Top five tips when asking for an academic reference (or any for that matter)

Having now both asked for academic references and been asked for academic references.  I thought it would be useful to share some brief insight in how to make the process as smooth as possible for both parties.  Whilst this advice is primarily intended for individuals applying to schemes or funding with prescribed deadlines in which you have to solicit reference responses yourself, it is still applicable for more conventional job applications where recruiters will separately contact your nominated referees.

  1. Give your reference enough time to actually complete a reference

The day you start an application where you need a reference, is ideally the day you inform your referee(s) of your application and the deadline or likely deadline for a reference.  Referees, much like yourself, are busy people.  Respect their time.  If you respect their time, they will respect you (and most likely comply with your request).  There is nothing worse than receiving a reference request with a days’ notice.  It can be done but you can be guaranteed that it will be done as quickly as possible, a trait that does not necessarily breed quality and may well be copied from a previous or stock reference and therefore may not adequately highlight your skills.

  1. Specify details

Your referee will most likely not be aware of the precise details of the scheme/funding/job you are applying for.  Make it easy for them.  Supply a direct web link/the job details etc.  Just like you tailor a job advert it is useful for your referee to know what you are applying for so they can best tailor their response relative to your skills necessary for the application/role.  Will you need a signed letter headed reference (fairly standard although some don’t), will this be requested from the employer/funder or do you need your referee to submit this separately.  If so, where and how?  Electronically, by snail mail?  Will you be sent a link from the recruiter/funder, if so when is this likely to be?  If not, when does your referee need to send the reference by (see point 3).

  1. Clearly specify the deadline for the receipt of your referees response to the funder/employer

If the referee is an organised person they will use a calendar (most likely digital).  Make it obvious when the deadline is.  You can even preformat and attach an .ics file which they can add to their calendar with all the necessary details reminding them of the deadline.  Highlighting a deadline also has a dual effect (if you have given the referee enough notice), it shows the referee you are serious about applying for the intended funding/job and actually highlights how organised you are.  Obviously if the opportunity was only something you discovered with a short lead time, then acknowledge this but do not make a habit of this.

  1. Give you referee your up to date CV, ideally the same used for your application

Your referee may not have spoken to you in sometime and you may have gained new skills, relevant publications etc.  Alternatively they may have spoken to you recently but are unaware of some of your valuable skills appropriate to the role/funding you are applying for.  Whilst they will not necessarily be able to comment on all of these skills, they can refer to them in your reference and link them to skills from the role you were working on with them (and presumably why you asked them to be a referee in the first place) to the role you are applying for.

  1. Request all information above in a single e-mail

E-mail in many ways is a scourge of modern communication.  Necessary but often grossly inefficient.  Get to the point and avoid e-mail ping pong at all costs.  Put all necessary information you need the referee to comply with, including information on the job/funding scheme, your up to date CV, the deadline for the reference request and what the referee needs to do to comply with the request.   Again the key is to make everything as easy as possible for the referee to help you get the position/funding you desire.  There is nothing worse than scouring fragmented e-mails for the necessary information (there are ways around this related to inputting efficient web client search parameters but ultimately don’t irritate your referee by sending information in dribbles).

Finally do not overload your referee with reference requests.  This tends to happen more with undergraduates than postgraduates or inexperienced versus more experienced staff. Whilst applying with concerted effort to one particular area can be beneficial, e.g. many reference letters may need very minor alteration.  Applying to multiple different schemes can show lack of focus and will frustrate your referee, believe me.  They will default either to approaching the situation as highlighted in tip number two.  Alternatively they will not complete the reference and give you no indication that they have not completed the reference.  Or they will inform you that you are in fact wasting their valuable time.  Both of the described scenarios have happened to myself when requesting references for scheme/job applications.  I learned greatly from this.  I advise you to avoid this if at all possible.

Have I missed anything?  Please tell me and I will look to improve this post.

