In Defence of Educational YouTube Videos

A response to Alex Daniel’s blog post video The Problem With YouTube Videos

Luke Maw

A Brief History of YouTube

Back in 2006, when I was 13, I remember my father telling me about a new website that he had heard about which allowed users to upload videos that could be viewed by anyone on the internet. This site was YouTube, and it could be argued that it was one of the biggest factors in shaping how we see and use the Internet today. In its early years, YouTube was filled almost entirely with poorly made home videos. It was not until YouTube was bought by Google in late 2006 that it started to become the corporate, money making, social media giant that it is today.

During high school, I remember hearing rumours that ‘if your video on YouTube got over a million views, they gave you £50’. This was a distorted, school-boy interpretation of Google’s AdSense. This initiative, new to YouTube, meant that Google would share a portion of its ad revenue with video creators if they allowed advertisements to be displayed on their videos. By 2010, when YouTube had become a household name in the world of social media and popular ‘channels’ were beginning to exceed 1 million subscribers, YouTube started to become a viable profession for dedicated users.

‘Professional YouTubers’, who made a living from uploading videos, began to become more commonplace. Naturally, the genres of these videos varied hugely, but the majority of these up and coming YouTubers chose to produce comedy videos, much to their financial success, with some allegedly making thousands of dollars a month. There was, however, a number of emerging YouTubers who elected to produce educational videos. This was an immediately more difficult task than producing comedy – up until mid-2010, the maximum length of a YouTube video was 10 minutes, and it was only in 2011 that YouTube finally made it possible to upload videos of unlimited length. This meant that for a long time, educational videos on YouTube had to be either incredibly concise, cover a very narrow topic, or be split into a series of videos that would likely reduce user interest. However, even after video duration caps were lifted, video producers still had their viewers’ attention span to contend with, as will be discussed later. This all combined to suggest that educational videos on YouTube were perhaps destined for failure.

Enter Edutainment

In 2011, successful educational YouTube channels began to emerge and, with seemingly everything against them, their successes were arguably doubly impressive. During his video, Alex takes educational YouTube videos purely on face value; however, I feel the circumstances behind them play a bigger part in their success than hesuggests. Educational entertainment, or edutainment, has evolved rapidly over the past few decades. In the 1980s and 90s, children’s television programmes, such as the hugely successful Sesame Street, dominated the edutainment skyline. However, for the large part, educational entertainment was reserved for the particularly young. For teenagers and adults, most education is done within schools and further education establishments, where league tables and government pressure leave little time or resources for entertainment. Nevertheless, educational YouTube videos were becoming increasingly capable of bridging the gap between education in school and the dry, often heavy, conventional television programmes such as Panorama or The Sky at Night. The closest television ever got to easily accessible educational content was, perhaps, The Discovery Channel. This provided always-running material that could be picked at by adults and children alike, but ultimately lacked variety and the ability to choose topics on demand. The short-form, teenage friendly YouTube ‘channels’, such as Vsauce, Veritasium and MinutePhysics, adopted an alternative method of delivery by providing brief, yet thought provoking educational videos. Furthermore, in recent years, some of these YouTube channels have begun to break into the classroom, with several YouTubers often sharing examples of their videos being shown in schools. As Alex stated in his video, educational YouTube videos sometimes lack verifiable sources, or even conclusive evidence. It’s important to remember that they are not designed to be transcribed into a scientific journal, in the same way that we do not expect to see a references page at the end of Wonders of the Universe. In many cases, the quality of the material produced by educational YouTubers equals that of commercial television, with one-man teams such as CGPGrey devoting hundreds of hours to ensure their videos are as well made as possible.

Bridging the Gap

YouTube’s sheer size and immense popularity[1] means that there is a corresponding wealth of material to suit all kinds of interests. As Alex elegantly demonstrates in his video, this leads to an entire spectrum of educational YouTube videos, differing in style, delivery, brevity, and level of detail. However, I do not see this as a problem like Alex does. I feel that this is what makes YouTube such a powerful platform: those who desire to watch something entertaining, but want something more fulfilling than comedy[2] , may still gain something from the thought-provoking, pub-chat inducing videos from the likes of Vsauce and Numberphile. In turn, these sorts of videos may provoke further interest and research that, contrary to Alex’s belief, are more often than not provided with additional URLs in the video’s description[3]. Additionally, what is wrong with having educational videos ‘ripped’ off VHS on YouTube? For the most part I see no issue with old educational videos taking place alongside contemporary material, as the age of the video does not necessarily bear resemblance to the validity of its content, except perhaps in the case of some advanced Physics. I for one remember being shown videos from the ‘80s and ‘90s throughout my school career, even at A-level and undergraduate degree level. Equally, YouTube’s ‘related videos’ algorithm is incredibly complex and is certainly not just based on video views as Alex suggests.

I believe that popular science YouTube videos serve as a tonic to the dry and esoteric world of scientific papers and stuffy journals such as Nature and Science that, to the majority of the population, are obstructed by a paywall. Equally, they offer a more bite size and accessible experience than conventional television programmes such as Panorama and Wonders of the Universe, which require a greater investment of time and concentration. They also cater for the hugely expanding demographic of Internet-immersed 15-25 year olds, who are seemingly becoming increasingly intolerant to the attitude of sitting down and waiting for a TV programme to come on. At risk of sounding old before my time, it seems it is not the YouTube producers that we should be blaming, but the changing demands of the youth.

Taking it too far?

