Category Archives: Science

Scientific publishing (2/2): A better way forward

The current system is broken, as argued in an earlier post. Given the arguments exposed there, is there a better way forward? I believe there is, and some ideas on how to go about it are presented below. Much of what is being proposed here represents the complete opposite of many of the fundamental principles of the current system: forums instead of journals, acceptance instead of rejection, commentary instead of review, disclosure instead of anonymity, community engagement instead of expert wisdom, live papers instead of dead papers.

Like it or not, we live in an on-line society; certainly most part of research communication and dissemination take place on-line. The word “journal”, in all its physicality, feels very much obsolete. For an on-line world, and for other reasons that will become clearer later, the word “forum” seems much more appropriate. “Neuroscience Forum” instead of “Journal of Neuroscience”. “Cancer Research Forum” instead of “Journal of Cancer Research”. How’s a Forum different from a Journal? Read more...

Scientific publishing (1/2): The current system is broken

I have been honored to serve as Chief-Editor of the section in Cell and Molecular Neuroscience of a prestigious journal, until I resigned this month. It was time  for me to leave space to someone with a stronger belief in the peer-review system. In my case, this has been slowly eroding during the past years, as I witness a steady decline in scholarship, transparency and basic respect across the publishing enterprise and its actors. Failed scientists become editors of powerful journals but their shallow competence limits them as over-qualified secretaries. Researchers with little time to spare accept to review papers, but end up providing senseless and superficial evaluations of dismal scholarship. Read more...

Science is a lifestyle

When I was about in the middle of my undergraduate studies, I decided that I needed some laboratory practice. So I joined a lab that was studying Drosophila genetics. The Prof. there, his name was Enzo Muñoz, was an old-school geneticist, with rather conservative views. We spoke often. He was talking about science. I remember one thing he said once: “There are no boring topics in science, only bored scientists.” I thought at that time that he was defending himself a little bit.

Later I understood that he was actually talking about something more profound. Nothing in science is boring. There are  scientists that may get bored about something, but that does not make that topic a boring one, it only says that those scientists have been unable to find a way to crack that problem or make progress in that topic. Or they simply did not understand its depth. Read more...

Nobel in Africa Initiative – Things you did not know…

The five videos below were recorded during my 2022 residence at STIAS  (Stellenbosch Institute For Advance Study) during the build up to the launch of the first Nobel in Africa Symposium on Physics. I was asked to share some history and fun facts about Alfred Nobel and the Nobel Prize.

Nobel in Africa is a STIAS Initiative in partnership with Stellenbosch University, under the auspices of the Nobel Foundation and the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences with funding from the Knut & Alice Wallenberg Foundation.

Alfred Nobel died in December 10, 1896, as one of the richest men in Europe. With no descendants, he left the vast majority of his wealth to the creation of awards in Chemistry, Physics, Medicine or Physiology, Literature and Peace. He provided only one instruction for the Prizes. They should be awarded for achievements that have afforded the greatest benefit to mankind made by individuals of any nationality, creed or race. It was the first ever truly international prize of its kind lacking any boundaries. Nobel’s vision was one of a united humanity striving for knowledge, beauty and peace. Perhaps now, more than ever before, is this vision more prescient, more profound, more urgent. Nobel in Africa represents the first ever series of Nobel conferences held outside Alfred Nobel’s native land under the auspices of the Nobel Foundation. The fact that they are taking place in Africa and in STIAS is of momentous significance. There could hardly be a better way to honor Alfred Nobel’s vision and legacy. Read more...

Making science (part XVII): “Words without meaning” by Eve Marder

Prof. Eve Marder, from Brandeis University, was one of the founder editors of eLife, a scientific journal launched in 2012, one of the few journals that is still run by working scientists, as opposed to so-called “professional” editors, like most of the commercial journals.

Dr. Marder wrote recently an opinion article for the journal in which she sharply criticises the kinds of words, often derogatory, that reviewers use when judging research papers, grants and appointments.

She writes: “Over the years I have grown to truly abhor some of the words that are overused and abused when we review manuscripts, job candidates, and grant applications. In particular, I now detest five words: incremental, novelty, mechanism, descriptive, and impact. These words are codes behind which we hide, and are frequently used in lieu of actual explanations of what people think about the subject at hand.” Read more...

Making science (part XVI): The perfect abstract

It can be considerably frustrating to have to summarize many years of work in just 150 words, but that is what scientists often have to do at the time of writing the Abstract section of their research papers. However, a well written Abstract is crucially important, as it is the first thing (sometimes the only thing!) that readers will read, including the journal Editors that will decide about its publication. It can really be a make-it-or-break-it for the success of the article. However, many young and budding scientists often struggle with this section, usually because of an inability to distill the single most important and essential part of the discovery in a clear and simple way. Read more...

