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[Me]

Touring Britain bit by bit with a pair of boots, a few bicycles, a lot of trains and a bag of lenses. I take pictures and then I write about them.

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Sat, 16 Aug 2008

Peer review in the dock

An updated version of this post is available at Journalology.

A few thoughts on Peer Review In The Dock (this evening, Radio 4) [Note: posted late due to ongoing database issues -- will move to a new host when I get the time.]

  1. Nobody has ever questioned whether peer review is really needed: wrong. A lot of people have questioned this, and many experiments have been tried. The most prominent recent example is probably PLoS ONE (no reference to this in the programme). They very rapidly discovered that, yes, a minimum standard is peer review is required when running a journal. Perhaps moving to a non-review model is like communism: you need to have world revolution for it to have any chance of working; going it alone will just lead to your own collapse.
  2. Peer-reviewers aren't trained: somewhat misleading. Reviewers, at least in the publishing model that I am familiar with, are actively publishing research scientists of at least medium seniority. Most will, while pursuing their doctorates, have participated in "journal clubs" (where the grad students get together to shred a published paper), and many will also have co-reviewed manuscripts alongside their supervisors (not strictly allowed, but very widespread). What all students certainly are trained to do, even at undergraduate level, is not to take the truth of published work for granted, and to watch for potential flaws. To teach science is to teach scepticism. Which brings me on to the next point...
  3. Reviewers aren't all that great at spotting errors: so what? Academics and publishers know this. The system is designed this way. Review is supposed to be a basic filter for sanity and competence; it is only journalists who hear "peer-reviewed" and think it is the definitive stamp of authenticity. Like democracy and trial-by-jury, it is not used because it works, but because it fails less disastrously than the alternatives. (Incidentally, their example of introducing deliberate errors to a paper and seeing who notices them is not entirely fair: most papers are not only reviewed by the journals reviewers, but by the authors' colleagues before they submit the manuscript, and by editors before review.)
  4. The last part of the programme was devoted to publication bias. Publication bias is a big problem. But it has little, if anything, to do with peer-review, and everything to do with publisher policies and author dishonesty. The only conceivable connection it has with peer-review is that some people still mistakenly believe that negative results aren't worth publishing at all -- something that journals like BMC Research Notes and PLoS ONE, and initiatives like trial registration are explicitly tackling.

The programme explored what is an interesting issue in academic publishing at the moment (there are more interesting issues, of course), but, I think, from the wrong perspective. While it discussed many very real problems with the system, these problems are all well known and acknowledged; for decades people have explored solutions, and there are many interesting current developments. The makers of the programme seemed mostly unaware of these.

This is, of course, the limitation of having a half-hour national radio programme about a topic like academic publishing.


[Tag] Tags:


Sun, 27 Apr 2008

Late arrivals at the society ball

Humphrey Lyttelton

Humphrey Lyttelton, 1921 - 2008

Humph tells me he has to leave us now as he's been invited to a club night by St Peter, and this is something of a climax for him. He'll drop everything to be taken to heaven by St Michael. He says he can't wait to see the kindly old keeper-of-the-keys' famous entrance and part his Pearly Gates, and I can just imagine St Peter's joy as Humph gets red in the face blowing on his trumpet all evening. There are rumours that God might come and play with his instrument too -- he has needed cheering up lately as the Archangel Gabriel keeps rubbing him up the wrong way, and he was last seen giving Gabriel a good mouthful.

St Michael won't be joining them as he's off to the pub with Mary. He likes nothing more after a long hard day than to rest his staff in the Queen's Head, and once Mary gets the pints out he'll be up all night, and finish off with a stiff one in the early hours. Mary, bless her, never learns to drink in moderation, and I know she'll be feeling a little dicky in the morning.

Samantha will be there, and she tells me she has been baking some of Humph's favourites, and bought the whiskey that he loves. I know that she's very much looking forward to having him try her muffins and liquor out in the Garden of Eden.

Humph, you touched us all, blew us away, and leave us all gushing this weekend. We raise a glass to the legendary Humphrey Lyttelton, and can only play another round of Mornington Crescent.

I'll open with Great Portland Street.


[Tag] Tags: Humphrey Lyttelton, Radio 4, in memoriam


Sat, 19 Jan 2008

Experiment avoidance: a short history

I've been reading John Gribbin's In Search of Schrödinger's Cat. He casually mentions the atomic (or, rather, 'atomistic') theories of the ancients -- in particular Democritus. Gribbin accuses historians of science and popular writers of attributing too much to Democritus, whose ideas about the world do not resemble modern physics. I've been consuming quite a bit of history of science and pop-physics lately and can't say I've ever been given the impression that Democritus (or any ancient philosopher scientists) founded particle physics. The historians do credit the atomists -- notably Leucippus, Democritus and Epicurus -- with being unusually modern in their science. But science is not just a body of knowledge; it is a method for discovering how the world works. It is the atomists' approach to understanding the world that is unusually modern.