Recently, it seems that some YouTubers have started to see the limitations of producing short-form, whistle-stop tours of popular science, with producers such as Sixty Symbols and SciShow breaking the 20 and 30-minute barrier. Equally, some YouTubers host an additional channel where they provide addenda and extra content that they link to at the end of the main video. However, Henry Reich of the YouTube channel MinutePhysics strongly believes in brief, succinct videos that explain scientific topics at an alarming, often noticeably rushed, pace. His videos are rarely longer than 3 minutes and, in the case of a few videos, he even attempted to cover topics such as Radar, Microwaves and one-way mirrors in fewer than ten seconds. This is an extreme example, but leads onto the albeit cynical question that perhaps some YouTubers choose to produce frequent, short videos to maximise the number of views they receive, and hence, the money they earn from YouTube. This is a relatively new problem, as conventional media such as books and television largely do not suffer from this, and in some cases could begin to discredit the work of a particular YouTube producer.

This leads onto the complicated and incredibly new world of subscription-based YouTube videos. Coincidentally, CGPGrey of YouTube fame does an excellent job of explaining the concept here. Subscription sites such as Patreon and Subbable allow YouTubers to circumvent the oft-unreliable source of income from AdSense revenue and appeal directly for donations and paid subscriptions from users. This allows more freedom for the YouTuber to create material that may not necessarily rack up as many views as other content, but allows them to create material that is not constrained by revenue goals. In other words, the shortcomings that Alex alludes to in his video are now being mitigated, leading to an even better platform for educational videos.

What I hope this shows is that, unlike the somewhat stagnant state of educational television, the world of YouTube edutainment is not only growing rapidly, but is also hugely dynamic and increasingly has the potential to shape the education of the future.

[1] Around a billion people visit YouTube every month and over 130,000 hours of content is watched every minute

[3]  To name but a few; Vsauce, CGPGrey, Sixty Symbols, Numberphile and ASAPScience always post further reading, references and additional video links in the description of their videos.

In Defence of Educational YouTube Videos

SHOULD SCIENTISTS HAVE TO JUSTIFY THEIR RESEARCH BY ITS SOCIOECONOMIC IMPACT?

Joe Mason

In the interest of good science, it is often believed that external influences should step back, that scientists should be free to perform research without interference. This is not to say that non-scientists should not take an interest in science, use scientific knowledge or commission scientific research. What it means is that scientists should be free to undertake research without pressure to obtain a particular kind of result. This is not always the case now, but should it be? Even if scientists had unlimited resources and were accountable to no one, science itself still wouldn’t be perfect. Scientists would still have agendas and would still seek to preserve their own interests. They want to satisfy these interests and feel that having to justify their research socioeconomically inhibits this because it influences the manner in which the research is undertaken.

Many would say that this is not fair. They would say that scientists aren’t paying for the research, in fact they’re getting paid, so should be answerable to those who are financing them. They should not be allowed to sit in their ivory towers and do as they please. These kinds of statement beg the question as to what scientists actually want. Are they heartless machines seeking only to explain, order and quantify the world? For sure, a part of science is driven by wonder; looking for, discovering and explaining amazing things. This is called basic research. Other science is motivated by a desire to shape our world; to help people, to make their lives easier. Either way, most scientists would agree a commitment to accuracy and rigour is essential and is achieved by them aiming to be ‘disinterested observers’.(Note  that this is not the same as an uninterested observer, as I am when forced to watch TOWIE).  It is this disinterestedness which scientists fear is threatened by requirements for socioeconomic justification. Scientists are less concerned about researching whatever they wish than with the research they conduct being affected by the requirements placed on it to be justifiable. The effects observed may not be as dire as corrupting or distorting results but may simply be that understanding is constrained to existing patterns and major advancements are not sought for fear of failure.

From this it follows that the concerns of scientists regarding the justification of their work in any terms, not just socioeconomic, have a strong dependency on who is judging the validity of the research. Who these people are varies with the type of funding and it is by appointing appropriate people that scientists’ concerns are addressed. Public funding involves large panels and committees of experts. The intention when setting these up is to find the most responsible investment of public money. What constitutes responsible investment varies but the  principal criterion considered is often the socioeconomic impact of the research.  Conversely, private research,  whether it be outsourced or conducted within a corporation, tends to involve less bureaucracy. This is due to a greater relative familiarity within the corporation with the research being proposed. It is hoped that this leads to a greater understanding of how the research relates to the criteria. However, private industries and corporations are normally more economically driven due to the need to bring a product to market. In both the public and private sectors obviously those who judge research funding have to honour their employers’ interests. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be doing their job. To do their job properly this loyalty to their employer has to be tempered with a deep appreciation of how science works. Without this, research would be driven so harshly by the demands placed upon that speculative, wondrous, fascinating but currently irrelevant research might never be conducted.

What does it look like to put this kind of basic research into socioeconomic terms? Well from the off it cannot possibly offer a product. That almost immediately eliminates the private sector. For sure there has been work done by IBM and the like in some areas but these are exceptions. Market economics dictate that corporations invest with economic criteria and economic criteria demand a product. What about socioeconomic criteria? Fortunately these define a product as being slightly more than  its sellable value. Let me be clear, socioeconomic criteria still demand a product but just because they demand a product does not mean the product is for sale. This is the crucial difference: the product of publicly-funded research can be broader than simple economics.

A very good example of socioeconomic impact would be the booming scientific instruments industry in the UK. We are a world leader in the production of scientific instruments. We got to this position having originally developed expertise in the instruments to do basic research. This is an industry that employs hundreds of people. Because of investment in basic research, these people have skilled, manufacturing jobs. Another product of basic research is its graduate skills base. UK universities are consistently ranked among the best in the world. If British graduates are globally recognised as being of excellent quality then they are able to work at a high level anywhere in the world, bringing wealth back with them and giving us a greater presence on the world stage.

