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On mental inertia in the biological sciences

In the recent issue of Trends in Biological Sciences there’s an article by Alexander M. Shneider (yes, the one who also wrote “Four stages of a scientific discipline; four types of scientists“) entitled: “Mental inertia in the biological sciences“. Author defines mental inertia as

… the basis that precludes a scientist from taking the most productive step and adapting the most frutiful line of reasoning available at the moment, with considerations of the current level of scientific methods, approaches and techniques.

and explains that intentional bias or repositioning does not qualify as mental inertia (but avoids naming that phenomenon by its true name ­čśë ). Then, he lists reasons (including interesting examples) for mental inertia. These are:

  • incorrectly established results (from assumption that some old work done with deficient technique)
  • incorrect understanding of mechanism of action (propagating by wrong name of mechanism, improper controls, questions falling outside of the scientific paradigm)
  • researcher’s false diffidence (wrong interpretation of observations)
  • old paradigms
  • borrowing experimental approach from other scientific fields (yes, it helps to advance the field but creates other roadblocks)
  • hot topic (original ideas are not recognized instantly)
  • equating task with the traditional method
  • and finally, cultural context

He doesn’t provide an example for mental inertia caused by the cultural context, but that would be the most interesting one. I wonder if mother tongue defines in some way ability to come up with certain ideas. Wouldn’t that be visible in the culture/books, or philosophy?

Wouldn’t mental inertia disappear when we have serious data driven science?

Cutting edge molbio – Craig Venter at TEDMED2009

After few weeks I’ve finally got around to watch Craig Venter’s talk from TEDMED 2009 conference. I think every biologist should watch it, paying attention to what’s said between the lines. This is really cutting edge molecular biology/genetic engineering.

To me the most interesting bit was a screenshot of synthetic organism designer software around 15 minutes into the talk. If you haven’t believed so far that Venter actually knows what he’s been doing, you shouldn’t have any more doubts.

My ignite talk over at Science Online 2010

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This more or less transcript of the ignite talk I gave over at Science Online 2010. The video hasn’t been posted yet, but I will update the post, when it’s available.

It’s already a few years since I’ve implemented my Personal Virtual Advisory Board. No, it’s not another name for hanging out with friends and chatting about life universe and everything. It’s a tool for receiving systematic feedback on how you are doing concerning ongoing projects, long term goals and wild dreams.

Such board could and should be virtual. It’s not only because it’s more efficient that way to ask for and receive feedback than let’s say flying over Atlantic. It’s worth to go virtual, because people who don’t know you very well, might be not aware of your limitations. And I believe this is a good thing, at least as long as ┬áit’s not about advising to become professional basketball player to a person being 150cm high.

This is advisory board not expert group. This is very important. The more you need precise answer, the more you need to consult… Twitter, FriendFeed or StackOverflow. It’s not really about solving problems – it’s about creating them in the first place. External review will inspire you to put yourself in uncomfortable situations, like I am here right now, to stretch you a bit. So, the next time you are less stressed and you do better.

And finally such board consists of people with very diverse background. For a biologist like me, biochemist, biophysicist and bioinformatician are not diverse enough. Preferably this should be people from different industries, for example a musician, a business person, a quantum physicist and a writers, so you get advice from significantly different perspectives.  The exact set should somehow relate to what your interests are, not to your actual job.

And how does it work? Around twice a year I sent an email around ┬átailored to each person?s background, explaining where I am and what priorities I have right now. I collect the feedback and then I have a brainstorm session with myself, trying to understand feedback I’ve received.

There are several reasons to implement such board in your professional life. Your career advice will match better a person who you really are – no more advises from people who assume that there’s no difference between you and list of your publications. Your horizons will greatly expand. You will get encouraged to pursue things that you assumed are the wildest dreams possible (usually they are not). But I like to think it’s not only about professional life and maybe the best reason to implement such tool was written by Robertson Davies: “If a Man wants to be of the greatest possible value to his fellow creatures, let him begin a long solitary task of perfecting himself“.

Low expectations, encouraging feedback

I’ve shared this idea for Ignite session with couple of my friends and colleagues here in Poland couple of weeks before the conference. The feedback was very discouraging. They told me the idea is obvious and not that interesting. The hidden message (not really vocalized) was “You know, you’re going to Science Online 2010. Why don’t you talk about something important?”. I had a number of fallback ideas for the session, but since you don’t learn if you don’t take risk, I’ve decided to stick with the original plan. However, my expectations went really low. When the conference started and I saw where most of the people come from intellectually, I was absolutely sure I’d get a blank stare at the session. Thanks to discussions with Bill Hooker, I’ve changed the approach a bit to more practical, but my expectations didn’t change. Surprisingly it didn’t go that bad. I’ve received encouraging feedback from Bill, but also from Mary Spiro and Aaron Rowe, for which I’m very grateful.