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The forgotten middle authors of science, how there is an I in team

Stimulated by a recent blog post 12 very wise guidelines for surviving science in which @ad_mico reflects on some of his career to date “The applicant has too many papers where he is neither first nor last” struck a chord with me as in effect this is very similar feedback I have had on several fellowship applications.  Since World War II the scientific workforce has greatly expanded due to increased governmental funding, increased science education and commercialisation of such discoveries there has been a concomitant increase in scientific publications as a result with an increasing number of authors per article.  In part this is due to the increased multi-disciplinary nature of projects in which scientists from historically separate disciplines collaborate with each other, a good thing in my mind.  However the increasing emphasis placed on scientific metrics (many of which at best are likely to be highly inaccurate, at worst completely unreliable) and the increasing necessity to show that your work and by extension you have impact is helped fuelling the increasing author numbers on science papers.  Add this to a flat lining, if not decreasing investment in science, with significant increases in scientifically trained people and you can understand why there are such scrabbles for scientific authorship. Everyone knows it is what defines your research credibility.  So more papers, good, right?  Well not entirely, there is a somewhat antiquated view (in my humble opinion) that all that matters is either first or last authorship.  Unfortunately token authorships can be common in scientific papers and ultimately devalue middle authors that have actually physically and intellectually contributed to the work.  Therefore many scientists knowing this practice occurs (and may have participated themselves) exclude this impact as credible and focus solely on first and last authorships.  To me this is short sighted and particularly so in individuals that have contributed to multiple scientific fields (but I am completely biased), as it can highlight intellectual flexibility, potential scientific creativity and the competency to work between disciplines.  I like to contribute, working on multiple problems with multiple different people concurrently (I think it makes you more creative) and have done so in diverse fields of science, something I am personally proud of.  In the end however it appears that the academic scientific institution does not highly value such people and whilst science is ready for multi-disciplinary science it is not yet quite ready for multi discipline scientists, unless you are first or last author of course.

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Confession of an early career research scientist (ECR), most of my academic research to date has been ‘published’ in closed source journals

I have a confession to make, most of my* academic research has been ‘published’ in closed source journals both historically and currently excluding a couple of exceptions.  This is despite my own growing moral philosophy and responsibility of seeking to publish in and reviewing for journals which permit open access as a minimum.  Furthermore, ideally these open access publishers should represent value for money, particularly given the ease of ‘publication’ in the internet era, that tax payers largely foot the bill for any journal fees, be it open or otherwise, and that the majority of the academic workforce are not paid for by the private publishers who generally make large profits from this ‘free’ workforce.

Why then have I let this occur?

Initially, I feel part of this situation has been caused by inexperience.  During my PhD I, like many PhD students, might be aware of how to set up some experiments in the laboratory/have some comprehension of research methods etc., however, I was significantly less aware of the scientific publication process.  So between myself, my supervisors and collaborators we discussed where to send papers, this from memory was largely based on what we considered to be good journals both from a historical and an impact perspective (obviously heavily guided by more senior colleagues).  It wasn’t until 2012 that I made the cavalier suggestion of sending our work to the open access journal PLOS one, even in 2012, it was still, amongst some of my colleagues, and most likely still is, viewed with cynicism or at least the statement of ‘so it was not accepted in a better journal’ type response.

So herein lies problem number oneAcademics highly regard prestige, it is very difficult as a junior scientist to buck this trend and say to a fellowship/lectureship/tenure committee I didn’t publish in Nature, Science, Cell etc.  I submitted to a journal at the time that was, and most likely still is, considered by many academics as a lower tier journal due to my moral objection with the practice of particular publishers.  In most research intensive universities currently this just won’t fly.

Move on a few years later, after some time spent in industry and I find the same situation, except now the projects I work on are large in comparison to my PhD.  The larger the team the more challenging the negotiating with where to send papers (if sending them at, all due to intellectual property issues) can become.  One can try to steer people (I will upload some information related to this as it may be useful to others and link post blog ‘publication’) towards low cost open access journals but ultimately the lead authors ultimately decide.

So herein lies problem number twoIf you are not the lead author/investigator you generally don’t get to make the call on where it is finally submitted and therefore ‘published’.  As an ECR/postdoc, whatever you want to call it, at the very minimum (unless you have secured an independent fellowship, or even if you have a fellowship) you tend to be directly working with a senior colleague or someone who has spent considerable time and effort building their group and you are likely to be utilising their group’s facilities.  You also, as is the case for me, may be working across multiple disciplines, universities and indeed companies and you definitely will not be at the top of the decision making tree (commercial interests complicate this even further due to intellectual property, but that’s a story for another day).  It is therefore very difficult to challenge this authority without putting yourself in significant personal jeopardy (don’t bite the hand that feeds you type mentality) and at the end of the day you do want to see this work published and ‘out’ there as you have invested your time into this work and are also very likely to believe in its worth.

