Letter to Editor

Dear Journal Editor,

Thank you for the invitation to review a paper for your publication. I would be happy to do this. I have just one condition.

I love reviewing, I really do. I love the feeling of being among the first to see new results, and I relish the opportunity to help improve and refine a paper so that it makes the best contribution possible. I also think I’m quite good at it. I have amassed 30-odd years of scientific experience and I have an instinct for results that are real, findings that are really (as opposed to statistically) significant, hypotheses that have been validly tested, and conclusions that follow logically and plausibly from the findings. I have a nose for good writing and a distaste for woffle. I think I add value to a paper, and thus to your journal, by suggesting clarity, or new analyses, or even (in some cases) new experiments and computational models. I take my time reviewing and I do it carefully.

Here’s the thing, though. I am really, really busy. Eye-bleedingly busy – running a lab, a department, and (I almost forgot) a family. I read the papers that I’m reviewing in snatched moments between other tasks – on trains, planes and automobiles, in cafes and pubs, in bed when the kids are asleep, in meetings. I almost always read them electronically and on the move, not sitting in my office with my feet propped on my desk, smoking a pipe and idly browsing a pile of paper pages. This is not 1950.

So here’s my condition. I will review your paper for you if you do one thing for me, and that is NUMBER THE FIGURES AND PUT THE LEGENDS BESIDE THEM, SO THAT I DON’T HAVE TO KEEP SCROLLING BACK AND FORTH THROUGH THE PDF!!!

We have had electronic manuscripts for 20 years and more, and yet your manuscripts are still formatted as they were in 1950. You have done many things to make publishing easier but nothing, as far as I can see, to make reviewing easier.  It will only take you 5 minutes to organise the pdf to be read comfortably on a screen, and will save me much time and hassle, for which I will reward you, I promise, with a thoughtful and considered review drawn from the deepest well of my insights and years of experience.

Thank you.

With best wishes,

Kate Jeffery

PS It would be really really great if you could also actually put the figures in the text where they belong – but baby steps…

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Assessing scientists – a crowdsourcing approach?

As the REF draws closer, there are ongoing debates about how we assess scientists and their merits. Such assessments are critical for hiring and promotion  and we are all in agreement that the current system, by which scientists are assessed by the impact factor of the journals they publish in, is not suitable, for reasons outlined by Stephen Curry and picked up again recently by Athene Donald.

Since I’ve been involved quite a bit recently in promotions and hiring, I’ve thought about this a lot. The problem is that we are trying to measure something intangible, and impact factor is the only number we have available – so naturally we use it, even though we all know it’s rubbish.

OK so here’s an alternative idea. It’s totally off the top of my head and thus doubtless deeply flawed but any ideas are better than none, right? And the impact factor discussion, at least in the last few months, has been remarkably devoid of new ideas.

The reason we don’t like impact factors is that we feel they are missing the essence of what makes a good scientist. We all know people who we think are excellent scientists but who, for whatever reason, don’t publish in high impact journals, or don’t publish frequently, or aren’t very highly cited, or whatever. But we trust our judgement because we believe (rightly or wrongly) that our complex minds can assimilate far more information, including factors like how careful is the person in their experiments, how novel are their ideas, how elegant are their experimental designs, how technically challenging their methods etc etc etc – none of which is reflected in the no. or impact factor of their publications.

My idea is that we crowdsource this wisdom and engage is a mass rating exercise where scientists simply judge each other based on their own subjective assessment of merit. Let’s say every two years, or every five years, every scientist in the land is sent the name of (say) 30 scientists in a related area, and are simply asked to rank them, in two lists: (1) How good a scientist do you think this person is, and (2) How important is the contribution you think they have made to the field to date. Each scientist is thus ranked 30 times by their peers, and they get a score equal to the sum or average of those 30 ranks. A scientist who made the top of all 30 lists would be truly outstanding, and one who was at the bottom of all 30 probably unemployable. Then institutions could choose to decide where to draw the boundaries for hiring, promotion etc.

