Thursday 26 November 2015

It's nice to be nice but it's more important to be honest

Science is hard, and if you're on the receiving end of criticism it can be especially hard. As scientists we need to have thick skins because we deal with harsh criticism every day - we are bombarded with critical comments from reviewers (usually anonymously) when they tear down our latest grant applications or papers. We get critical questions at conferences. We argue with our friends, colleagues, and people we don't even know. We disagree a lot. We get frustrated. It's fair to say that disagreement and frustration are hallmarks of the job.

As a junior scientist this can take some getting used to. Most of the time the disagreement is good-natured, but occasionally it can creep into the personal.

This morning we saw an example of this when a prominent study just published in PNAS drew some flack on Twitter. Small N, no replication, big story.  Personally I saw it as just another day at the office -- just another unremarkable exemplar of the low empirical standards we set for ourselves in cognitive neuroscience. I realise that sounds harsh but that's just how I feel about it. We need to set higher standards, and step one is being publicly honest about our reactions to published work.

Our field is peppered with small studies pumped out by petty fiefdoms, each vying for a coveted spot in high impact journals so we can have careers and get tenure and maybe make a few discoveries along the way. It would be disingenous to say that I'm any different. I've got my own fiefdom, just like the rest. It's no less petty; I am no better than anyone else.

When I look at fMRI studies like the one this morning, I see how far we need to come as a field. Does that sound arrogant? I don't care. I wrote about this recently because reproducibility is a huge problem in biomedical science and something a lot of people (but not enough) are working hard to fix. It is a bigger problem than anyone's ego, bigger than anyone's career.

Some folks get upset at the direct nature of post publication peer review. They might know the scientists involved; they might think they're careful; they might like them. And they might think such criticism is an attack on the integrity of the researchers -- that robust post-publication-peer-review, pointing out probable bias or low reproducibility, is tantamount to an accusation of misconduct. 

This is false because questionable practices aren't the same as fraud and bias isn't the same as misconduct. Much, if not most, research bias happens unconsciously. It can and does distort our results despite our best efforts because we're humans rather than robots. I believe many in our community are not only blind to unconscious bias, they're blind to the possibility of unconscious bias. They think that because they're careful that their studies are robust. But once you know the extent of your own bias it changes your mindset in a deep way. We learned this in my lab some time ago, which is why we now pre-register our studies.

Twitter is a great social leveller, allowing all kinds of voices to be heard. This is tremendous for science because it adds a layer of immediacy and diversity to peer review that busts conventions and blows traditional (stuffy) forms of interaction, and traditional hierarchies, right out the window. 

So while I agree with the sentiment that it's nice to be nice to each other, I believe it's even more important to be honest. If you wave what I see as bullshit in my face I will probably call it bullshit, and I expect you to do the same to me. In fact I expect you to do the same for me because by being honest you are doing me a favour.

Thursday 30 July 2015

Be sure to have your say on the future of the Guardian Science blog network

It is one of the great privileges of my career to be a writer on the Guardian science blogs, where I contribute mainly to the psychology blog Head Quarters. It's nearly two years since we launched Head Quarters, and it has been great fun for all of us on the writing team (Thalia, Pete, Molly, and me) and, most importantly, I hope readers have enjoyed our posts.

The science blogs overall have been a great success for the Guardian, and we're now entering an interesting period where the structure of the blog network is being reviewed and some aspects may be revised. We now need your input as readers to ensure that any changes we make are the right ones, so if you read any of the science blogs, please have your say by completing our reader's survey

Next year we will also be launching an exciting citizen science platform, fronted by a new section of the Guardian tentatively called "Guardian Experiments". The platform will provide a workspace for hosting large-scale online research studies, including (for instance) psychology experiments, polls, and citizen science initiatives. We'll provide regular updates on this initiative, and in the meantime you can read about one of the initial projects we plan to launch on the platform here.