Rather than looking at the atomists in terms of modern particle physicists, compare them to the other ancient philosopher scientists. The Athenians generally shunned experimentation: though Aristotle is noted for his taxonomic observations, the Athenians were generally happiest with reason and rational thought, and were unaccomplished empiricists. Those in the Pythogorean tradition valued logic and mathematics, but they turned their study into a cult of mathematical superstitions in which the proles were defended from the subversive facts like irrational numbers and dodecahedrons. The approach to science taken by the atomists was one which valued both the rational (what Democritus called "legitimate thought") and the empirical -- though Democritus was aware of the limitations of the senses, and described the empirical as "bastard thought," noting that it must be applied with care. By advocating an empirical and a reductionist approach, the atomists are the intellectual ancestors of the most exciting and productive modern sciences.

This approach to understanding the world was to a large extent forgotten. The Romans picked over the remains of the Athenians, and they synthesised that with Christianity to produce the received wisdom of a millennium and a half. Religion ascended and the endarkenment closed in. The power of science was rediscovered, eventually, and began once again to free people from superstition. But as Carl Sagan asks: where might humankind be today had it never been forgotten?


[Tag] Tags: Aristotle, Carl Sagan, Democritus, Epicurus, Leucippus, Pythagoras, ancients, atomists, empiricism, epistemology, history of science, philosophy of science, religion, science


Wed, 3 Oct 2007

In which I predict death and revolution

From the cult of the amateur to the triumph of miscellanea, a revolution in how we interact with information is in its early stages. I don't use the term "revolution" lightly. You could be forgiven for thinking it hyperbolic, because traditional publishers have been slow on the uptake. If you still rely on traditional publishers for your information, you will not have seen much of a revolution. Sure, you can read the newspaper on the internet nowadays, and leave instant feedback on what you're reading. But "revolution" is a bit strong, surely? Well, indeed. But revolutions do not always happen overnight.

Lets go back to Stephen Fry on Room 101. He wants to consign critics to history. And it's happening, or at least, a shift in how criticism occurs is part of the revolution. Under the traditional model, what is good, what is important, and what is true, are largely dictated from on high. We have some experience of bottom up review -- bestseller charts, opinion polls, television ratings figures, and so on -- but it is usually secondary to the power of the critics. It is not my intention here to argue over the merits and pitfalls of the invisible hand of bottom-up criticism, except with regards to how it might be applied to academic publishing and the peer-review system. Because this revolution is happening, whether the publishers like it or not. And just as I believe the invisible hand of economics needs the occasional slap to keep it from making rude gestures, the invisible hand of criticism needs some discipline and manners if it is to be of any use to us. And thus concludes my tortured metaphor for today.

Continue reading under the fold...


[Tag] Tags: internet, media, peer review, publishing, science, technology


Fri, 9 Mar 2007

Vote for me!

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[Tag] Tags: arnos vale, bristol, jpeg magazine, photography


Tue, 9 Jan 2007

Site updates

OK, so I spent the best part of four weeks completely rewriting the site from scratch. There's still various little bits of tidying up to do, but it's mostly there. The main thing I need to do is fix the Firefox specific CSS - firefox doesn't understand "inline-block" yet, so while the blog is looking good on Opera and IE it looks a bit yucky on Firefox. The new site software is much more powerful and based on a wiki. Visitors can "suggest" edits, which won't go live until I approve them. I've created a new biology section which I plan to fill with little biology reference cards, if I ever find the time, and I've set the biology namespace up so that the edits of any registered user (see login box top-right of front page) don't need approving before going live, so you're all welcome to contribute to the cards.

I've also completely redone the photos and photoblog sections to use the Flickr API, rather than being hosted on Cotch. Some of the older links to photos and galleries may be broken, but I've been working through fixing them. I hadn't copied all the old titles, descriptions and keywords over to flickr, so at the moment there are still a lot of photos with little to tell you where they are or what they're of, but I'm working on that too.

It has been so long since I've written anything for the blog! There's a years worth of changes to the photos section: new galleries for Cincinnati, Boston, Oxford, Weymouth, Portland, the Jurassic Coast, and so on. Since May photos have been taken with a Nikon D50 + 18-200mm f3.5-5.6g dx vr, rather than the old point and shoot, which had reached the end of its useful life. There has been quite a bit of interest in buying prints and licenses, so I'm thinking about setting up a prints + posters page somewhen soon.

I was also too busy to bother writing anything for the blog last year. I have several things lined up though. They may trickle in over the next few days/weeks, when I get a moment. I should probably do the bugs in the RSS feeds first though!


[Tag] Tags: meta


Sun, 13 Mar 2005

Earth From The Air

Earth From The Air

Earth From The Air

An exhibition of photographs by Yann Arthus-Bertrand, Earth From The Air is touring the country. It's currently in Millennium Square, Bristol, next to @Bristol, and will be for a few weeks. The photos, of which there are examples here, document the growth of the human population and the effect that has on biodiversity, climate, pollution, health etc, and is a reminder that war, famine, disease and pestilence aren't dead. The exhibition is also at Birmingham town hall until Nov 8th.

[Iraqi tank graveyard]
Iraqi tank graveyard in Kuwait

[Tag] Tags: environmentalism, photography, reviews


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