Getting rid of publishers

31 May 2018

A new model for publishing without publishers - the blockchain journal

The problem

There are growing problems with publishers. Publishing has become very expensive for scientists, and the public who fund science; unwittingly funding many publishers. I’ve discussed the history of scientific publishing before (here), and explained how commercial publishers have had a role right from the very beginning. This relationship continues to the present day, but while the origins saw learned societies commissioning publishers and then distributing their content, today the publishers have climbed into the driving seat conceiving and owning many of the current journal titles. This is not to say that there are no scholarly societies that still dictate terms to publishers (The British Ecological Society, BES, do this very well), but they are few and far between, and even when society journals are involved, the goliath publishing companies easily outweigh any control that they might have once possessed (and I’m speaking from personal experience – see here and here).

The result is that publishers have become gigantic corporations that now dictate to the scientists that produce, edit and review all of the content. They charge incredibly high fees to anyone who might want to read the publicly funded content. The budgets of university libraries run into USD 100 000s just to access content. The result is that many universities can’t afford all of the content that their researchers need. Publicly funded content, and by that I mean that you dear reader are paying for the original science of the content in your taxes (yes, you all pay taxes, even if it’s only VAT), and then you pay a second time for the researchers (who themselves produced the content) to access the content. Who benefits from the fact that you pay twice? The publishers. Why aren’t you upset about this? Probably because you are unaware. But if you are upset, then join in the discussion to decide how to emancipate ourselves from the publishers who are merrily munching on through this publicly funded cash cow.

What do publishers do?

The publishers would claim that they do an awful lot. All they really do it pay for the layout and printing of journals. These days ‘printing’ really means hosting electronic pdfs only, as there’s very little paper that’s printed, and you can be sure that paper subscribers now pay the extra cost of any additional fees. The layout from the manuscript (most often a MS Word doc) into a pdf does take some skill and talent, although nothing like what you might expect given how much the publishers charge. You can be sure that they don’t pay much for this service as almost all layout is done in India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, etc. Quality can be good, but more often quality control is completely lacking. Most authors have stories of how manuscripts have come back mangled, although my own impression is that the worst days appear to be over.

What is publishing then?

Once publishers have ‘printed’ the manuscript, they ‘publish’ it by placing it behind a paywall on their website. I would be the first to admit that there are massive costs in doing this properly, and big journal companies have invested a lot to do this very well. The electronic hosting of journals is (in my opinion) truly excellent, except for that paywall. However, once they’ve set this system up, adding another 10 or 20 journals comes at practically no cost compared to the revenue that each one can be expected to gain.

To get behind that paywall, university libraries need to subscribe. Publishers bundle journals together and sell subscriptions at very high prices. If you are inside the university IP address, this access should be seamless. If you are outside, you might need to log in through your university’s library.

So far, the publisher hasn’t produced any content. The scientific content has been produced by the scientist at the cost of the public purse. The editing and peer review (see here) has all been done by the scientists, which has also cost the public purse but has been completely free to the publisher. OK, so there are some small costs associated with manuscript handling software subscriptions that the publishers normally pay. The publisher has also paid for the typesetting (although they’ve done this as cheaply as possible - see above), and they’ve paid for the severs that distribute the pdfs maintaining that all important paywall. What else? Nothing else. Now they simply charge everyone to look at the content (and because it’s by subscription), actually charge everyone whether or not they are looking at the content.

'Open access is one of the best scams that publishers have come up with' 

Open Access

Yes, there’s a new scam in town. Open access appeared to be a great initiative that acknowledged that everything should be free to view. Neither scientists nor the public that fund them should be barred from accessing the knowledge that they produce. What could be wrong with this?

So what is open access?

Open access is probably one of the best scams that the publishers have come up with to date. Now the scientists pay for making their own content open for anyone to read. They pay a once off fee to the publishers to typeset the manuscript and host it on their site without a paywall. And how much do the publishers want for this service. Prices start from USD 1000 and go up to around USD 10 000.

