And May All Your Dreams Come True

For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to be a writer.

As a child, I filled endless notebooks with my stories. They were mostly stories about animals, or thinly veiled replicas of Lord of the Rings. I may even have tried my hand at the odd love story. At school, I kept a private tally of how often my essays were read aloud, or made a teacher cry. I love the written word.

When I was 29 years old, an editor approached me and asked me to write a book. That book, Animal Personalities, is currently available for pre-order.

Of course, when you achieve your childhood dreams, a weight lifts from your heart, a divine confidence settles in your soul, and you never again doubt yourself or your abilities. You become as happy as you always believed you would be . . .

I recently wrote a short case study about being a postdoc for Edinburgh’s “Thriving in Your Research Position” document from the Institute of Academic Development. In the case study, I talk about a spectral figure who has haunted me throughout my whole career: the Perfect Postdoc. She is always better than me. When I wrote my book, she somehow wrote a better one. She’s like a funhouse mirror version of me, and when I change, so does she. I’ll never be able to outdo her.

If you’re a long-term reader of this blog, you’ll know I’ve been thinking about failure lately. I explored my failures as an animal trainer, and meditated on how academia breeds an anti-failure culture. I’m also critical of the idea that all scientists have to be specialists – I’m not a specialist. I’m interdisciplinary and I love it. This leads me to another area of my academic life where the Perfect Postdoc is always one step ahead of me.

The Perfect Postdoc understands R much better than I do. I’ve spoken before on this blog about my frustrations while trying to learn R. While I have taught research methods and statistics for several years now, I’ve always hesitated to teach R. I’ve hesitated because, well . . . because I’m not brilliant at it. My code is ugly and often cobbled together, and I often find the community around R, places like stack exchange and stack overflow, are hideously unfriendly.

I’ve been lucky enough enrol on the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education’s woman-only Aurora programme this year. The first session was called Identity, Impact and Voice, where we explored how we can make a difference in our workplaces and communities. There were two-hundred plus women at the Aurora event in Edinburgh this month, and so many of us spoke about being afraid of ‘not being the best’.

The curious thing is, when I was listing my strengths, I never said I was “the best at [thing]”. My strengths are my communication skills, the fact I’m approachable, and my willingness to try new things. I firmly believe that in five years time anyone who doesn’t have R skills is going to find it very difficult to get a job in academia. Hiding my bad code means I’m not contributing to the R conversation happening right now. I have a voice. And I can have an impact too.

Hadley Wickham, who wrote some fabulous R packages, says:

So with that in mind, I’m going to start sharing my own R teaching materials more widely.  You can find my resources on Github (scroll down to find direct links to the exercises). The worst that can happen is that someone tells me my code is ugly. The Perfect Postdoc’s code is of course much prettier, but do you know what? Just like writing my book, writing that exercise was pretty fun.

Glory in your bad code. Glory in saying “I don’t know how to do that” in your local programming club meetings. Glory in your voice. There is nothing else like it.

 

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The Academic Place

Have you been watching The Good Place? For UK viewers, it’s on Netflix, and it’s a very funny and sharp comedy based on exploring ethical points of view about what ‘goodness’ really is. I love it. The latest episode focussed on the Trolley Problem, which I have a particular soft spot for.

I’m a utilitarian, as I’ve said many times on this blog, and for me the trolley problem has limited discussion value. It’s also one of my favourite examples of a flipped classroom (you can use my flipped classroom here on TES Blendspace).

I was really lucky with this classroom that I had great engagement from my students, and there are a few elements of this that have really stuck with me. One of them was one of my students who flatly said no, she could not pull the lever to move the trolley. She could not bear the thought of causing a person’s death. The class had a brilliant discussion, and a truly equal one as well, where I walked away from the class feeling as though I’d stretched my understanding of ethics as well.

The trolley problem hinges, in my opinion, on the fact you know your inaction will result in five deaths. When you know the outcomes, does inaction hold equal culpability as action? I firmly believe that it does, and this is partly an outcome of my atheism. I don’t believe there is a final tally of good acts or evil acts, and the only ‘worth’ is how much you helped other people. It’s my ethical position, and informs my actions, and how I value other peoples’ actions as well.

This brings me to a less happy topic. The #MeToo hashtag has been spreading over social media, a visible way for people to say they had experienced sexual harassment or assault. Eventually, I posted too.