Some scientists might consider that there are socioeconomic products of basic research not directly economically focussed preferable. This is because it allows a broader range of benefits that may be deemed as justification for funding. Unfortunately it does still force researchers to shape their research to have a particular product in mind. This raises issues when that product is considered to be something obscure such as education. When a researcher is employed or funded to do basic research as well as educate students in their field, their success or failure is no longer tied to their research. How much funding should they be given for equipment and the like? There is no profit/loss equation anymore. How can one researcher’s proposal be compared to another? How can you say the funding should go to one proposal over another’s if both are claiming their primary motivation as discovery and their socioeconomic product to be education? A solution might be to consider the potential impact the research may have on a field. If we are concerned that economic constraints may effect how research is conducted, how much greater would the effect be if scientist were obliged to make an impact on their field? We have seen this sort of thing in China recently with papers claiming massive success being shown to be false.

How could science be funded another way? If the public is to pay for it, as seems most appropriate for basic research, then how is research to be justified if not in socioeconomic terms? People want jobs and facilities and longer, more pleasant lives. They are not interested in paying for some boffin in a lab to think about particles all day if it’s not going to make their iPhone faster. Is this really the case? Have the public ever cared? What about the space race or the Higgs Boson? We’ve seen in the last few days how the Rosetta space probe has captured the public’s imagination by landing Philae on a comet. How much more would this happen if the UK played a leading role landing a human on Mars? Or solved nuclear fusion, saving the planet from global warming? There is a public demand and excitement around certain science that can and should be leveraged by the researchers involved in those fields.

As research moves from near market, economically-orientated goals towards more basic, less sellable research it becomes more difficult to justify to stakeholders. There is a valid fear among researchers that this leads to increased external influence upon research to produce a profit that may harm overall advancement in a field. This is the heart of the issue. Is science about making money or about discovery? As our country’s policies become ever more free market, capitalist and profitable can we hold onto the sanctity of science? Socioeconomic benefits offer an option for giving science a value. Whilst not simple, they allow a degree of comparison to be drawn between different research proposals based on how funding one type of research has previously affected society. They also limit the influence of near market demands on basic research by giving research wider, more long-term goals to benefit society in ways beyond the bottom line of GDP. Socioeconomic constraints, whilst useful have limits. The fundamental human excitement for discovery and adventure should never be ignored when considering research. This should always be considered and invested in. If we want to see science shape the next hundred years like it has done the last, then the reality of the human thirst for the unknown should be quenched with a series of earth-shaking projects to inspire this country and the wider world.

SHOULD SCIENTISTS HAVE TO JUSTIFY THEIR RESEARCH BY ITS SOCIOECONOMIC IMPACT?

The Evidence for Evidence-Based Policy

James Gibson

As I was scrolling through my Facebook feed (an experience which I’m sure every student has shared) I stumbled upon an article that piqued my interest, from Vice.[1] The article was an interview with former Chief Drug Advisor to the UK government David Nutt. Nutt was dismissed as Chair of the Council for the Misuse of Drugs on the grounds that Alan Johnson MP, then Home Secretary, claimed “he cannot be both a government adviser and a campaigner against government policy”.[2] Nutt had expressed some controversial views, including that taking ecstasy was “no worse than horse riding”.[3] The Vice article was sparked by the recent resignation of Norman Baker MP from the Home Office, citing a lack of “support for ‘rational evidence-based policy’”.[4]

In the article, Nutt outlines what he calls an “evidence-based policy for every drug you’re ever likely to take”. There were some expected facts in there – I had long suspected that alcohol would be criticised as dangerous by an outraged Daily Mail*, if it wasn’t an ancient invention – but others that surprised me, chiefly a “personal allowance of about 50 doses per year” for MDMA, or ecstasy.

A successful experiment?

Many people have heard about Portugal’s recent attempt to reduce the possession and abuse of chemical substances [5] by near-total legalisation. A question too rarely asked, however, is “why isn’t the rest of the world following in their footsteps?” Here there is a case where drug legalisation, coupled with an increase in support funding for addicts, led not to an explosion of gang violence and drug tourism,[6] but a stabilisation in abuse and an increasing acceptance of drug users as needing help. So far, so pro-legalisation.

But, as always, it’s not as black and white as that. The architect of Portugal’s policy, Dr Manuel Pinto Coelho, claims that the policy led to an immediate increase in deaths,[7] citing White House statistics.[8] This conflict, described as “considerable”[9] brings to light the greatest weakness of evidence-based policy:, it doesn’t really exist. Any evidence found can be twisted to fit some agenda by partisan politicians, and policies made are usually based more on ideology than evidence.

A gold standard

The “gold standard of medicine”, randomised controlled trials (RCT), are held up as the epitome of what government policy could look like by many, [10] but care must be taken when deciding on their appropriateness. The advantages of RCT are many and obvious to scientists – the removal of effects other than the one being studied and the absence of observer bias to list a few – but the process does have its limitations.

Unlike in medicine, there can be no placebo in most circumstances, as political interventions are, by necessity, seen by the public. The group separations must be geographically localised, so as to ensure boundaries to the citizens affected. Perhaps most importantly, there is a public misconception that RCTs are in some way “unethical” [10]. Shaking this stigma would be necessary for further expansion of RCT policy-testing. As an RCT involves a control group who receive no intervention at all, it can be seen as callous, when instead we could implement a new technique to improve, say, waiting times in NHS general practices. Why should one group reap benefits when the others are left in an old system we have already described as unfit for purpose? Well, because the new system is not guaranteed to be better, and it is only by comparing the effectiveness with no (or a “known”) intervention that we can accurately rank the actions of government. Widely and blindly applying a single policy to a large swathe of the populace without consideration of local variance, or the advantages of alternatives, can in fact be seen as the irresponsible approach.

