September 2014 edition
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Making science more social

Between May and July of this year, the Nature Publishing Group surveyed over 3,000 scientists from around the globe about their use of large online networking and collaboration sites. The sites that were considered in this survey included not only the science networking site ResearchGate, but research repositories like and Mendeley, and also social media sites like Twitter and Facebook.

The survey results, not surprisingly, point to a complicated and evolving picture. Some of these sites are proving to be helpful (although problematic in terms of rights) locations for posting papers. Others are more useful for discussions, and still others are better for professional networking.

Despite its early lead and significant attention from the media and  investors, ResearchGate hasn't evolved into the category killer of choice for all online science collaboration needs. Twitter still has a smaller audience among those surveyed, for instance, but their audience is much more engaged and in aggregate percentage terms scores higher than any other source in all research-related measures (like posting content, following discussions, sharing links to content, contacting peers, and more). Only Facebook appears to be out of the picture as a useful social site for science and scientists (at least among those surveyed).

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News desk

New IPCC report: Global warming even worse than we thought

Credit Kadir van Lohuizen for The New York Times Runaway growth in the emission of greenhouse gases is swamping all political efforts to deal with the problem, raising the risk of “severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts” over the coming decades, according to a draft of a major new United Nations report. Global warming is already cutting grain production by several percentage points, the report found, and that could grow much worse if emissions continue unchecked. Higher seas, devastating heat waves, torrential rain and other climate extremes are also being felt around the world as a result of human-produced emissions, the draft report said, and those problems are likely to intensify unless the gases are brought under control. The world may… Read more

Foldit players jump-start Ebloa research

Months before the recent Ebola outbreak erupted in Western Africa, killing more than a thousand people, scientists at the University of Washington’s Institute for Protein Design were looking for a way to stop the deadly virus. For inspiration, they turned to an unlikely source: gamers. Specifically, they asked thousands of computer-game enthusiasts worldwide to tackle an Ebola puzzle on the interactive game Foldit, a 6-year-old project that encourages people to solve puzzles for science. Some of those solutions were so promising that researchers have started to investigate them. The collaborative work between scientists and game players could as easily be a dead end as a breakthrough. But one thing is clear: The three-dimensional insights by Foldit players helped jump-start an… Read more

New ocean readings may explain global warming “pause”

OVER the past few years one of the biggest questions in climate science has been why, since the turn of the century, average surface-air temperatures on Earth have not risen, even though the concentration in the atmosphere of heat-trapping carbon dioxide has continued to go up. This “pause” in global warming has been seized on by those sceptical that humanity needs to act to curb greenhouse-gas emissions or even (in the case of some extreme sceptics) who think that man-made global warming itself is a fantasy. People with a grasp of the law of conservation of energy are, however, sceptical in their turn of these positions and doubt that the pause is such good news. They would rather understand where… Read more

Will Google start dabbling in science journals?

If, as rumoured, google builds a platform for depositing unrefereed research papers for “peer-reviewing” via crowd-sourcing, can this create a substitute for classical peer-review or will it merely supplement classical peer review with crowd-sourcing? In classical peer review, an expert (presumably qualified, and definitely answerable), an “action editor,” chooses experts (presumably qualified, and definitely answerable), “referees,” to evaluate a submitted research paper in terms of correctness, quality, reliability, validity, originality, importance and relevance in order to determine whether it meets the standards of a journal with an established track-record for correctness, reliability, originality, quality, novelty, importance and relevance in a certain field. In each field there is usually a well-known hierarchy of journals, hence a hierarchy of peer-review standards, from… Read more

Are more kids dropping out because of math and science?

Language and math have always been part of the core public school experience in the US; science, by contrast, has often been considered an optional topic. But the combination of a push for greater standards and a recognition of science’s increasing role in our high-tech economy has resulted in the adoption of science requirements by many states. Now, an analysis of US census data suggests that the increased push for science may have a negative effect: an increase in the dropout rate in states that have adopted science requirements. This isn’t to say that science is bad for students. “That there is positive impact of rigorous coursework when chosen by students is not controversial,” researchers based at the Washington University School… Read more

Breaking the glass ceiling in math

Photo credit: EPA In 2005, Larry Summers unwittingly brought criticism upon himself by suggesting that the lack of women at the top in STEM fields could be explained by innate (biological) differences in mathematical ability. Although women are gaining ground at the undergraduate and even graduate level in certain STEM fields (e.g., biological sciences–but not in math or engineering), they remain under-represented at the highest levels (e.g., tenured professors). The evidence for continued under-representation of women is pervasive, although the causes are complex. Women publish less and are less likely to be in the coveted position of last author on scientific publications ( In a recent analysis of the probability of becoming a professor, it was found that women remain… Read more

Web Trolls Winning as Incivility Increases

The Internet may be losing the war against trolls. At the very least, it isn’t winning. And unless social networks, media sites and governments come up with some innovative way of defeating online troublemakers, the digital world will never be free of the trolls’ collective sway. That’s the dismal judgment of the handful of scholars who study the broad category of online incivility known as trolling, a problem whose scope is not clear, but whose victims keep mounting. “As long as the Internet keeps operating according to a click-based economy, trolls will maybe not win, but they will always be present,” said Whitney Phillips, a lecturer at Humboldt State University and the author of “This Is Why We Can’t Have… Read more

