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Peering into Peer Review

3 December, 2014 - 17:23

‘I do not think it should appear in its present form’. Many a dejected researcher has read those words when their paper is summarily rejected by a journal. Rest assured, however, even the greatest scientific minds have read them on occasion.

Issue one of the Philosophical Transactions
© The Royal Society

In 1839, Charles Darwin submitted a paper on the geology of Glen Roy in the Scottish Highlands to the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions. He received a response from Adam Sedgwick, who would later become one of Darwin’s greatest critics. The Society Fellow admired Darwin’s insight but bemoaned his long-winded explanations, rejecting the paper in its present form. It was the only paper Darwin submitted to the journal.

Sedgwick’s critique of Darwin’s work forms part of a new exhibition at the Royal Society about the history of the Philosophical Transactions. Detailing the turbulent beginnings of the journal – which was first published during the Great Plague of London in 1665 – through to the modern publication, the exhibit shines a light on its colourful history. The extensive display, developed by the Royal Society and researchers at the University of St. Andrews, UK, also reveals the birth of the modern peer review process.

Although Darwin’s referee report highlights the humbling nature of a referee’s comments, it’s the correspondence of Sir George Stokes, the pioneer of fluid dynamics, which reveals new details about the nature of peer review. Stokes’ letters look rather mundane when compared to the more prominent pieces in the collection, such as Maxwell’s original paper on the electromagnetic field, but the monotonous language belies a crucial contribution to the scientific method.

Sir George Gabriel Stokes was secretary of the Royal Society from 1854 to 1885
© The Royal Society

Stokes’ letter is a simple clerical note asking a referee for their professional opinion and recommendation for a paper. The piece displays a staunch professionalism in the review process, which may have been lacking in the previous centuries: the work of Anton van Leeuwenhook on single-cell organisms in the 1600s, for instance, was published by the Royal Society even when they could not replicate his results.

Stokes also discussed papers at length with their authors during the submission process. He structured the review process by ensuring referees did not renege their responsibilities and edited the majority of papers published in the journal, becoming in the process the first modern scientific editor.  For want of a better phrase, he appears to have been a one-man band, having a fundamental impact on the way in which we conduct scientific research. Not bad for a chap who was also Lucasian Professor at the University of Cambridge at the same time.

The Philosophical Transactions: 350 years of publishing at the Royal Society exhibition is open to the public between 2 December 2014 and 23 June 2015 at the Royal Society, London. The exhibit forms part of a project called Publishing the Philosophical Transactions: the economic, social and cultural history of a learned journal, 1665-2015 led by Dr. Aileen Fyfe at the University of St. Andrews.

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Categories: Education

Countdown to the 2014 Chemistry World science communication competition

1 December, 2014 - 14:06

Philip Ball, science writer and one of the judges for the upcoming Chemistry World science communication competition writes about the art of chemistry.

Philip BallOf all the sciences, chemistry has always seemed to me to be closest to the arts. It appeals directly to the senses: the shapes and colours of molecules, the smells, the tactile aspects of materials and instrumentation. It draws on intuitions and craft skills, for example in the practice of forming crystals or getting a reaction to work. And most of all, it demands creativity and imagination: ‘chemistry creates its own object’, as Marcellin Berthelot puts it.

Most of chemistry is not about discovering pre-existing forms and objects, but deciding what to make and how to make it. Molecular targets express ideas. Can we make something that fits into this hole or onto that surface? Can we create new atomic unions, unusual topologies, surprising bulk properties, new oxidation states? Can we design molecules to assemble themselves into new and useful (or simply pleasing or amusing) superstructures? The questions aren’t limited to what the natural world provides, but are circumscribed by our imaginations, which in principle need have no boundaries.

For these reasons, chemistry is perhaps the science most shaped by the personal styles of its practitioners, who are often regarded by their peers as artists of some description: Robert Woodward or Vladimir Prelog spring to mind, but everyone will have their own favourite stylists, whether they work on organics, inorganics, organometallics, polymers or whatever. There is a great deal of creative expression in the theoretical side of chemistry too: it is a science complex enough to depend on finding the right approximations, analogies and perspectives, on extracting concepts and approaches that are meaningful rather than being correct in some absolute sense. All of this makes chemistry thrillingly human, with all the argument, dissent, idiosyncrasy and flair that this entails.

Chemistry ought by rights therefore to enjoy the same kind of criticism and appreciation afforded to art – we can have views about what we like, even about what moves us. I suppose that this sort of subjective evaluation is not often encouraged because chemistry is a science. But it would be great to see some of it in this competition. The theme of ‘chemistry and art’ might be interpreted as ‘chemistry of art’, and there is plenty of interest in that. But it can also be read as ‘chemistry as art’. I look forward to seeing both perspectives explored in the entries.