Dreaming about ego-less science

The reason I’ve decided to stick to talking about something so unfashionable and untraceable like “growth” is that like many other people I’m frustrated with science being driven by ego. We want metrics, we want competitions, we want prizes and recognition for the best ones. We get ivory towers, we get metrics gambling, we get echo chambers, we get science dominated and severely limited by anglosphere. And I simply don’t believe any regulations and policies will dramatically change this landscape – we might see a shift in a good direction, but no dramatic change. We went so far in preventing (by countless regulations) wrong things to happen, we lost most of our ability to move.

As far as I remember, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wasn’t the very first one to propose to rethink our roles in society – these ideas were repeated by many different people, also by other scientists (such as Buckmister Fuller). However, what Csikszentmihalyi did was to put these issues in the evolutionary context. By this move, growing became not only a choice, but a neccessary component required to advance society to a next level. We might be one of key groups being able to facilitate such move – hence my interest in talking about this in public.

What I didn’t say on the Ignite session was that Virtual Advisory Board could be one of such steps towards ego-less science. I know no better cold shower for a scientist than hearing from a successful person from other field: “Wait, wait. Scientists do WHAT?”


IBB PAS first in Poland to adopt institutional OA mandate

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One of my host institutions, Institute of Biochemistry and Biophysics Polish Academy of Sciences (note that the webpage is slightly outdated – we are about to launch a new, more interactive site soon) is about to adopt an institutional Open Access mandate. While we have a number of open repositories, this is the very first institutional mandate in Poland. Similarly to other places in the world, also in this case Institute’s scientific board voted unanimously.

I was actually writing the exact wording of the mandate and I chose Immediate Deposit/Optional Access version based on excellent rationale written by Stevan Haynard. In short it puts a requirement on authors to deposit final reviewed version of their manuscripts in the institutional repository immediately upon acceptance for publication. If a publisher has an embargo on self-archiving, repository software allows to request the manuscript directly from the author. If not, the file will be immediately available for viewing and download. Metadata of course will be freely available already at the moment of deposition.

UPDATE: the repository is available at http://eprints.ibb.waw.pl – there’s not much there yet, but over the next few months we’ll start to fill it up with manuscripts.

Rankings create echo-chamber effect

Article-level metrics at PLoS
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Over at Science Online 2010 I’ve asked Peter Bienfeld a question that was pretty of similar in spirit to Michael Barton’s recent tweet:

Can I get plos one article feeds for articles with greater than X page views/downloads?

Looking at the discussion over at FriendFeed, it doesn’t sound like a bad idea at all. And PLoS team is working on that feature too. ┬áI couldn’t put my doubts about this concept into words on the conference, but it came naturally after reading Michael’s tweet. My first answer on the topic was:

Many services now provide lists of what’s popular. I’d rather see a list of what’s relevant to my work.

It’s way less work to put together popularity metrics. Rankings are easier than doing difficult text-analysis that would suggest something relevant to the topic I’m interested in. However, it’s only part of the story.

Current science is pretty much an echo-chamber. We do things that we can get funded, which can be published in “prestigious” journals – in both cases review process filters out ideas that are too far from the mainstream. Adding rankings on top of that is another way of making sure we won’t even have ideas that are too far from the mainstream. We won’t read anything weird, obscure, outside of our area. We won’t read anything that can inspire us to do something other than stamp-collecting.

Sounds bad, doesn’t it? Maybe not. Because rankings can be gamed (as most of automated algorithms), such development create an unprecedented situation in which we are given tools to create mainstream science. It would require lots of work, but it sounds perfectly doable to publish several articles in a short period of time, elevate their rankings immediately after publications, create viral campaigns and then let the old media to pick up the topic. As long as the idea sounds any good, it would reach mountains of hype within relatively short time.

Available and relevant

Great question is asked on EPT blog:

What would be the consequence of just a single butterfly wing-flap in, say, Sweden on some new medical development in Peru?

For researchers to be able to use a new development from the opposite side of the world, such development simply has to be be available. Without OA, knowledge cannot have the same impact as it could have if it’s freely available soon after it’s created. But OA is one part of equation – the second is to create system in which relevant knowledge is findable. I’m not sure if butterfly effect is very frequent when the butterfly does not have possibility to fully interact with the whole system.