preparations for our big change have gathered pace. At first things went slowly – infuriatingly slowly –  but as the years crept on so we felt the pressure develop. It’s like the feeling of being in a crowd of people surging forward, slowly accelerating. You’re forced to break into a trot, and have to move faster and faster towards your target, trying not to trip, until you’re racing along breathlessly. At first the target is out of sight over the horizon and seems a little mysterious.  But when you look back at where you came from, it too seems strange to you now. As you get closer to the target you see it more clearly, and the details become visible. What does it mean?

Now we are there, we’ve entered into the singularity and we are about to emerge from the other side into … the Francis Crick Institute.

We’re no longer owned by the MRC, though we’re  still supported by them. We feel free: no more crazy civil service mentality, “bureaucracy rules OK”. But we also feel afraid: no more public sector protection and positive staff spirit. What will this new, third sector,  world mean for our lives, our careers, our science?

On the stroke of midnight a thousand huge removal vans will arrive on site and an army of removal technicians will load them up with every piece of equipment, large and small, on site. Acres of bubble wrap will enfold the hundreds of thousands of pieces of lab kit. Furniture will be manhandled along the corridors and down the stairs or down the goods lift and into the waiting vehicles. Freezers will be packed with padding to protect their valuable contents and carefully carried away.Computers will be unplugged and encased in protective boxes ready for the move. Paperwork will be filed; desks locked shut; books crated up. Everything will be labelled with a lab number and crammed into one of the vans.

The long convoy of removals vans will snake its way carefully down the hill, onto the North Circular Road then down the A1 through Archway, Holloway and onto the Caledonian Road towards St Pancras. Similar convoys will make their way from the Clare Hall and Lincolns Inn Fields sites of our sister institute.

Once they all arrive in Brill Place the removal fairies swing into action again, carrying multiple loads to their new destinations – “3rd floor, northwest quadrant! 1st floor! 2nd floor, southeast quadrant! basement level 1! 4th floor, southwest quadrant!”. Faster and faster they work so that every piece will reach its appointed location, be it general lab space, shared secondary space, the BRF, the admin floor, or a technology platform.

The unloading should be completed by 6 in the morning, everything checked over and powered up. Every lab and office in the new institute will be ready for occupation by the early birds coming in to start work at 7.30am. The research gets underway, ready to fire off hot new discoveries.

So, one hundred and three-quarters years of our institute history have drawn to a close, and another era of institutional history begins. Goodbye Mill Hill, hello Brill Place.




UPDATE 12:10pm

Some of the details above were not  entirely accurate (note the date).

True: NIMR has ceased to be. It has transferred to become part of the Francis Crick Institute, as the ‘Mill Hill Laboratory’. Other Crick sites include the Lincoln’s Inn Fields Laboratory, the Clare Hall Laboratory, and the project team offices on Euston Road.

False: there was no convoy of vans at midnight. The Crick will take possession of its new building in November 2015 and the physical transfer from the laboratory sites will start soon after that, taking about 6 months to complete. The thought of doing it all in one night would probably give the migration manager apoplexy. It is a huge and complex task.

True: I was onsite today just after 7am and there certainly were early birds coming in to work. Research keeps going forward.

See the welcome video on YouTube, with some great shots of the interior of the new building.

Posted in Froth | 4 Comments

Creativity – mixing it up

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve had cause to celebrate dramatic creativity in various forms, mixed and mingled. I’ve seen one film and two musicals; two with a biographical bent and one with a (fictional) scientific bent.

Two weeks back I went to my wonderful local cinema, The Phoenix in East Finchley, to see Hockney as part of an event badged as Hockney Live from LA. The cinema (1910) is a gorgeous artwork in itself, London’s oldest running  cinema,  and it is always a treat to go there.  The programme included a screening of Randall Wright’s new film about David Hockney, followed by an interview with Hockney broadcast live from LA. I’ve mostly enjoyed what I’ve seen of Hockney’s work – The Royal Academy show in 2012 was great  – so I expected the film to be a visual feast. I was not disappointed. His life story makes a great tale (boy from Bradford makes good and ends up in LA) and he is an engaging character on screen so the 112 minutes raced past. The Director had access to Hockney’s large personal collection of photos and video material dating back many years, so this film captured a vivid flavour over several decades of the artist’s life. What a gift to the director to have such a rich visual archive at his disposal! Hockney’s paintings often feature his friends; it was interesting to be shown a painting of someone, then an old photo or video of them, followed up with a modern interview of the same person (somewhat older) talking about Hockney.

