I love the café/bakery eatery chain Panera Bread. Ever since I was introduced to them in 2003, my wife and I have frequented this establishment in many different cities of the US, finding with delight that our trust in their food quality and quantity has not been misplaced. We love their menu items, soups and sandwiches – even some of their seasonal salad offerings (and that’s saying something, because neither of us is a very salad-y person). My wife is particularly keen on their Chai Tea Latté. Their bakery is excellent, not to mention the delicious breads they make, which can be bought separately. So imagine my consternation, when on a recent visit, I discovered that they appear to be peddling some weapons-grade bullshit about chemicals and additives in food.
I am immensely, indescribably sad to learn this morning via an emailed missive from Spektrum der Wissenschaft (the German publishers behind our SciLogs.com platform) that they are going to shutter this platform down in September, the ostensible reason being that they “weren’t able to find investors for this platform” – the bane of any private endeavor. Some of you, my fellow Scilogs bloggers, may have known this already, but I certainly didn’t. More fool me.
There is no denying the fact that visual representations —photos, graphics, and video— play a significant role in telling a story and conveying a concept. Even if the adage from early twentieth century, “a picture is worth a thousand words”, may have lost its charm a bit in this age of easy digital image/video manipulation, it’s not difficult to imagine why images and illustrations would have a tremendous impact in the communication of complex content, such as science communication. As James Balm (@JustBalmy), blogger and Social Media Assistant for BioMed Central, explained in an informative 2014 post:
Media and communication professionals, including those in the news business, understand the power and value of visual communication. The old adage, “A picture is worth a thousand words“, has never been truer than it is now, what with the nearly ubiquitous use of imagery and iconography – both moving and still – to communicate information via printed material, digital screens, and even the built environment.
(Note: This is a post in which I share some personal anguish surrounding a particular issue; please feel free to skip it altogether if you are not interested in this issue.)
Like me, my wife is a biomedical researcher, and has been working as a postdoctoral fellow in the School of Medicine in my university. I work in immunology and host-pathogen interactions, but my wife moves in more exalted circles of molecular and cellular biology. She has studied small nucleolar RNA, as well as intracellular regulatory mechanisms associated with breast cancer and leukemia. She is about to join the School’s pediatrics department, in order to work under an NIH-funded project to find a strategy against a virus that is harmful to newborn babies.
A long time ago, back in April 2010, I wrote a quasi-ranty post on the erstwhile NatureBlogs on the subject of spam comments I received to my posts. Many folks amongst my co-bloggers at that time shared their experiences. After the move to Scilogs and the WordPress platform, the super-efficient spam filter manages to keep spam at bay with virtually zero false positives. It is, therefore, with a sense of nostalgia that I sometimes visit my Spam Comments folder in the WordPress Admin dashboard, and with a flick of a button – poof! – they are gone forever, consigned to whatever digital hell (or Phantom Zone) deleted spam comments are banished to. However, sometimes, they do have some gems amongst them, worth preserving for posterity because of their sheer surreal quality. Here are a few examples.
Note: This is an old post that was supposed to have been auto-published on September 19, 2011 (!), but didn’t for some unknown reason. I found it in my list, and decided to go ahead and publish it today, because the message still remains valid.
My professional and personal interests often require me to browse through many scientific journals of various disciplines. I don’t always remember – I admit, shamefacedly – how fortunate I am, to be a member of a University system with an amazing collection of biomedical journals. The Hopkins library system, a fantastic system by any count, allows me online access to a huge array of journals when I am at work, and even when I am at home (by remotely logging in to the library system).
Yet, every so often, I become acutely aware of the systemic problem – the largely prevalent closed access publication system, because of which the results of Federally funded research work – and therefore, by extension, funded by our tax dollars – are not accessible to the general public. In the closed-access system, if an individual wishes to read a particular journal article, s/he needs to either be a member of some institution which has purchased an institutional subscription (for a massive fee – therefore, difficult for many smaller institutions in these times of cash crunch), or purchase an individual article for upwards of 15, 20, or 25 dollars. If one needs to follow up on the references, well, tough luck in absence of lucre.
Or, what one gets for trying to be good and law-abiding.
Navigating the labyrinthine maze known as the Copyright Law is never an easy task, either for the prospective blogger/author, or for the organization that would host/publish the work of such a blogger/author. This problem is particularly acute for academic or personal bloggers, who are attached – rather loosely – to free platforms (such as Google Blogger or WordPress), or to platforms hosted by non-profit concerns (such as this one, Scilogs.com – NOTE: Now hosted at my own expense at my server, inscientioveritas.org). I, as an academic/personal blogger, am not paid by Scilogs or anyone else for my blogging endeavors; I like writing, I like explaining how things work, and I am passionate about science, science communication and science education. I do this by carefully juggling my time in between my work as a bioscience researcher.
