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GeoEd: Under review

26 Sep

In this month’s GeoEd column, Sam Illingworth tells us about how teaching undergraduate students about peer review can help eliminate bad practice.

To anybody other than a researcher, the words peer review might seem like a fancy new age management technique, but to scientists it is either the last bastion of defence against the dark arts or an unnecessary evil that purports to ruin our greatest and most significant works.

According to Wikipedia (itself a fine proponent), peer review is defined as “the evaluation of work by one or more people of similar competence to the producers of the work (peers). It constitutes a form of self-regulation by qualified members of a profession within the relevant field.”

Peer review itself is not a new concept; the first documented description of a peer-review process, being found in the ‘Ethics of the Physician’ by Ishap bin Ali Al Rahwi (854–931), states that the notes of physicians were examined by their contemporaries to assess if treatment had been performed according to the expected standards (you can read more on the history of the peer-review process in this article).

Even the great Carl Sagan found the critique of his work difficult to stomach (Photo credit: NASA JPL, via Wikimedia Commons).

Even the great Carl Sagan found the critique of his work difficult to stomach (Photo credit: NASA JPL, via Wikimedia Commons).

“Why do we put up with it? Do we like to be criticized? No, no scientist enjoys it.” So sayeth American cosmologist and author Carl Sagan about the ‘joys’ of peer review, in his book ‘The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.’ He goes on to say that “Every scientist feels a proprietary affection for his or her ideas and findings. Even so… the hard but just rule is that if the ideas don’t work, you must throw them away.”

Just reading these words brings me out in the kind of cold sweat that I normally associate with seeing the bill from mechanic, after having your car serviced. You know that you are going to have to bite the bullet, but in your heart of hearts you just wish that it weren’t so.

Love it or loathe it the peer-review system is an integral part of being a researcher, and given its prevalence it is strange that for many scientists the whole notion of it is a completely alien concept until they first encounter the publication process during their postgraduate studies.

During the first year of my PhD I remember being aghast at the notion that two, or possibly three, strangers would be wholly responsible for deciding whether or not my research was deemed ‘suitable’ for publication, and despite my otherwise excellent undergraduate education I had nothing to prepare me for the whole ordeal. Thankfully I had a very experienced supervisor who was able to guide me through the whole process and teach me a few tricks of the trade (always respond politely, compliment the reviewer for their suggestions, avoid the urge to break down into tears and instead break the comments down into manageable chunks), but even now I still feel a sense of dread when an email notification appears in my inbox telling me that “the reviewer’s comments have been posted.”

Is this how reviewers are perceived? (Photo credit: deviantArt)

Is this how reviewers are perceived? (Photo credit: deviantArt)

By nature I am quite a defensive person, and have been known to take criticism (fair or otherwise) rather to heart, but my experiences of the peer review system have certainly helped me take a more level–headed and professional approach to the critique of my work. Crucially it has also helped me to become a better reviewer myself.

Constructive criticism is essential in order to help one develop as a researcher, and indeed as an individual, but some of the peer reviews that I have seen (and sadly been subjected to) are nothing more than mean-spirited attempts by the reviewer to assert their own supposed authority on a subject. This kind of analysis is beneficial to absolutely no one, and it should be the responsibility of the editors and administrative staff of the journals and e-zines to help eradicate it. There is always something positive to be said about any piece of research (unless it is utterly nonsensical, in which case again the editor should have stopped it from ever being submitted to a reviewer), and being totally negative in your comments will only serve as fuel for a vicious cycle in which young researchers believe that the purpose of peer review is to find fault in the work of others. Instead, good peer review should be a helpful critique of a fellow colleagues work, which politely points out any shortcomings, makes suggestions for improvements, and praises what is good.

I will now be teaching my own university students about the peer-review system, and will be asking them to mark one another’s work throughout the unit that I teach on Science Communication at Manchester Metropolitan University. I think that most undergraduate courses would benefit from a similar approach, not only to prepare future scientists, but also to help students learn how to respond to criticism and how to critique the work of others in a productive and conducive manner. By educating and encouraging young scientists in this way we can hope to potentially avoid these kinds of reactions in the future.

Teaching about peer review at university can help to eliminate bad practice (Photo credit: Gideon Burton).

Teaching about peer review at university can help to eliminate bad practice (Photo credit: Gideon Burton).