These two factors combine to help fuel the profits that publishers know they can make as scientists are dependent on them for their own survival.  Until this link is decoupled the practice of publishers making large profits on society’s knowledge will continue to occur and until scientists change their perceptions of prestige it will always be this way.

My wife (you may say I am surprised he has one) says to me ‘don’t come to me with a problem unless you have a solution’, not a terrible mantra (with some caveats but something that has definitely made me think) I would recommend some potential solutions:

  • If you become a supervisor to junior scientists please do promote the value of information content over journal name and prestige, it might make it more difficult to judge scientists rather than the currently crude measures of prestige but it will make science a better and fairer place.  I try to do this as best I can with the students I unofficially supervise (unofficially postdocs are not permitted to supervise PhD students due to their short term nature, but are expected to teach such students, if all that matters is publication output, then one can question whether this is fair) but it may well be to their detriment given the publish or perish society we live in.
  • The numbers of papers published by a scientist is not important, it’s the problem they solve which is more important. Speaks for itself really.
  • Please discuss the issues of openness in modern science with your colleagues, at journal club or lab meeting etc. and please challenge your superior, they are not a god (if such a thing exists) despite what they may think of themselves or status allows them to think. THEY DO NOT KNOW EVERYTHING**.

It will take time for the scientific system to change but I do believe it will, it might just take a generation or two to do so.  Too late for most of us but I hope that it is soon enough for some.

*when I say my research what I mean is research I have actively contributed experimentally, intellectually and in writing but have not necessarily lead the writing of the manuscript, some of it I have, not all of it.  I like working with others on multiple problems at the same time, sue me, or in the case of fellowships judge me for this.  It may be not that significant in the terms of other researchers with more illustrious careers but I am proud of my involvement nonetheless.

**Before someone reads this and thinks what would my current line manager think, otherwise known as a boss, of this article. I am not sure.  I am on annual leave and writing this at 12pm, as in morning.  However my line manager is generally a supportive person and I respect him as he is a very good scientist so my comments are general and are reflective for the general type of scenario that can occur.

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Time Diet:  Productivity tools for life in the lab (and outside)

It is often said that time is money.  However to me time is time.  It’s our most precious commodity.  Money can be both in short resource, which can be crippling, and in good supply, so much so that infinite does not matter.  However, at least currently, time for humans is finite, so much so, that to me time matters more than money.  With that mantra in mind, I have been analysing my time and trying to go on a time diet.  By time diet, much like a weight reduction plan, the first step is normally to analyse your habits, be it good or bad (I did this with google calendars and IFTTT, more in a later blog post on this).  Based on this analysis you can then plan to reduce what you already do, in terms of time thereby freeing resource.  After examining my time and coupling with my interests in automation these are the steps I took to invest time in order to free up my primary resource, time, in order to free up future time.  I see this as investing in myself from a time perspective.  I thought I would share them with the blogosphere (yes I may have made up this word) in the hope it can save you time.

I collated my time-saving tips via application category and potential time saving (if I can calculate it).  In this post I am not going to tell you precisely how to use these tools, you can look this up but I will illustrate what tools you can use to perform certain tasks, which I believe to be of particular relevance to scientists and the potential time saved.

Finding scientific equipment:

General workflow of a scientific experiment.

  • I have a hypothesis to test.
  • I think about whether we have the appropriate equipment to test the hypothesis.
  • I realise we don’t have the equipment to test the experiment (or at least properly).

I therefore in my mind have three options:

  1. I fit the experiment around what equipment we have in the lab (I suspect the most common option).
  2. I find the equipment I need.
  3. I build the equipment I need (most likely the least common).

For option 1, look at what you have in the lab and determine whether any of it can be easily modified to to test your hypothesis.

TIME INVESTMENT = depends on the modifications needed.

TIME SAVED = local options are good as you should be able to create something reasonably quickly dependant on experimental needs.

For option 2, Google search operators are a great way to find academic research equipment both within and outside your department (aside from asking colleagues).