2011 saw a study by Donna Ginther, a University of Kansas economist, and colleagues, published in a journal no less than Science, that presented evidence for the existence of racial bias in the grant funding process at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). This study prompted major changes instituted by the NIH Director to encourage more minority participation in the sciences. A recent Nature News blog post (in my Inbox today) reported a new study, this time in the Journal of Infometrics, by Yang et al., that appears to challenge the conclusion of Ginther’s paper. In fact, the abstract of the Yang article categorically states:
Our results provide new insight and suggest that there is no significant racial bias in the NIH review process (Note: emphasis mine), in contrast to the conclusion from the study by D. K. Ginther et al.
Intrigued, I delved into the Yang paper, and immediately had some issues with the way the News Report was written.
For example, this report states:
Wang and his colleagues applied a mathematical analysis to a random sample of 40 black faculty members in both clinical and basic sciences at the top 92 US medical schools.
I am afraid this sentence does not represent the design of the study correctly. Consider Yang et al.‘s statement in the cited paper:
This study targeted the top 92 American medical schools ranked in the 2011 US News and World Report, from which 31 odd-number-ranked schools were selected for paired analysis (schools were excluded if they did not provide online faculty photos or did not allow 1:2 pairing of black versus white faculty members).
Surely, it is not too difficult to see that there is a lot of difference between 31 and 92; this inaccurate representation of the sample pool changes the complexion of the report. The study’s rationale for this shrinkage in the final pool may be reasonable, but the fact remains that the final pool from which the sample was drawn is much smaller compared to the total sample size, which has a chance to bias the data and/or affect the generalizability of the conclusions – as any biostatistician may point out. The same objection applies to the way 40 Black American samples were drawn from a pool of 130 Black American faculty members. The paper, strangely, doesn’t comment on this possibility.
The News Report reflects the authors’ results and analyses in saying:
The authors found that the black scientists were less productive.
Really? This simple – or perhaps I should say ‘simplistic’ – statement, in absence of further elaboration, doesn’t adequately convey the full import of the analysis. To my mind, When the analyzed data from a study – any study – reveal shocking observations such as:
…the analysis shows the male investigators were statistically more productive than the female colleagues, and the black faculty members statistically less productive than the white colleagues.
…it is without a doubt an important indication that the phenomenon of ‘stereotype threat’ must be considered. Stereotype threat is a situation in which members of a marginalized group perform poorly in Standardized Tests when they are made aware of their marginalized identity. Thus, Steele and Aronson (1995), two Stanford psychologists, showed in several experiments that:
Black college freshmen and sophomores performed more poorly on standardized tests than White students when their race was emphasized. When race was not emphasized, however, Black students performed better and equivalently with White students. The results showed that performance in academic contexts can be harmed by the awareness that one’s behavior might be viewed through the lens of racial stereotypes.
Although over the years, Steele and Aronson’s hypotheses have been challenged and defended in equal measure, even the critics agree that Stereotype Threat is at the very least one of the potential contributing factors to long-standing racial and gender gaps in academic performance.
It seems almost unconscionable that Yang et al. have not discussed the implication of their data in greater detail, apart from simply stating that it contradicts Ginther et al.‘s conclusions. However, the very existence of a situation in which only about 10% of Black American faculties can get funded by the NIH [I quote]:
Among the 130 black samples in the initial list, 14 faculty members were funded by NIH during the period from 2008 to 2011.
… should give policymakers and regulators a pause, and make them reconsider the question whether some inherent imbalance and group (race/gender) disparities continue to exist in the current policies, as well as larger questions about the participation of disadvantaged groups in STEM education and research in this country.
And man, oh man!
Commenting after a Nature News blog post… Good grief! First, I hand-code HTML tags, taking care to check the Preview to ensure that they show up properly, and then when I submit, boom! All the codes have changed to plain-text, showing up all ugly. What kind of a preview was that?
And the time! Despite being logged in with my Nature.com account AND entering the CAPTCHA, my comment went into moderation – which I do kind of understand, having witnessed the terrible level of spam that seems to creep into Nature Blogs. But consider this: my comment went into moderation at 05 Feb 2013 20:15 GMT. As of this moment, the current time is 06 Feb 2013 05:00 GMT, you know, close to 9 hours. Guess what? Still in moderation. How immoderate!
I am pissed off. And disappointed.
Thomson-Reuters is a big conglomerate with its fingers in many pies: news media, financial data and academic publishing information. Yes, that Reuters, the powerful and ubiquitous international news agency, and that Thomson, the company behind the Reference Management Software programs, Endnote and Reference Manager, and the provider of the Web of Knowledge – now both operating as divisions of Thomson-Reuters, based in New York City. In short, a company which – I thought in my utter naïveté – would understand academic freedoms, integrity, ethics, the Doctrine of Fair Use of Intellectual Property, especially for not-for-profit use, among other things.
Yeah. As I said, naïve.