In addition, there is a concept, within political science, known as the tyranny of the majority. Whilst normally applied to the oppression of minorities within a pluralist society (to protect the interests of those not belonging to that minority) the same argument can be made for important topics of scientific consensus, such as climate change. Since many people within a country are unfamiliar with the level of evidence for these things, their priorities may be skewed towards more immediate problems that they are more familiar with. Compare the 97.2% of climate scientist publications assuming humanity is the cause of climate change to the 57% of Americans who believe such a thing, and you may begin to see a barrier to meaningful action to counteract high greenhouse gas emissions.[11][12]

Scientific dictatorship?

The main problem with evidence-based policy, I feel, is the threat it may pose to democracy in a non-scientifically minded populace. There exists another element – irrational idealism, cynicism, biases, and misconceptions held by all people. In a democracy, it is required that those we vote for share these beliefs with the general populace. Do we really want to live in a society where politicians make decisions with no regard as to how the voters will feel, and purely base their ideology on facts?

While it perhaps is too extreme to say that evidence-based policy would lead to a scientific dictatorship, voters expect to elect an individual to make decisions for them. Truly impartial policy-making would lead to no difference between political parties – in many ways, a pluralist democracy demands that the citizens make a decision, for better or for worse. At some point, we have to let rational human beings choose their poison – to do otherwise would, after a fashion, be a dictatorship.

In addition, gathering the evidence required to fully analyse the situations addressed every day by politicians is a time-consuming process – one that takes considerably longer than the timescale on which most politicians operate . There is something to be said for snap decisions, as they at least reassure the populace that their concerns are being addressed. Any action is better than no action at all. Sometimes.

When we are presented with the facts surrounding evidence-based policy, it is easy to think of it as a binary choice. This is not so, and there is no contradiction in allowing the public to choose on important matters and informing minutiae by a more evidence-based approach, or vice versa. Another approach is to have a single evidence-based party, to allow the people to voice their concerns over issues that they feel demand scientific input. Whilst science absolutely should inform public opinion, it is harder to claim it should shape it entirely. Therefore, we must choose carefully the situations in which we turn to science for answers in the messy world of politics.

* Nutt specifically outlines that alcohol should be a “controlled drug”, available from licensed premises, such as pubs, but not in supermarkets or other convenience stores.

[1] http://www.vice.com/en_uk/read/drug-by-drug-guide-rational-drug-policy-david-nutt-522

[2] The Guardian, Monday 2nd November 2009 http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2009/nov/02/drug-policy-alan-johnson-nutt

[3] http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/7876425.stm

[4] http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/nov/03/norman-baker-resigns-home-office-minister

[5] Sources include Forbes http://www.forbes.com/sites/erikkain/2011/07/05/ten-years-after-decriminalization-drug-abuse-down-by-half-in-portugal/
Germany’s Der Spiegel http://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/evaluating-drug-decriminalization-in-portugal-12-years-later-a-891060.html

[6] and The Guardian
http://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/sep/05/portugal-drugs-debate

[7] http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2012/12/10/portugal-decriminalisation-drugs-britain_n_2270789.html

[8] http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/ondcp/Fact_Sheets/portugal_fact_sheet_8-25-10.pdf

[9] https://fullfact.org/factchecks/Portugal_decriminalisation_drugs_effects-3276

[10] https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/62529/TLA-1906126.pdf

[11] http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-to-determine-the-scientific-consensus-on-global-warming/

[12] http://www.gallup.com/poll/167972/steady-blame-humans-global-warming.aspx

The Evidence for Evidence-Based Policy

Have social media improved the perception of science?

James Eyres

Social media have done a great deal of good for science. Facebook groups such as IFLScience provide an easily digestible titbit of information on an otherwise mind-numbingly monotonous Facebook feed for over 18,000,000 profiles. YouTube has countless hours of videos dedicated to the advancement of human knowledge while sites like reddit provide people who want a deeper explanation of certain topics a platform to gather that knowledge. However, throughout this piece I will focus on how social media has perhaps shone a not-too-flattering light on science recently.

The most recent newsworthy achievement of the scientific world was Rosetta. Rosetta was launched on 02/03/2004 and travelled 6,400,000,000km through the Solar System, using multiple planets as gravitational assists, before arriving at the comet on 06/08/2014. The path can be viewed on YouTube (goo.gl/Iv8MmL). Not since the days of the moon landing has humanity made such an achievement. Due to the attention of the media the mission was very much public knowledge when the probe successfully landed on the comet on 12/11/2014. One of the scientists who was working on the mission was one Matt Taylor who can be seen here predicting the mission’s success and showing off his commemorative tattoo (goo.gl/gRrxGi).

Taylor1One American Twitter user, @roseveleth, questioned the sexist nature of Taylor’s shirt, writing, “No women are toooootally welcome in our community, just ask the dude in this shirt”. This is a valid, if not presumptive, point because the shirt did raise an eyebrow, with the material depicting women in provocative poses wielding guns. This Tweet was followed by an article from American site ‘The Verge’ titled, “I don’t care if you landed a spacecraft on a comet, your shirt is sexist and ostracizing”. I began reading this satirical article with a grin, after all I thought I had found a site much like ‘The Onion’. I soon realised that this article was not satire and the author was seriously blaming Taylor’s shirt for the lack of women in STEM. Using this one example, this one man and his poor fashion choice as a metaphor for everything that is apparently wrong and sexist about science. The title is almost self-refuting and yet the storm, or should I say witch-hunt, that followed was a prime example of how social media has cast science in a bad light.