The most useful search operator to me is site: [search term here]

This search term will yield only results found in websites with extensions and thereby facilities or equipment in the UK.  The same can be applied to the USA by using .edu, although the distance may be greater to said resource.

This search operator can be further concatenated with other search terms, read Google’s guide and you can narrow search terms and better use the internet rather than trawling unspecific location and institution unspecific searches.

I have used this numerous times to find appropriate equipment within and beyond the university I work within in order to progress my research.

TIME INVESTMENT = the time it takes to type search operator, let’s say three minutes.  Let’s say you spend 20 minutes for one item of equipment you really need access to.

TIME SAVED = potentially immeasurable if you find the piece of equipment you are looking for.  It is good for a quick search though.

For option 3, building your own equipment, whilst time consuming can be tremendously rewarding, particularly if it answers a question that can not be answered with current equipment, in this scenario the equipment you invent is likely to be publishable and/or patentable in its own right.

TIME INVESTMENT = variable, it really depends on the complexity of the device.

TIME SAVED = in the short term none, in the long term lots.

Ideally option 1 or 2 should be your first port of call but given the expense of most pieces of even basic scientific equipment such as PCR thermocyclers, labs building their own equipment is becoming increasingly common and there are some excellent kickstarter projects which are disrupting hows scientific equipment is being constructed and distributed.  Notable examples being openpcr and more recently the bento lab.  I would highly recommend those that are interested in building you own lab equipment, particularly those with electronic equipment to become proficient in using a raspberry pi single board computer and also learning to use the command line within linux operating systems and also a programming language such as python.  Knowledge of these processes will help you create all manner of equipment at a fraction of the cost of commercial solutions and will also permit you to release your solutions as open source so that the rest of the scientific community can utilise, build upon and improve your work.

Accessing equipment

Remote access is a great way to access computer resource remotely, I am frankly amazed not more scientists make use of this tool (at least amongst my colleagues which cross several disciplines).  In the past I have used this to check on experimental progress for time lapse microscopy experiments, monitor progress of experiments using a camera, temperature probes etc. whilst all from the comfort of my own living room normally with a cup of coffee in my pyjamas (I would love to turn up at work in my pyjamas but I already commute via a scooter and it’s probably not practical given the weather).  I also set up a security camera based on remote access software after some bike thieving scum bag tried to steal my bike from my garage (but that is another story).

I currently mainly use remote access to connect to computing power for analysis of computed tomography data, which is well beyond the capabilities of my laptop.  Remote access can be configured manually (via RDP on windows, although I hear the basic windows 10 has removed this capability, although there are other ways, VPN etc) and whilst not significantly challenging can irritate some IT departments dependant on policy and remote access via this route may not be possible.

One FREE (for non-commercial use) and stand out software that permits all of this and for me stands hands above the rest I have tried, TEAMVIEWER.  TeamViewer permits remote access to the desktop of a client machine even on a relatively managed university machines (it uses ports which are commonly used to access the internet, so your university should not block them by default). In addition the software  can not only access the desktop of remote machines but can act as a desktop sharing program which I have used to complete publica­­tions with colleagues all over the world.

TIME INVESTMENT  = I would estimate 30 minutes being generous.  To install the software on the host and the client.  In other words install the software on your computer and the computer you wish to connect to.

TIME SAVED = lots, for me, weeks of time.  The remote access option of this software alone I would estimate in the last 5 years has saved me weeks if not months of time, due to a reduction in commuting/travelling to meet collaborators combined with not commuting to another department.  Currently this saves me a round walking trip of 30 minutes (my scooter doesn’t really help as its mainly uphill, see later) every single time and I use this approximately once a week.

Twitter is a great way to connect to a community of like-minded researchers (once you have built up a community of people you follow and followers).  I did set up a twitter feed for the sole purpose of locating equipment for my locale (although admit it didn’t work so well, @helpshefsci) but connecting to departmental (in my case currently @msesheffield) or organisation twitter hubs this can be a potential way to find specialist equipment.  Similarly this can be applied to Facebook and also LinkedIn.  The former, ironically (as it is considered less ‘professional’) I find more useful than the latter.  This is most likely as a product of personal connection related to Facebook as often LinkedIn contacts, I find, can be making connection for the sake of making connection, or in the case of science, dubious publishers trawling the site for academics with keywords using the psychology of other respected individuals connected with them therefore they are trustworthy in order to convince you to submit to their journal.  Which is an interesting development of using personal credibility for the purpose of spam, a variety of publishers use this method, and I chortle a little to see well-respected professors fall prey to this approach.

