Category Archives: Science

Circadian rhythms

Presentation Speech by Professor Carlos Ibáñez, Member of the Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institute, Member of the Nobel Committee for Physiology or Medicine, 10 December 2017

Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Esteemed Nobel Laureates, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Phileas Fogg, the main character in Jules Verne’s acclaimed novel Around the World in Eighty Days, could not have suffered from jet-lag during his trip, despite crossing multiple time zones. His body had plenty of time – more than 3 days per time zone – to get adjusted to the time differences encountered along his journey. Today, in the era of jet travel, we can cross several time zones in only a few hours; but our bodies suffer, as they struggle to adapt to the new time at our destination. Many of our foreign guests this evening are surely experiencing this now. Why can’t our physiology adapt more rapidly? What keeps it behind? Read more...

Making science (part XIV): Journal Syndrome

The other day, I run into O.A., one of my former students who is now a  research group leader. O.A. is not the type that  lacks self-confidence, and although having a bit of a lazy attitude, he has some good ideas and a good feel for where the money is. I asked him how his research was going. He responded with a tepid smile, as if to indicate that I had asked the right question: “Very good. Next week I have a paper coming out in Nature, although I am only second last author in that one. I published a paper in EMBO Journal jus a few weeks ago. And we have also made some very interesting observations which will likely lead to a paper in a high-impact journal! Read more...

Making science (part XIII): How not to make science

A newly recruited staff in a research group has her first meeting with the principal investigator, a full Professor,  to discuss projects and tasks to carry out in the lab. During the conversation, it becomes apparent that the so-called principal investigator is nothing more than a former clinician turned science administrator that pretends leading a research group. There are no new projects coming from the mind of this principal investigator.

Go to PubMed and find something interesting to work on”, says the Professor.

Astonished, the newly recruited lab member becomes silent and after a few awkward minutes leaves the room, in shock. Read more...

Making science (part XII): The problem with impact factors

I have been around long enough to remember the time when there were no impact factors. (Don’t know what an impact factor is? Read HERE). We all knew that, say, Nature, was more prestigious (or sexy, hot, trendy, impactful, whatever you want…) than, say, JBC. And that JBC was better journal than many (actually many!) other (ie lower) journals. We did not need any impact factors to realise that. And of course this “intuitive” information was used to evaluate job candidates and assess tenure. A paper in Nature was very important, we all knew that, and did not need any impact factors. The problem now is that impact factors  put a hard number on what earlier was an intuitive, soft process. So, now we know that not only is Nature “better” than JBC, it is actually 10.12 times “better”. And PNAS is 2.23 times “better”. That is what has generated so many problems and distortions. The temptation to use those numbers is just too high, irresistible. For the journals, for the papers in them, and for individual scientists. And the numbers change every year. When applied to individual papers this gets totally crazy. Imagine. The “value” of a given paper can be higher (or lower) this year than, say,  3 years ago when it was published. The same paper, the same data. And let’s not get started with what the impact factor has done to innovaiton and creativity. (For a good view on this, read Sydney Brenner’s interview HERE). Read more...

“A boring Noble Prize” (or a lesson in mediocre science journalism)

At the end of September each year, science journalists all over the world make their forecasts for the upcoming announcement of the Nobel Prizes that take place during the first week of October in Stockholm, Sweden. The week begins with the announcement of the winners of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, awarded by the Karolinska Institute. It is followed by the Physics, Chemistry and Literature Prizes. As expected, this activity is all the more significant at Swedish newspapers and TV and radio stations, and this year of 2013 was no exception. Inger Atterstam, from the Svenska Dagbladet newspaper, is regarded as one of the most accredited science journalists in Sweden. Her 2013 forecast for the Physiology or Medicine Nobel Prize was vast and broad (to be on the safe side, presumably), and included scientists responsible for discoveries concerning the epidemiology of smoking, cochlea implants, treatments against malaria, rheumatoid arthritis, leukaemia and even Bill and Melinda Gates (!) (The nature of the discoveries made by the Gates couple which according to Ms. Atterstam deserved such a high honour was, however, not revealed). Read more...

Making science (part XI): A perverted view of “impact”

Marc Kirschner is the John Franklin Enders University Professor and chair of the Department of Systems Biology, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA 02115. He recently wrote an editorial for Science magazine published on 14 June 2013.

Kirschner debunks the notion of research “impact” as the likelihood that the proposed work will have a “sustained and powerful influence”. He writes that: “Especially in fundamental research, which historically underlies the greatest innovation, the people doing the work often cannot themselves anticipate the ways in which it may bring human benefit. Thus, under the guise of an objective assessment of impact, such requirements invite exaggerated claims of the importance of the predictable outcomes—which are unlikely to be the most important ones. This is both misleading and dangerous“. Read more...

Making science (part X): What open access journals have in common with premium wine

Open access journals charge fees to their authors for publication of accepted articles. Some of those fees can be quite significant. Cell Reports, a new  journal from Cell Press, charges $5,000 per article, the highest among open access research periodicals. There is currently a debate as to whether the journals that charge the most are the most influential. A recent survey appears to indicate that price doesn’t always buy prestige in open access. My friend and colleague M.F. has recently made a prescient comment in this context: “…but apart from the commercial desire to maximize profits, the pricing is probably designed as part of the brand signal, to make the point that this should be in the very top tier of journals. Similar to launching a new “premium” wine to the market, if price on release is low, the consumers will never perceive it as a premium wine… . Time will tell if this self-fulfilling prophecy is indeed true, or if journals like Open Biology or eLife can completely break that model. Read more...

Making science (part IX): The process of acceptance of scientific theories

Novel scientific propositions are initially taken with skepticism. Eventually, they become accepted –at least some of them. The transition between heressy and main stream has been debated ad nauseam. British geneticist J.B.S. Haldane (1892-1964) has been famous for many things, one among them was his incisive sarcasm. Haldane was an assiduous contributor to the Journal of Gentics, not only of scientific articles, but often many book reviews. One of those reviews, published in 1963 (Journal of Genetics Vol. 58, page 464), is perhaps the best known among the lot, not because of the book being reviewed, but because of Haldane’s now famous description of the stages in the process of acceptance of scientific theories. In Haldane’s words, theories invariably pass through “the “usual four stages”: Read more...

Making science (part VIII): A more specialized journal

“Dear Author, 

Thank you for sending us your paper “Downregulation of HlpxE-mediated transcription doubles median life-span expectancy in humans”, but I am afraid we cannot offer to publish it in The Current Biologist.

We appreciate the interest in the issue you are addressing, and your results sound potentially significant for the field, but our feeling is that at this stage your paper would be better suited to a somewhat more specialised journal.

I am sorry that we cannot give you a more positive response, but thank you for your interest in The Current Biologist.

Regards,
Geoffrey South
Editor”

Many of us —professional scientists writing research articles— have had to confront this type of letters from journal editors. We have grown accustomed to them. A standard cut-and-paste piece of text used knee-jerkedly by editors without much thought or consideration. We file them promptly, and move on. After all, there are plenty of journals around, both general and specialized. No big deal, right? Read more...