Friday, 27 July 2018

German investigative reporter team uncovers large peer review scandal

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists that also uncovered the Paradise Paper and Panama Papers investigated the world of predatory scientific journals and conferences. Most of the investigation was done by German journalists, where it has become a major news story that made the evening news.

The problem is much larger than I thought. In Germany it involves about five thousand scientists, about one percent sometimes use these predatory services. That is embarrassing and a waste of money.

While the investigators seem to understand scientific publishing well, it seems they do not understand science and the role of peer review in it. One piece of evidence is the preview picture of the documentary at the top of this article. It shows how the two reporters dressed up to present some nonsense at a fake conference. Presumably dressed up how they think scientists look like. Never seen such weird people at a real conference.

They may naturally claim they dressed like that to make it even more fake. But they also claim that no one in the audience noticed their presentation was fake, I guess they think so because they got a polite applause. That is not a good argument, everyone gets an applause, no matter how bad a presentation was.

A figure from the article that was published in the proceeding of the above fake conference with the title "Highly-Available, Collaborative, Trainable Communication - A Policy-Neutral approach". Clearly no one had a look at it before publishing. It got a "Best Presentation Award".

The stronger evidence that the reporters do not understand the way science works are the highly exaggerated conclusions they draw, which may lead to bad solutions. At the end of the above documentary (in German) the reporter asks: "Was wenn man keinen mehr glauben kann?", "What if you can no longer believe anyone?". Maybe the journalists forgot the ask the interviewed scientists to assess the bigger picture, which is what I will do in this post. There is no reason to doubt our scientific understand of the world because of this.

As an aside, the journalists of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists are the good guys, but (Anglo-American) journalism that rejects objectivity is the bigger problem for the question what we can believe in than science.

Fortunately most of the reporting makes clear that the main driving force behind the problem is the publish-or-perish system that politicians and the scientific establishment have set up to micro-manage scientists. If you reward scientists for writing papers rather than doing science, they will write more papers, in the worst case in predatory journals.

Those in power will likely prefer to make the micromanagement more invasive and prescribe where scientists are allowed to publish. The near monopolistic legacy publishers, who are the only ones really benefiting from this dysfunctional system, will likely lobby in this direction.

Peer review

Many outside of science have unrealistic expectations of peer review and of peer reviewed studies. Peer review is just a filter that improves the average quality of the articles. Science does not deal in certainty (that is religion) and peer reviewed studies certainly do not offer certainty. The claims of single studies (and single scientists) may be better than a random blog post, but reliable scientific understanding should be based on all studies, preferably a few years old, and interpreted by many scientists.

This goes much against the mores of the news business, who focus on single studies that are just out, may add some personal interest by portraying single heroic scientists. The news likes spectacular studies that challenge our current understand and are thus the most likely studies to be wrong. If this mess the public sees were science we would not have much scientific progress.

As a consumer of science reporting I would much prefer to read overviews of how the understanding in a certain scientific community is and possibly how it has changed over the last years. It does not have to be recent to be new to me. There is so much I do not know.

the biggest threat to the proper public understanding of science is ... the lie we tell the public (and ourselves) that journal peer review works to separate valid and invalid science
Michael Eisen

Peer review is nothing more than that (typically) two independent scientists read the study, give their feedback on things that could be improved and advice the editor on whether the study is sufficiently interesting for the journal in question. Review is not there to detect fraud. Reviewers do not redo all experiments, do not repeat all calculations, do not know every related study that could shine a different light on the results. They just think that other scientists would be interested in reading the article. The main part of the checking, processing of the new information and weaving it into the scientific literature is performed after publication when scientists (try to) build on the work.

The documentary starts with someone with cancer who is conned into a treatment by a scrupulous producer pointing to their peer reviewed studies, partially published in predatory journals. They also criticize that articles from predatory journals were available in a database of a regulatory agency.

However, the treatment in question was not approved and the agency pointed out that they had not used these articles in their assessments. For these assessments scientists come together and discuss the entire literature and how convincing the evidence is in various aspects. These scientists know which journals are reliable, they read the studies and try to understand the situation. One of the interviewed scientists looked at one of the studies on this cancer treatment in a predatory journal and found several reasons why the journal should not have accepted it in the present form.

Also politicians would often like every scientific study to be so perfect that you do not need any expertise to interpret it and can directly use it for regulation. That is not how science works and also not what science was designed for. Science is not an enormous heap of solid facts. Science is a process where scientists gradually understand reality a little better.