The keyboard-feminists, once again, became offended and took it upon themselves to berate Taylor and his shirt. Then the anti-keyboard-feminists came rushing to the defence of Taylor with insults and threats flying all over the place.

I should take this opportunity to clarify the distinction between feminists and keyboard-feminists. The former is a group of which I would include myself believing simply in equality. In the latter, however, are people such as twitter user ‘Feminist Frequency’ with 209,000 followers spewing tweets like, “There’s no such thing as sexism against men. That’s because sexism is prejudice + power. Men are the dominant gender with power in society.” This is why feminism has so many unsavoury connotations attached to it and why people don’t like to associate themselves with such a blind group.

Usually not much would come from the ramblings of these people, the silent majority know that it is pointless to get into online discussions with them. To quote Stephen Fry, “It’s now very common to hear people say, ‘I’m rather offended by that.’ As if that gives them certain rights. It’s actually nothing more… than a whine. ‘I find that offensive.’ It has no meaning; it has no purpose; it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. ‘I am offended by that.’ Well, so f*cking what”.

Taylor2Much like the vast majority of people, I was willing to ignore all the controversy.It was a day of celebration, a homage to the previous 10 years, a memory not to be sullied by the crab mentality of others. To my dismay, the torrent of abuse and bullying led Taylor to apologise to the world while choking back tears. The man who was previously on top of the world, now cowering in front of the TV cameras, like a puppy who’s peed on the rug. I was, ironically, offended that Taylor apologised.

The Verge only had one problem with the shirt, it was sexist. The shirt was hand-made by close friend Elly Prizeman (a tattoo artist and alternative model who arguably pushes the social boundaries of normality and challenges stereotypes on a daily basis) for Taylor’s birthday. I would argue that the fact that she spent 6 hours making the shirt means that it is a piece of art. Furthermore, because it is a piece of art I am not willing to accept a journalist’s opinion on whether it is sexist or not, especially when I have the meaning from the artist, “Nothing sinister at all was meant behind it at any point. It was just a bold and individual fashion item.” Prizeman, a woman who does more for feminism every day than any of these journalists and Twitter users will do in their life, makes a shirt that she doesn’t see as sexist, therefore it is not sexist.

Taylor3Not surprisingly the goalposts were then moved, with many people backpedalling to say that the offence wasn’t about the sexism of the shirt, it was about the unprofessional appearance and distracting nature of the shirt. In response; professionalism is subjective. The only entity that can deem Taylor as unpresentable is the ESA or the people who run HR. If we are willing to accept that the shirt is not sexist then it is the vibrant colours which are proposed to be unprofessional, however, pictured is how Taylor usually dresses for work. The shirt in the picture is not, aesthetically, that different to the one which caused all the controversy. On top of this, Taylor has been pictured wearing a ‘Cannibal Corpse’ band shirt at work, both of these shirts have gone unmentioned throughout this ordeal and that is because the controversy was not really about his professionalism. As a side note, it is more than acceptable in Hawaii to wear Hawaiian shirts to weddings and other formal events, appropriate attire is entirely subjective and relative to your environment and previous experiences. Taylor’s bosses and colleagues had no issue with this shirt or the many different ‘unprofessional’ shirts he has worn in the past.

Using a similar argument, how can the shirt be distracting when every part of Taylor’s appearance was distracting? Journalists jumped at the opportunity to say that the shirt detracted from the science and that he deserved the abuse because he chose to wear it (let’s ignore the ‘deserved it because of what he was wearing’ argument.) If this was really about the distraction from the science why did nobody mention his trainers, shorts, displayed tattoos, metaphor of Rosetta, unshaven face and general lack of scientific look that he has?

The articles writing about the shirt kept referring to the ‘women in science’ who were offended by the shirt while the only people who seemed to get offended were the vocal minority who feel the need to spread social equality and justice where it already exists. To be fair most of the other social media platforms had a more level-headed view of the whole matter, and so not all hope is lost for science’s relationship with social media, after all Twitter will be dead in the not so distant future with its restrictive, poorly designed interface and easy to spam format.

To get a sense of the real views of women in science I turn to Christina Sommers, a feminist academic at the AEI, “What nonsense. No woman with a serious interest in astronomy would be deterred because she saw a tattooed guy in a risqué shirt…Women are welcome in STEM, but I doubt that most scientists welcome the arrival of these chronically-offended, humourless gender warriors”

What do you think deters women from science more, a shirt depicting some empowered women or keyboard-feminists telling girls that science is misogynistic and don’t dare think of going down that road for a career/degree?

The idea that women are being kept out of science is nonsense. The amount of money and time being invested into bringing women into research is at a historical high. The gender divide in the last five years is now almost equal. Compare that to 10 years ago when science was male dominated and one can see the huge success. These people have absolutely no idea of the current state of the scientific community, they’re just going off their perceptions as an outsider. This is the problem with social media like Twitter, people will perceive science as being sexist simply because of the controversy it hosted. If only Twitter was self-moderating like Reddit, then the vocal minority would have a much quieter voice. At least I can take solace in the fact that much of the controversy was sourced in America, where political correctness is a much bigger threat than here in the UK.

Have social media improved the perception of science?

The Fool’s Gold Standard: Is Peer Review Working?

James Barr

The peer review process is the mechanism which drives scientific discovery. It is far more than just quality assurance of the scientific academic world: it can make and break people’s careers, result in awards, and allocate grants. Despite its prevalence, over the last few decades the infamous peer review system has come under heavy scrutiny.