The live interview with Hockney was slightly disappointing in comparison with the film (it made me appreciate the editing skill of the filmmaker all the more), but it was good to see nevertheless. The film had shown some of Hockney’s photo collages and in the interview Hockney explained how he had taken this further, using digital photography to create ‘reverse perspective’. It was interesting but puzzling. Jonathan Jones gave the film an appreciative review in the Guardian. If you like Hockney’s work I would recommend seeing the film.

This week I saw Here Lies Love, a musical about Imelda Marcos. This was in the National Theatre’s Dorfman Theatre (previously the Cottesloe), an intimate and flexible space. Some of the audience (including me) were sat in conventional theatre seats along two sides of the space, another large group of audience were stood around downstairs – very much part of the action. There was a stage at each end of the space and mobile stages in the centre of the space. The whole setup had a disco-dancing nightclub vibe (apparently Imelda loved disco). The action took place all around the space, and was slickly done. The show told the story of Imelda’s life – another tale of poor girl makes good – she married the man who was to become President of the Philippines (Ferdinand Marcos). It uses dance and song, but also mixed in a good deal of historical video and audio material, including one shocking scene towards the end. Again the video added an extra dimension to this biographical story.

It is a very fast-paced show, with lively music (by Fatboy Slim) and very strong dramatic and vocal performances. It portrayed the glamorous side of Imelda and Marcos (“Asia’s Jackie and John”) – this is crucial to understanding the love (yes, love, or even adoration) that Marcos followers had for them both, and that some still have for Imelda. One review suggested that the show was too soft in its portrayal of Imelda, but I disagree. Her flaws (ambition, ruthlessness, vanity) were shown clearly. The actions of the Marcos regime were laid bare. The programme note recorded that during the show’s New York run some Marcos sympathisers had walked out in protest. As a spectacle, an entertainment, and a little bit of history, I thought it worked very well; as a political statement it was not quite all there. Michael Billington suggested the subject needs a more complex treatment, which I wouldn’t dispute. If you want to learn a little bit of Filipino history, and like a bit of upbeat music, give it a go.

In between these two biographical productions, I attended Mouse TRAPP.  This was an amateur production put on in the Institute’s lecture hall by our in-house dramatic society. Whilst the production values were not quite those of the National Theatre, as a dramatic construction it was superb. This musical with a scientific theme was created by one of our postdocs. It was a fictional story about a PhD student – I suppose it could be classified as some kind of Lablit. The ironic posters advertising the show made it plain to see that the writer had a fine sense of humour, so I decided to give it a shot.  I was rewarded with a display of drama, humour, pathos and joie de vivre. There were a few in-jokes, and plenty of wry observations on the nature of science and careers in science.

The stars of the show

The story is about a PhD student, Michael, and his journey through his PhD. His lab colleagues and supervisor help get him started, telling him he has to choose a gene to work on. This is the cue for a hilarious song, “Any gene will do” (sung to a familiar tune from Joseph). Michael decides to work on the TRAPP gene, which was supposed to affect intelligence. He generates a strain of mice with TRAPP constitutively expressed – this gives them ‘near-human’ intelligence. Much of the play is about his interactions with these mice, and his affection for them. Naturally the mice can talk, and they are great comic creations. The show was funny, acutely observed, and had vivid characterisation. It was a commentary on lab life and scientific careers, the life of a PhD student, the issue of animals in research, inter-generational tensions, women in science, etc etc. It was relevant, but above all, it was funny!