This would all be done in confidence, of course. And a scientist’s own rank wouldn’t be released until they had submitted their ranking of the others. It would be relatively low cost in terms of time, and because specialists would be ranking people in a related area, they would be better placed to make judgements than, say, a hiring committee. In a way it is like turning every scientist into a mini REF panel.

Comments on this idea, or indeed better ideas, welcome.

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Groupthink, bean-counting and the REF

When I was a medical student we were encouraged to conduct vaginal examinations on anaesthetized gynaecological patients, so that we could learn how to examine the reproductive system in a relaxed setting. The women did not know this was going to happen to them during their surgery, and did not sign any consent forms. Probably they would not have minded anyway (they were asleep after all, and educating the next generation of doctors is undoubtedly a good cause) but the possibility that they should be asked if they did mind did not occur to anybody, until my ultra-feminist friend kicked up a stink and organised a rebellion. The surgeons were genuinely surprised and mystified. Being well-meaning, it had not occurred to them that some people might see what they were doing as wrong.

Fast-forward a few years to the Alder Hey scandal, in which it emerged that doctors at a children’s hospital had been retaining the organs of dead children for post mortem examination, without the parents’ consent (or, in some cases, despite the parents’ withholding of consent). While the scale of the Alder Hey operations was beyond anything anywhere else, the practice of retaining postmortem issue for examination was widespread at the time and I have no doubt that the doctors involved were very surprised by the intensity of the public reaction. Being well-meaning, it had not occurred to them that some people might see what they were doing as wrong.

The fact is, professions are not very good at self-regulation, and when left to themselves they can develop bizarre practices that seem quite fine to them. This is because like all social groups, they fall foul of what Orwell termed groupthink – the tendency of groups of people to start to think more like each other than like society at large. Groupthink promotes into social cohesiveness, but if a group is not grounded to reality it can drift off into the wild blue yonder. As time passes we as a society have become more aware of this, and increasingly reluctant to allow professions to completely self-regulate. In just a few days’ time, for example, we will learn the outcome of the Leveson enquiry, in which press self-regulation has come under intense scrutiny due to the groupthink practice of phone-hacking that spread like a cancer through some sections of the press.

Which brings us of course to science. Science is very much a self-regulating profession, both in the way research is conducted and in the way the products of that research are taught to the next generation. We have been pretty much left to ourselves to get on with it, and have by and large been very successful, having invented the scientific method and peer review – both profoundly important contributions to knowledge-gathering. Recently, however, scientists have received a number of challenges to their internally-widely-accepted practices. The taxpayer has started to wonder  for example, why it has been considered OK for them to fund research but then not be able to access the results of that research, hence the “academic spring” and the open-access movement, which is rapidly (and unsettlingly, to some) transforming scientific publishing. The taxpayer has also started to wonder if the science they are paying for is any good. How would we know? “Don’t worry”, scientists have been saying “we have internal checks and balances and although these might seem opaque from the outside, you can trust us. We are scientists after all, and well-meaning”.

The taxpayer is not so easily fooled any more, however, and has demanded accountability. Hence the REF – the “Research Excellence Framework” – in which academics (all academics – not just scientists) have to come out of their lairs and present their best work to be judged. The REF is a gruelling administrative process that has been derided as a bean-counting exercise by some (e.g., Jenny Rohn in the Guardian) but the fact is, someone has to count the beans, otherwise we don’t know that beans are actually being produced.

I could write another whole post, an probably will sometime, about what a flawed process the REF is. We are trying to measure quality, which is something almost impossible to define and measure, but define and measure it we must. Hopefully as the years go by, our measures of academic output will become better, just as our climate models have slowly become better as we figure out what to measure. But I’m afraid the REF, or its descendants, will never go away. And nor should it. Being well-meaning, we academics need to acknowledge groupthink and recognise that we aren’t the best people to judge the quality of our own practices.

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About me

I’ve finally decided to take the plunge and start a blog. I have no idea what will be in it, and no idea who (if anyone) will ever read it, but there has been a lot of discussion in the blogoshpere recently (e.g., here) about women scientists really ought to blog more (because they have so much, you know, free time) so I thought what the heck, it’s now or never.