The money comes from the funds that would otherwise be reserved for conducting science. So now the money for research goes directly into the pockets of the publishers upfront. Money that ultimately comes from you as tax payers goes directly to publishers. Still happy?

So does that mean that these journals are now free?

No. Some articles in the journals are free, but the universities are expected to subscribe to those same journals at ever increasing prices because much of the rest of the content is still behind the paywall. This is becuase most authors cannot afford to pay the exhorbitant fees charged by the journals (although some countries now have this payment as mandatory, they and their scientists are still in a minority). There are some journals that are entirely open access. This is all well and good (see here for the PeerJ model). But paying for open access has not reduced the cost of access to scientific journals for libraries. This cost constantly goes up. Open access was a brilliant scam by the publishers, because for much of this content we pay not twice but thrice!

The blockchain journal - a solution?

So we need a new way, without publishers – what do I suggest?

First, we have to forget about the layout. There is a real cost to typesetting of scientific papers, and if we are to get rid of the publishers, then I think we need to start forgetting about the fancy layout to which we’ve become accustomed. This will mean putting some vanity on the back burner, or allowing individuals to make their own manuscripts attractive. It’s actually not that hard to do this with many of the LaTex tools freely available online (find out more here). It is even the sort of thing that we could pay our own graduate students to do.

Next, we need to work out the distribution issues. This is actually really simple. Our libraries already have everything that we need to distribute our manuscripts. They maintain and handle servers. They handle thousands of requests from users every day, distributing their own content (e.g. theses) to users all over the world. So our own university libraries could become our distributors.

I also suggest that to make the distribution truly international, in the same way that we’ve become used to journals being global, we can make use of blockchain technology to have all university libraries host all papers for a particular journal (I suggested this back in October 2017, and the idea has been growing on me). The buy-in could be at the level of the journal editor’s home institutions allowing for local, national and international titles as the editors are distributed. The reputation then sits back with the editors of the content and their institutions that employ them and host their content.

Lastly, we have to take back control. We need to start this new model moving. How to do this? I think it will take a society that is already in a commanding position to leave publishers and use the money that they’ve earned to setup the basis of the blockchain journal. It will take some initial investment, but organisations (like BES) have already made so much money from their deals with publishers that they can well afford to leave them behind.

Once the revolution has started. Watch the scientists leave the publishers behind. We really don’t need them. They have been taking your money for far too long. They have had their good times. Once we don’t depend on them, we may even be able to go back to using their services, but at a more reasonable rate that doesn’t cost us the price of our own research.

  Lab  Writing

The future of peer review is a comments page?

22 May 2018

We need to change our current publishing model

I have written about publishing a few times (here and here), but recent conversations with colleagues have prompted me to write again. In essence, we need to change the way we publish science to pull back from the overt greed of publishers that is consuming funds for research. The public funds scientific endeavour through their taxes, the scientists produce the content, edit and conduct peer review. Then somehow, publishers have convinced us that they should charge for this content and even own it. This morally reprehensible situation must change, but how?

We need to explore all options, and in this blog I consider what science would be like if we went entirely preprint.


Do we really need peer review?

As far back as 2002, William Arms suggested that openly soliciting comments on the web might be an alternative for peer review of scholarly articles. Sixteen years later, this has come to pass in the form of preprints. 

There is a growing trend for publishing preprints. Preprints are simply manuscripts that are submitted to an online server and available for all to view. Physicists started first with this phenomenon, but biologists have been hot on their heels and there are now a number of prominent pre-print archives including BioRxiv and PeerJ Preprints.

Each of these sites maintains the open access manuscripts, and allows other users to post comments (partial or complete peer-reviews) of these online manuscripts.

There are problems in the world of publishing. Mostly related to the greed of publishers who demand large sums of money for content that they do not pay to produce, but charge for access. We must look for alternatives to the current model, so could we replace publishing with an open platform like BioRxiv?

Could these comments pages really replace peer review?