Mandating a solution to journal affordability and accessiblity

Dating from 1665, the scholarly journal has served the research community well for over 300 years. In the past few decades, however, the subscription model it utilises has created a couple of apparently intractable problems—what we will call the affordability and accessibility problems. The affordability problem has its roots in the dramatic growth in research after World War II, a problem made worse by the constant above-inflation increases in the cost of journal subscriptions—which led to what librarians call the “serials crisis” [1]. The situation was further exacerbated by the fact that learned societies struggled to cope with the growing demand from researchers for publication outlets. Spotting a lucrative market opportunity, for-profit companies (led by Robert Maxwell’s Pergamon Press) began… Read more

The state of team science: NSF review and recommendations

An October 2013 NSF workshop explored organizational and institutional factors and policies affect team science. Presenters discussed research related to the following questions:  How do current tenure and promotion policies acknowledge and provide incentives to academic researchers who engage in team science? What factors influence the productivity and effectiveness of research organizations that conduct and support team science, such as research centers and institutes? How do such organizational factors as human resource policies and practices and cyber infrastructure affect team and collaborative science? What types of organizational structures, policies, practices and resources are needed to promote effective team science, in academic institutions, research centers, industry, and other settings? The materials from this workshop are now available online. The following passage… Read more

New Zealand building public engagement in science

Science and the knowledge and innovation that flow from scientific progress have a critical role in creating and defining our future Many of today’s most complex decisions (e.g. on public health, natural resources stewardship and communications technology) require us all to weigh scientific evidence and our values. This will be even more so in future years as the world becomes increasingly connected and technology and knowledge advance. As New Zealanders we should all feel encouraged and equipped to engage in the key questions facing our society now and in the future. Improving New Zealand’s economic, social and environmental outcomes through growing an innovative society drives the need for an increasingly science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)-competent workforce. This plan responds… Read more

New survey shows how scientists use social networking sites

Despite the excitement and investment, it is far from clear how much of the activity on these sites involves productive engagement, and how much is just passing curiosity — or a desire to access papers shared by other users that they might otherwise have to pay for. “I’ve met basically no academics in my field with a favourable view of ResearchGate,” says Daniel MacArthur, a geneticist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. In an effort to get past the hype and explore what is really happening, Nature e-mailed tens of thousands of researchers in May to ask how they use social networks and other popular profile-hosting or search services, and received more than 3,500 responses from 95 different countries. The… Read more

Harassment in Science, Replicated

Image by Katherine Streeter As an undergraduate student in biology, I spent several weeks in Costa Rica one summer with an older graduate student on a research project deep in the cloud forest. It was just the two of us, and upon arriving at our site, I discovered that he had arranged a single room for us, one bed. Mortified but afraid of being labeled prudish or difficult, I made no fuss. I took the lodge owner aside the next day and requested my own bed. The problem ended there, and my graduate student boss never made any physical advances. Reflecting back, I’m struck by how ill equipped I was to deal with this kind of situation, especially at 19.… Read more

The growing gap between journalism and public relations

One factor behind the increase in public relations jobs has been digital technology. Agencies and companies are now able to reach out directly to the public in any number of ways and are hiring public relations specialists to help them do so. There are ways this can be helpful to the public, such as being able to offer updates in real time about virus outbreaks and background reports on the risks associated with it. One concern it raises when looked at alongside the shrinking newsrooms is the greater difficulty reporters have vetting information from outside sources. In their 2010 book, “The Death and Life of American Journalism,” Robert McChesney and John Nichols wrote, “As editorial staffs shrink, there is less… Read more

Explaining research without jargon

In 2007, Alan Lawson, then dean of the graduate school at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, was looking for a way to morph the popular “elevator pitch” he had seen in the business world into a useful academic exercise. The practice, which challenges young entrepreneurs to explain their business plan to potential funders in less than 30 seconds, could help graduate students improve their oral presentation skills, he reasoned. But while a half-minute elevator ride may be all the time one needs to pitch a company, Lawson didn’t think it was enough time to describe a research project. The perfect amount of time for science, it turned out, had been staring him in the face every morning. Queensland… Read more

Clarifying science “authorship”

Imagine that one of your colleagues or friends publishes a new book and mentions you on the cover as the co-author. Without letting you know. You walk into a bookstore and see “your” book. Would you feel honored or embarrassed? Would you consider it your book? Would you take the credit if people complimented you? Would you take the criticism if people said it was mediocre? This summer I discovered my third publication that I did not write. I am a scientist, and I was updating my curriculum vitae for a grant application when I checked the publication database of the U.S. National Library of Medicine for the correct page numbers of one of my publications. The search on my… Read more

Neurodata without borders

The Allen Institute for Brain Science, California Institute of Technology, New York University School of Medicine, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) and the University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley) are collaborating on a project aimed at making databases about the brain more useable and accessible for neuroscientists—a step seen as critical to accelerating the pace of discoveries about the brain in health and disease. With funding from GE, The Kavli Foundation, the Allen Institute for Brain Science, the HHMI, and the International Neuroinformatics Coordinating Facility (INCF), the year-long project will focus on standardizing a subset of neuroscience data, making this research simpler for scientists to share. This is the first collaboration launched by “Neurodata Without Borders,” a broader initiative… Read more

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