TIME INVESTMENT = most individuals will have profiles for such websites.  However I would estimate 20 minutes maximum to set up.  5 – 10 minutes a day browsing, making connections and commenting dependant on how much procrastination you are doing, travel or sitting on the toilet.

TIME SAVED = unsure.  Make a useful connection can be potentially immeasurable.  For me it beats having a meeting for the sake of a meeting, which most people appear to spend most of their working week doing.

Commuting – local

This section is completely dependent on your circumstances but all I know is that traffic at least on the local scale appears to move with the following order during peak times (although obviously overall distance is a big factor in this relationship).

Bike > Walking > Car

If you look at googles maps and route planning, the above categories covers the primary mode of transport directions they offer, although I have come across one other in California and is one I would like the UK to consider more.  Or at least a variant of this (the one in California is a skateboard).

I currently use a scooter to commute.  Not a motorised scooter but in effect an oversized variant that a child would use.  I get a significant number of odd looks, several laughs and occasionally abuse (seriously).  I am not sure what that says about the city I live in but I will continue to use this mode of transport.  Primarily as it has reduced my commute time by 35%.

Using geofencing on my phone and IFTTT (more on this later) this is one of the few things I have substantial data on.  Basically my round trip commute time (walking) from home to work was 70 minutes/day, I have reduced this to 45 minutes/day.  Not a great saving one might say but over the course of a week this adds up to 2 hours a week.  The cost of my scooter £40.  It very quickly pays of itself in terms of time saved.

TIME INVESTMENT = buy or make a scooter.  5 minutes to unknown (I admit I bought one).

TIME SAVED = depends on local circumstance.

Time management and organisation

Any electronic calendar.  Any electronic calendar will save you time in the long run.  Particularly if you have a smart phone and link it to that.  I use google calendar but there are many others.

The one thing I do use it for is co-ordinating my time with students.  Students do not realise that my primary purpose (at least as a postdoc) is not to be a servant to them.  They therefore need to be realise that my time is important and so is theirs.  I make sure they put any teaching commitments they have in their google calendar so that we both have reasonable expectations of each other’s time.

TIME INVESTMENT = using a calendar should be something automatic to all researchers.   I probably spend 30 minutes a day planning workload, future goals and experiments.

TIME SAVED = quite a lot.  Students do not tend to turn up so much unannounced I therefore have more time to focus.  I don’t have the luxury of a tenured contract therefore I do not have the luxury of an open door policy (which is generally something academics say, when they are actually in their office).

An inventory system.   For a lab fridge/freezer inventory I use one note ( so that I can share this with relevant individuals so that when stock is running low, I can order more reagents.  I also use this at home to catalogue my freezer contents so that when I am at the supermarket I know what I have at home and don’ t buy things I do not need.

TIME INVESTMENT = using a calendar should be something automatic to all researchers.  Difficult to say.  I probably spend 30 minutes a day planning workload, future goals and experiments.

TIME SAVED = quite a lot, I would estimate several hours of distraction.  Students do not tend to turn up so much unannounced I therefore have more time to focus.

Doodle polls.  Ever tried to organise a meeting with several colleagues only to find e-mail ping pong ensues.  Doodle polls ( are a potential way to minimise this and get colleagues to tick boxes as to when they are able to attend a meeting using a simple easy to use interface.

One e-mail for the link.  People fill in the link.  You send out the meeting details based on information put in the doodle poll.

Obviously if you are all on the same network infrastructure and use shared calendars you may be able to scan each other’s calendars however I often find many individuals do not use electronic calendars or do not update them so e-mail ping pong ensues after you try to book a meeting.

TIME INVESTMENT  = using a calendar should be something automatic to all researchers.  Difficult to say.  I probably spend 30 minutes a day planning workload, future goals and experiments.

TIME SAVED = quite a lot.  Students do not tend to turn up so much unannounced I therefore have more time to focus.