These three shows of different kinds each left me with a buzz, an admiration for the huge talents of their creators and the creativity displayed. Each of them also had a curious mixture of different elements which is something I love. Truly we are in the age of the mash-up, the magical commingling of different elements to produce a surprising result. Narrative alchemy.

Posted in Film, Film and music, Music | Comments Off on Creativity – mixing it up

The rules

Rules can help us get by in life – everyone agreeing to drive on the left probably reduces the accident rate on roads quite a bit. But rules have a tendency to take over, a bit like Lord Acton’s dictum on power. Sometimes it seems as though The Rules have become an end in themselves, rather than a means of managing activities more efficiently or propitiously.


Two versions of reality. I prefer Version 2.

In libraries it was once common to see long lists of rules – some of these were necessary to help preserve library materials (“No food or drink”) or to preserve a studious atmosphere for other library users (“No talking”) or just to ensure fair access (“No desk-hogging”). Some rules were a bit random but probably well-meaning (“Loans of unbound journals are limited to four days”) and some sound like scare tactics (“In the event of a book being lost or damaged, the borrower will be required to replace or restore it in good condition at his own charge”). Over the years the list of rules tended to grow longer, as rules were added in response to particular situations.

We more or less tore up our Library rules a few years back and the world has not collapsed.  I think the world might be a better place if a few more rulebooks were torn up, and paperwork reduced. A recent study in the US found:

The average U.S. doctor spends 16.6 percent of his or her working hours on non-patient-related paperwork, time that might otherwise be spent caring for patients.

One of the frustrations of of working where I do is the necessity to observe some rules that are due to our being a remote part of government. We have to abide by a very strict IT security regime that is appropriate for protecting private information in the Department of Work and Pensions, but which is not at all suitable when dealing with scientific data about protein structures.  Some of the procurement rules and recruitment rules also seem designed to be cruel and frustrating. And as for records management policies, words fail me.

I am looking forward to the day when we are no longer bound by these Whitehall-inspired rules.

But I don’t think that all rules and paperwork are bad. Some are there to encourage good behaviour or to promote cultural change.

I think that open access rules (mandates) fall into this category. They can seem to be a pain in the neck, the product of petty bureaucracy, but they are there to help improve science. One day in the not-too-distant future it will be second nature for all researchers to make their work open access. I look forward to the day when open access becomes the default mode and we start to write about non-open access research as “privately published” or some such phrase. OA mandates will help that change come about.  Supportive services, such as those provided by many University and Institute libraries, can help to hasten that day too – making it easier for researchers to comply with the rules.

Perhaps this is just self-interest, but I firmly believe that (as a rule) researchers need a helping hand when it comes to complying with open access and open data mandates.

Posted in Open Access, Research Councils | Tagged | 2 Comments

Advanced photo technology

I do love the Today programme on BBC Radio 4, but when it comes to stories about science and technology or popular culture the presenters can be exasperating. This morning John Humphrey kept calling Philae the “Mars explorer” and seemingly no-one noticed or dared to correct him.

Then he introduced an item allegedly about some new photographic technology, a “great technological breakthrough” he called it, related to taking selfies. (Listen to the clip). This was the cue for his retreat into bumbling confusion – his stock response to any technology introduced since about 1990. I was a bit surprised therefore when he announced that they were talking about selfie sticks.

I first saw them in use while on holiday in the Philippines in May this year. On our trip to the island of Corregidor (a must-see for anyone interested in the history of the second world war) another person in the tour group had a selfie stick and took countless photos of herself and her boyfriend in various poses with the historical ruins and gun emplacements.  Intrigued, we purchased one when we got back to Manila and found that it was really useful for taking photos with your camera phone – not just selfies but all kinds of things. The stick (or monopod) helps you to take photos from different angles, and to reach things in difficult positions. In short, they are great for helping to take holiday snaps.

IMAG1077_1 IMAG1076_1
The stick – unextended (left); partially extended (right).