There was so many feelings swirling around before I made that post, but in fact it was walking away from a student engagement event that made me think about it. I have said in our Digital Footprint MOOC that I believe my Twitter (and indeed this blog) are a way for me to widen participation in academia, to help engage the public and students with the kinds of science I do. The fact is, I have been sexually harassed in my role as ‘student’, more than once. My feelings on this are very mixed. I feel ashamed. I feel guilty that I ‘brought it upon myself’. I feel relief, and a sense of fraudulence, that these incidences of harassment only made me uncomfortable and shaky, and didn’t physically harm me.

Ultimately, I feel that if a student under my care came up to me and told me they had had a similar experience, I would be furious. I would not be asking them what they’d done to bring it on themselves, even though I ask myself that. I would support them.

Saying #MeToo was deeply uncomfortable. It was frightening. I know other scientists who chose to disclose, and others who didn’t. No one owes someone their disclosure. For me, I wanted to say something because I knew it had happened, and staying silent felt a little like not throwing the lever and changing the trolley’s tracks. As uncomfortable as it made me, staying quiet was worse. It’s my personal ethical stance, and I don’t demand that everyone follows me.

But there’s still more. With the news that Oxbridge is less diverse than it was seven years ago, and the mental health challenges associated with postgraduate study are a terrifying read. I fundamentally think that we are all in this together, and we have to talk about the things that go wrong. We also have to help the people who contribute to harassment, to the stressful culture, who make the choices about who comes in. We’re them too.

Changing an individual person’s behaviour is hard, trust me, I know. Changing a workplace culture is even harder. But it’s worth it. By having the conversations, we might just be able to make the Academic Place . . . the Good Place.

The Finnish Lesson

For the record, I managed two whole plenaries in AMEE before I was overcome with opinions and had to blog about it.

First things first, AMEE 2017, an International Association for Medical Education, has been a bit of a revelation for me. Sitting in a crowd of 3800 medical educators, when you’ve only been on the job for fourteen months, is a bit overwhelming. But this has been one of the friendliest, most accessible conferences I’ve ever attended. It’s been a delight so far.

But I want to talk about the Finnish Education system here. Our second plenary of the conference was by Pasi Sahlberg, whose talk was titled “What can medical education learn from the Finnish experience of educational change?

First off, it’s important to talk about the conference crush. It’s a thing that happens when you hear another researcher talk and their passion and excitement, and their insight into a topic, just sets your heart racing and before you know it you’re having idle fantasies of working in another research group. It happens to me about ten times a conference. I got a case of it listening to Sahlberg talk about the Finnish education experience. In about 15 years they managed to make massive improvements, and top the global league tables in many arenas of literacy. They improved so much they surprised themselves.

I think Sahlberg will be posting his slides on his website, but I quite enjoy taking my own things away a talk. The highlights to me were:

  • Teaching must be respected (in Finland you need an Masters degree to do any kind of teaching)
  • School systems should not be competitive with one another for ‘clients’
  • Value play and failure
  • The society you teach in needs to have high equity

 

Whether or not this is what Sahlberg intended to communicate, this is what I walked away with. There are so many questions that come tumbling out when I think about this. For us in Scotland, I really worry about the equity in our educational society. Any three students in my lecture could have paid three different fees to hear the same material. That worries me greatly. With the changing politics of the UK, we risk losing many of our hard-earned gains in society.

Sahlberg presented a slide which talked about ‘Global Educational Reform Movement’, and how it had spread (like a g.e.r.m.) from the UK in the eighties, and moved forward. I can’t be the only person in the room who was thinking about dear old Maggie Thatcher. Whether education must always be political is an interesting question (one opinion, one more). I have always been a political creature, and I believe there is politics in all we do. I found Sahlberg’s slides very convincing that we must create certain kind of systems in order to promote better educational outcomes.

Sahlberg also highlighted the value of play, briefly, and the value of what he called ‘small data’. These are subjects close to my heart. As someone with a big-data PhD, I now spend a lot of time on small data, and explore qualitative ways to evaluate what we do, because sometimes that’s the best method you can use to answer the question you’re interested in. I like these two elements because they are both things that are sometimes frowned upon in the environments I work. When I did my M.Sci, I had this feeling that I wasn’t allowed to get emotional about the animals, I wasn’t allowed to have fun in my job. Where did this come from? No one ever told me this, but it was part of my culture nonetheless. I still struggle a little with this.

