An example of progressive peer-review in a scientific journal

Almost all scientific papers are peer-reviewed.  This means (typically) that between one and three researchers from the same field as the paper’s topic offer (sometimes constructive) criticism and a judgement as to whether or not the paper merits publication.  There is a strange ritual to it, whereby the authors submit, the reviewers critique, then the authors rebut or acquiesce to the reviewers’ demands, while the editor acts as ringmaster and makes the final decision.  The main problems are that (i) there is a lack of dialogue (you only get a very small number of opportunities to engage), and (ii) your manuscript is in the hands of a very small number of reviewers with their own particular foibles and hobby horses.

A solution to this is to have either (i) open pre-publication peer-review, or (ii) open post-publication peer-review.  This means that the paper is discussed by more people and in a medium which encourages dialogue, such as a blog comments section.  Even better, each element of the dialogue can feature as a subsection of the paper itself, making each section citable in its own right.  This encourages reviewers and commenters alike to produce high-quality criticisms and has been implemented in some journals. Here’s an example of the process in action in a particularly controversial climate paper at Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics:

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This is certainly the way forward for open science.

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One quick trick to increase visibility and citations of research papers

digitization-of-library-3068971_640Since I’m “young” (whatever that means) I sometimes get asked to advise on how to disseminate research outputs through new-fangled doohickies like “the social media” (like writing click-baity headlines). This came up in a School Management Group meeting today, in the context of trying to increase visibility and citation rates for papers published by our faculty. It was something that I was quite interested in, so I spent about an hour doing some quick literature searches and then implementing some of what I found. Here’s the gist:Read More »

Tweeting over the Great Firewall

Wow, six months without a post is the longest I have neglected the blog for a while! I’ve got a couple of posts to write now that the summer is over, but I thought I would start with something that was a bit of a challenge for me over the summer. I spent a couple of weeks in Beijing in August, including five days attending the International Congress on Ecology (INTECOL). Usually, I like to try to promote the work that is going on at conferences and contribute to the general online science community by live-tweeting. The only trouble is that in China Twitter is banned… I came up with two solutions:

Solution 1: VPN

I used a virtual private network to bypass the firewall. That worked pretty well, and while VyperVPN cost about $12 for a month it gave me regular access to the web for the duration of my stay in China. Not bad value. However, part of my reason for going to China in the first place was to exchange ideas with Chinese researchers, and that’s tough if they can’t see what you are tweeting.

Solution 2: Weibo

My second solution, then, was to take to Chinese social media to try to communicate. There is a fair amount of guidance on Twitter and conferences, but I couldn’t find anything on Weibo and conferences. Also, Weibo is very much Chinese (as opposed to global) and so there wasn’t much hope of me communicating in the local language. Still, I tried my best and punted most of my first day of tweets (in English, unfortunately, and one as an experiment in Chinese via Google Translate) out through Weibo as well.

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The results were not that surprising…  I got a bit of interest on the Twitter feed (interestingly, many many bot accounts, which has never happened before), but very little on the Weibo feed. In fact, I got absolutely no interaction whatsoever. The Twitter feed was completely out of sync with the rest of the planet (or so it seemed), but at least a few people both saw and understood them!

So, what I learned here is that social media is tough to crack in China, even when trying to use local tools. It’s also tough to sign up for Weibo because the authentication uses Chinese mobile phone numbers… Aside from that, the hashtags are a little different (note the “#” at the beginning as well as the end of the hashtag above) and I really never got to grips with finding profiles of people who might be interested and trying to add them to “Weibos”. Has anybody else had any success? Are there academics using both Weibo and Twitter in their social media arsenal?

PS: If you are interested, here’s a quick run down of the conference via my tweets and another from another attendee.

Update on Community Collaborative Impact

A few months ago I wrote a short blog post about “Community Collaborative Science” as a model for impactful teaching and research in UK universities. As I mentioned back then, this kind of “service learning” is a core part of the curriculum in many US universities, but has not taken off in quite the same way in the UK. I was discussing the idea with my partner and we ended up putting together a pitch for a NESTA seed grant. The grant would have been used to build the system and pilot a few projects through an online collaborative workspace. Here’s the pitch:

Unfortunately, the pitch wasn’t successful, but there seem to be other people thinking along similar lines. If you are interested in this kind of topic then please do drop me a line and we can discuss this in more detail.

Who are “Adjacent Government”?