Trying to get to the "ideal" of flawless and final studies would make do science much harder. Every scientists would have to be as smart and knowledgeable as the entire community working on something for years. Writing and reviewing scientific article would be so hard that scientific progress would come to a screeching halt. Especially new ideas would have no chance any more.

Conned scientists

Like most scientists I get multiple spam mails a day for fake scientific journals and conferences. Most of them have the quality of Nigerian Prince Spam. People say this kind of spam still exists because the spammers only want really stupid people to respond as they are the easiest to con.

Thus I had expected that people who take up such offers know what they are doing. Part of becoming a scientist is learning the publishing landscape of your field. But Open Access publishing reporter Richard Poynder mentioned several cases of scientists being honestly deceived, who tried to reverse their error when they noticed what happened.
The first researcher who contacted me realised something had gone wrong when the manuscript that he and his co-authors had submitted was returned to them with no peer review reports attached and no suggested changes. There was, however, a note to say that it had been accepted, and could they please pay the attached invoice. They later learned that the paper had already been published.

Quickly realising what had happened, and desperate to recover the situation, the authors agreed to pay the publisher the journal’s full [Author Processing Charges] (over $2,000) – not for publishing their paper, but for taking it down.
Apparently there are also predatory journals with names that are very similar to legitimate ones and a 1% error rate easily happens. I guess assessing the quality of journals can be harder in large fields and in case of interdisciplinary fields. If the first author selects a predatory journal, the co-authors may not have the overview of the journals in the other field to notice the problem.

We need to find a way help scientists who were honestly fooled and make it possible that the authors can retract their articles themselves. Otherwise they can be held hostage by the predatory publishers, which also funds the organised deception.

If the title of the real article is the same as the one of the predatory article it would be hard to put both on your CV or article list. Real publishers could be a bit more lenient there. A retraction notice of the predatory version in the acknowledgements of the real version should be "shameful" enough that people do not game the system, first publish predatory and then look for a real publisher.


If there is evidence that scientists purposefully publish in predatory journals or visit fake conferences that should naturally have consequences. That is wasting public money. One institute had 29 publications over a time span of ten years. There is likely a problem there.

It should also have consequences when scientists are in the editorial boards of such predatory journals. It may look nice on their CV to be editor, but editors should notice that they are not involved in the peer review or that it is done badly. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that they are aware that they are helping these shady companies. Sometimes these companies put scientists on their editorial boards without asking them. In that case you can expect a scientist to at least state on their homepage that they did not consent.

It is good to see that prosecutors are trying to take down some of these fake publishers. I wish them luck, although I expect this to be hard because it will be difficult to define how good peer review should work. Someone managed to get a paper published with the title "Get me off Your Fucking Mailing List". That would be a clear example of a fail and probably a case of one strike and you are out. At least scientifically, no idea about juridically. With more subtle cases you probably need to demonstrate that this happens more often. Climate "sceptics" occasionally manage to publish enormously bad articles in real scientific journals. That does not immediately make them predatory journals.

Changing publishing

In the past scientific articles were mostly published in paper journals to which academic libraries had subscriptions. This made it hard for the public and many scientists to read scientific articles, especially for scientists from the global South, but I also cannot read articles in one of the journals I publish in regularly myself.

Nowadays this system is no longer necessary as journals can be published online. Furthermore, the legacy system is made for monopolies: a reader needs a specific article and an author needs a journal that most scientists subscribe to. As society replaces morality with money and as the publishing industry is concentrating and clearly prioritizes profits over being a good member of the scientific community subscription prices have gone up and service has gone down. As an example of the former, Elsevier has a profit margin of 30 to 50 percent. As an example of the latter, in one journal I unfortunately publish in the manuscript submission system is so complicated that you have to reserve almost a full working day to submit a manuscript.

The hope of the last decade was that a new publishing model would break open the monopoly: open access publishing. In this model articles are free to read and in most cases the authors fund the journals. This reduces the monopoly power of the journals. Readers can read the articles they need and authors can be sure their colleagues can read the article. However, scientists want to publish in journals with a good reputation, which takes years if not decades to build up and still produces a quite strong monopoly situation.

This has resulted in publishing fees of several thousands of Euro for the most prestigious open access journals. In this way these journals are open to read, but no longer open to publish for many researchers. These journals drain a lot of resources that could have been used for research; likely more than the predatory publishers ever will. My guess would be that the current publishing system is 50 to 90 percent too expensive; the predatory journals have less than 1 percent of the market.