For those of you who are currently reviewing a paper, I set you the challenge of explicitly writing at least one compliment to the author. This could be in regards to the excellence or originality of their research, the structure or fluidity of the article, or indeed the clarity with which they express their ideas. To those of you who are not reviewing a paper, try and find at least one positive thing to say (the colour really brings out your eyes, it’s certainly an affordable mode of transport, these scones are delicious!) the next time that your opinion is required; I guarantee that it will leave everyone feeling just a little bit more capable of themselves and what they can achieve.

 By Sam Illingworth, Lecturer, Manchester Metropolitan University

Apply now to take part in the 2015 GIFT workshop!

24 Sep

The General Assembly is not only for researchers but for teachers and educators with an interest in the geosciences also. Every year the Geosciences Information For Teachers (GIFT) is organised by the EGU Committee on Education to bring first class science closer to primary and high school teachers. The topic of the 2015 edition of GIFT is mineral resources and will be taking place on April 13–15 at the EGU General Assembly in Vienna, Austria.

The workshop will explore one of the most important challenges faced by modern society: access to raw materials, including base and strategic minerals, in a rapidly developing and growing world.

Mineral resources, the theme for this years GIFT workshop at the General Assembly

Mineral resources, the theme for this year’s GIFT workshop at the General Assembly

Teachers from Europe and around the world can apply to participate in the 2015 edition of GIFT, and to receive a travel and accommodation stipend to attend the workshop, by November 28. Application information is available for download in PDF format, a document which also includes the preliminary programme of the workshop.

Not sure what to expect? More information about GIFT workshops can be found in the GIFT section of the EGU website. You can also take a look at the post about the 2014 workshop at the GA and at some videos of the workshop videos from 2013.

GeoTalk: Meet Anna Rabitti, winner of I’m a Geoscientist, Get me out of here!

22 Aug

Earlier this year we ran the first ever I’m a Geoscientist, Get me out of here! event, an online chat-based game show in which school kids vote for their favourite geoscience communicators. In this week’s GeoTalk, Sara Mynott  talks to Anna Rabitti, an oceanography PhD student and winner of this year’s I’m a Geoscientist…

 

Meet Anna. (Credit: Anna Rabitti)

Meet Anna. (Credit: Anna Rabitti)

First, for those who haven’t been following I’m a Geoscientist, can you tell us a little about yourself and what made you decide to take part in the competition?

My name is Anna, I am Italian, and I moved to a tiny Dutch Island in the North Sea almost five years ago (after getting my masters in Physics) to work on my PhD project in physical oceanography at the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research, NIOZ.

My PhD project is about internal waves in the equatorial ocean, and how they may interact with the peculiar ocean dynamics at the equator. I use observations of current speed, temperature and salinity from the deep equatorial Atlantic, as well as other analytical tools to find out more about internal waves in confined basins. In the last year I have been also involved in a big European project called MIDAS, helping to characterise the oceanographic conditions of sites that could suitable for deep-sea mining.

I have always liked to share the things I learn and work with people who are not directly involved in science – I see it as compelling responsibility to society. However in the last few years it has been very difficult for me to fulfil this desire as I live in a foreign country whose language I do not really master.

That is why, when I saw the I’m a Geoscientist initiative advertised by the EGU, I did not hesitate to apply for it. It is in English, you can do it from your office, and it gives you the opportunity to be in contact with many kids and teachers from different countries. It is really a great educational experience, for all sides.

Have you done any geoscience outreach before?

In the past, I have been involved in initiatives to promote scientific thinking as a tool that every citizen can use to make conscious social and economic choices. However, I have never really focused only on geoscience before. So far, my experience has been limited to classic public debates and workshops and I’m a Geoscientist was the first time I’ve had the opportunity to interact with so many people through online chats and forums.

What was your toughest question during the competition and how did you respond?

Any of the questions that involved ethical or moral choices. For example this one: “Don’t you think that if a person was to cut a whole tree off, then they have to plant 10 more trees so that the levels of global warming can decrease?”

I am sure that this was asked with the best intentions, and that the student asking this was really willing to positively act to mitigate human induced climate change. However, I found it hard to explain the importance of reconsidering our attitude towards the exploitation of natural resources.

Why, first of all, did the person cut that tree? We are experiencing a very difficult time in human history, when access to resources like fossil fuels and water are the causes of social and economic tension. By the time those ten trees have grown, it might be too late to change our habits. These are very delicate and important issues. Explaining them is crucial, since the actual situation is definitely asking for immediate action, but is also very challenging – especially when you do not have your audience in front of you and you cannot appreciate their reaction immediately. I really hope I succeeded in communicating the urgency of the issue, without scaring the students too much.

