Tuesday, July 16, 2019

What does Open Science mean to me, and why is it important?

I was recently asked to record a snippet on Open Science, for the Open Science MOOC.

Here's the statement that I prepared to organize my thoughts (I ended up rephrasing this as I talked for the recording, but the idea is there):

I still have improvements to make bring more openness to the entire spectrum of my academic work, but in the past I have focused on sharing my work and the processes behind my work online. Especially for experimental work, I find it important to blog about what works and what doesn’t work in the lab, and I’ve advocated in the past to use blogs to reduce publication bias. I also always document all the calculations behind what you can find in my journal papers in background reports that are in the public domain.

Here, in South America, open access publishing has a long tradition, as journals are typically not in the hands of commercial publishers, but instead led by scholars and funded by universities or governments.

From my personal perspective, open science is important to be able to reproduce the work of other researchers, and to be able to move research forward in a more efficient manner.

From the perspective of a developing region, open science is important for getting access to the materials we need to do our research.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Favorite form of exercise

I ran a poll on Twitter to see what is academics' favorite form of exercise. By a small margin, cardio wins the poll.

Here's the wake of the poll:

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

How to use project management to get your PhD on track

Today's guest post is by Dr. Nadine Sinclair. Dr. Sinclair is one of the Founders and Managing Directors of Mind Matters, a boutique consulting firm based in Malta. Mind Matters advises large corporations on strategy and R&D topics and offers several transformative signature programs for executives and entrepreneurs. Before embarking on her entrepreneurial journey, Nadine was a management consultant with McKinsey & Company. She completed her PhD and MSc in Molecular Biology at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Germany and holds a BSc in Medical Biotechnology from the University of Abertay-Dundee in the UK. She is passionate about helping high-achievers transform their productivity, leadership style and emotional intelligence using insights from neuroscience. Fast Forward, her latest program, helps researchers to implement the project management and productivity systems described in her bestselling book On Track.

Project Management is not going to solve it all. It is not a magic wand that you can flick to transform a failing project into a success. However, it can help you work smarter, and as a result, be more focused and productive in what you do. It is not about cramming more hours into your overloaded days. Project management is about structuring your work in a way that allows you to make better choices, focus on what gets you closer to your goal, and reduce the day-to-day stress of working with uncertainty.

In my experience, successful project management rests on three pillars:

1. Shared Vision
Do you feel you are spinning your wheels week after week without truly making progress? Or does your project seem to have a life of its own growing and expanding in new directions with each conversation with your supervisor?

You may have missed the opportunity to build a shared vision with everybody who is involved in your project.

Starting a new project is exciting. Our motivation is at its peak, and we want to get going rather than spending days or weeks behind the desk and planning. In our haste to get started, it is tempting to skip some of the fundamental steps of managing a project.

Setting up a project starts by getting everybody involved in the project into the same room to create a tangible vision for the project and clearly define and agree on its goal using measurable criteria as goal posts. That done, we also need to consider how we will communicate throughout the project so that the project does not get side-tracked or falls behind schedule.

2. Robust Structure
Do you have many things going on at the same time, but none of them is getting closer to the finish line?

If that is you, you probably do not have a robust project structure with clear priorities, and as a result, you lack focus in your work. You are doing too many things at the same time.

To make the right choices on where to put your focus, you need to be able to see the full picture of your project first and then disaggregate it into manageable pieces. Once you can see everything that is required to achieve the project goal, you can distinguish the parts that are essential from the optional ones. This allows you to make trade-off decisions so that you spend your time in a way that will enable you to get the “biggest bang for the buck”.

3. Systems for execution
Do you have a vision and know your priorities but still do not see yourself getting anywhere despite knowing what should be done?

It sounds like you can improve your systems for execution that allow you to push your project forward consistently week after week.

You are probably familiar with Gantt charts displaying the work required to complete a project as a neat stack of sequential activities. While a Gantt chart looks good in a proposal, most research projects do not work like this. For the past two decades, agile project management has revolutionized R&D across industries. It involves short, successive cycles of planning, execution and review. Each cycle produces a partial result, and subsequent cycles build on the outcome of the previous one, thereby providing structure and flexibility at the same time.

* * * * * * * * * *

My book On Track describes the building blocks for each of these three pillars in more detail. Follow the two main characters, Simon and Julia, over a week in the lab. Each chapter starts with a productivity challenge they are facing at work or at home, such as dealing with impromptu meetings, unresponsive collaborators, or too many tasks demanding attention. Understand how their challenges relate to typical problems people face when managing a project and balancing work and home life. Then learn a project management technique that addresses these challenges effectively and efficiently. After that, follow Simon and Julia’s challenges a second time. This time, however, knowing about project management, they handle the situation differently, and as a result, experience a different outcome. Finally, follow the next steps to get started with the techniques yourself.

You can download a free chapter of On Track here.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: Don't make these nine mistakes when you write a journal paper

This post is part of the series PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: posts written for the Dutch academic career network AcademicTransfer, your go-to resource for all research positions in the Netherlands.

These posts are sponsored by AcademicTransfer, and tailored to those of you interested in pursuing a research position in the Netherlands.

If these posts raise your interest in working as a researcher in the Netherlands, even better - and feel free to fire away any questions you might have on this topic!


As a frequent reviewer and journal editor, I'm seeing (and reading) quite a lot of articles. Unfortunately, I am also seeing a number of mistakes that are repeated over and over again - both by experienced authors and novice writers.

If you are an early career researcher, and need some guidance on how to write an article that has higher chances of publication, this post is for you. If you are mid career, but sometimes find that reviewers comment on your writing style, this post may be a good reminder of what you should do and may provide pointers on what to improve in your writing.