Task automation

In an ideal world I would automate all non-essential tasks and/or repetitive tasks from not only an administrative perspective but also if I have given the same information more than once then I have wasted my time.

IFTTT which stands for if this then that (IFTTT,, not a big fan of the name if I am completely honest, not so catchy, but the service I think is quite useful.  IFTTT links several different programs together and creates rules which trigger actions.  I currently use this for a variety of tasks

  • An electronic lab book. I take pictures of both my written lab book and the photographs on my phone related to research.  Based on geofencing in particular location this is backed up to cloud storage.
  • I track work hours, well more commute time (related to my scooter) in google drive spreadsheet.
  • I also track the time I spend on tasks, using hastags in google calendar that are related to my job function but for which I am not rewarded but merely expected to do and are then automatically collated into a spreadsheet.

There are many other IFTTT recipes you can create and in many cases, it’s the tip of the iceberg (I hate this quote but use it nonetheless).

I have other time-saving tips but will save this for another post as this is already a long post, so thanks if you have stayed with me for this long.

What tools do you use, for efficiency in the lab, ideally that are free and at the point of purchase and easy to set up?

Share them, they may help save time for someone, whose research may save lives.

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Sci-hub, open access and why we need to let go of our obsession with prestige

Much has been said of Sci-hub in recent weeks and has polarised opinions across many different stakeholders (I am not a big fan of this word but business people like it) within the scientific community and beyond.  I won’t go into the nitty gritty of Sci-hub (it can be found here or gold, green and whatever other systems have been proposed for ‘open’ access as these monologues have been written about extensively elsewhere.  I also won’t go into whether I believe the platform is right or wrong, whether it will revolutionise access to scientific information or will inevitably be shut down via technical means or legal pressure.  What I will say about it is that frankly I am a surprised it took so long for such a platform to arise.  Sci-hub is a blatant and co-ordinated platform to easily access peer reviewed articles for which the reader has not paid a fee.  It is this that is that I find most surprising, since the inception of the internet this is what we all should have been doing.  ‘Publishing’ research that is readable via anyone with an internet connection courtesy of the world wide web.  [Update (28th of  March 2016, the below an exert that has been doing the rounds on twitter after my original post, amongst open access advocates.  Sir Tim Berners Lee, developer of Hypertext Transfer Protocol, the backbone of the world wide web developed this as a method for scientists to openly share data, somewhere along the line this philosophy has been lost).]

Instead, we have we continued to allow academic publishers to take advantage of us, why?  It’s a ridiculous transaction when you think about it, we struggle to secure the funding necessary for the work to be carried out, we do the work, we write the paper and then other academics review the work for no fee.   The publisher then charges us and the rest of society for the privilege of accessing society’s knowledge, its little wonder they have profit margins of 30-50% as the principle component of the workforce are not paid for by the publisher as idiotically we do it all for them.  With the open access movement what is even more galling is that they are charging us even more to publish our work as open access, with year on year increases on spending by RCUK on open access.  In 2015/2016 alone £22.6 million was awarded as block grants to Universities for open access fees.  Open access as a premise is something that has been readily possible for a considerable number of years and yet we still let them charge such fees.  In a technological era in which information can easily and rapidly be disseminated for minimal cost why have we clung to publishing with traditional journals?  One word, prestige.

We can blame the publishers for putting science behind a paywall and/or charging high fees for us to publish our data as ‘open’ but we have let them.  We sign our copyright over to publishers in the desperation to have something ‘published’, so that we are considered credible by our peers in order to do battle with each other to secure funding based on the flawed and entrenched belief that there are better journals to publish in, which therefore contain better, more accurate or interesting science, reviewed by more expert reviewers than other ‘lower’ quality journals and are therefore more likely to be closer to truth or more correct.  This is despite findings that peer reviewed articles can be wrong, rejection rate has effectively no correlation with impact factor, that the accuracy and reliability of research published in top journals can be very unreliable and the highest number of retractions tends to be from these top journals (coverage may however be a reason for retraction rate).  For a profession that apparently values logic and evidence we do a very good job of ignoring both when it comes to the value of scientific information (both monetarily and from a knowledge perspective).