Peer review is held as a gold standard in scientific publishing, and there’s certainly a lot to that. It ensures that published material has been read and its contents assessed independently. But peer review is fallible, because scientists are humans.

  • Not all reviewers can assess all parts of a paper, especially papers that cover several disciplines
  • Not all editors will choose reviewers that are independent and objective. Depending on the framework set up for the journal, friendly reviewers can be chosen or critical reviews removed. Perhaps the inverse is more common, although you are less likely to see these manuscripts published.
  • Poor peer review is a growing problem.
  • Lastly, and not least, there is an increasing difficulty in finding peers who are prepared to review manuscripts. (See the Perry et al editorial: “The Peer in Peer Review” published in 2012, which was a plea to the herpetological community to accept reviewing as a necessary duty).

In 2003, Stefano Mizzaro proposed changing peer review to the format that we now see in preprint journals. Let every reader become a reviewer. 

In the preprint model, the first three problems (above) might all be overcome as no-one chooses the reviewers. Instead they choose themselves, are motivated to do the work. Their competence to cover all aspects of the manuscript is not assured, but one assumes that independently motivated reviewers will only comment on parts that they are able to assess.


All of this is very good, but will people actually read and comment?

A quick look at the sites will tell you a lot about the level of reviewing that is currently going on in biosciences pre-prints. A quick look through the top 10 articles on BioRxiv zoology section confirmed my suspicions. Plenty of tweets about the articles, but none of them had any comments. Indeed, a further trawl through PeerJ Preprints also found no comments. 

Further, I’d suggest a greater move to this culture might produce comments for well known labs, a certain amount of trolling for labs with ongoing disputes or rivalries, making this kind of comment review a sort of trial by popularity. But I don’t see a situation where potential reviewers will take time-out once a week (for example) and hunt for manuscripts that have received no comments. It seems far more likely that the authors will have reciprocal agreements with other groups to review each other’s manuscripts. This nepotistic tendency then puts us back into the area of peer review that we’ve been working hard to overcome now for sometime (double-blind reviewing, editors codes of ethics, etc.)


Are preprints published?

As they each have a DOI (Digital Object Identifier), they are in their own way already published.

Another point is that these articles are picking up citations. And there is a new concern that these articles are being cited, even when they are subsequently available through a published journal. This is one of my personal concerns with using a pre-print service. I’m happy to put the paper out there for public comment, but the idea that it’ll remain there and that readers won’t necessarily be re-directed to the peer-reviewed version does concern me.

Another question is what happens to manuscripts that are placed on pre-print servers, are then sent out for review but not published because they are fundamentally flawed? It’s not as if the reviews are not made, but there is no automatic link to the reviews by the journal that conducted them.

Whether or not there is a paper inflation (see blog here), there is certainly an ever increasing number of papers. The rejection rate is not insignificant, and while many of the papers are not rejected because they are flawed (they may well go on to be published in another journal), there are certainly a lot of manuscripts out there with fundamental flaws. These are often sent for peer review, but those reviews pointing out the errors won’t necessarily make it back to the comments page on the pre-print server. I think that this is a serious problem. The reviewers have spent time and effort and the very reason they do this is so that manuscripts with fundamental flaws don’t find their way into the literature. However, pre-print servers have, perhaps unwittingly, found a loophole that allows manuscripts that are not scientifically robust a backdoor to citations. 


But if they are fundamentally flawed, shouldn’t everyone be able to spot it?

No. Reviewers are chosen with great care because the area is in their particular domain. They have insights that not everyone will be aware of and these are an important aspect of the purpose of peer review.

I edit for the journal PeerJ. Although there can be various reasons to be rejected from PeerJ, normally it means that your paper is not scientifically sound. As PeerJ has no selection for impact, rejection does not normally mean that it can be simply submitted to another journal. I have noticed that manuscripts that I have rejected from PeerJ are available still as PeerJ-preprints without any comment on their failure to go through peer review. In my opinion, this is not good as it essentially ignores the input given by both reviewers and editors. The article appears as if it has had no comments or attention, when this is not the case. In a system where we move to relying more on pre-prints, why would we want to ignore chosen peer reviewers for whom this article was within their specialist area?