I thought that selfie sticks were probably well-known and it was only me that hadn’t heard of them, but our friends were as intrigued as we had been when they saw the stick. It is basically a telescopic pole, with an adjustable grip at one end into which you can slot a mobile phone and then adjust the angle. Provided your phone’s camera has a timer on it then you can use the stick to take photos of yourself from a distance that doesn’t make you look scary, unlike typical selfie photos.


On the beach in Boracay, Philippines. OK, so I do look a bit scary here but that’s only because I am squinting due to the sun.

If pressed I would have guessed that the selfie stick started in the Philippines, which has a real love affair with mobile phones and communications tools. The Today programme suggested that it may have started in Indonesia and that it was somehow associated with extreme sports. A piece from March this year in the Huffington Post confirms that the sticks are very popular in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.

I’ve not looked to see if they are on sale in the UK, but you can find them on Amazon. It’s this year’s must-have Xmas stocking filler.


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Terrors transcended

On balance, I prefer laughing to crying but I am not afraid to let my tears flow. Powerful drama can do it, so can stirring music. I may cry when I recall events or times in my life when I have been sad. I can cry when I read about or watch representations of human cruelty. These things are all likely to give my tear ducts a workout. I cried when I read Schindler’s List. I cried at the end of the film Life is beautiful. I cried the first time I saw the ballet Romeo and Juliet, at the tragic denouement of the story intensified by the emotion of the music.

As a performer I struggle to contain the emotional impact I feel when I am singing music. I need to experience the emotion to help me put across the feeling in the music, but too much emotional reaction can interfere with my ability to control my voice. My choir’s next concert is a case in point. It’s a double bill featuring Michael Tippett’s A Child of our Time and a new piece of music written by James McCarthy about an extraordinary young woman whose story has just taken another extraordinary twist. Both pieces use music to tell true stories about awful events, and to point up strong messages for the world.

A few weeks ago my niece left home to start her university career in Bristol, the city where I started my own student life 38 years ago. This stirred up recollections of my time there – the feelings of terrific excitement (the freedom of life away from home!) and terror (the intellectual challenges of education). There were so many new things all happening at once. I tackled them with enthusiasm if not always success. Maths assignments were tough going, but on the home front I did carry out several successful proofs that throwing together lentils, herbs and spices into a saucepan was not a guarantee of creating something edible.

A Child of Our Time

Another challenge back then was my first encounter with Child of our Time. The Bristol University Choral Society, under the baton of Raymond Warren, rehearsed it for many weeks and performed it in concert in the spring of 1977. Prof Warren introduced us to Tippett’s dissonant and luxuriant harmonies, the expressionist pain of his storytelling and the warmth of his arrangements of the traditional spirituals that are interspersed throughout the work.

It tells the story of Herschel Grynszpan, a 17 year old Polish Jewish refugee who in November 1938 shot and killed an official in the German Embassy in Paris. It is a story of anti-semitic prejudice, oppression and exile. The story is tragic in itself but the events that followed the shooting defy description. The assassination “provided the Nazis with the pretext for the Kristallnacht, the antisemitic pogrom of 9-10 November 1938”. I visited Berlin last year, 75 years after Kristallnacht, and saw exhibitions and memorials all over the city. At first I didn’t realise what the memorial panels were – they had a name, a photo, birth and death dates and a brief life story. So many people, such a variety of interesting stories. As I read the stories the link between them became clear. All those people were murdered, executed, or disappeared.

This is the pain portrayed in Tippett’s piece – it is not just about one Polish boy. Composed between 1939 and 1941, it transcends his individual story to deliver a powerful message about all of us, and the evil that can happen if prejudice gains a hold.

Herschel Grynszpan nov 7 1938

Tippett wrote his own libretto. At the heart of the piece is a drama. He tells the bare facts of the story: how the 17 year old boy, worried about his mother back home in Poland and frustrated by official bureaucracy and prejudice, shoots and kills the official. The text is by turns narrative and poetic. We see into the mind of the boy and his family; we hear the antisemitic hatred of the people and the fears of those who are oppressed. Tippett  also gives space for wider reflections, and this is where the spirituals come in.