Not really knowing where to begin, I thought I would start with a little bit about who I am. My name is Kate Jeffery and at this particular point in time I am a professor at UCL and my field of study is behavioural neuroscience – how the brain creates thought, basically. I have a behavioural physiology lab in which we study the action of neurons as animals learn about space, and we’re trying to figure out how the raw sensory mishmash of signals that comes in through the eyes, ears, nose etc is turned into what is effectively a “map” of space in the brain.  I am also head of the department within which my lab is situated. It’s called CPB which is short for “Cognitive, Perceptual and Brain Sciences” but since nobody, including me, can ever remember this we just call it CPB. This is to distinguish it from CDB – Cell and Developmental Biology – which is a quite different department in UCL. UCL has some nomenclature issues sometimes. Indeed the name of the whole institution – University College London (no “of” in there anywhere, note) – could do with a re-think, but that’s for another time.

Sometimes I am briefly amazed at where I am now because in my head I am still a 25 year old wondering what to do with her life and how to get to where she wants (wanted) to be, which was to be a scientist. Back when I was 25, that seemed almost impossible. Armed with a medical degree, which I had earned in my home country of New Zealand, I had come to London to find myself, as many young New Zealanders do (we call it “OE” – Overseas Experience – and it’s a rite of passage for young kiwis) and had found myself working in a variety of hospitals in London, which was a particularly grim experience back in the days before the working time directive. The long weekends where you checked in at 8 am on Friday and didn’t come out again until 5 pm on Monday, potentially with little sleep in between, are etched into my soul, and doubtless contributed to my certainty that whatever I wanted to be, it definitely wasn’t a doctor. In any case, I had always wanted to be a scientist – medicine was just a detour I took because I thought (probably sensibly) that being a scientist in tiny little New Zealand was not going to earn me a proper crust, or possibly any crust. Medicine seemed like a handy fall-back position.

During that year in London I read a lot and thought a lot and became increasingly certain that I wanted to study the brain. I had been very influenced by Douglas Hofstadter’s masterpiece Godel Escher Bach, which I had read the previous summer while hitchhiking round NZ’s South Island with my flatmate. This book is about meaning, essentially, and I decided that the question of how neurons encode meaning was the most interesting scientific question of the time (I still believe this). However, the path from being a sleep-deprived house officer on the AIDS ward in St Stephen’s Hospital to being a brain scientist was not a straightforward one. I didn’t have any idea how to go about it, and it turned out to be a circuitous route, back to NZ to study for a master’s with Cliff Abraham where I learned about synapses and their capacity to change their strength, then to Edinburgh with Richard Morris where I learned how these new connections might support memory, and finally to London. Here, I found myself in the lab of John O’Keefe, the discoverer of place cells, which are possibly the first neurons to be found in the brain that encode “meaning” as you and I understand it. This was where I wanted to be, and place cells were what I wanted to study, and here I still am and there they still are.

It was not entirely coincidental that I ended up in O’Keefe’s lab. During my year in London I had gone to visit him, on the advice of Cliff Abraham. God knows what he thought of me, fronting up with my spiky hair, dyed orange from a henna experiment gone wrong (not the first of many failed experiments) and Doc Martens. I turned up in his office nervous, being completely awed by the grandeur of UCL and the musty corridors of the old Anatomy Department, and with nothing really to say other than “I want to find out how the brain works”. I didn’t know anything about place cells but something about me must have convinced him I was keen to learn, because he offered me a postdoc several years later and that’s how I came to UCL.

That’s about it really. My nervous young punkette self would be pretty amazed to see that I have become head of a department within that same scary hallowed institution – it just goes to show that stuff can happen, if you are dogged and determined enough. Along the way I also met my husband and had three children, so it has been a busy 25 years. My Nobel prize still eludes me, sadly, but I figure I have maybe another 25 years (I’m generally an optimist) to sort that out. I still think the brain is the most amazing thing in the universe and it is a real privilege and honour to able to study it. As Niels Bohr almost said, “A neuroscientist is a neuron’s way of looking at itself”. I hope to keep looking for a while yet.

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