Tuesday 16 June 2015

The first rule of Tim Hunt is…

I see a lot of people at the moment saying we should stop talking about the Tim Hunt affair and focus on the Real Issues facing women in science. As though condescending arseholes at the top of the profession aren't one of those issues.

Even Brian Cox is doing it. Lucky I don’t idolise anyone or my illusions might just be shattered.

All of you saying we should move on, or that the response to Hunt was “disproportionate” (if I never hear that word again it will be too soon) need to take a good hard look.

Many of us will only “move on” from Tim Hunt as soon as there is a serious recognition that Hunt’s remarks at the WCSJ were serious and damaging enough to warrant the sanctions that have been applied. Spare me the world’s smallest violin, but a white male professor FRS Nobel Laureate having an unremunerated honorary position taken away together with a couple of positions of influence on the ERC and Royal Society does not an excommunication make. I don’t want to hear any more self-pitying bullshit about him being “hung out to dry” or “removed from society”.

I haven’t said much about the Tim Hunt affair. To be honest I’ve been busy listening to the reactions from others, particularly women in science. And as a privileged white male professor at a leading UK university I honestly don’t feel that my opinion counts for much. But I do have one, and for what it’s worth here it is:

1 – Hunt’s comments were unacceptable and stupid. He has yet to offer a full apology, which just shows how little recognition he has of sexism in science. Oh but he's old, right, so that's ok? Fuck that. My dad is the same age as Hunt, has one less Nobel prize, grew up in 1950s Australia (AKA Betty Crocker Central) and could teach him a thing or two about equality.

2 – the prompted resignations from UCL, Royal Society, and the ERC were appropriate. Some have criticised them for being too quick. Bullshit. They were fast because the case was clear. They did the right thing and I applaud them.

3 – there has been no witch hunt, no lynch mob, no burnings or beheadings. Just people, including lots of women scientists, expressing their displeasure with Tim Hunt’s comments on social media. And often with great humour.

4 – I am deeply disappointed by some of the defences of Hunt emerging from various Establishment figures, publicly and in private. A lot of these defences are being expressed behind the scenes and consist of “He’s a nice guy; he has no media training and was lost at sea; I’ve never seen any evidence of him behaving in a sexist manner so everything is fine”. Many of these people are sending these messages in the hope that the recipients will use their influence to defend him on their behalf. Stop it. If you want to defend Tim Hunt, at least have the spine to do it yourself.

5 – To those calling for more evidence of wrongdoing before "condemning" Hunt, just stop. The comments are evidence enough that he is not fit to hold ambassadorial roles in science. Being a great scientist does not justify being a purveyor of 1950s sexism.

6 – Those telling us to move on or pay attention to something else would do well to examine the privilege of their own vantage point. Why exactly do you want to move this debate on so quickly? And here's some fun Bingo to play while you’re at it.

7 – We are all sexist. I know I am because I was raised in 1980s Melbourne surrounded by gender stereotypes and it is an ongoing battle combatting these in work and life. Avoiding benevolent sexism is particularly challenging. I will be working hard to teach my 9-month old son to fight these stereotypes as he grows up, rather than accept them as I did.

8 – Fuck off, Boris Johnson. You tedious populist fart. There, that was easy.

9 – Athene Donald has published a fantastic list of actions we can all take to further the cause of women in science. My only proviso is that she predicates it all on a very shaky defense of Hunt, who is clearly her friend. But the list is excellent and I’ve reproduced it below without the unnecessary "Hunt is a really nice guy" baggage:

  • Call out bad behaviour whenever and wherever you see it – in committees or in the street. Don’t leave women to be victimised;

  • Encourage women to dare, to take risks;

  • Act as a sponsor or mentor (if you are just setting out there will still always be people younger than you, including school children, for whom you can act);

  • Don’t let team members get away with demeaning behaviour, objectifying women or acting to exclude anyone;

  • Seek out and remove microinequities wherever you spot them;

  • Refuse to serve on single sex panels or at conferences without an appropriate level of female invited speakers;

  • Consider the imagery in your department and ensure it represents a diverse group of individuals;

  • Consider the daily working environment to see if anything inappropriate is lurking. If so, do something about it.