Therefore how do we encourage researchers to value the information that resides in a scientific article rather than the prestige associated with publication in particular journals?  We need to rewire our thinking and by extension the funding landscape (this is more challenging as it is controlled by government but not insurmountable) and stop using journal names as proxies for quality.  This is particularly pertinent for early career researchers of whom there is significant pressure to publish in high ‘impact’ venues as without these high impact publications in modern scientific times our careers will cease to flourish and most of us will be ejected from the leaky pipeline.  This pressure further entrenches the prestige effect and provides the perfect recipe for publishing profit.  One fuelled by an outdated ‘publication’ system.

So how do we go about changing how we judge scientists, we start by changing ourselves, if we all, and that means early career researchers too, stop placing emphasis on where the work is published and stop using impact factors as a measure of journal quality and look at the information contained within publications and what problems they solve then the academic marketplace would be a better place.

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Remember netbooks, got an old one spare, donate it?

Once upon a time laptops were large, bulky and potentially useful as an alternative to carrying bricks in a rucksack for weight training.   Enter, the netbook.  These lighter devices capable of running various operating systems including Windows enabled us to now carry our work with us without back ache.  Unfortunately most netbooks could not cope with the large and bloated operating system that is Windows and would struggle to run two programs at once without significantly heating up your lap and irritating your ears with whirring cooling fans.  Netbooks have largely been replaced with ultrabooks with improved processor architectures, better construction (ie made from lighter materials) and solid state hard drives (etc) allowing lightweight laptops which actually work as well as desktop towers for basic applications.

However like many mid-technology changes (rememberer the mini disc?) what can one do with an old netbook?  We could make use of some of these in the lab and run more customisable and useful operating systems such as linux.  This could then be used to monitor and control some of the projects in the lab.  Whilst old desktop computers are useful, they are fairly hefty and due to limited space, smaller devices such as netbooks would be preferred for automating laboratory experiments.  If you had an old one that you don’t use I could make use of it, send me a message on twitter, contact me using the contact me form etc.

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Do lego figures influence children’s gender stereotypes?

I recently contacted lego about two topics, one was asking for donations of lego motors to support my request for lego motors for building scientific equipment.

The second was asking why was there a ‘normal’ female scientist model and only a ‘crazy’ male scientist?  Mainly as, embarrassingly, I wanted a ‘normal’ male one for my desk.  Interestingly today’s bbc news magazine report the range of female scientists it to be extended.   Overall there does appear to be inadequacy in figure frequency when comparing male and female figures, but does this matter?   The bbc news magazine article and other articles fail to ask the question whether these figures actually have any influence over children’s gender stereotypes?  From the brief scan and limited scientific literature I can see mentioning lego there are no studies (I could be missing some) indicating that lego influences childrens gender stereotypes, we as adults just think that it must.  A lack of studies doesn’t not indicate that lego does not influence children’s gender stereotypes (It could be that no one has studied it in detail).  Or other stereotypes for that matter, lego have alien figures, which if exist, we have no idea what form these would take.  I don’t think however that we are too worried about the portrayal of aliens as lego figures and whether they are an accurate representation, or actually whether they even exist.   I am in favour of gender equality and portrayal of women in roles that they occupy and the potential beneficial effect to society of such role models.  However if we are talking about gender stereotypes and equality then why not (in no particular order) a transvestite, homosexual, a drug addict, a ‘crazy’ lego figure that externally looks no different to other lego figures, a serial killer or any other manner of permutations that make up humanity.

Below is an exert of the response I received from lego.

An exert of the response I received is below.

LEGO Service <>

27 Jul (10 days ago)

to me
 Dear Adam,

Thanks for getting in touch with us.

For 80 years, our core values have been Fun, Creativity, Imagination, Learning, Quality and Caring. We take these values very seriously and we really care about our fans, so I’m grateful that you took the time to share your views with us. We believe LEGO bricks are for everyone – age or gender is of no importance in creative building and self-expression. As we take the feedback we get from our fans very seriously I have forwarded it to our product specialists to consider the design should there be another male scientist minifigure in the near future.

I think the response from lego was a reasonable one and highlights an important point that age or gender is not of any importance in creative building and self-expression.  I am all in favour of gender equality, accurate portrayal/representation of women or any other sub division of humanity and the potential beneficial effect to society of such role models.  However lets not assume it makes any difference, I would just like to see them make a ‘normal’ male lego scientist, whatever that may look like.