The legacy publishers defend their profits and bad service with horror stories about predatory open access journals. They prefer to ignore all the high quality open access journals. This investigative story unfortunately feeds this narrative.

Bad solutions

The Austrian national science foundation (FWF) has found a way to make the situation worse. They want make sure that the scientists they fund will only publish in a list of known good quality open access journals, for example in the Directory of Open Access Journals. That sounds good, but if all science foundations would adopt this policy it would become nearly impossible to start new scientific journals and the monopolies would get stronger again.

[UPDATE The German Alliance of Scientific Organizations fortunately states that journal selection is part of the freedom of science. They furthermore state that the quality of a study does not depend on where it is published and want to help scientists with training and information persons. They see a key role for the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ).]

I just send a nice manuscript to a new journal, which has no real reputation yet. Its topics fits very well to my work, so I am happy my colleagues started this journal. I did my due diligence, know several people on the editorial board as excellent researchers and even looked through a few published articles. The same publisher has many good journals and journal is by now also listed in the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ). The DOAJ was actually very quick and already listed this journal after only publishing 11 articles. But getting those first 11 would be hard if the FWF policy wins out.

The opposite model is to create a black list. This has less problems, but it is quite hard to determine which journals are predatory. There used to be a list of predatory journals by Jeffrey Beall, but he had to stop because of legal threads to his university by the predatory publishers. There were complaints that this list discriminated against journals from developing countries. True or not, this illustrates how hard it is to maintain such a list. There is now, oh irony, a pay-walled version of such a list with predatory journals. The subscriptions should probably pay for the legal risks.

Changing publishing

A good solution would be to review the articles after publication. This would allow researchers to update their assessments when evidence from newer studies come in and we understand the older studies better. PubPeer is a system to do this post-publication peer review, but it mostly has reviews for flawed papers and thus does not give a good overview over the scientific literature.

F1000 Prime is an open access journal with post publication review. I know of two more complete post-publication review systems: The Self-Journals of Science and recently Peeriodicals. Here every scientist can start a journal, collect the articles that are worthwhile and write something about them. The more scientists endorse an article, the more influential it is. In these systems I miss reviews of article are not that important, but are valid and they may still be informative for some. Furthermore, I would expect that the review would need to be organized more formally to be seen as worthy successors of the current quality control system.

That is what I am trying to build up at the moment and I have started a first such "grassroots journal" for my own field to show how the system would work. I expect that the system will be superior because these "grassroots journals" do not publish the articles themselves, only review them, and thus can assess all articles in one field at one place, while traditionally articles are spread over many journals. The quality of the reviews will be better because it uses a post-publication review model. The reviews are more helpful to the readers because they are published themselves and quantify in more detail what is good about an article. As such it performs the role of a supervisor in finding one's way in the scientific literature.

You get a similar effect from the always up-to-date review paper on sea surface temperature proposed and executed by my colleagues John Kennedy. This makes it easy for others to contribute, while having versioning and attribution. There is naturally less detail per article that is reviewed.

Changing the system

But also a better reviewing system cannot undo the damage of the fake competitive system currently used to fund scientific research.

Volker Epping, president of the University of Hannover, stated: "The pressure to publish is enormous. Problems are inherent to the system." I would even argue: Given the way the system is designed, it is a testament of the dedication of the scientists that it still works so well.

It is called "competitive", but researchers are competing to get their colleagues to approve the funding their research. There is no real competition because there is no real market. If you did a good job, there are no customers that reward you for this. In the best case the rewards come as new funding decided by people who have no skin in the game. People who have no incentive to make good funding decisions. Given that situation, it is amazing that scientists still spend time in making good peer reviews of research proposals and show dedication comparing them with each other to decide what to fund.

My proposal would be to return to the good old days. Give the funding to the universities, which give it to the professors, which allocate it to what they, as the most informed experts, think is interesting research, which furthers their reputation. Professors have skin in the game, their reputation is on the line, and they will invest the limited funds where they expect to get most benefits. In the current system there is no incentive to set priorities, submitting more research proposals has no downsides for them beyond the time it takes to write them. One of the downsides of this model for science is that the best researchers are not doing research, but are writing research proposals.

A compromise could be to limit the number of projects a science foundation funds per laboratory. The Swiss Science Foundation uses this model.

The old and hopefully future system also allows for awarding permanent positions to good researchers. Now most researchers are on short-term contracts because the project funding does not provide stable funding. With these better labour conditions one could attract much better researchers for the same salary.