What was the question you appreciated the most?

We received so many good questions from the students, some of them very challenging, from life on our (and other) planets to what it is like to travel at the speed of light; from the role of waves in the ocean to the mitigation of earthquake hazards. However, if I have to pick one, I guess I will vote for “How do you know what it is inside of our planet, if no one has ever been there? Suppositions?”.

I find it a very direct and honest question, driven by pure scientific curiosity – I see a brilliant scientific mind behind it!

Among the non-scientific questions we received, I would definitely go for the question asking if Atlantis ever existed. There’s been no scientific proof of Atlantis so far, but my advice is to keep an eye open when sailing on the Atlantic Ocean… you never know what you might find! Students need to know that scientists are allowed to have dreams too.

The ferry between Den Helder and the island of Texel, where the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research, NIOZ, is located. The ferry is equipped with scientific instruments measuring, at each crossing, several properties of the water: temperature and salinity via the CTD (Conductivity, Temperature and Depth sensor), velocity via the two ADCPs (Acoustic Doppler Current Profilers) and colour of the sea and sky via the on-board radiometers. Data are then displayed in real time to all passengers thanks to two screens on the main deck. (Credit: Eric Wagemaakers)

The ferry between Den Helder and the island of Texel, where the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research, NIOZ, is located. The ferry is equipped with scientific instruments measuring, at each crossing, several properties of the water: temperature and salinity via the CTD (Conductivity, Temperature and Depth sensor), velocity via the two ADCPs (Acoustic Doppler Current Profilers) and colour of the sea and sky via the on-board radiometers. Data are then displayed in real time to all passengers thanks to two screens on the main deck. (Credit: Eric Wagemaakers)

You’re the lucky winner of 500 euros, how do you hope to spend it?

The island where my research institute (NIOZ) is located and the mainland are connected with a ferry service that sails every half hour. Since 1998 the ferry has been equipped with scientific instruments that take measurements of current velocity, temperature, salinity and other parameters of the water, such as suspended matter and chlorophyll content, every time the ship crosses the channel. These data are used by my colleagues here at the institute to monitor and understand the delicate ecosystem of the Dutch Wadden Sea, but they are also displayed in real time to passengers on two huge screens.

The institute’s other scientific activities are also shown, as well as pictures taken during research cruises or laboratory or field experiments – I think this is a very effective outreach activity, since it shows citizens, locals and tourists that someone is studying the sea right there, and right then, and that they can be proud of having such an institute on this tiny island.

Highlights of scientific findings are shown to the public with simple pictures: once on dry land, they will perhaps think about the science behind waves, seals, local fish and seaweed, and about the delicate balance that links all these elements together.

Back to the prize. In late 2015 a new ship will start sailing along with the old one. Building a big ship, as you can imagine, takes a lot of time, and we are already planning which instruments, display screens and facilities will be put on board, continuing and improving this precious time series. I thought to add the prize to the money already invested for the scientific equipment on the upcoming new ferry. Unfortunately, no oceanographic instrument can be purchased with 500 euros (they are expensive!), but a new, possibly interactive way to display the measurements to the passengers (an extra screen? An interactive tablet to surf the real time data?) could work.

What’s your top tip for aspiring geoscientists?

Being at the beginning of my career, I consider myself an aspiring geoscientist too, therefore a tip, but also a reminder to myself, could be: being a (geo)scientist is a job like many others, so be professional and make sure you are treated professionally. Being passionate about what you do as a job is sometimes dangerous, because the line between hobby and job gets blurred, and you are likely to give up some work rights with the excuse of “doing what you like”.

It is important then to remember that being a good scientist is a challenging task, it requires time, imagination and discipline (and, often, money). It follows that good working conditions and at least some job security are at the base of good science, but these things are aren’t always available in the academic system. It is the responsibility of the whole scientific community to improve this situation, not only for the scientists of today, but also for those aspiring (geo)scientists that will make up the community tomorrow.

Would you recommend taking part to I’m a Geoscientist to your colleagues?

Sure, no doubt about it! If you are interested in scientific outreach and in the interaction between science and society, I think I’m a Geoscientist can be a very good starting point: it asks you for only two weeks of your time, and a few hours per day, and you do not have to move from your office.