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Help create a Glocal and local scientific community playground

We are members of gyms, allotments, football clubs, create community gardens and spaces for all manner of purposes.  Why not have lab memberships? Where science and scientific progress can be powered by everyone, not just ‘scientists’.

The most traditionally used mechanism for funding community driven projects is monetary donations by the public and all donations are very gratefully received (including towards setting up this project).  However, what if you would like to get more involved, learn how experiments are done and what tools scientists use but aren’t studying a science degree.  Currently there are not many options.  However there is a growing community of DIY biologists/engineers primarily utilising open source information/projects that are already achieving remarkable things.

I would like, with your help to create both a local and global scientific playground through the development of open source low cost laboratory tools enabling everyone to participate in science.

What do I need?

I need your time, interested contact me.  I am now based in Sheffield in the UK, drop me a line.

I need your old lego, lego is a very useful building block for many devices, we already use it in the lab but I am particularly interested in the motorised lego ranges, they would be very useful for lab devices.

Where possible I would look to repurpose equipment that is generally thrown away as a product of our consumerism, old cd drives, cpu fans etc.  So that the tools we will build other people can access a lot of equipment for free.

Whilst money is a barrier (you need some to get anything done) having seen the remarkable things that can be achieved and the growing community of DIY biologists, actually the main barrier to progress is imagination, with communities of people creating the fuel.  I do not feel we are currently utilising the full extent of the possible fuel with science being restricted to relatively few.  Would you be interesting in helping me set this up, as I cannot do this alone?

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Are large multidisplinary/multi-centre grants good or bad for early career researchers?

It has been a while since I wrote my last post and I have mused a lot recently, possibly too much, about a recent fellowship rejection of which the only feedback I received was ‘candidate needs more papers’ (I am not sure how many is enough) and ‘interesting idea’. The former mainly refers most likely to having more first author papers suggests (who said there is no I in team) but at least I can come up with interesting ideas and more first authored papers are required.  This need for more is mainly driven by the belief that more means better or more productive.  The latter is not necessarily something I believe and is very field specific but it doesn’t matter what I believe, it is what the grant review panel thinks and if more is better then I need more papers.

Regarding papers.  The economic downturn in conjunction with an era of big data has led to the belief that more data = better science = more answers.  Combine this with science funders noble intention of promoting interdisciplinary collaborations creates a recipe where more scientists = more data = better science = more answers.  Indeed in many cases this can be true and has almost become necessary with the number of authors listed on scientific publications increasing substantially since the 1950’s.

Given that scientific independence is mainly achieved, at least initially, through the credibility of having multiple first authored scientific papers.  Large multidisciplinary projects, whilst generally increasing total publication number can act to dilute the proportion of first authored publications and potentially the building of an independent career ‘niche’.  Therefore, in certain cases this can therefore potentially negatively impact, or at least slow career progression of an ambitious person who works on a large project. On the other hand being able to co-ordinate and manage large projects is a trend that is set to increase and actually gives the ECR very valuable tools for future projects.  However I do no think these factors are often taken into consideration by fellowship panels, using the mantra of more is better.  Given that multidisplinary science projects are a feature of modern scientific life I think that ideally fellowship panels and indeed individuals considering applying to multidisplinary or ‘big data’ projects should be aware that bigger isn’t necessarily better.

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The changing face of science funding

I recently re-read this interesting article in science careers (it is a little old, 2007 but still woth some valid points, see below) about alterantive careers to academia and one quote in particular struck me.

“Sensible institutes guide their postdocs to independence through stages, having them write some baby grants a year or two in and building up so they know where to go at the end of their contract,” Bothwell says. “Daft institutes don’t bother, and the postdocs arrive at the end of their contracts with no idea of where to go. They then usually leave science.”

The key thing that has changed in the current climate is that there are no/few baby grants to apply for, the problem of how one develops independance remins, however the mechainsm to do so (at least in the UK) has effectively, been removed and I would predict is most acutely felt by ambitious junoir researchers.  As previously mention in another blog post, my institution does have courses which are in place, which are useful, however its only really useful if there is avenues to gain funding.  So alternative funding stratagies are really needed.  In some future articles I will discuss what alternatives could be pursued.

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