Moreover, I note that the pre-print in question is also receiving citations (according to Google Scholar), again raising concerns that rejection by peer review is not a hurdle to entering the scientific literature.


In my opinion, comments pages won’t replace peer review.

If we end up abandoning our current way of publishing in favour of a comments page, I think that we’ll all be worse off.

Having said this, I acknowledge that the current system is broken and that we need to find a new solution.

My feeling is that the system we have is not faulty prior to the involvement of the publishers. We simply need to overcome the vanity of having our manuscripts set out in a pretty way. Once we’re happy to accept unformatted manuscripts as the way science is presented, I think we’ll be able to move on without the involvement and the exorbitant costs that the publishers extort from us.

  Lab  Writing

How to write a hypothesis

28 March 2018

How to write a hypothesis

This is a sticking point for many students. We are used to using and writing questions and statements in day to day communications, as well as reading popular media. But hypotheses (the plural of hypothesis) only rarely float across our desks. So how do we write one, and how do we know if our hypothesis is good?

Although I’m going to write about what I think, there is already some good information out there on the web, and it’s worth looking at this too: (e.g. Wikihow, Wikipedia, etc.). There’s also some dodgy stuff, so read critically.

What is a hypothesis?

A hypothesis is a statement of your research intent. It tells the reader (because just like all of your other written work, it has an audience who reads it), what you planned to do in your research. But there’s a little more to it than this. The hypothesis becomes a part of the scientific method if it is testable, and informed from previous published work on the subject.

Yes, your hypothesis must  be informed by the literature, which is why you spent so much time and effort crafting your introduction to inform your reader of the same. This is also why your hypothesis usually comes at the end of your introduction, because you spend all of the introduction telling your reader about it (see blog entry here). There’s not much point in writing more after the hypothesis, because once your reader has read that, they are ready to learn about how you went about testing it (in the Materials & Methods). The other important point to make is that the literature should dictate how you write your hypothesis, and the variables that you include. If, for example, you know that temperature is the most important variable but all of the literature suggests that it is oxygen, you can’t ignore oxygen and you should also frame your hypothesis using this variable (you can have more than one hypothesis after all!). In this case, you will also need to provide a sufficient introduction to temperature as a variable to justify its inclusion in your hypothesis. Perversely, your aim is not to prove that your idea is right, but to show that the hypothesis is wrong.

We usually try to write a hypothesis that is falsifiable: i.e. you can prove (usually using statistical tests) that it is not correct (or at least show that the likelihood that it is correct is very low). That’s why it is conventional to provide the ‘Null hypothesis’ that is the falsified version of the statement, suggesting that there is no relationship between the variables you have proposed to measure. The convention is to label this H0, while the ‘alternative hypothesis’ (the one that says your variables are related as you suggested) is written as H1. You can write you alternative hypothesis to show the directionality of your tested variables, or simply that there is a relationship.

Most importantly, your hypothesis must come first, before you do the experiment or study! Setting the hypothesis after the work is already done is fraudulent, and goes against the scientific method. Obviously, it isn’t fair to pose the hypothesis once you already know the answer. This is why there is so much emphasis put on formulating your hypothesis during your research proposal. Getting it right will determine what you do and how you test it. If you think of an extra hypothesis that would be really useful to test once you’ve already done your study, you can conduct a post hoc test, but this should have more stringent levels of statistical assessment.

Writing a hypothesis isn’t easy, but it is essential and once you’ve understood what to do, most of the rest of what you are writing for should make sense.

What a hypothesis isn’t

It is not a question and so should never have a question mark after it.

It isn’t really a simple prediction: if this then that. You will see many times on the internet that hypotheses are explained in this simple predictive framework. I say that it isn't 'really' a simple prediction because these are not good hypotheses. They lack the mechanistic and scholarly aspect of a good hypothesis, which is what we want to achieve.

