Earlier this week, I attended the BBSRC Eastbio Annual Symposium, a meeting for PhD students funded by the BBSRC’s doctoral training programme. The theme of this year’s meeting was ‘Making an Impact’. Alongside one or two talks on the REF impact of ‘spinning out’ scientific businesses that I found utterly, soul-crushingly devoid of anything honourable, there were a number of great talks on the value of public engagement.

Of these, the talk I enjoyed most was given by Dr Jan Barfoot of EuroStemCell, who spoke about the huge number of ways in which researchers can engage the public in their work. Amidst the extraverted commotion about bright clubs and elevator pitches that had permeated the rest of the symposium, I took comfort from Jan’s acknowledgement of the other ways in which people like me might want to communicate with those who might find their work interesting. As has been explored in great depth in Susan Cain’s book Quiet, there are quite a few people, 33-50% of the population, who find the idea of networking, public speaking and generally ‘putting yourself out there’ lies somewhere along the continuum of unpleasant to terrifying. This minority of introverts is well represented in academia, though sadly for me, not well represented enough to have done away with oral presentations, conference socials and the idea that there’s something wrong with you if you don’t enjoy talking about our work to people who might not give a shit.

Jan’s talk got me thinking about the public engagement I do. In doing so I realised that the majority of the activities I’ve been involved with since my arrival at St Andrews have been written (have I mentioned that I don’t enjoy giving talks?)  writing these public engagement pieces has almost always been made much easier by my experience of writing posts for this blog (maybe some of the more popular blog posts I have written even count as public engagement). I generally write these posts with a scientifically clued-up, but non-specialist audience in mind – PhD students, researchers in other fields, interested members of the public – most of whom I expect will have stumbled across this site via Google. As I’ve practiced writing for this audience a fair amount, I find it relatively easy to switch into this mode when asked to write bits for the St Andrews Campaign magazine (see below) or the Development blog. As lame as it sounds to those who crave the rush of applause and laughter, blogging is my bright club.

St Andrews Campaign Magazine: University Sport
St Andrews Campaign Magazine: University Sport

Of course it takes time and commitment  to keep it up (no-one thinks much of a one-post “Hello World” blog) but I didn’t say it was easier than other forms of public engagement. It’s just a better format for me. Considering the investment of time it requires alongside the real benefits it can have, it’s a shame when other researchers dismiss blogging as less meaningful than the engagement work they do. Something which happens all to often. Consequently, I always feel guilty when writing posts for it during work hours. Why should this be the case? I wouldn’t feel bad about practicing a public engagement talk or meeting a community of patients for whom my research is relevant, so why the self-flagellation over writing? No doubt, this perception will be further reinforced when REF Impact Statements are circulated across departments across the UK, with blogging being written up as just something that all academics in all research groups do, probably under the misapprehension that a PURE research profile like this counts as a blog. This does a real disservice to those whose blogs often act as a first source of information for those googling something they’ve just heard about on the news, or those whose blogs help raise and maintain the profiles of the universities at which they work.

If you want to blog, do it. You’ll write better and one way or another you’ll probably get asked to write in a more formal capacity for the organisation you work for. Just don’t expect to be promoted, or even appreciated, because of it.

The blog is making a relatively straightforward transition from wordpress.com to a self-hosted wordpress.org installation.

As the akiraoconnor.org domain is coming with me there has been very little disruption to Google indexing, which send most traffic to the site. However, RSS feeds and WordPress.com’s Follow function on this akiraoconnor.wordpress.com website will no longer point to anything that will be updated in future.

RSS – I am switching to the following RSS feed for the .org installation: http://feeds.feedburner.com/OCML. This should be working right now.

Email subscription – I won’t be coming up with an immediate replacement for WordPress.com Follow. I’m sorry if this was how you stayed up to date with the blog.