The peer review process is difficult to define, as it is not standardised across journals, let alone disciplines. However, the general process, summarised in the figure below (from M. Ware, ‘Peer Review: An Introduction and Guide’), involves the review of a submitted paper by experts within the chosen field prior to publication.

peerreview

Despite the controversy, the process has its benefits. There are two methods in which peer reviewing improves the quality of work. The author has acceptance motives, working to receive publication. The second comes in the form of the feedback obtained after peer reviewing. Repeated surveys have shown that over 90% of the surveyed researchers said that the process had not only improved scientific papers in general, but also improved their own publications. [1] Crucially, the peer review process filters the growing number of scientific papers, by removing poorly designed, low quality or unoriginal work. Currently, if a researcher believes they have a high quality paper with wide implications to the scientific community, the researcher submits to a more prestigious journal, for example ‘Nature’. If they are unsuccessful, they submit to a less prestigious journal, and the cycle continues. Consequently the journal’s name has become an indication of the research quality. This allows the academics to concentrate on a manageable number of papers. Finally, the peer review process is a tried and tested method which has clearly resulted in scientific developments.

On the other hand, one of the contentious issues surrounding the peer review process is the peer selection. Who is a peer? Do they have vested interests in negatively reviewing the work? It’s fairly likely that a peer reviewer is in the same field of research and could well be a competitor. This leads to the first of the pitfalls. Historically, there have been cases where reviewers have stolen ideas and submitted them under their own name. Drummond Rennie tells his story where exactly this happened [2]. Rennie submitted his paper to the New England Journal of Medicine where he received a critical review from Vijay Soman. Soman was then caught submitting a paper where he had copied paragraphs of Rennie’s original work. Fortunately he was caught and subsequently left the country. [2] Obviously this was an extreme case; however, there are other methods in which reviewers could abuse the system. They might submit a harsh review to block or just slow the publication of the work. Peer reviewing is certainly open to abuse.

The peer review process is considered slow and expensive. It is not unusual for a paper to take more than a year to be published once submitted. Although reviewers are not paid, there is a substantial opportunity cost, when considering the time spent by the reviewers. There is also a hefty financial cost to access these papers once they are published.  They currently believe that the academic community pays approximately £3000 for access to a peer reviewed paper. Additionally, there is also an author cost (equivalent to approximately £300-£1500). There are obviously also overheads to pay. However, a substantial fraction of these costs become large profits for the publisher. If the review system were to change there could be significant financial gains for the academic community. [3]

Often, mistakenly, the peer review process is considered consistent, reliable and objective. However, there are numerous examples where this is simply not true.  The reviews are often completely contradictory. Here’s one example where two reviewers are commenting on the same paper:

Reviewer 1: `I found this paper an extremely muddled paper with a large number of deficits’

Reviewer 2: `It is written in a clear style and would be understood by any reader’. [3]

Not only are the reviewer comments inconsistent, but the peer review process is becoming less reliable, indicated by the increasing proportion of retracted papers. PubMed reported 52.9 retractions per 100 thousand publications in 2013, compared to 9.8 in 2003. This could be a consequence of over saturation caused by the growing number of paper submissions. The retracted publications cause many problems for the academic community. I believe three of the most damaging are the papers are misinforming the researchers and students; another paper has been rejected in place for a retracted paper, and in the past, these retracted papers have had a devastating effect on the scientific-public relationship. The latter has huge consequences, in the form of subsequent policy-making and funding reforms.

The peer review process has been shown to be biased against the author. One of the most famous studies was conducted by D. Peters and S. Ceci in 1982 [4]. They resubmitted twelve papers from so-called prestigious institutions which had already been published. “They made minor alterations, changing the authors’ names and, in particular, replacing the institution name with a less prestigious made-up name. They resubmitted the papers to the original publishing journals. A quarter of the papers were rejected on the grounds of originality. Shockingly, eight out of the remaining papers were rejected on the grounds of poor quality. Peters and Ceci concluded that this was evidence of bias against institutions. [4] Unfortunately, this isn’t the only bias. Evidence from Sweden analysed by C. Wennerâs, has suggested that the peer review process is nepotistic and sexist. [5]

So what’s the solution? Do we scrap peer reviewing in its current form? Do we use an open review system as seen in the Amazon Marketplace? Or do we improve what we already have? There’s no clear answer.

Some have suggested that signed, double-blind reviewing or training for reviewers would improve the current system. The majority of journals use the single blind review process whereby the reviewers remain anonymous, but the author’s name is known. The hope was that applying a double-blind system, where the author is anonymous to the reviewers, would make the process more impartial. The signed process, opposing the double-blind model, looks to make the reviewer accountable for their comments by enforcing the reviewer to sign the paper, once again hoping to improve the quality of the reviewing. In studies, looking at both the signed and double-blind process, no real improvement to the quality of review has been reported. One possible improvement could potentially lie in training the reviewers. Currently, reviewers undergo no formal training. Small studies have presented small but potentially significant improvements after training. [3]

The future of our peer review system is uncertain, but the one thing we can do is to make the review system open, following Sweden’s example. This would have huge benefits. Future generations would be able to analyse the peer review system in ways in which are currently not possible. This could lead to further insights into how to improve the process.

To summarise, we are using an expensive, slow, inconsistent and biased system. But does the peer review process work? Yes. Could we do better? Certainly.

References

[1] M. Ware, Peer Review: An Introduction and Guide, Publishing Research Consortium, 2013.

[2] D. Rennie, Misconduct and Journal Peer Review, In: Godlee F, Jefferson T, eds. Peer Review in Health Sciences, 2nd edn. London: BMJ Books, 2003: 118-29.

[3] R. Smith, Peer Review: A Flawed Process at the Heart of Science and Journal, J R Soc. Med. 2006 April; 99(4): 178–182.