A formulaic way to start writing your hypothesis:If… then… because…

Above, I emphasised that you must have introduced all the variables that you plan to use to test your hypothesis in your introduction. This usually comes in the second paragraph (see blog entry here), where you emphasise the utility of the dependent variable/s (what you are planning to measure) and your independent variable (what you will manipulate). Both of these variables should then feature in your hypothesis. Next, by paragraph four you will have identified the problem that you are interested in tackling. In addition, your introduction will provide all of the pertinent literature that has relevance to this hypothesis, giving the all important context.

A simple way to consider making your hypothesis is to adopt an “If… then… because…” construction where you add in your problem statement using your independent variable after ‘if’ and your prediction using your dependent variable after ‘then’, and finally the expected mechanism after ‘because’. Using our example above with the “If… then… because…” construction, we would say: “If environmental temperatures in which tadpoles develop are increased then tadpole development rate is faster because they follow the classic metabolism of ectotherms”. Both independent variable (temperature) and dependent variable (tadpole development rate) are present in this hypothesis, and the predicted relationship between them is clear. In addition, the causal mechanism is stated. You can watch a video about using the “If… then… because…” construction here, or read more here. I say that this is a formulaic way to start writing your hypothesis, because it usually ends up as an inelegant statement, which can be better refined for a reader. A citation for your stated mechanism might also help clarify exactly where the justification for this comes from.

A good hypothesis will often take an existing hypothesis further, to try to better refine the knowledge on a subject. Hence, it is perfectly acceptable to state that you are building on existing hypotheses (and giving the appropriate statement) when making your own.

How to evaluate your hypothesis

Once you’ve written your hypothesis, how do you decide whether or not it is good? To do this, you might think that you need plenty of experience (and yes, that does help). But really, you just need to look for the elements that are discussed above. So once you’ve written your hypothesis, try to objectively answer the questions below (for more see Bartos 1992 and here):

  1. Is there a clear prediction (if… then… statement)?
  2. Does the prediction use independent and dependent variables correctly?
  3. Is the mechanism supported by the literature?
  4. Is the hypothesis testable/falsifiable?
  5. Does the hypothesis use concise wording and precise terminology?

If your hypothesis meets all of the criteria above, then you’ve done a good job!

  Lab  Writing

Making a presentation from your research proposal

18 March 2018

Making a presentation from your research proposal

In theory, it couldn’t be easier to take your written research proposal and turn it into a presentation. Many people find presenting ideas easier than writing about them as writing is inherently difficult. On the other hand, standing up in front of a room of strangers, or worse those you know, is also a bewildering task. Essentially, you have a story to tell, but does not mean you are story telling. It means that your presentation will require you to talk continuously for your alloted period of time, and that the sentences must follow on from each other in a logical narative; i.e. a story.  

So where do you start?

Here are some simple rules to help guide you to build your presentation:

  1. One slide per minute: However many minutes you have to present, that’s your total number of slides. Don’t be tempted to slip in more.
  2. Keep the format clear: There are lots of templates available to use, but you’d do best to keep your presentation very clean and simple.
  3. Be careful with animations: You can build your slide with animations (by adding images, words or graphics). But do not flash, bounce, rotate or roll. No animated little clipart characters. No goofy cartoons – they’ll be too small for the audience to read. No sounds (unless you are talking about sounds). Your audience has seen it all before, and that’s not what they’ve come for. They have come to hear about your research proposal.
  4. Don’t be a comedian: Everyone appreciates that occasional light-hearted comment, but it is not stand-up. If you feel that you must make a joke, make only one and be ready to push on when no-one reacts. Sarcasm simply won’t be understood by the majority of your audience, so don’t bother: unless you’re a witless Brit who can’t string three or more sentences together without.