This blog is called ‘Fluffy Sciences’ because I want to kick back against the ideas that ‘soft’ things, play, small data, feelings, are less valuable. What we do is massively complicated, asking questions like “how do we change a whole community in order to improve our education”, and not recognising how valuable that is results in any old person doing teaching, being given no support, and students who are treated as commodities, not people.

Here at AMEE, it’s incredibly empowering to be around so many people who recognise the importance of education research. Let’s hope that we can all take that confidence back with us to our schools as a beacon.

The Fashionable Scientist

Science, being the awesome beast it is, recently landed a ten year old probe on a comet. My laptop is three years old and it’s already beginning to groan and whine.

But you’ve probably heard and seen the commotion over one of the scientist’s shirt, which was a gaudy, loud, and featured many half clad ladies on it. On Twitter, a wit said this:

 

And thus began a Twitter storm of epic proportions as ever. On the one side, those who (rightly) feel that the posit03ion of women in STEM fields is a tenuous one and needs direct action, the other those who (rightly) feel that what a scientist wears has little to do with their achievements or even their attitudes to other people.

I was asked by some of my friends what I felt about the issue being both a scientist and a dyed in the wool feminist.

Before I commit my words to the internet it’s important to recognise that my opinions on this are based on my own ethics, my own experiences and they might not necessarily reflect that of all feminists, all women or all scientists – but I also believe my opinion is the right one, hence the fact it’s mine (hey – this is pretty much exactly like animal welfare ethics!)

I think it’s a storm in a teacup. The guy wore a dumb shirt, a woman rolled her eyes, and suddenly we’re onto the death threats. Why is this the default position of the internet? I think it’s sad that the guy was reduced to tears in his apology, I think it’s horrific the tweeter’s life was threatened for pointing out a very real problem. It is frankly ridiculous to say that a shirt overshadowed the accomplishment of the human race. Humans are more than capable of carrying two or more issues in their heads at one time.

Really the only person who address this with any degree of clarity was my guiding light, Hadley Freeman. In her style column she says:

There are so many signifiers of sexism in the world and the science world that to attack a man for his shirt feels a little bit like fussing at a leaky tap when the whole house is under a tidal wave . . .  There is a difference – and I concede, the difference may be fuzzy in some cases – between enjoying the weird fantasy-world depiction of women, and seeing actual women as sex objects. Taylor has the right to wear whatever pig-ugly shirt he likes, and people have the right to be outraged by it. But when that outrage leads to a grown man weeping on TV, perhaps we all need to ask if this outrage is proportionate. My God, I’m a fashion bitch and even I don’t want to make anyone cry over my comments about their clothes.

 

But as it’s the run up to Christmas, there is a silver lining. My wonderful STEM field compatriot has her HauteDog Couture shop on Etsy. We’ve decided at our next meet up we’ll wear dresses made of that shirt material. HauteDog Couture is amazing. Check it out.

The Empathetic Spreadsheet

Serendipity smiles on FluffyScience. I said I wanted to talk about the peer review scandal and the very next day I’m asked to act as the peer reviewer for the first time! If I ever needed an excuse to talk about peer review, I certainly have it now.

The peer review scandal everyone has been talking about is this: 120 computer generated conference papers were withdrawn by Springer. Including a delightful sounding paper about an empathetic spreadsheet. It sounds shocking. But it’s probably not quite as shocking as you think it is.

Let me explain using my own first hand knowledge of peer review. I don’t pretend to be an expert by any stretch of the imagination, but by fortunate happenstance I have enough publications, and enough different kinds of publications, to walk you through the process.

Have you checked out my Google Scholar profile? The link’s over on the right hand sidebar. Or just click here. You’ll see that there are currently five items in my profile. You can use Web of Knowledge instead but that requires an academic log-in, doesn’t update as quickly and isn’t as comprehensive in its record keeping. Therefore we’ll stick with Google.

All five of those publications have a Digital Object Identifier which basically means they have a permanent presence online. And they’re all linked to my name. The top three publications on that list are scientific papers. There’s MacKay et al 2012, MacKay et al 2013 and MacKay et al 2014. Then there’s a conference proceedings and a book chapter about the video game Halo (that’s another story).