The first words we sing give a clue to what is coming:

The world turns on its dark side. It is winter.

A little later the chorus asks:

Is evil then good? Is reason untrue?

One of the longest choruses us aptly titled “The Terror”. It is terrifying for the choir to sing, with ugly jagged phrases and harsh violent words:

Burn down their houses. Beat in their heads. Break them in pieces on the wheel.

At the end of singing that chorus you feel disgusted with yourself. The storytelling ends, focusing on the boy:

He too is outcast, his manhood broken in the clash of powers.

But Tippett was an optimist. These words are followed by an instrumental evocation of spring, which leads into the powerful extended final chorus:

Here is no final grieving, but an abiding hope … It is spring.

In rehearsal this week our conductor, David Temple, pointed out how extraordinary it was for someone in 1941 to write such positive words and music. The soloists introduce the themes one by one, then the chorus pick them up and elaborate a little. The soloists return to sing an extended rhapsody leading to a musical singularity – a moment of infinite emotion that seems to last forever. The mood relaxes and the music eases into ‘Deep River’, the final spiritual which closes the whole piece in calm.

Back in 1976/77 when I was learning this music for the first time Raymond Warren did a great job of motivating his singers. While the spirituals are a joy to sing, and there are rapturous choruses, some of the other choruses might be described as squeaky gate music. (Richard Witts summarised Tippett’s style as ‘wild, thorny, splashy and opulent’). It was hard work and at first unrewarding. Prof Warren had started a correspondence with Tippett about our forthcoming performance and every few weeks he would read out the latest postcard he had received from the great man, including an assurance that Tippett would attend the concert. This was quite exciting.

Even better, my parents came down for the weekend to hear the concert. I couldn’t imagine what they would make of it. Their musical tastes were fairly conservative, as far as I knew, but they surprised me by expressing great enthusiasm for the work. They had lived through the war as young adults- my father in the North African campaign and my mother back in London. The horrors of the time were real for them and Tippett’s depiction of war and inhumanity bore into them in a way I could only guess at.


The other piece of music in our concert will be the first performance of Malala, by James McCarthy. It tells the story of Malala Yousafzai, the girl from the Swat valley in Pakistan who was shot in the head for insisting that all girls should have the right to go to school. This is another shocking story, with a message for humankind. The text was specially written by Bina Shah. James McCarthy wrote on his blog:

An educated mind tends to be inquisitive, doubtful, questioning, innovative, logical, playful and creative. … An educated mind, because it is questioning and doubtful, is less susceptible to brainwashing by extremists and it cannot easily be radicalised with promises of an eternal bliss in an afterlife.  As George Washington put it (in a line that Bina Shah quotes in the libretto), ‘education is the key to open the golden doors of freedom.’

James McCarthy talks about the piece in this video, which also features interviews with Bina Shah and David Temple.

If you haven’t read about Malala or seen her speak then take a look at this video of her addressing the United Nations. She is admirable: articulate and determined; calm and non-vengeful.

The text we sing in Malala describes Pakistan as

a land of ice-capped mountains and moonlit glaciers .. [with] forests of fruit trees, mulberry, pear, apricot

Malala is from Swat in Pakistan, and these words put me in mind of a trip to Pakistan I made in 2000. I visited cities, including Lahore which I loved (beautiful mosque), and the mountainous northern region of the Hunza valley. In Lahore I visited someone I had previously worked with. He was a pious Muslim, with a family of six daughters of whom he was inordinately proud. They all worked hard at school and the eldest was at University already.


Hunza was famous for its apricots and I remember the disgusting-sounding bread and apricot soup which turned out to be delicious, and the delicious-sounding mulberry spirit, which turned out to be highly intoxicating and undrinkable. The most memorable point of my trip was watching sunrise in the mountains, as the sun’s rays kissed each peak in turn, waking it up for a new day.