Making science (part XV): Professional Editors

Once upon a time, science journals were run by scientific societies and their editors were active scientists. Very few of these remain today. Instead, nowadays most journals are own by private, usually very large, publishing companies and their editors are “professional”. That is, their only job is to be journal editors, they are not active scientists. Most of them were active scientists earlier in their career, but left academia to become “professional” editors, usually, shortly after their postdoctoral studies. Because of this, most professional editors are much younger (no problem there) and considerably more inexperienced (hmmm… ) than the principal investigators from whom they receive manuscripts for consideration. Typically, these “youngish” editors can get advice and (one would hope) guidance from more senior editors within the same journal or publishing organization, but they are pretty much in charge of the main decisions of the manuscripts assigned to them. Read more...

Interview with Singapore’s Straits Times

Today in The Straits Times:

NUS team develops man-made molecule that can ‘kill’ skin cancer cells

Professor Carlos Ibanez says the use of the molecule to activate the “death receptor” of melanoma skin cancer cells presents an option for a new treatment method for the remaining 45 per cent of melanoma skin cancer patients for whom current treatment fails. Photo: NUS Yong Loo Lin School Of Medicine.

Read the full article HERE.

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?

Our physiology is regulated by an internal clock that generates daily rhythms known as “circadian”, from the Latin circadiem, meaning “around one day”. Circadian rhythms are ancient and exist in all forms of life. Life on Earth is adapted to the rotation of our planet, and the internal clock anticipates day/night cycles, helping organisms optimize their physiology and behavior. Although the existence of a biological clock has been known for nearly a century, only recently have we begun to understand what it is made of and how it keeps ticking.

Our story begins in 1729, when French astronomer Jean-Jacques de Mairan took a mimosa plant, which leaves are open during the day but close at night, and placed it in constant darkness. He observed that the leaves still opened and closed rhythmically at the appropriate time, suggesting an endogenous origin of the daily rhythm. Physiology is controlled by genes, and the biological clock is no exception. In 1971, Seymour Benzer and Ron Konopka isolated mutant flies that had alterations in their normal 24h cycle of activity. Fifteen years later, Jeffrey Hall and Michael Rosbash, working together at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, and Michael Young, at Rockefeller University in New York, isolated the mutated gene, called period.

As instrumental as this was, however, the isolation of the period gene did not tell very much about the mechanism of the biological clock. It was a remarkable series of discoveries made during the 1990s by this year’s Nobel Laureates that finally elucidated how our biological clock ticks. The basic principle, first proposed by Jeffrey Hall and Michael Rosbash, is deceptively simple. The period gene produces a protein that accumulates in the cell and, after reaching a certain level, blocks the gene and hence its own production. As protein levels subside, the gene becomes active again and the cycle resumes. As many things in biology, however, the devil is in the details; as it was still unclear how the period protein can be stabilized long enough and then enter the cell nucleus to inhibit its own production. Michael Young discovered two additional genes, he named them timeless and doubletime, that partner with period and together contribute to the generation of robust oscillations of approximately 24hs.

The discomfort of jetlag is evidence of the strength of our biological clock, as it takes time for the machinery to readjust to a sudden change in environmental conditions. Although sunlight is scarce this time of year in Stockholm, the good news is that food is also a strong resetting stimulus, so the banquet that follows after this ceremony will surely help towards adjusting our internal clocks.

The 2017 Nobel Laureates have uncovered a mechanism controlling a truly fundamental process in physiology, how our cells and bodies keep time. Such time-keeping is essential for our adaptation, and has important implications for human health; not just jetlag, but also the incidence of chronic syndromes, such as cancer, metabolic and sleep disorders, and several neurological conditions.

Professors Hall, Rosbash and Young:
Your brilliant studies have solved one of the great puzzles in physiology. Your discoveries have unraveled the cogs and wheels of the biological clock, an essential mechanism for the survival of life on our planet.

On behalf of the Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institute, I wish to convey to you our warmest congratulations. May I now ask that you step forward to receive the Nobel Prize from the hands of His Majesty the King.

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!”

I do not live in a bubble, so, in a disappointing way, I was not surprised. But it was difficult for me to keep myself from venting a remark of frustration, “O., you tell me where you are publishing your work, but you don’t tell me what the work was about, what you have discovered! Isn’t that the important thing?” Well, I did not actually make that last rhetorical question, but I should have.

Here is O.A., one of my former students, one of the promising ones, explaining his research in terms of the journals in which it is getting published, as if that were the only thing that matters in his science. Yes, he may have been trying to make an impression on his former mentor. But…  where did the science go? Isn’t that what really counts? The “Journal Syndrome” has advanced to such point that  the title of the journal in which the research is published becomes more important than the research itself and hence the preferred short-hand description for science output.

How did we get to this situation and can this trend be reversed? Without doubt, this is a direct product of the current addiction to Impact Factors, the mother of most curses in modern science.  However, while making Impact Factors disappear would appear very difficult at this time, avoiding the Journal Syndrome should be relatively simpler. When someone asks about your research, pretend he or she is a distant relative with no inside knowledge and simply tell them what you found in as few and simple words as possible. Journal Syndrome manifests most commonly when the other person is also a scientist.  In this case, you can allow yourself a bit more jargon and specifics, but the key point is always to keep the focus on your new findings. Try this next time. And if you are at the other end, as I was with my student O.A., don’t let them get away with the journal babble. Force them to tell you what they found. Hopefully, they’ll know…