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Archive for the ‘Science process’ Category


An article in the New Statesman this summer argues that the British degree has lost its value. The evidence is largely restricted to:

  1. A complaint by students at the University of Sheffield (course not mentioned) which resulted in an uplift of the marks, particularly at the bottom end.

Without context this is a non-argument. Was the course new and there was a mismatch between what was delivered and examined? Was the marking rogue (not everyone does their job with due diligence…)?  And so on.

There follow a few paragraphs that provide no evidence, but plenty of hand waving.

The last paragraphs consider the increase in the number of students going to university and asks the question, sure, if access if wider, there should be more at the bottom, more failures. A corollary is that schools are doing no better now than they used to.

I agree there has been some grade inflation, which has two sources. The first is using the full range of marks available, rather than deciding in advance that there will be no more than one first class degree each year. Current practice is the right thing to do and past practice was wrong. The second source of grade inflation is due to the law of unintended consequences. Legal challenge, now possible because students can access their marks (transparency can only be a good thing) means there are issues at degree borderlines. Common responses have been to avoid all marks at borders (of course this fails singularly to solve the problem, since the final mark is an average of many, so student still end up under the border) and to push students up a % or two if their final marks are below a border. These and other responses to the problem have had an inflationary effect, but I would estimate it to be more more than a few %.

Counter arguments to very substantial and continual grade inflation are:

GCSEs and A-levels are harder than they were, and students are better prepared for university (just as primary students are much better prepared for the jump to secondary). While every year ministers and sections of the press whinge that the all time high level of passes represent a failure, the teaching profession (who have forgotten more about teaching than ministers or members of the 4th estate ever knew) argue the opposite. I always take the expert over others and my limited personal experience of the matter supports the views of the teaching profession.

University courses have changed. At least for STEM courses, they are much harder and demand a lot more effort on the part of the students (my personal opinion is we have gone too far) than 40 years ago, when I was an undergraduate. There is far greater challenge and courses develop skills that in STEM subjects were not even touched on, such as critical thinking and critical analysis of data. Back in the day you either figured this out or you didn’t, so this was learned by the time-honoured system of osmosis. Importantly, a student’s abilities in these areas had no impact on the degree awarded. There is perhaps a generational difference between the young (18-35 and the middle aged and older graduates >35), with the former better at critical thinking  and analysis than their elders.

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Universities are always cash strapped, and over the last few decades there has been a drop  in the number of PhDs funded by the UK government. In essence stipends have been increased (absolutely necessary and credit to The Wellcome Trust for pushing this), but funding has not increased commensurately. So numbers have dropped.

The response of institutions has been to push for more overseas students and to develop, from internal monies various funding  schemes. However, generally this has only served to replace losses in numbers funded by government. Gone are the days when every PI expected a new PhD student every year. This has a detrimental effect on research culture, as it leads to centralisation, a reduction in diversity (in the broadest sense of the word) and fewer trained scientists. The UK relies extensively on scientists trained elsewhere for its R&D and we need to do more in relation to training. Granted science is a mobile and international profession, but without contributing proportionally to the global talent pool, our R&D may wither in the long run.

The problem is money: institutions have limited funds they can use for PhD studentships. Our European model, where PhD students are fully funded for a set number of years (usually 3-4, sometimes a few more) is in my view preferable to the US one, where students work to support themselves. This is for the simple reason that the latter model can lead to feudalism and abuse of power, which is well documented.

There is money available for institutions willing to take leadership on the Open Access Agenda.

An aggressive pursuit of an Open Access agenda, as has been done in Germany, The Netherlands and Sweden, and most recently UC, means cancelling subscriptions to the journals of the Big Four. This frees up a substantial budget, with no ill effect on research and scholarship. A portion of the funds would, of course, need to be used to hire librarians supporting document sourcing by UG and researchers and the balance to fund PhD students. I note that teaching UGs these skills is important, since most STEM workplaces (industry, where many STEM graduates and postgraduates work) do not have large libraries. One advantage of using internal funds is that one can select and so only take the very best candidates, rather than restricting enrolment to those with access to funding. While such proposals will likely be met with horror by a good many academic staff, once in place it appears that no one notices much change and continues to work productively. This is the experience of countries and institutions that have cancelled subscriptions to one or more of the Big Four.

Sadly, with my University running workshops on “How to get published in Nature”, it appears that we are 20 years behind the times and this simple and effective means to improve teaching and research (PhD students being an engine room for research) is unlikely to see the light of day here.

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A discussion today with a student asking about the use of the Royal “we” in a report about his work. I agree, this is wrong. My suggestions were the first person singular and the passive. The passive gets a bad press in places, but it does work; the repetition of “we” or “I” grates, the latter particularly so because it can convey a strong sense of ego. Though as I pointed out, this depends how it is used. It was common in single author papers for the author to use “I”. The practice has disappeared due to multiauthorship and the urge to make scientific observations look objective. We finished by joking about the feudalism implicit in the use of ‘my laboratory’, as if this was some sort of sentient being, and then I wondered out loud whether one might not, in a multiauthor paper state:

“In experiment X (Fig. X), blogs demonstrated that….” And then later “In experiment Y (fig. Y) Doe indicated….”

Tonight a tweet from @UtopianCynic

UtopianCynic tweet

reminded me of my earlier conversation. Indeed, why bother with all the rubbish associated with authorship position? Why not have a list of authors and in the paper report who did what and who thought what?

It would then be clear (i) who pulled together the original hypothesis; (ii) who did the experiments; (iii) who thought up the interpretations of the data.

I think I might try this out.

This also solves the long-standing problem of blaming whoever is at the bottom of the pile when a paper is found to have manipulated data. Someone will be explicitly on watch and someone else will have done a particular measurement under that person’s watch.

It will be obvious who should walk the plank, and reaching for lawyers will only result in keel hauling, because it will be all written down and signed off.

 

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A recent article on bioarchiv “Amending published articles: time to rethink retractions and corrections?” puts forwards ideas on how we might change the way we deal with retractions and corrections. (more…)

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A little late this year, but then there are many calendars, so it is surely the start of the New Year for someone, somewhere, today. (more…)

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I made my first New Year’s resolution on December 31, 2013: to only undertake reviews for open access and learned society journals.  This I have stuck to well, as I noted a year later for the simple reasons that it makes sense and it frees up my time.

Today I had a request to review a manuscript for Nature Publishing Group’s Scientific Reports, and I realised that I need to clarify my position.

I am on strike. (more…)

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This is a question raised at the end of the excellent article by @Amy_Harmon regarding Open Access and preprints is can biomedical scientists evaluate each other without journals?

The short answer is a resounding yes.  Physical scientists and mathematicians have been posting much of their research as preprints on arXiv for a few decades, with no prejudice to their ability to evaluate the quality of work or of individuals.

The counter argument raised by many in biomedical sciences, from scientists to some journal editors can be boiled down quite simply: We are special and cannot possibly do this.

Various arguments are put forward, from competition (=fear of scooping) to intellectual property. These arguments are heard in many biomedical/biology departments, sometimes leading to quite heated discussions. It is also interesting to note that the defenders of the status quo are not necessarily the older members of the community.

There is a simple answer. Yes you are special, but not in the good sense of the word. (more…)

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