Philip Ball is a freelance writer. He previously worked for over 20 years as an editor for the international science journal Nature. He writes regularly in the scientific and popular media, and has authored many books on the interactions of science, arts and culture. Philip also writes for Chemistry World and has a regular column – ‘The Crucible‘.


If you are passionate about science and science communication, the 2014 Chemistry World science communication competition on the topic of chemistry and art offers a fantastic opportunity to demonstrate your skill, win £500 and be published in Chemistry World.

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Categories: Education

Practised procrastination

27 November, 2014 - 18:01

Guest post by Heather Cassell

It’s an inevitability – there’s a task that should be doing but you can’t build up the enthusiasm. Normally mundane jobs can suddenly seem much more interesting to do.

A suspiciously tidy lab bench
Image by Jean-Pierre from Cosne-Cours-sur-Loire, France CC-BY-SA

For me it is always report writing. Although I love putting all of my results into order and writing it up succinctly for my colleagues and collaborators, I find I can rapidly lose focus. This is when the procrastination sets in. It never seems to matter how near the deadline is, how interesting my results are, or how important the document is – I feel an overwhelming desire to tidy my desk. ‘It’s important,’ I tell myself, ‘because if my desk is tidy I’ll have easy access to the papers and results I need to finish my report’. Just as a teenager’s room is never tidier than exam time, a researcher’s desk might only ever be clear when there’s a report to write.

Oh, but there are so many temptations! I’ve learned that when I’m meant to be writing a report it is best if I avoid the internet (see my previous post on the things you can discover while trawling twitter), so to physically remove the temptation often I’ll head into the lab.

But even the lab is full of potential distractions and procrastinatory aids, as there are always a diverse range of things to do! There is that pile of tip boxes that need refilling (it may have been gathering dust for weeks, but it seems urgent that they are to be filled and taken to autoclave). There are the consumables that need restocking, the buffers that need to be made, and stock solutions that need to be prepared. To the procrastinating mind, they all become more important than the task in hand. ‘If I’m not organised in the lab,’ I justify to myself, ‘then how can I work efficiently when I have finished my report?’

I try to reason with myself. I set targets and deadlines, promising myself a break if I can just reach the end of this section. As with exam dates and revision, eventually the deadline becomes so pressing that the level of stress rises and I actually buckle down to get on with the report.

It feels so good when it’s done that I consistently make promises to myself: ‘next time it will be different’; ‘next time I’ll just get it done without the distractions’. But the urge to procrastinate always returns. Who knows, without that urge my desk may never be clear.

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Categories: Education

Countdown to the 2014 Chemistry World science communication competition

21 November, 2014 - 11:05

In this first of a series of guest posts, Elizabeth Tasker writes about the how and why of her piece on cosmic chemistry, which was shortlisted in the 2013 Chemistry World science communication competition.

Elizabeth TaskerThere are some stories that beg to be written. When you find an experimental astrophysicist building a star-forming cloud in his laboratory, there is practically a moral obligation to remind the world that there are no boxes for ideas.

Astrophysicists usually come in three flavours: observers (telescope kids), theorists (‘The Matrix’ universes) and instrument builders (hand me a hammer). We cannot typically perform laboratory experiments since putting a star (or planet or black hole) on a workbench is distinctly problematic. The closest we come to hands-on experiments is through computer models, which is the toolkit I use when studying the formation of star-forming clouds. However, Naoki Watanabe had gone ahead and built his own cloud  in a super-cooled vacuum chamber.

What I liked most about Naoki’s work was the science question that was the heart of his project. Rather than take the tools of a given discipline and ask what could be learned, Naoki had picked the question and then drew knowledge he needed from astronomy, atomic physics and chemistry. This mingling of traditionally discrete subjects also made it a great fit for Chemistry World’s 2013 science communication competition theme of ‘openness’.

Discovering I’d been shortlisted was amazing. This feeling was briefly replaced by terror, since I was asked to produce a video clip describing my article as I was unable to attend the prize ceremony itself.

I recorded and re-recorded the video 10 times. All of them were identical. I feel there is a lesson to be learned about perfectionism that I likely failed to entirely grasp.

It was great to know that the judges had both enjoyed my article and were as excited as me about interdisciplinary work. Perhaps it is time to stop calling myself an ‘astrophysicist’ and simply say ‘scientist’.

Elizabeth Tasker is an assistant professor in astrophysics at Hokkaido University in Japan, where she explores star formation though computational modeling. Originally from the UK, Elizabeth completed her MSci in theoretical physics at Durham University, before pursuing her doctorate at the University of Oxford. Elizabeth keeps her own blog. She is working on a book on exoplanets (The planet factory), which will be published in 2016.


If you are passionate about science and science communication, the 2014 Chemistry World science communication competition on the topic of chemistry and art offers a fantastic opportunity to demonstrate your skill, win £500 and be published in Chemistry World.