Image via Wikipedia

Clare Rathbone, a memory researcher at Oxford Brookes, recently sent me the following Unsolicited Advice article by Julianne Dalcanton on how to navigate the early stages of writing a grant proposal:

Discover Magazine Blog: http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/2012/01/24/unsolicited-advice-xiii-how-to-craft-a-well-argued-proposal/

In the blog, Dalcanton suggests a method for a) overcoming the scary blank-page and b) vetting grant proposal ideas at the earliest possible stage. as follows:

…I start a stupid ASCII file with two sections:

  1. Selling Points
  2. Potential Weaknesses to Shore Up

I then start filling out each with short bullet points listing every possible argument for or against what I’m proposing.

Dalcanton suggests working on this ascii file for half a day or so and then doing something that would never have crossed my mind – sending it to the experts and collaborators from whom you might normally solicit feedback at a much later stage.

Get their feedback about what they think the strongest selling points are, what their additional concerns are, and what arguments they would use to shore up weaknesses. Expand the file accordingly, so you have a record of everything that you think needs to go into the proposal. You’ll probably find that it’s a huge time savings to get this to your collaborators in this form, before you have a 10 page latex file with embedded figures.

This is brilliant. You seek feedback on the core idea, so you don’t have to write proposals that simply won’t appeal to reviewers. Now it’s obvious that this is what I should be trying to do with grant proposal ideas anyway, but the ascii file provides a way of seeking peer-review at this early stage and overcoming the myopic optimism can all to easily cloud judgement and drive a great deal of personal investment in an idea that simply won’t fly.

Having experimented with prezi a fair amount recently, I’ve been looking at ways to showcase the output on this blog, hosted on wordpress.com.  Pasting the standard embed code into the ‘HTML editor’ just results in a garbled mess of html code being displayed on the blog post, so I searched for and found a way of doing this successfully.

The prezi community provides the answer below:

Here are the instructions from bookbagdesigner, posted in January 2011.

It can take a while to find the appropriate bit of the embed code described in step 2.  But once you’ve found it, steps 3 and 4 are straightforward and the results are a success.

Blogs have an important role to play in making science accessible and fun.  We’re used to seeing blogs used to highlight and wax lyrical about interesting findings, disseminate critical scientific thought, and pass judgement on good and bad practice.  They provide a quick and easy way of making editorial-style scientific commentary available to anyone with a passing interest, without the need for a subscription to a journal or for membership of a professional body. What we’re not used to seeing is the primary publication of data through blogs.  Why not?

On the face of it, blogs would seem to be a perfect publication medium.  By choosing to publish my data on my blog:
1) I can cut out the delays that plague the publication process;
2) I can make my research accessible to everyone who is interested;
3) and they won’t need to pay a penny for it;
4) I can start a genuine comment-driven dialogue with interested readers;
5) I can bypass that pesky peer-review process;
6) and I can even eliminate the (sometimes outrageous) cost of publication.
Even if I’d rather stick with the tried-and-tested journals for my multi-experiment masterpieces, there must be preliminary data dissemination niche that blogs can fill.  It’s surely only a matter of time before I start publishing my exciting new data on this blog, isn’t it?

I don’t think so.  Here’s why:

1) Journals are beginning to recognise the frustration felt over publication delays.  At the moment, delays are an inherent part of scientific publication for print.  Yes, these delays slow the process down, but they are becoming less of a problem as journals move towards making digital content available from the ‘in-press’ stage.  Of course this doesn’t eliminate the 18 months it took to get the first reviews back, collect the additional data, resubmit, get the second review back, think about how to answer two of the main criticisms and deflect the third without causing offence, submit your third draft, etc. but that’s a problem with peer-review (see point 5 below), not the publication medium itself.

2) Most research isn’t interesting to the non-specialist – that’s why it’s so hard to get published in Nature, Science or even Psychological Science.  We may all believe that our research is directly relevant to the general public,we may even have to assert that in order to obtain grant-funding and excel in academic assessment exercises like th REF, but for most people, even eventual users of the fruit of your scientific loins, this relevance is generally a few steps away from being engaging to read about in its methodological minutiae.  If you don’t need to make your research easy to find for those with only a passing interest, then you may as well make it easy to find for those with a vested interest, such as those who also spend their lives researching the same thing as you.  It is here that the efficiency of a journal as a news aggregator kicks in.  Rather than check hundreds of blogs a day, I can set up RSS feeds for only a few tables of contents and I’m done.