Because project science requires so many peer reviews (of research proposals and of a bloated number of articles) a lot of time is wasted. (This waste is again much bigger than that of the predatory publishers.) This invites the reviewers to use short-cuts and not assess how good a scientist is and instead assess how many articles they write and how high the prestige is of the journals the articles appear in (bibliometric measures). Officially this system is illegal in Germany, the ethics rules of the German Science Foundation forbid judging researchers and small groups on their bibliometric measures, but it still happens.

My expectation is that without the publish-or-perish system scientific progress would go much faster and we certainly would not have the German public being shocked to learn about predatory publishers.

I hope the affair will inspire journalists to inform the public better on how science works and what peer review is and is not.

Related reading

Investigation of predatory publishing

English summary by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ): New international investigation tackles ‘fake science’ and its poisonous effects.

A critical comment in English on the affair: Beyond #FakeScience: How to Overcome Shallow Certainty in Scholarly Communication. With many (mostly German) links to news sources.

The newspaper Indian Express (the Indian partner of the ICIJ): Inside India’s fake research paper shops: pay, publish, profit. Despite UGC blacklist, hundreds of ‘predatory journals’ thrive, cast shadow on quality of faculty and research nationwide.

Comment on the investigation: Predatory Open Access Journals: Is Open Peer Review Any Help? I think it would help, but there are also commercial firms where you can buy peer reviews (next to copy editing, statistical analysis and writing complete articles and theses).

The Bern university library feels criteria for black lists are not transparent and making them puts much power into the hands of a commercial company: On the topic of #predatoryjournals - are there black lists and how reliable are they? In German: Zum Thema #predatoryjournals – gibt es schwarze Listen und wie verlässlich sind sie?

Investigation of scientists of the City University of New York publishing in predatory journals.

Overview of the investigation by the ICIJ in German: Overview of the investigative project in German.

Q&A of ICIJ in German: #FakeScience - Fragen und Antworten.

Why so many researchers use dubious ways to publish (in German). Warum so viele Forscher auf unseriösem Weg publizieren. Volker Epping, president of the University of Hannover: "The pressure to publish is enormous. Problems are inherent to the system." I would even argue: Given the way the system is designed, it is a testament of the dedication of the scientists that it still works so well.

Video of a comment on the affair by Svea-Eckert in German. Like other jouralists, I think she is wrong about the implications.

Peer review

The first grassroots scientific journal, which I hope will inspire the post-publication review system of the future.

An always up-to-date review paper by John Kennedy, Elizabeth Kent on GitHub: A review of uncertainty in in situ measurements and data sets of sea-surface temperature. You can use bug reports and pull requests to add to the text.

Separation of feedback, publishing and assessment of scientific studies.

Separation of review powers into feedback and importance assessment could radically improve peer review. Grassroots scientific journals.

Publish or perish is illegal in Germany, for good reason. German science has another tradition, trusting scientists more and focusing on quality. This is expressed in the safeguards for good scientific practice of the German Science Foundation (DFG). It explicitly forbids the use of quantitative assessments of articles.

The value of peer review for science and the press. Is it okay to seek publicity for a work that is not peer reviewed? Should a journalist only write about peer-reviewed studies? Is peer review gate keeping? Is peer review necessary?

Peer review helps fringe ideas gain credibility.

Three cheers for gatekeeping.

Did Isaac Newton Need Peer Review? Scholarly Journals Swear By This Practice of Expert Evaluation. But It’s a New Phenomenon That Isn’t the Only Way To Establish the Facts.

Think. Check. Submit. How to recognise predatory publishers before you submit your work.

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Separation of review powers into feedback and importance assessment could radically improve peer review

After some blog posts about grassroots journals, it looks as if no one else will pick up the idea and I have started creating a first grassroots journal.

(It is interesting how often fear of being scooped is mentioned as reason against Open Science. Typically good ideas are not recognised before they are presented in detail and even then it takes time. At least that is my impression with the small paradigm changes I was responsible for: surrogate clouds and adaptive parameterisations.)

"It was the pits," said [economist Brian Arthur]. "Nobody there believes in increasing returns."

Susan Arthur had seen her husband returning from the academic wars before. "Well," she said, trying to find something comforting to say, "I guess it wouldn't be a revolution, would it, if everybody believed in it at the start?"

The first grassroots journal is naturally on homogenisation of climate observations. That was a good way for me to check whether the idea would work in practise. I think it does. And a concrete example is a good way for everyone to see how such a journal would work.