So let's see some very common mistakes authors make when writing a journal paper:

1. Writing an abstract that stylistically is not an abstract
An abstract follows certain rules. An abstract is not a short summary of what you did. An abstract is not the background to your work. Each abstract should contain the following 5 elements: motivation, problem statement, approach/methods, results, and conclusions. Very often, I read abstracts that are missing the conclusions sentence. If your abstract doesn't answer the following: "What are the implications of your answer? Is it going to change the world (unlikely), be a significant "win", be a nice hack, or simply serve as a road sign indicating that this path is a waste of time (all of the previous results are useful)?", then it is missing conclusions and is stylistically not an abstract.

2. Not introducing the topic
Don't assume that your readers know the importance of the topic that you are studying. When you are introducing your work (in the introduction section), you need to address which main challenge your work is focused on. What is the practical relevance of your work? Why should this topic be studied? Why do we even care about this topic? Tell the reader why your work matters in the introduction, and tie back to this contents in the discussion section. Talking about previous experiments related to yours, formulas, theories etc is not general enough for introducing the topic.

3. Confusing annotated bibliography with literature review
'm not sure if it is one of the maladies of my field, but if I got a dime every single time I receive or review a paper that contains an annotated bibliography instead of a literature review, I'd be a millionaire by now. Seriously though, a literature review reviews the literature - as the names says. There should be an analysis of the literature. What happened chronologically in your field? Who agrees and who disagrees? Can you summarize information in an overview table? You need to analyze the literature to write a literature review. An annotated bibliography reads as follows: "Author X tested Y and found Z. Author A tested B and found C." etc etc. Do not make this mistake.

4. Following the structure of a thesis or research report
A research report reports experiments or other work done. A journal paper goes one step further: you need to frame your work in the current body of knowledge, discuss your results critically, and frame your work in a theory or explain the mechanics behind what you observed. Just reporting results is not enough.
A thesis contains more information that a journal paper, and will contain more subsections. Keeping the same titles as a thesis, and then just summarizing the contents will make for a journal paper that is missing flow and has a chopped-up structure. Change the structure, and make your journal paper a document that can stand alone; not just a summary of your thesis.

5. Not framing your work in the existing body of knowledge
I've already repeated this comment a number of times throughout. The literature review introduces the current body of knowledge. Where you discuss your methods, you should motivate your choices based on the current body of knowledge. When you analyze your results, you should link to the theories and models available in the current body of knowledge. In your discussion, you should explain how your work extends, contradicts, or confirms the current body of knowledge. Your work should be embedded in the field as much as possible.

6. Not providing an in-depth discussion
Are you tired of writing by the time you get to your discussion section? I sure am tired of the paper that I am working on sometimes when I get to the discussion. But the reader shouldn't know about this. If you feel tired of the topic, put the paper aside for a week or two, and then return with fresh eyes. Your discussion should provide a critical reflection, highlight the lacks of knowledge in your field, discuss which practical applications your work has, link back to the importance of the topic discussed in the introduction, and embed your work inside the current body of knowledge. The discussion is not an afterthought. Often, the discussion is what sets your work apart from a research report.

7. Placing new information in the summary section
The "Summary and conclusions" section should not contain new information, ever. If you want to discuss your results, do so in the discussion section. Your "Summary and conclusions" section is for the reader who wants to know if your paper is worth reading in depth. Bring together the most important points from your entire paper in this section - do not leave any section uncovered.

8. Using incomplete references
Just don't forget formatting your references according to the style guide of the journal you are submitting to. You may avoid a desk rejection or a decision to return the manuscript to you when you properly adhere to the style guide. Even when you use formatting software (which you should use), you still need to check if everything is formatted properly. If your entries are not 100% correct in your database, your reference won't be correct either.

9. Submitting without decent proofreading
Again, even when you are tired of a manuscript and just want to submit it, make sure you have a bit more patience and have all details sorted out. Work that is full of punctuation, grammar, and spelling errors looks sloppy. As a reviewer, it sometimes takes me a lot of effort to read work that is not properly proofread. And when the writing is so sloppy that the contents is obscured, I may feel like throwing in the towel and just saying that the authors should rewrite before I rereview. Make sure you submit well-written work so that your writing does not distract from the contents and your science. If necessary, get the help from a professional.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

When do we check and reply personal email?

I recently ran a poll about when we check and reply personal email. While I usually check personal email at work (it all comes together on my smartphone anyway), I usually reply my personal email (and blog-related email) in the evening. With a baby in the house, getting anything done in the evening is a challenge by times though.

From the poll, I learned that most people also reply their personal email at work. Here's the poll and its wake:

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Preprints or not?

Since I've been publishing with authors who always upload preprints, I wonder if it is a common practice. I like the idea of a preprint, but on the other hand, I seem to be too lazy/overwhelmed/... to actually upload preprints of my work - so I rely on other to do so.

To map the practice of preprints better, I ran a poll on Twitter. Here are the results and its wake:

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Disconnecting from work

Some time ago, I ran a poll on Twitter about disconnecting from work during holidays. Most respondents feel the same way about it as me - we try, but it's hard. I want to disconnect, but I'm afraid I'll miss something and I am afraid my mailbox will be too full when I return. But on the other hand, I haven't been fully disconnected and able to enjoy my holidays completely for the last 6 years - courtesy of my smartphone.

I originally wrote this post during my vacation - when I planned not to do any work or any email or anything at all, and then planned to remove my email client and not take my computer along for the 1 week of my 3 week vacation away from home. It went very well, and I hope to do the same again this year - that's why I ended up postponing this post until closer to the summer holidays :)

You can find the wake from this poll here:

UA-49678081-1