The story and music of Malala are very different to Child of our Time. Less drama, perhaps, and less poetry, but there is an equal passion. There are moments when I feel emotion welling up in me as the choir tells the story:

Then came the day when they told her that girls could not go to school… Malala dreamed of freedom

Her enemies said: Malala has shamed us. We’ll put a bullet in her head. How dare a girl think that she can defeat us.

At the end of the piece we join forces with a choir of 100 girls voices, to sing:

Malala set the world ablaze. And the world sang back ‘We are all Malala’

If you are free tonight (Tuesday 28 October) then come to the concert at the Barbican. You will be moved by the music and the storytelling. You may see one of the tenors in the second row with glistening eyes, wiping away a tear.  That’s me.

Posted in Music | Comments Off on Terrors transcended


I was taught as a child that if you are walking on a road that has no pavement then you should walk on the side of the road so as to face the oncoming traffic. If the cars are driving on the left, as in the UK, then you must walk on the right.  This was drummed into me as a safety thing. I think the rationale is that you will be able to see (and take action to avoid) vehicles that are coming towards the spot where you are. Walking on the same as the cars would mean that they could come up behind you, unseen.

During my recent holiday (well, it was May/June so it seems an age away now) my favourite route for a morning run was along the side of the Marikina river. There was a good path, almost a road, alongside the river. Even at 6am it was well-populated with walkers, runners and cyclists. One short stretch of it allowed motor vehicles but mostly it was car-free.

OK, so this part of the path was a bit quiet when I took this photo.

By instinct I followed my childhood rule, running on the side to ensure that I was facing oncoming traffic (bicycles). But it felt wrong.  Most of the other users of the path were walking or running, not on wheels. Should I be running on the same side as them, or the opposite side? I didn’t need to take evasive action against them. Furthermore, many of those who were on cycles were going so slowly that I was actually running faster than them. I was part of the same stream as the walkers, runners and cyclists, so I should stop seeing them as a different flow to be opposed and just join their side.

That’s a bit how it is for me at work just now. By instinct I am flowing along in the ‘old Institute’ and feel that the ‘new Institute’ is flowing on the other side of the road. We have had several years of taking guard against the opposing flow (foe). Thus the habit of talking about the new as “them” and the old as “us” has become ingrained and is hard to shake off. Partly this is because the locus of all decisions about the new Institute is outside any management structure that I am a part of. In a matter of months we will be formally incorporated into the new organisation. I need to start thinking of myself as part of the same stream as the new Institute, not walking on the other side of the road. I hope that soon I will instinctively join the flow towards the future.

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One hundred years old

Just a few years back it seemed unlikely that we would ever celebrate our centenary. We were to be rejuvenated exterminated absorbed into a new Institute.  Back in 2007 when this project was announced we expected that 2013 would be the beginning of the new, and the end of the old Institute just shy of its 100 years. But the awesome immensity of the project to design and build the Francis Crick Institute meant its opening date was pushed a little further into the future. Now it is anticipated that the official transfer of staff from NIMR to the new Institute will take place in 2015 (though physical relocation to the new building will take a bit longer). Hence, NIMR will cease to exist as an entity having reached the Adrian Mole-esque age of 100 and three-quarters.

The Centenary

I like anniversaries so I’m glad we made it to 100.  Just over three years ago I remarked to those in power that 2014 would be our 100th anniversary. A consensus quickly formed that we should mark this centenary. A variety of ideas were floated, and we prioritised three of them: a book about the history of the Institute, a film about the Institute, and a scientific symposium/celebration. These all came to fruition, though some had a more tortuous path than others.

The date of foundation of the Institute is not clear-cut. Many people assume that we started life in 1950 – when we moved into our present purpose-built accommodation in Mill Hill. Some think we began in 1920 – which is when the Institute moved into its first home at Hampstead and when it first acquired the name of National Institute for Medical Research. I have also seen the date given as 1918 – I am not sure why. There is some rationale for giving the start date as 1913, when the MRC was created and when it decided, in one of its first meetings, to create a “Central Institute”.

