Tuesday, 13 October 2009

science and photo doctoring

We all know that photo manipulation (aka photo doctoring, aka photoshopping) for the purposes of news reporting is, at best, controversial. We tend to forget though that the photographs were manipulated long before invention of computers.

Professor Hany Farid, the leader of the Image Science Group at Dartmouth College, compiled an entertaining guide to photo tampering throughout history, including the early composite photograph of Abraham Lincoln.

What about science? The recent Nature editorial says:

At a meeting on plagiarism in London last week, Virginia Barbour, chief editor of PLoS Medicine, a peer-reviewed journal published by the Public Library of Science (PLoS), which is headquartered in San Francisco, California, said that the problem of image manipulation has “crept up” on journal editors since the advent of software such as Photoshop.

Yeah, blame Photoshop. I am all for open access but the editing in open-access journals (including PLoS family) is already minimal. All the work is made by the (paying) authors and the (unpaid) reviewers. I don’t see why the authors would want to doctor their digital images, it looks to me like more work, even with Photoshop (which is not a cheap software), and they still have to pay. On the other hand, there always will be people who falsify their results, irrespectively of tools.

Emma Hill, Executive Editor of The Journal of Cell Biology, commented today:

At the JCB, we have screened all images of all editorially accepted papers since 2002. Over that time, we have consistently seen manipulations that affected the interpretation of the data in ~1% of accepted manuscripts. We have revoked the acceptance of those manuscripts. We find manipulations that violate our guidelines but do not affect the interpretation of the data in over 25% of accepted manuscripts. In those cases, the authors have to remake the figure(s) in question with a more accurate representation of the original data.
I say, 25% is a lot. How one can be sure that manipulations “do not affect the interpretation of the data”? Why the authors should bother with image manipulation otherwise? And then again, what is “more accurate representation of the original data”? (Back in my university days, we were taught that the artist’s impression of a microscopic view is often superior to a photomicrograph, because it is closer to what a human eye sees through the microscope.) Shouldn’t the editors just request the original data? Am I asking too many questions?

Monday, 12 October 2009

women Nobel prize winners 2009

I have mentioned earlier that women scientists are not featured prominently among the Nobel Prize winners. Now, within a week (from 5 to 12 October 2009), five women won Nobel Prizes.

So, a little correction to the statistics: now there are altogether 40 female Nobel Prize winners out of 802 individual laureates, i.e. 4.9%. Still, only 15 women got Nobels in science — unless you count Economic Sciences, in which case it will be 16.

However small the number of women Nobel Laureates remains, this year’s prizes make a bit of difference. Ada Yonath is only fourth (!) female Nobel laureate in Chemistry, the previous one was Dorothy Hodgkin in 1964. Elinor Ostrom is the first woman ever to receive The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences “for her analysis of economic governance, especially the commons”, whatever that means. For the first time, two women biologists, Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol Greider, share the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

In the latter case, there is a sort of explanation. In the telephone interview, Elizabeth Blackburn said that in her research field (molecular biology of telomere and telomerase) the ratio of men and women is “fairly close to the biological”, while all the other research fields are “aberrant” in this sense. Overgeneralisation? Maybe. Maybe not all the other fields. Simply vast majority of them.

There’s nothing particularly about the science per se which has any, sort of gender-like quality to it.
You want women to have access to science because it’s such a wonderful thing to do. Anything that makes it more feasible for women to be in science and do the science they like, that’s good.
I think that it doesn’t help to be a woman in science. Maybe now, but not when I was progressing.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

the art of scientific writing

I got The Art of Scientific Writing (first edition) in early 1990s and it has been my trusty companion ever since. Although some parts of the books are a bit out of date (check out the section 5.2 Typewriter or Word Processor? and you’ll see what I mean), it remains an excellent read.

Appendix A, Oral Presentations, gives a no-nonsense advice how to deliver a good lecture, while Appendix B, Aspects of Scientific English, is a must read (I mean it: must read) for anyone who ever think of submitting a written communication in English. I can’t recommend it enough.

Much scientific writing is littered with idle words, awkward constructions, and inaccurate phrasing simply because few scientists take seriously the importance of good writing.
Readers of scientific prose are altogether too tolerant and too willing to shoulder an inappropriate amount of the burden. Perhaps this is a reflection of the scientist’s love of puzzle-solving, but it is certainly not conductive to effective communication.
We have frequently condemned the tendency to indulge in meaningless verbosity. The most obvious target is the pompous phrase hiding a simple idea:
  • a number of (many)
  • a majority of (most)
  • at this point in time (now)
  • despite the fact that (although)
  • due to the fact that (because)
  • for the purpose of (for, to)