Using a WordPress blog works, but I am learning how to code a WordPress site to make it more user friendly and to make it easy for everyone to start such a grassroots journal, just as easy as starting a blog. (Which is really easy. Hint.)

With that it also became time to spread the idea and I have written a short guest post for the blog of the OpenUp project, an EU project on Open Publishing. After all these years of blogging that was my first guest post.

I was supposed to write about how wonderful openness is. So I wrote about how wonderful the right mix of privacy and openness are. Scientists are natural contrarians.

The main message, however, was already presented in my last blog post that if we separate the two roles of peer review — 1) feedback for the authors and 2) advising the journal whether the article is important enough for them — we will get a much more healthy quality assurance system.

In the feedback round I see no real reason to publish the content, all the (little) mistakes that were corrected. However, as it is just feedback, a friendly helping role, it would be easy publish the name of the reviewer.

In the assessment round the review itself is very interesting for others as well and is best published. Because this is judging a colleague and anonymous makes it easier to be honest. I would give the choice whether to be named to the reviewer.

Enjoy: Separation of review powers into feedback and importance assessment could radically improve peer review.

Sunday, 25 March 2018

Separation of feedback, publishing and assessment of scientific studies

I once asked a friend and colleague about a wrong sentence in one of his scientific articles. He is a smart cookie and should have known better than that. His answer was that he knew it was wrong, but the peer reviewer requested that claim. The error was small and completely inconsequential for the results; no real harm was done. I wondered what I would have done.

Peer review has two roles: it provides detailed feedback on your work and it advises the editor on whether the article is good enough for the journal. This feedback normally makes the article better, but it is somewhat uncomfortable to discuss with reviewers who have a lot of power because of their second role.

Your Manuscript On Peer Review by redpen/blackpen.
My experience is that normally you can argue your case with a reviewer. Still to reach a common understanding can take an additional round of review, which means that the paper is published a few months later. In the worst case, not agreeing with a reviewer can mean that the paper is rejected and you have to submit to another journal.

It is quite common for reviewers to abuse their power by requesting their work to be cited (more). Mostly this is somewhat subtle and the citation more or less relevant. However, an anonymous reviewer once requested that I'd cite four article by one author, one of which was somewhat relevant. That does not hurt the article, but is disgusting power abuse and rewards bad behavior. My impression is that these are not all head fakes; when I write a critical review I make sure not to ask for citations to my work, but recommend some articles of colleagues instead. Multiple colleagues, not to get them into trouble.

Grassroots journals

I have started a grassroots journal on homogenization of climate data and only recently started to realize that this also produces a valuable separation of feedback, publishing and assessment of scientific studies. That by itself can lead to a much more healthy and productive quality control system.

A grassroots journal assesses published articles and manuscripts in a field of study. One could also see it as a continually up-to-date review article. At least two reviewers write a review on the strengths and weaknesses of an article, everyone can comments on parts of the article and the editors write a synthesis of the reviews. A grassroots journal does not publish the articles themselves, but collects articles published everywhere.

Every article also gets a quantitative assessment. This is similar to the current estimate of how important an article is by the journal it was able to get into. However, it does not reward people submitting the articles to a too big journal, hoping to get lucky, making unnecessary work for double reviews. For example, the publisher Frontiers reviews 2.4 million manuscripts and has to bounce about 1 million valid papers.

In case of traditional journals your manuscript only has to pass the threshold at the time of publishing. With an up-to-date rolling review of grassroots journals articles are rewarded that are of lasting value.

I would not have minded making a system without a quantitative assessment, but there are real differences between articles, the reader needs to prioritize their reading and funding agencies would likely not accept grassroots journals as replacement of the current system without it.

That is the final aim: getting rid of the current publishing system that holds science back. That grassroots journals immediately provide value is hopefully what makes the transition easier.

The more assessments made by grassroots journals are accepted the less it matters where you publish. Currently there is typically one journal, sometimes two, that have the right topic and prestige to publish in. The situation for the reader is even more terrible: you often need a specific paper and not just some paper on the topic. For this one specific paper there is one (legal) supplier. This near-monopolistic market leads to Elsevier making profits of 30 to 50% and it suppresses innovation.

Another symbol of the monopolistic market are the manuscript submission systems, which combine the worst of pre-internet paper submissions (every figure a separate file, captions in a separate file) with the internet age adage "save labor costs by letting your customers do the work" (adding the captions a second time when uploading a figure with a neat pop-up for special characters).