Having just given a talk on science communication and the merits of public engagement to a group of undergraduate students, I was delighted to receive a phone call out of the blue from someone asking me to write about my research for “Adjacent Government Main Document”. The gentleman who called (and who spoke with a delightfully posh English accent) assured me that it was read by 145,000 key decision makers, politicians, and research councils, with a >30% read rate on their email and 28,000 views of each email in the previous issue. I was informed that Miguel Cañete, the EU Commissioner for Climate Action, had specifically requested a piece to go opposite his editorial on climate, to highlight “climate change impacts nature’s mimicry system research”. That sounds a bit strange, I thought, but fine – the EU had just published a short piece on my work (which they fund) and so I figured this was some sort of follow-up. I was asked if I could provide 1,000 words by 10th January 2017 for inclusion in a later issue. I said “yes” – I can eat 1,000 words for breakfast! Then I was informed that this was wonderful and that all that was left was to negotiate the fee. There was discussion of fees in the £1000s, and possible discounts. A bargain!Read More »

Can you recognise individual dragonflies from their faces?

bug-189906_1920Dragonflies are beautiful, alien-looking animals. They have bits that move and bend in ways that you wouldn’t expect, enormous eyes, and intricately patterned wings. I have written about the hydraulic gill system of dragonfly larvae, which powers both their jet propulsion and their “mask” that grabs prey. Meanwhile, dragonfly adults have basket-like legs to ensnare prey, as well as flexible abdomens which they use to form mating “hearts”. I’ve been interested in why dragonflies look the way they do, and that that means for their evolution, for a number of years.

I was intrigued, therefore, to read a paper that described how a pair of scientists had been able to tell dragonflies apart just by looking at the markings on their bodies. I do not remember how I first came across it, but the work is described in this German paper published in 2009 in the journal Entomo Helvetica by Schneider and Wildermuth*. The paper described a population of the southern hawker (Aeshna cyanea) in which a substantial number of animals could be identified from their facial markings. The paper is not creative commons so I can’t share the document, but you can see for yourself if you download the manuscript from the public link above and look at Figure 2 (it’s worth it – the pictures are stunning!). The title of the paper translates as “Dragonflies as individuals: the example of Aeshna cyanea“. So why might these markings occur?

There are lots of reasons why it might be advantageous for animals to be able to identify individuals. You might be trying to identify mates of high quality to increase your chances of reproduction. Many social animals (including humans, but also ants, meerkats, and molerats) distinguish relatives from non-relatives or friend from foe using sight or smell. Many theories of how cooperation evolved rely on animals having repeated interactions with one another, and remembering who has scratched whose back so that the favour can be repaid in the future. However, none of this applies to dragonflies. Dragonflies rarely have any structure to their mating (it’s usually first-come-first-served, and a mad scramble if many males are involved), they are not social (while they live in groups they do not necessarily act together), and they do not cooperate (apart from mobbing of predators such as hawks, but that’s probably not true cooperation).

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A spandrel Photo by Maria Schnitzmeier, CC-BY-SA, http://bit.ly/2czvygt

More likely what we are seeing is not the evolution of a trait, but the by-product of another trait. In a provocative article written in 1979, Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin wrote about this idea**: that some things we observe in nature are not the product of evolution directly, but occur as a result of some adaptation. Gould and Lewontin gave the example of “spandrels” from Rennaisance architecture. Spandrels (like the example on the right, from the Basilica de San Marco in Venice) were the accidental byproduct of the way that arches were designed – a small curved area was left in the corner of the arch, and this was often filled with artistic renderings. However, the spandrel itself was never the focus of the design.

In the case of dragonfly faces, the same is likely true. Dark patches on insects are usually caused by a substance called “melanin” (which is the same pigment that produces darker skin in humans). Melanin is involved when insects fight off infections or heal injuries. It is most likely that the patterns on the faces of the dragonflies are due to some kind of damage, perhaps during emergence from the water, or perhaps as a result of conflict between territorial individuals. What is most interesting, though, is that Schneider and Wildermuth seem to have found a population in Switzerland that has an unusually high number of animals with such markings. When I went to Flickr to look through other photographs of this species, I found very very few examples. Below is a gallery of some of the creative commons photos, and there are many more if you go to Flickr yourself and search for “aeshna cyanea”.

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That’s not to say there are no other examples. See here and here for examples of the markings in other photographs (but note that many of the most striking examples are taken by the same photographer).

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Photo by Zak Mitchell.

The researchers who published the original paper offered an interesting addition to the literature on understanding individual insects. Usually, we do this by marking the animals (with dragonflies you can write on their wings, for instance, as you can see on the right) or more recently by attaching radio transmitters. There are some species that use natural markings to identify individual animals, including work on whales, dolphins, and killer whales. The technique is also used for some amphibians where the underside of the animals is often mottled in unique ways. However, given the fact that the markings are not always present, that we don’t know how long they last, and that the method requires some very specific (and challenging!) photography, it is unlikely that this particular method will be used widely in insect ecology. Instead, the study highlights an interesting example of unexplained variation in dragonflies, which deserves more study in its own right.

References

*Schneider, B. and Wildermuth, H. (2009) Libellen als Individuen – zum Beispiel Aeshna cyanea (Odonata: Aeshnidae), Entomo Helvetica, 2: 185-199.

*Gould, S.J. and Lewontin, R.C. (1979) The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme” Proc. Roy. Soc. London B, 205: 581–598