  • Demand/require mandatory unconscious bias training, in particular for appointment and promotion panels;

  • Call out teachers who tell girls they can’t/shouldn’t do maths, physics etc;

  • Don’t let the bold (male or female) monopolise the conversation in the classroom or the apparatus in the laboratory, at the expense of the timid (female or male);

  • Ask schools about their progression rates for girls into the traditionally male subjects at A level (or indeed, the traditionally female subjects for boys);

  • Nominate women for prizes, fellowships etc;

  • Tap women on the shoulder to encourage them to apply for opportunities they otherwise would be unaware of or feel they were not qualified for;

  • Move the dialogue on from part-time working equates to ‘isn’t serious’ to part-time working means balancing different demands;

  • Recognize the importance of family (and even love) for men and women;

  • Be prepared to be a visible role model;

  • Gather evidence, data and anecdote, to provide ammunition for management to change;

  • Listen and act if a woman starts hinting there are problems, don’t be dismissive because it makes you uncomfortable;

  • Think broadly when asked to make suggestions of names for any position or role.


Monday 30 March 2015

Why I am resigning from the PLOS ONE editorial board

Today I tendered my resignation as an Academic Editor at PLOS ONE. 

It's a slightly sad day for me. As I explained to Damian Pattinson in an email, I remain as much a supporter of the PLOS ONE mission as when I joined the editorial board over two years ago. PLOS ONE has done more than any other journal to combat publication bias and to normalise open data practices. Sure, the PLOS ONE mechanism doesn't always work perfectly, but in terms of philosophy it is light years ahead of most other journals in the social and life sciences.

The reason I'm leaving PLOS ONE isn't because they did anything wrong (although it must be said that the volume of editorial requests is unfeasibly high). Instead, the Registered Reports initiative is really starting to gain traction and I am increasingly finding myself helping other journals launching the initiative or even serving on editorial boards that are offering the format. So I have decided to focus my efforts on editing for journals that offer, or plan to offer, Registered Reports. For now, at least, PLOS ONE isn't willing or able to do so. Meanwhile, the list of adopting journals continues to grow; the latest exciting addition is Royal Society Open Science, which will be launching Registered Reports across all sciences later this year.

In the interests of transparency I should say that, for the same reason that I am leaving PLOS ONE, I also declined last week to join the editorial board of Nature Scientific Reports. Upon being invited to join their editorial board, I responded that I would be happy to do so if they would consider offering Registered Reports, and that I would be delighted to help them set up the format. I had hoped their response might be positive given the stated mission of the journal to avoid setting "a threshold of perceived importance to the papers that it publishes; rather, it publishes all papers that are judged to be technically valid." Unfortunately they responded: "We have considered venturing into the world of registered reports, but it isn’t something we’re able to get involved with right now." 

Fair enough, but then I'm afraid I can't (in good conscience) join your editorial board. A growing number of journals claim to celebrate scientific validity and transparency above the standard values (like "novelty" and "impact" of findings) -- in fact, the banner of transparency could almost be said to be in vogue right now -- but I find that the real litmus test is whether such journals are willing to accept papers before the results are known. If not then some small part of them still wants to selectively publish "good results". There is no room for fine print on the transparency banner.

What I have recently done is join the editorial board of Collabra, an interesting new open access journal being launched by the University of California Press. Collabra have agreed to offering Registered Reports and we will be updating the Open Science Framework information hub for Registered Reports as soon as there is further news. 

So - my thanks and a fond farewell to PLOS ONE. And my message to any other journals: if you want Chris Chambers on your editorial board (not that anyone really should of course!) then you need to either offer Registered Reports or plan to do so in the future. 

Trust me, you won't regret it.*


* Well, you won't regret offering Registered Reports. I, on the other hand, am an entirely different matter...