I examined the first annual report of the MRC, for 1914-15, in hope of finding an answer. I learnt that the MRC purchased the building in Hampstead in early 1914, and that the first Institute staff commenced MRC employment on 1 July 1914. This – the beginning of research work – seemed like a reasonable criterion for determining the first existence of the Institute, even though the staff were not housed in the Hampstead building at that time.  So we agreed to settle for 1 July 2014 as our anniversary date.

The Symposium

The speakers were a mixture of current staff and alumni, covering all areas of science from infectious disease and immunology to structural biology, developmental biology and neuroscience. I attended all the talks and  pushed out tweets for two days from the Institute Twitter account, using hashtag #100NIMR. Some talks were pitched better than others, so listening could be hard work and extracting something meaningful to tweet about was challenging for a non-specialist like me. Luckily I had help from some fellow Institute tweeters. If you really want to read all about it see the Storify for the symposium.

After the main symposium there were two further events. Julie Clayton, author of the new book on the history of the Institute, gave a talk on Institute history, and a film about the Institute made by Taslima Khan was shown.

The Book

The book about the Institute history was my main contribution to the centenary. I gave shape to the idea, I created an outline, I pushed for it to happen, I made plans, I suggested sources, I oversaw the project and was involved at all stages.  I even drafted a couple of chapters and did some editing.  I also had to make sure that the project was delivered on time, meant we had to be realistic about what we could achieve in the time available.  How we wished we could have included more material, spoken to more people, added further chapters, but that would have needed more time than we had. Our primary target audience was current and past staff of the Institute, and we wanted to deliver something that was readable and enjoyable. (See my previous post  about our thought processes in defining the book’s scope).

It was 18 months of hard work, both for the writer we engaged, Julie Clayton, and for me. We were lucky to have a summer assistant in 2013 – Sophie Hopkins – who analysed several printed sources (Annual Reports mostly) to extract lists of names, Divisions, and associated dates and affiliations. The master spreadsheets that Sophie produced, covering 100 years, proved invaluable.  My workload increased as we gradually got closer to the final form with round after round of editing and rewriting. Colleagues in the PhotoGraphics department put the book together into its final shape, and scanned the hundreds of photos that were included in the book.


I think the result is everything that we hoped it might be but a lot better than I dared hope it would be. It would have been easy to write something quite dry and factual. It would have been fun to focus on amusing anecdotes. Julie steered a careful path between these two extremes, managing to tell the institutional story alongside several human stories. She also lowered the level of technical detail so that the text would be accessible to non-specialists. Each of the 22 chapters is a good read in itself but put together they add up to a great book.

All staff have been given a copy. The book is also published online as a series of PDFs, on a special History of NIMR blog created for the purpose.  We will be adding more material there in due course. I aim to post most of the images used in the book to Wikimedia Commons.

The Film

In 1964 the BBC’s Horizon series made a film about NIMR. We wanted to make a fresh film, about the Institute in 2014, one that captured the essence of the place and the people who work there today. I grabbed this ball and ran with it for a bit, having discussions with a group of interested ex-staff including two who were in the film-making business. We thought we could make a commercially viable film, something for BBC4 say, but it became apparent that the kind of film that could be made for that market would not fit with our ambitions – just to reflect the reality of the Institute and its life. So the idea was abandoned. Disappointment was tempered with relief – I needed to focus on the book project.

However, one of the group – a past PhD student who still lived locally – held on to the idea and eventually she was given approval to make a film on her own initiative.  She interviewed various past members of staff and a few current staff, and assembled these interviews very skilfully into a coherent whole. The result was magnificent – a funny and informative and revealing film.

She is doing a little more work on the film and hopes to produce a version that can be shared more widely by the end of this year. The film is a great complement to the history book, with some overlap as well as some fresh material.

The Memory

I really enjoyed the final session of the Symposium on Wednesday afternoon, with the history talk, film, cake-cutting and party all going off splendidly. I hope that an awareness of the Institute’s past is now fixed in the minds of the present staff, and that the foundations of NIMR’s research culture and achievements are now writ large for the future.

Posted in Books, Film and music, History | Tagged | Comments Off on One hundred years old