Therefore I have publications in three categories: Papers, Conference Proceedings and Book Chapters. Now. Which publication wasn’t peer reviewed?

If you guessed the video game chapter, you’re correct. Video games, much as I love them, are not known for their rigorous peer review. You might be surprised to find that the Conference Proceedings (this one for the British Society of Animal Science (BSAS) 2012 conference in Nottingham) were, in fact, peer reviewed.

I’ve presented at two International Society for Applied Ethology (ISAE) conferences, two BSAS conferences, and two regional ISAE conferences. For all six conferences I have had to submit an abstract, a short description of what I intend to talk about. For BSAS the abstract is a page long, with references, subheadings and must present data in table or graph form.

This is quite unusual for my field, ISAE by contrast is something like 2000 keystrokes and frowns on references. On the other side of the fence, many of my colleagues have just submitted papers to the World Congress on Genetics Applied to Livestock Production (doesn’t it sound thrilling?) and these have been three pages in length. They’re papers more than abstracts.  But WCGALP only runs every four years and it is a very large conference, hence the extra work.

All of these conference papers will get comments back on them. Even the regional ones (although my last regional one was a comment simply saying I needed to be more explicit about what behaviour I was recording). The point being that a human has read these papers and passed judgement on it.

Here we stop and acknowledge the scientific committees of these conferences who have an extremely hard job reviewing so many small pieces of science.

So these 120 conference papers that were removed from Springer – what went wrong?

Well first off, many of the authors on these conference proceedings did not know they were co-authors. Someone submitted papers with their name on it without them knowing

But wait – I hear you say. Jill, your conference paper is on your Google Scholar profile. Wouldn’t you be suspicious if an extra publication cropped up? Yes, reader, I would. But note that despite publishing in six conferences only one of them is on Scholar. Why is this paper the lucky one? If I had to guess I’d say someone referenced something in that Proceedings, forcing Scholar to index it. But I may be wrong – Google’s not particularly clear on this. And some of these authors may be in the lucky position of having so many publications they genuinely don’t notice a few extra ones.

So why submit a fake paper with somebody else’s name on it? I’d be surprised if these papers are being presented at the conferences (although I’d love to hear the talk on empathetic spreadsheets). But what I do know is that those fake-papers have to cite other papers and another very important research metric is the number of citations you have. (Mine is a glorious 1).

Yes – fake papers are a problem. But it’s not a problem of bad results getting out there, it’s a problem of the system being gamed, and people using these kinds of research metrics as the only gauge of a researcher’s quality.

Research Metrics

There are ways around this. In the UK we have a new system for assessing research quality in Higher Education Institutes. It’s called the Research Excellence Framework (REF). Funding bodies use this to help them decide how to allocate funds over the next few years.

You enter REF as an institute. REF grades the papers submitted to them based on this framework.

  • A four star paper is world leading research, original, with great impact and the highest quality science.
  • A three star paper is pretty damn good, internationally recognised, good impact and high quality science.
  • A two star paper is internationally recognised as being original research, good impact and high quality science.
  • A one star paper is nationally recognised as being original research, good impact locally and high quality science.

 

The difference between these stars is really all about the impact of the science, which is great. Of course, REF has its own drawbacks. In the next few years you’re going to see a lot of UK papers with sweeping, statement titles instead of informative titles. A paper which would have been titled “The effect of indoor housing on behaviours in the UK dairy herd” will now be titled “Management systems affect dairy cow behaviour [and industry if I could wrangle that in there]”. You’ll also see a lot of new roles being created just before a REF exercise because the papers stay with the primary author. If you have a 4 star publication under your belt you become a Premier League footballer during the transfer season.

But one thing REF is  not vulnerable to is false publications. A panel of experts reviews all the papers that the institute chooses to put forward. No empathetic spreadsheets allowed.

We’ve just finished the first round of REF and it will be interesting to see how it affects research going forward. As animal welfare scientists we’re excited about the emphasis on impact, something we’re good at demonstrating.

Lastly, while 120 papers sounds like a lot, I’d like to direct you towards Arif Jinha’s 2010 paper which estimated that there are 50 million published articles out there. We are talking about less than 0.000001% of articles even if these were papers, never mind conference publications.

 

By that logic, my own publication records contributes 0.00000008% of the world’s papers. I’d better get cracking.