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Categories: Education

From Mould to Medicine

20 November, 2014 - 10:29

Guest post by Rowena Fletcher-Wood

Excited, Mary Hunt tipped out the produce of her shopping: a large moulded cantaloupe. She had come across the cantaloupe by chance, and the ‘pretty, golden mould’ had proved irresistible. She had discovered the Penicillium chrysogeum fungus, a species that turned out to produce 200 times the volume of penicillin as Fleming’s variety. It was a serendipitous discovery, and vital at a time when the greatest challenge facing medicine was producing enough of the antibiotic to treat all of the people who needed it.

Hunt’s finding has been barely noticed beside the original accidental discovery: Fleming’s return from holiday to find a ‘fluffy white mass’ on one of his staphylococcus culture petri dishes. Fleming was often scorned as a careless lab technician, so perhaps the contamination of one of his dishes – which had been balanced in a teetering microbial tower in order to free up bench space – was not that unexpected. But Fleming had the presence of mind to not simply dispose of the petri dish, but to first stick it beneath a microscope, where he observed how the mould inhibited the staphylococcus bacteria. Competition between bacteria and fungi was well known and, in fact, when Fleming published in the British Journal of Experimental Pathology in June 1929, the potential medical applications of penicillin were only speculative.

In 1897, a 23 year old French scientist, Ernest Duchesne, published his doctoral thesis on antagonism between moulds and microbes – specifically, Penicillium glaucum versus Escherichia coli. His insight into the healing power of penicillin extended as far as curing guinea pigs of typhoid, but his research was never recognised.

Fleming lacked the resources and chemical training to isolate and test the active ingredient in penicillin, so he handed his research over to pathologist Howard Florey in 1938. Florey quickly transformed his Oxford lab into a penicillin factory. However, even with the discovery of Penicillium chrysogeum, production was slow.

The first patients to formally trial penicillin were a cluster of 25 streptococcus-infected mice. Unlike their 25 less fortunate friends who were not given the new medicine, they made a full and swift recovery. In 1940, Oxford policeman Albert Alexander became the first human to take penicillin. Alexander was suffering from fatal septicaemia, but within 5 days of treatment he began to recover. Sadly, the penicillin ran out and as techniques at the time were unable to produce enough, Alexander died. Although it was widely administered amongst the troops during World War II, once again, production was limiting.

The real breakthroughs in penicillin production began shortly after the establishment of a new American lab; in particular, the casual introduction of corn-steep liquor, a by-product of the corn wet milling process. This was being mixed with a wide variety of substances in an effort to find a use for it, and was seen to significantly increase penicillin yields.

In 1942, Anne Miller, suffering blood poisoning after a miscarriage, became the first successful civilian recipient, but further tests were still needed to explore the range of diseases treatable by penicillin.

Horrifically, in 1946-8, the Public Health Service, Guatemalan government, National Institutes of Health and the Pan American Health Sanitary Bureau approved a study to infect prison inmates, asylum patients, and Guatemalan soldiers with STDs and treat them with penicillin. Over 1300 people were infected, and 83 died.

Today, penicillin is the most used antibiotic in the world, treating large numbers of dangerous diseases. It also has many derivatives, the discovery of which began in 1957, when John Sheehan developed the first total synthesis. Although the synthesis proved difficult to upscale, it nevertheless produced a 6-aminopenicillanic acid intermediate – the starting material for a whole new class of antibiotics. Although the penicillin you and I take is manufactured in a lab, the battle between fungi and bacteria continues, and you can still come across this world-changing substance naturally growing in its parent mould.

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Categories: Education

Take 1… minute for chemistry in health

17 November, 2014 - 10:00

Guest post by Isobel Hogg, Royal Society of Chemistry

Can you explain the importance of chemistry to human health in just one minute? If you’re an early-career researcher who is up to the challenge, making a one  minute video could win you £500.

The chemical sciences will be fundamental in helping us meet the healthcare challenges of the future, and we at the Royal Society of Chemistry are committed to ensuring that they contribute to their full potential. As part of our work in this area, we are inviting undergraduate and PhD students, post-docs and those starting out their career in industry to produce an original video that demonstrates the importance of chemistry in health.

We are looking for imaginative ways of showcasing how chemistry helps us address healthcare challenges. Your video should be no longer than one minute, and you can use any approach you like.

The winner will receive a £500 cash prize, with a £250 prize for second place and £150 prize for third place up for grabs too.

Stuck for inspiration? Last year’s winning video is a good place to start. John Gleeson’s video was selected based on the effective use of language, dynamic style, creativity and its accurate content.

The closing date for entries to be submitted is 30 January 2015. Our judging panel will select the top five videos. We will then publish the shortlisted videos online and open the judging to the public to determine the winner and the runners up.

For more details on how to enter the competition and who is eligible, join us at the Take 1… page.

Good luck!

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Categories: Education

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