Keep to your written proposal formula

  1. You need a title slide (with your name, that of your advisor & institution)
  2. Several slides of introduction
    1. that put your study into the big picture
    2. explain variables in the context of existing literature
    3. explain the relevance of your study organisms
    4. give the context of your own study
  3. Your aims & hypotheses
  4. Methods & Materials
    1. Images of apparatus or diagrams of how apparatus are supposed to work. If you can’t find anything, draw it simply yourself.
    2. Your methods can be abbreviated. For example, you can tell the audience that you will measure your organism, but you don’t need to provide a slide of the callipers or balance (unless these are the major measurements you need).
    3. Analyses are important. Make sure that you understand how they work, otherwise you won’t be able to present them to others. Importantly, explain where each of the variables that you introduced, and explained how to measure, fit into the analyses. There shouldn’t be anything new or unexpected that pops up here.
  5. Expected results
    1. I like to see what the results might look like, even if you have to draw graphs with your own lines on it. Use arrows to show predictions under different assumptions.
  6. Budget
  7. Timeline

Slide layout

  1. Your aim is to have your audience listen to you, and only look at the slides when you indicate their relevance. 
  2. You’d be better off having a presentation without words, then your audience will listen instead of trying to read. As long as they are reading, they aren't listening. Really try to limit the words you have on any single slide (<30). Don’t have full sentences, but write just enough to remind you of what to say and so that your audience can follow when you are moving from point to point.
  3. Use bullet pointed lists if you have several points to make (Font 28 pt)
  4. If you only have words on a slide, then add a picture that will help illustrate your point. This is especially useful to illustrate your organism. At the same time, don’t have anything on a slide that has no meaning or relevance. Make sure that any illustration is large enough for your audience to see and understand what it is that you are trying to show.
  5. Everything on your slide must be mentioned in your presentation, so remove anything that becomes irrelevant to your story when you practice.
  6. Tables: you are unlikely to have large complex tables in a presentation, but presenting raw data or small words in a table is a way to lose your audience. Make your point in another way.
  7. Use citations (these can go in smaller font 20 pt). I like to cut out the title & authors of the paper from the pdf and show it on the slide.
  8. If you can, have some banner that states where you are in your presentation (e.g. Methods, or 5 of 13). It helps members of the audience who might have been daydreaming.

Practice, practice, practice

  1. It can’t be said enough that you must practice your presentation. Do it in front of a mirror in your bathroom. In front of your friends. It's the best way of making sure you'll do a good job.
  2. If you can't remember what you need to say, write flash cards with prompts. Include the text on your slide and expand. When you learn what’s on the cards, relate it to what’s on the slide so that you can look at the slides and get enough hints on what to say. Don’t bring flashcards with you to your talk. Instead be confident enough that you know them front to back and back to front.
  3. Practice with a pointer and slide advancer (or whatever you will use in the presentation). You should be pointing out to your audience what you have on your slides; use the pointer to do this.
  4. Avoid taking anything with you that you might fiddle with.

  Lab  Writing

Why critical reading is critical for your writing

07 February 2018

Why critical reading is critical for your writing

It is hard to emphasise exactly how important your reading will be, when it comes to your writing. If you are sitting with a blank page in front of you and feel that you have nothing to draw on, then think again. All of the reading that you have done to get to this point has already helped you more than you think. As I’ve pointed out elsewhere (formula writing blog) your chapter or manuscript is likely to resemble the formula that many others already follow, and standing on the shoulders of those giants (citation blog) will help you again. But it’s possible that your reading isn’t helpful if you aren’t being sufficiently critical.

When you read, it’s worth making all sorts of comments about what you’re reading. Of course you should be trying to follow the story that the authors are trying to tell, but you should also be using it as an opportunity to learn tips and tricks of writing. Once you are actively writing, and I’d suggest that this should have been right from the very beginning of your studies, you should be actively thinking about how the authors are writing. Are they writing well? Are parts written poorly? Then the critical part is to cogitate, albeit briefly: what works, what doesn’t and why.

