Great Experiments in Science Publishing

It’s a great time to follow scientific publishing: right now there are some innovative and even radical experiments happening. Open access has, of course, been the biggest (and most successful) experiment. But figuring out how to run a good journal without a paywall is more of an economic innovation, rather than an innovation in how we communicate science. There are other fascinating experiments underway that go beyond open access.

PLOS One goes all-in on post-publication peer review, publishing papers after a review for methodological soundness, and letting the community decide whether the work is significant. eLife tries to make the traditional publishing approach less wasteful by forcing editors and reviewers to talk to each other to produce a consensus review. Faculty of 1000, PeerJ, and The Winnower are trying various more radical experiments in peer review. And and ResearchGate are both trying to harness the power of social media to help researchers communicate their work with each other.

These are fascinating experiments, but do they work? It’s a hard question to answer, but in my latest Pacific Standard column, I take a look at a recent study by, which found that papers posted to their site had a citation advantage — on average, 83 percent more five years after publication. The study is not published in a peer-reviewed journal (for now), but it’s out there for the community to review: the authors have released all their code and data alongside the report.

The question of whether there is a citation advantage for certain types of publications (e.g., open access journals) has been controversial and hard to resolve. There are clearly many potentially confounding variables that have to be controlled for if you want to make a convincing case. The study takes a stab at this, and it is a provocative attempt to get the scientific publishing community to focus not just on the question of open access in general, but specifically on how it’s implemented:

Beyond, our work raises questions about how characteristics of venues matter for open access citations. To our knowledge there has been no research on what features of open access repositories or databases make articles easier to discover, and to what extent that leads to increased citations.

As’s founder, Richard Price told me, we need to explore whether savvier use of social media tools will make for a better publishing system, one that helps people find work that otherwise would have gone unnoticed:

Certain open access platforms are push networks: articles are pushed out to followers on upload, and sometimes there are viral properties where followers can re-share the article with their followers. A tentative conclusion is that push networks with viral properties generate more exposure for papers, and this exposure leads to citations.

On Beauty in Technical Science Writing

Via Chris Woolston at Nature, I ran across last week’s discussion about the role of beauty in technical scientific prose. Writing over at The Tree of Life, Stephen Heard offers several examples of beauty in scientific writing, and he calls on the community to encourage beauty in scientific writing:

[E]xamples of beautiful scientific writing do seem to be unusual; and those that exist aren’t well known. I don’t think it has to be this way. W could choose to change our culture, a little at a time, to deliver (and to value) pleasure along with function in our scientific writing.

I’ll second the idea that we should encourage beauty in scientific writing, but with a big caveat: we absolutely shouldn’t try to do this by making our technical writing more belletristic. We don’t need to drop in hokey metaphors or cloying phrases — that’s what would happen if you encouraged most scientists to write beautifully. Continue reading “On Beauty in Technical Science Writing”

Some gene conceptions and misconceptions

Any geneticist who has discussed genes with friends and family knows that there are a lot of misconceptions floating around out there. This is understandable – genetics involves some tricky concepts, and sometimes we use confusing linguistic shortcuts to talk about genes without using jargon. Sometimes scientists get confused as well (although that’s a topic for another day).

One of the big misconceptions is that there are genes ‘for’ specific traits — you’ll often hear that we have a gene ‘for’ X, X being some phenotypic trait. (If X is not a trait, but some sort of molecular player, than the language is correct, e.g. we do in fact have a gene — actually multiple genes — for the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase.) This language is often rightly condemned as being misleading, because there is no one-to-one correspondence between genes and traits: traits are the product of multiple genes, while any given gene will contribute to multiple traits.

But you only need to tweak the ‘gene for X‘ language slightly to get at a correct and important concept in genetics: variation in a single gene is often responsible for important differences in X (in a particular population). This is usually what we mean when we say there is a ‘gene for X‘, but this clarification is rarely noted when people knock the phrase. Continue reading “Some gene conceptions and misconceptions”

Pinker explains why academics can’t write

Ahead of tomorrow’s release of Steven Pinker’s new book on writing, The Chronicle features a teaser essay – “Why Academics’ Writing Stinks”:

An insight from literary analysis and an insight from cognitive science go a long way toward explaining why people who devote their lives to the world of ideas are so inept at conveying them.

Bad academic writing shouldn’t be so surprising. During your training as an academic, you get almost no training in writing after your undergrad studies. Sure, you are required write, but you’re not formally trained to do it well. In fact grad students in the sciences generally don’t write very much anyway – a thesis proposal, and a couple of papers, so maybe 4-5 relatively short manuscripts during your entire 5-7 years of PhD training.

I won’t make any grand claims for my own writing, but I have to plug my favorite style guide: Joseph Williams’ Style beats Strunk & White, hands down.

UPDATE: Link fixed!!!

Reach out and grab some cash

512px-Left_Hand_-_Kolkata_2011-04-20_2350I use twitter primarily to keep up with what’s new and newsworthy in science and science communication. It’s a great tool to quickly catch up on new discoveries or  controversies. It also can expose opportunities you had no idea existed. The other day I saw a tweet about small grants to fund science outreach projects. So cool! I didn’t realize these small scale funding mechanisms existed to help encourage scientific outreach.

Continue reading “Reach out and grab some cash”

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