3) Open Access journals are a game-changer.  Journals are masters of the paywall.  This is a serious issue hampering the scientist’s obligation to make his or her work available to the public.  But it seems like this is on the verge of changing.  In the U.S., federally funded research is more accessible to the general public than it used to be, regardless of the journal in which it is published.  Perhaps in tandem with this mandate for public accessibility, Open Access journals are gaining momentum for a number of reasons: the transparency of their review process; the 21st century supplementary data they allow you to upload; and, of course, the ‘open access’ they offer to the science they publish.  The cost of open access publishing is usually shouldered by the publishing scientist, but at least it’s only shouldered once, not every time the science is disseminated as is the case with closed access journals.

4) If the net has an opinion on your work, it will comment on it.  There is usually no official, internet-based, comment-driven dialogue with readers when articles are published in traditional journals.  Whilst internet comments sometimes display humanity at its most idiotic, they are a part of the way the internet operates and lacking in traditional scientific publication.  I am sure that that as the scientific community settles on a standard method of obtaining information about recently published articles online (e.g. through RSS feeds or sites such as academia.edu) a method of commenting that meets the needs of scientists will evolve.  I’m already seeing scientific articles highlighted in the Explore section of my Google Reader RSS aggregator (they’re usually way off the mark, but at least they’re popping up), and with Google desperate to get in on the social web I don’t think it will be long before scientific abstracts are presented to us in such a way that they afford comments, whether they are wanted or not.  In the meantime, I recently discovered that if people find your work interesting, they will find ways to get hold of it and write about it online in a way that is much more comment friendly.

5) Peer review isn’t perfect, but it’s the best we have.  As far as scientific scrutiny goes it’s also better than editorial review in newspapers or journals, and beats no reviewer whatsoever (the sort of review I subject my writing to when I publish it on this blog).  Plenty has been written about this and it is a a contentious topic, but I’m happy with the process as long as there isn’t any systematic bias in the way in which articles are reviewed by my peers.

6) Low-traffic blogs are free, journals are not – this is the only point on which blogs beat journals.  Journals need to choose whether they are going to charge to publish your work, or for access to your work – the double-dipping they currently engage in is unacceptable.  With open access gaining popularity, I’m fairly certain that journals will start charging more for the privilege of providing them with content (without which they would fold within a matter or months) and less for providing it thereafter – they’ll probably make exactly as much money when they switch over to fully open access as they do now.  Even so, there is an argument to be made that journals do provide value for money, for the scientist at least.  As an example, imaging research doesn’t happen unless you have a grant.  If you have a grant, then the exorbitant cost of publication is shouldered by the funding body, not you.  Behavioural journals don’t tend to charge anywhere near as much for publication and these costs could potentially be funded by your employer.  In both of these situations, if you have been able to conduct my research, you should be able to publish it in a journal your data and/or writing are good enough.  Of course, I would love it if the NIH decided they wanted to challenge publishers on their costs, and as they are the ones being fleeced (directly at least) – but taking this passive position leaves me rather uneasy.

Feel free to have your say in the comments below as I’m sure there are many issues I’ve glossed over or missed altogether.

It has been a busy and exciting few weeks, but I’m now ready to get back to business and do some research!

By way of re-introducing myself to my own blog (and the blogs of others), here’s a nice blog-post by Tal Yarkoni of [citation needed] on the common practice of  data-peeking.  It should make you think twice about taking a peek at the data half-way through data collection, though I’m not sure whether researchers really are as systematic in their peeking as Tal suggests in his worst-case scenario.  I’m sure that Tal would argue it doesn’t matter how systematic you are, once you peek, you know, and this necessarily changes your approach to the data.