Inspired by a recent tweet from @xmalik, three reasons to call yourself a scientist:

  1. Your qualifications. Does being qualified in science make you a scientist? And how qualified do you have to be? Is it good enough to have a high school qualification in a science subject, or do you need a university degree, or maybe a PhD is the entry point into ‘being a scientist’?
  2. Your job. Do you have to be working at increasing our understanding of the world to be a scientist? You could do this by carrying out experiments or developing theory or maybe just summarising and synthesising the experiments and theory of others. Or does communicating about science in a way that non-scientists (whoever they are…) can understand and appreciate makes you a scientist. Is a school science teacher a scientist? And what about people who worked at pushing back the frontiers once, but do a different sort of job now? Are they scientists? And if not when did they stop being scientists?
  3. Your way of thinking. Are you constantly trying to understand more about the world around you? Is the question “What is the evidence for that?” often on your lips? Do you naturally question and analyse? Do you try to extract general principles from your observations, while always being wary of generalizing too much? Is your reaction to a number often to ask “Compared to what?”?

Thinking like a scientist. That’s what makes you one…

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Publishing peer review

November 15, 2010

Peer review is the central pillar of the process of scientific research yet it remains a black box, invisible to those outside of the research community. As I have said previously, lifting this veil and making peer review of journal articles more transparent could make a big contribution to increasing trust in scientific research. A recent report [subscription required] in Nature decribes a programme to just that at the journal of the European Molecular Biology Organisation (EMBO). There is also an excellent discussion of the article by Joerg Heber on his blog.

The experience at EMBO demonstrates that:

  • Researchers seem to be happy with publishing peer review. In the case of the EMBO Journal, only 5% of authors declined to have peer review process documents published.
  • Readers of papers see a value in accessing this material. Although for this pilot study peer review process documents were made comparatively difficult to access there was a reasonable rate, about one tenth of the access of the papers themselves.
  • The process influences (and probably improves) the quality of peer review. Peer reviewers claim to be taking more care over the wording of their reports because they know that they will be published, albeit anonymously. Even if this is just about writing in a clearer way it represents a real benefit, but it may also be encouraging more considered and constructive comments.

Overall this seems to have been a really successful experiment, which is now to become a standard part of the operating procedures at this journal. Given this success it is hard to find reasons for not applying the practice to all peer reviewed research.

  1. Communicate about the process of science as well as the content [previous post]
  2. Make research outputs available to all for free [previous post]
  3. Publish negative results and unsuccessful experiments too [previous post]
  4. Publish peer review comments with research outputs. [previous post]
  5. Attach a summary for non-experts to research outputs. [previous post]
  6. Make raw data available as early as possible. [previous post]
  7. Use new technology to open research conferences to all. Research conferences play an important role in the development of science. Initial finding are presented, ideas discussed and new insights generated.  But access is restricted to those that can afford to travel to the conference and pay to register, making conferences appear closed. Technology makes is so easy to make research conferences more open, and at the simplest level all organisers need to do is publish a Twitter hash-tag. The participants then do the rest. Or why not make audio recordings available online together with slide presentations? With the help of a cheap video camera and YouTube, a video record can be published. Live streaming is a slightly more complicated option.  In the face of all these choices some conferences organisers are trying to close down rather than open up, but surely more openness can only help us all to engage with the research that matters. After all, science has nothing to hide.
  1. Communicate about the process of science as well as the content [previous post]
  2. Make research outputs available to all for free [previous post]
  3. Publish negative results and unsuccessful experiments too [previous post]
  4. Publish peer review comments with research outputs. [previous post]
  5. Attach a summary for non-experts to research outputs. [previous post]
  6. Make raw data available as early as possible. An essential feature of the scientific approach is repeating others’ work, either strengthening or calling into question their findings. To make this possible, all scientific reports are accompanied by detailed descriptions of the experimental methods used. But it has not been normal practice for researchers to make their raw data available. As science becomes more and more data rich this has to change. As well as a focus on how data has been generated, we also need to scrutinise the analysis of large and complex datasets. Re-analysis of data can reveal errors, confirm original findings and strengthen confidence, as a recent example illustrates. And the internet makes sharing data simple and almost cost free.
  7. Use new technology to open research conferences to all
  1. Communicate about the process of science as well as the content [previous post]
  2. Make research outputs available to all for free [previous post]
  3. Publish negative results and unsuccessful experiments too [previous post]
  4. Publish peer review comments with research outputs. [previous post]
  5. Attach a summary for non-experts to research outputs. Science is becoming more and more specialised, so even scientists in related disciplines can find it challenging understand work that isn’t directly in their field. The challenges that people without a scientific background face are even greater, so scientific research appears remote. If every piece of research had a short clear summary written in non-technical language it would help everyone be clear about its implications.
  6. Make raw data available as early as possible
  7. Use new technology to open research conferences to all
  1. Communicate about the process of science as well as the content [previous post]
  2. Make research outputs available to all for free [previous post]
  3. Publish negative results and unsuccessful experiments too [previous post]
  4. Publish peer review comments with research outputs. Peer review is a central process in science for maintaining quality. Peer review takes many forms, both formal and informal, but a key stage is the peer review of scientific outputs. But this process is not transparent, even to those within the subject. Often the anonymous peer reviewers make a major contribution to the content of papers adding extra weight to the robustness of the findings. This could be made more apparent if peer review comments were published, and it was made clear how the paper evolved in response to those comments.
  5. Attach a summary for non-experts to research outputs
  6. Make raw data available as early as possible
  7. Use new technology to open research conferences to all
  1. Communicate about the process of science as well as the content [previous post]
  2. Make research outputs available to all for free [previous post]
  3. Publish negative results and unsuccessful experiments too. Sherlock Holmes knew that dogs that don’t bark can be as important as those that do. Science progresses as much through negative results as through positive, but it can be hard to get negative results published. This means that those outside of science are only able to see part of the picture. And it can also lead to duplication of effort by scientists themselves, testing ideas that have already been shown to be false.
  4. Publish peer review comments with research outputs
  5. Attach a summary for non-experts to research outputs
  6. Make raw data available as early as possible
  7. Use new technology to open research conferences to all
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