In turn, it gives you the opportunity to interact with many students and teachers from all over the world, as well as with the other scientists taking part to the initiative, and helps you to form opinions about so many different topics that you will surely learn a lot yourself. I would definitely recommend it to scientists of all ages: I think students would also largely benefit from the interaction with scientists at different stages of their careers.

By Sara Mynott, former EGU Communications Officer, as of September Phd student in marine biology at the University of Exeter.

GeoEd: The Future’s Bright

20 Aug

What got you hooked to science in the first place? More importantly, what or who persuaded you that making science your career was, not only worth considering, but should be actively pursed? I’m sure, I am preaching to the converted; we all think science is not only cool, but a worthwhile and rewarding career path; so why is it that we can’t enthuse the younger generations that it is the case too? In this GeoEd post, Sam Illingworth highlights STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) careers and why maybe it’s time we broke down some old stereotypes.

The Wellcome Trust Monitor was originally conceived in 2009 as a means to track over time the UK publics’ interest in, attitudes towards, and experience and knowledge of science. Of the 306 young people, aged between 14 and 18 years, interviewed for the 2013 report, 82 % stated that they found their school science lessons to be interesting. However, whilst 82 % of them also considered science to be a good area of employment to go into (citing good pay, interesting work, and the ability to make interesting discoveries as the main reasons for thinking so), 63 % of them said that they actually knew little or nothing about careers in science.

Are students not getting enough science-specific career information? (Photo credit: BrokenSphere)

Are students not getting enough science-specific career information? (Photo credit: BrokenSphere)

The prevailing view of the typical science career progression is that young children initially have a high level of interest in science, but that, as they move through the educational system, interest is lost at every stage. Whilst the results of the Wellcome Trust’s survey would seem to indicate that there is still enthusiasm in science subjects at the secondary school level (11 – 18 years old), they also suggest that science-related careers may not be pursued by young people because of a lack of information, rather than because of a lack of desire.

With most young people saying that they received careers advice from either their family (67%) or teacher (49%), there is the possibility that their future career paths are being biased towards areas in which these sources are able to provided guided support. Even more alarmingly, only 10% of young people thought that careers advice from a real-life scientist was amongst the most useful that they could receive. Is this because they do not wish to pursue a science-related career, or because they do not identify with scientists as people like them, but rather see them as stereotypical caricatures?

Would you approach this man for careers advice? (Photo credit: antilived)

Would you approach this man for careers advice? (Photo credit: antilived)

It is important for school students to realise that pursuing a science degree at University does not mean that you end up working in a laboratory wearing a white coat and safety goggles. Whilst this might be perceived as an ideal job for a small proportion of students it is by no means the norm, and so as scientists, and as science graduates, we have a responsibility to not only highlight the wide diversity of science and scientists, but also the large number of other opportunities that are available to science graduates outside of the realms of academia and research.

At my institution (Manchester Metropolitan University), some of the job roles that our science graduates were pursuing within 6 months of graduating included: aviation security officer, custom bike designer, defence officer, education assistant for a charitable organisation, web content writer, restaurant owner, and professional rugby player! This is obviously a very varied list, and the fact that almost 90 % of all our 2012/13 Science & Engineering leavers went into work and/or further study 6 months after graduation is representative of the demand for science undergraduates, even in the current economic climate.

A scrum of science graduates? (Photo credit: Thomas Faivre-Duboz)

A scrum of science graduates? (Photo credit: Thomas Faivre-Duboz)

As scientists we have the opportunity to encourage school students to contemplate a career in science as an achievable and exciting option, and also to encourage them to think about the different opportunities that a science degree could afford them. We can do this through a variety of school outreach activities such as career fairs, one-to-one interviews, and the sharing of resources with both the students and the educators. One great resource that we could share is EGU’s database for undergraduate and postgraduate courses, which has a list of a range of undergraduate and postgraduate courses spanning the geosciences across Europe, and which has been designed specifically for those who would like to search for courses based on a specific subject area, rather than by university. It is worth noting that the EGU also offers a platform for job seekers to find vacancies in the Earth, planetary, and space sciences. Research positions relevant to both recent graduates and early career researchers can be found here.

As well as showcasing the interesting research with which we are involved, as scientists we have a responsibility to make ourselves more approachable to students as a source of relevant and useful career advice. So the next time you are in front of a group of school children demonstrating the fun and fascinating world of science, be prepared to spare a moment to discuss your own scientific journey, and the many varied and exciting career paths that studying science at undergraduate level and beyond can result in.

 

By Sam Illingworth, Lecturer, Manchester Metropolitan University

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