[4] D. Peters & S. Ceci, Peer-Review Practices of Psychological Journals: the Fate of Submitted Articles, Submitted Again, Behav Brain Sci., 1982, 5: 187-255

[5] Wennerâs C, Nepotism and Sexism in Peer-Review, Nature, 1997, 387: 341-3

The Fool’s Gold Standard: Is Peer Review Working?

Women in Science: Please mind the gender gap

Isabel Clarke

Why is it that the word “scientist” automatically evokes the image of a 40-something year old male, sporting a lab coat and lacking social skills? And why is it that in an age where gender equality is so important in today’s society, the gender imbalance in science still prevails?

It is no secret that when it comes to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) there is a significant gender gap. From Nature’s study, in European universities only 11% of the senior science faculty members are female, a great reduction from the already low percentage of those at junior faculty level (33%).  Even more shocking is the fact that 6% of UK engineers are women and for roughly the past 20 years only 20% of all Physics A-level students in the country are female.

Moving away from numbers and investigations, one only has to look at the news of this week to find an issue with the female representation in science. Yes, Dr Matt Taylor (of the Rosetta comet mission) did break the “scientist stereotype” but, unfortunately, by wearing a top covered in scantily clad women. Yes, he did publicly apologise for it. But it doesn’t fill aspiring young female scientists with hope, knowing that this is how her male counterparts may view women.

When the creator of the popular Facebook page, I F***ing Love Science, shared her Twitter profile with fans, not only did it reveal her sex but with it the inherent gender bias that is associated with women in Science:

“You mean you’re a girl AND you’re beautiful?”

“Wait, wait, wait, wait! Ur a girl?!”.

“Holy hell you’re a hottie”

The onslaught of these objectifying comments reinforces ideas that science is a male-dominated field, placing image before intellect. However, it is encouraging that some fans were un-phased despite their gender perceptions being subverted, “I’m ashamed to say I assumed you were a man. But I’m neither shocked nor affected in the slightest that you aren’t. Keep on f***ing loving science.”.

Elise Andrew summed it up perfectly in less than 95 characters, “EVERY COMMENT on that thread is about how shocking it is that I’m a woman! Is this really 2013?”.

The gender disparity is obviously not restricted to one area of science nor to a specific academic level, but is all-encompassing. Why is that? And what can be done to reduce this gap?

Why does the gap exist? Does it actually matter?

The first place to evaluate is education. Boys and girls do equally as well in Physics at GCSE level, so why in 2013 did only 10% of the 72,000 girls who achieved an A* to C grade go on to study the subject at sixth form? It’s the same every year, in 2011 46% of co-ed schools in England didn’t send a single female to study Physics at A-level. Perceptions from a young age of STEM subjects being exclusively “for boys” clearly have a damaging effect, which can in turn inhibit a potential career path in years to come. On top of this, unconscious biases develop from the “pink aisle” – toys for young girls focus on objectification as opposed to education and adventure. These are just a few stereotypes that need to be challenged from an early age.

At 16, students are expected to make decisions that shape their future and it’s at this age where females are likely to miss out on the opportunity of a career in engineering. It is estimated that between now and 2020, the UK needs 87,000 graduate engineers each year. But only 46,000 are currently produced annually. In 2012/13 one in six engineering and technology students were female. An increase of females in Physics at A-level would open the potential for a career in engineering, which would not only reduce the gender gap but fight the misconception that it’s a “boys’ subject”, as well as having a beneficial impact on the economy.

Moving onto higher education and academic careers, there is male dominance when it comes to decision-making, be that for editorial boards, academic selection committees, grant reviewing boards etc. Women are hardly present at all within these roles, which adds to the impression that STEM subjects are for men.

The Royal Society of Chemistry found that the number of females that wanted to continue into research had dropped from 70% to 37% from first to third year, with one contributing factor being that female students “conclude consciously and unconsciously that these careers are not for them because they don’t see people like them”. It is the responsibility of a university or department to ensure that they offer the support female students may need throughout their academic experience to prevent this number from dropping as much as possible. There are various factors as to why a student may change their mind on continuing their studies, but “this sense of not belonging” should not have to be one.

How do we tackle this? What is already being done?

By implementing quotas within various committees a step can be taken towards a balanced representation, providing female scientists with female role models. Being realistic, it may be appropriate to keep this value initially low as to not overburden female members, especially if they’re on a decision making committee.

Nobel laureates have created foundations to support women in science. For example, the Rita Levi-Montalcini Foundation supports young African women who want to become scientists and the Christiane Nüsslein Volhard Foundation supports female scientists with children.

In the UK there are various initiatives to support women in science, with many starting at a school level. Science Grrl promotes that “Science is for everyone” and has been co-operating with a number of STEM sectors to encourage girls become more involved with these subjects. In addition to this, they created and presented a report to the Government to start the discussion with academics, educators and STEM community as to how they can work together to reduce this imbalance. They also deduced that there are three factors that contribute to choosing a career in STEM, regardless of gender and should be considered in all initiatives: 1) Relevance of STEM – Is it for people like me? 2) Perceived ability – Do I feel confident? 3) Science capital – Can I see the pathways and possibilities?.

Another programme that supports women “from classroom to boardroom” is WISE. They actively tackle the “pipeline issue” of female talent within STEM subjects and aim to push the presence of female employees from the current 13% to 30% by 2020.

There is no one solution or initiative that will resolve gender imbalance in science. Unfortunately there are stereotypes, both extreme and small, that are embedded deeply within science and society. It is the responsibility of women and men to work together to challenge them and to create future empathetic leaders in children to prevent the problem deteriorating.