When I started reading papers, I made photocopies (1 sided was as sophisticated as it got) from volumes of books and made notes in pencil on back and front of those pages as I read. I understand that most of you will be working on pdfs which offer possibilities to add notes in text boxes that go alongside. I question whether the cognitive advantages that you get from writing by hand will be achieved by typing, and if I ever find out I’ll link to this blog. But I did learn many years back in my psychology classes at Liverpool University that making handwritten notes on what you read will help build them into your memory. Thus, if you make notes on style, you are likely to remember them in the same way that you remember the paper and its contents. An alternative to typing everything is to make notes in a notebook. That way you get the advantage of building your memory with your own writing, and you can easily find everything in the same place when you forget where you read the fascinating insight.

 It’s important to emphasise that you should not copy and paste parts of someone’s paper that you like. It’s easy to do, but any copying could be your undoing if you later forget and paste your ‘notes’ into your manuscript. It’s so easy to plagiarise like this that the only way to really avoid it is by being very strict with yourself. Making notes by hand will force you to look away from the written text while you write, and you’ll be unlikely to inadvertently copy anything. The advantages of writing notes by hand then make it greatly advantageous to restricting yourself to your computer (tablet or cell!).

 So how should you read critically in order to help with your writing? I’d suggest that this is as simple as highlighting or making a quick note each time you see something that you like, or dislike. I used to underline text in pencil, and then make an illegible comment in the margin. What was singled out? For example, instead of using a taxonomic list (I don’t like lists) and long citation string to describe lots of different studies that had previously made the same point, a co-author (in a recent review study) organised them all into the same categories we were presenting in a review. The result was that the reader was reminded of our categories at the same time as seeing how well others had already covered these same topics. Another example is the way in which one of my students imaginatively linked the subjects between their paragraphs (I do like links). Lastly, it may be a theme that the author manages to develop over several paragraphs or pages, but if you’ve spotted what it is that you like, write it down and commit it to memory. The very fact that you start to see things in other people’s writing that you like and admire means that you’ve managed to start reading critically. Keep this up, and it will help your writing no end as you open up your mind to critical reading.

 You don’t have to restrict yourself in what you can learn while reading other people’s papers. Think about the stages in writing a paragraph (blog entry here). Look at the paragraphs you are reading and see if you can spot the subject and summary sentences. Maybe they are absent from the entire paper, or maybe they are present in every paragraph. Does it help enhance the readability of the paper? What about the times when authors break the rules? Can you see in your reading that the majority of authors follow rules? Do they follow the formula? What is the power in shaking it all up? If it works, try and analyse why it works. Then you will be reading critically.

What if I’m having problems recognising anything good or bad in what I read?

It’s going to be hard for me to teach you how to read and think at the same time. A little like walking and chewing gum, it comes with experience. And if you do fall over, stop chewing for a while and wait until you’ve got into your stride before having another go. Thinking is all part of the reading process, and while I agree that it might be hard to think on multiple levels while you read, it is possible. For example, consider what other worthy things you’ve thought about while reading this blog. If you’ve not stopped to check your phone, or think about eating or drinking something, well done. It might be worth creating an atmosphere with less other stimulants while you read. If you only have your reading material and notebook, you’ll be able to concentrate all of your thinking on them instead of getting distracted.

 There is also a possibility that you are struggling to get insight with your reading because English isn’t your first language. The subtleties of some of the usage of English may be passing you by. Because of the large number of words, it is possible to write something in English in many different ways. The overall aim is to convey the largest amount of information possible in the smallest number of words, while enhancing the context, meaning and readability. It’s not easy, but the only way you’ll ever get good is by starting, and reading and writing as much as possible.

 If you are still struggling, a really good way forward is to start a journal club with your colleagues. It is probable that you aren’t the only one who is having difficulties. There may already be a journal club in your institution which may (or may not) be a good place to go. What you do need is a safe space in which you aren’t afraid to say when you don’t understand. Think of it as a book club for scientific papers. After all, it may be that no-one understands and the paper is badly written. Alternatively, it can be that someone is able to help you quickly and easily. They can then give you extra insights into how and why they think the author is crafting their paper. This will then help you with your reading as well as your writing.

  Lab  Writing