Not only is the gender gap an issue of social justice but also of economy. As Nature stated, “no country can afford to neglect the intellectual contributions of half its population”. More needs to be done by the academic system, be that the Government, teachers, lecturers or external initiatives, to actively encourage females to study STEM subjects at A-Level and further. Doing so increases the progress of women’s involvement in the scientific workforce and produces role models to ensure such progress continues.

Women in Science: Please mind the gender gap

Why are there still so few women in Physics?

Holly Foster

Last year nearly 50% of all state co-educational school failed to send any girls onto A-Level physics, yet only 12% failed to send any boys[1]. Are girls simply unable to do physics, or have they been failed by the education system and are victims of out-dated attitudes towards women in science?

We see these depressing statistics year after year. Of all the students who achieved an A* in GCSE, 50% of boys went on to study physics at A-Level compared to 20% of girls, with girls making up only 17% per cent of physics students at undergraduate level. Even more frustrating is the fact that from 2000 to 2013, girls outperformed  boys in GCSE Physics most years. The margins may be small, but what is apparent is that this is not a simple case of boys being better than girls at Physics. So what is going so wrong?

Attitude in Education

An insight into why so few girls continue on with physics comes from the difference in the numbers of girls taking physics in single-sex and mixed schools to A-Level. Girls in single-sex education are two and a half times more likely to take physics on to a higher level than their counterparts in mixed gender education, while in biology and chemistry there is little difference in numbers. A report by the Institute of Physics[2] found that girls in mixed schools were much more likely to face gender stereotyping when it came picking subjects and pressure to be seen as ‘cool’ amongst their peers. Biology, chemistry and psychology are also all perceived to be more female appropriate subjects as they can lead more naturally into professions that involve working with people. Physics, on the other hand is seen to be challenging, with difficult mathematics and experiments that are boring and lacking in real-life application.

A study[3] found that in single-sex education, girls felt less restricted by academic barriers and that there wasn’t a ‘glass ceiling’ placed on their achievement in science. Teachers were also less likely to see subjects as gender specific and actively encouraged girls into STEM-based subjects. When there wasn’t an opportunity to compare girls and boys, girls were more often encouraged to take subjects that were seen to be ‘boys’ subjects’ such as physics. Attitudes affecting girls, however, are not limited to the classroom. Parents also play a role, as do peers and attitudes within mass-market media in influencing girls’ perception of physics.

Lack of Role Models

For women to see physics and related STEM as a realistic career option, there need to be women in the field that represent the success that can be achieved as a female in these fields. We are all a product of our environment and it should therefore come as no surprise that a shortage of female role models in the scientific community acts negatively on the number of women in physics.

A key problem is the lack of women holding senior roles in physics. Women hold a mere 7.9% of senior lecturer roles and make up only 4% of professors in Physics. This trend is also reflected outside of academia, with the majority (if not all) of public figures in physics being male. How many female physicists can anyone name in the media or in the world of business? This lack of role models doesn’t just represent the gender imbalance, it also reinforces the idea that physics is just for boys. Most popular physicists or scientists in the public domain are older, white males leaving women and minority groups underrepresented in physics (and women of minority groups almost doubly disadvantaged).

Even fictitious physicists fall into the same stereotypical trappings. Sadly, one of the most recognisable faces in physics is Sheldon Cooper from the US comedy series, The Big Bang Theory. This popular programme follows a group of four scientists based at the Caltech Physics department and their attractive female neighbour. The physicists are portrayed as socially-inept, obsessive and narcissistic. Granted they’re not doing much for the perception of men in physics, but their treatment of women is limited to outdated stereotypes. Penny, an actress who lives next door, is attractive but intellectually incompetent, whereas the two female scientists (neither of which is a physicist) are intelligent but made out to be unattractive and frumpy and ultimately undesirable as a partner. The Big Bang Theory sends a clear message: physics isn’t for girls who want to be popular too and it’s a message that we see time and time again from the media.

But do cultural stereotypes play a role in the perception of physics? The answer it would seem is yes. Public attitudes towards women in physics are outdated and without a driving force from teachers, parents, media and society there will always be the common perception that girls cannot achieve in Physics. The Riegle-Crumb[4] report from the University of Texas found that when removing all other factors (such as wealth, parental employment and school rankings), the biggest impact on women’s involvement in STEM subjects was the amount of the female labour-force in the local community working in STEM and related industries. Girls need to be able to identify with both the subject itself and with other women who have successfully bucked the trend and made a life for themselves in the world of science and engineering. Without other women in the media or in communities engaging with female students, interest in physics from girls will always be restricted.

The lack of women in physics is an issue that has its roots in outdated social attitudes towards women and where they fit in society. While statistical figures show no significant difference between male and female students in terms of exam results, the lack of young women moving on to higher levels of scientific study is symptomatic of a deep-rooted negative attitude several educational and professional sectors have towards women. While some issues could be identified as causing the apparent lack of enthusiasm of young women towards physics, attitudes within education and the media are two of the most influential. Attitudes displayed by teachers, parents, peers and the media all combine to either directly or indirectly dissuade many young girls from choosing to continue with physics despite many evidently having the ability to do so. Society needs to tackle cultural stereotypes of girls’ capabilities in science and engineering and then maybe, more women will take physics further than just GCSE.

[1] http://www.iop.org/education/teacher/support/girls_physics/file_58196.pdf

(All facts and figures in this article unless referenced otherwise can be found from this report from The Institute of Physics: It’s Different for Girls).

[2] http://www.iop.org/education/teacher/support/girls_physics/review/file_41599.pdf

[3] Moore 2004: A case study into single-sex schools.

[4] http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/ssqu.12022/full. A report by Catherine Riegle-Crumb at the University of Texas on gender disparity on ‘The Gender Gap in High School Physics: Considering the Context of Local Communities’.

Why are there still so few women in Physics?