Separation of powers

Publishing is easy nowadays. ArXiv does this for about one dollar per manuscript. Once scientists can freely chose where to publish, the publishers will have to provide good services at reasonable costs. The most important service would be to provide a broad readership by publishing Open Access.

Maybe it will even go one step further and scientists will simply publish their manuscript on a pre-print server and tell the relevant grassroots journals where to find it. Such scientists likely still would like get some feedback from their colleagues on the manuscript. Several initiatives are currently springing up to review manuscripts before they are submitted to journals, for example, Peer Community In (PCI). Currently PCI makes several rounds until the reviewers "endorse" a manuscript so that in principle a journal could publish such a manuscript without further peer review.

With a separate independent assessment of the published article there would no longer be any need for the "feedback peer reviewers" to give their endorsement. (It doesn't hurt.) The authors would have much more freedom to decide whether the changes peer reviewers suggest are actually improvements. The authors, and not the reviewers, would decide when the manuscript is finished and can be published. If they make the wrong decisions that would naturally be reflected in the assessment. If they do not not add four citations to a peer reviewer that would not be any problem.

There is a similar initiative in the life sciences called APPRAISE, but this will only review manuscripts published on pre-print servers. Once the journals are gone, this will be the same, but I feel that grassroots journals add more immediate value by reviewing all articles on one topic. Just like a review article should review the entire literature and not a random part.

A vigorously debated topic is whether peer reviews should be open or closed. Recently ASAPbio had this discussion and comprehensively summarized the advantages and disadvantages (well worth reading). Both systems have their strengths and I do not see one of them winning.

This discussion may change when we separate feedback and assessment. Giving feedback is mostly doing the authors a favor and could more easily be done in the open. Rather than cumbersome month-long rounds of review, it would be possible to simply write an email and pick up the phone and clarify contentious points. On the other hand anonymity makes it easier to give an honest assessment and I expect this part to be mostly performed anonymously. The editors of a grassroots journal determine what is published and can thus ensure that no one abuses their anonymity.

The future

Concluding, in a decade a researcher writes an article and asks their colleagues for feedback. Once the manuscript no longer changes that much it is send to an independent proof reading service. Another firm or person takes care of the lay-out and ensures that the article can still be read in a century by making versions using open standards.

The authors decide when their manuscript is ready to be published and can be uploaded to the article repository. They send a notice to the journals that cover the topic. Journal A makes an assessment. Journals B and C copy this assessment, while journal D also uses it, but requests an additional review for a part that is important to them and they write another synthesis.

Readers add comments to the article using web annotations and the authors reply to them with clarifications. Also authors can add comments to share new insights on what was good and bad about the article.

Two years later a new study shows that one of the choices of the article was not optimal. This part was important for journal C and D and they update their assessment. The authors decide that it is relatively easy to redo their article with a better choice and that the article is sufficiently important to put in some work, they upload the updated study to the repository and the journals update their assessment.

Related reading

APPRAISE (A Post-Publication Review and Assessment In Science Experiment). A similar idea to grassroots journals, but they only want to to review pre-prints and will thus only review part of the literature. See also NPR on this initiative.

A related proposal by Gavin Schmidt: Someone C.A.R.E.S. Commentary And Replication in Earth Science (C.A.R.E.S.). Do we need a new venue for post-publication comments and replications?

Psychologist Henry L. Roediger, III on Anonymity in Scientific Publishing. A well written article that lays out all arguments, which are whether we talk about the authors, reviewers or editors. The author likes signed reviews. I feel that editors should prevent reviewers taking advantage of their anonymity.

* Photo of scientific journals by Tobias von der Haar used under a Attribution 2.0 Generic ( license.
* Graph of publishing costs by Dave Gray used under a Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) license.

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

I did not start the war

As I work in Bonn, I sometimes represent Germany, for example in the World Meteorological Organisation or in EU science projects. A colleague once noted that I am fond of making clear that while I represent Germany, I am actually Dutch.

Could be, at least I like the slogan "I did not start the war". The Second World War. It is a truism, but Germans are not allowed to say so. So, I say it on their behalf.

In addition Germans are still treated as if they are personally responsible. So, it is more pleasant if people know that I am not German.

My father traveled from The Netherlands to Austria on his motorbike. Admittedly long ago, not too long after the war, when he was young. At the border between France and Germany the customs were not willing to speak German, until they saw his Dutch passport, then they were suddenly able to speak German fluently.

Before I moved to Germany in 2000 I told a few friends that it was nice that the hostile feelings against Germans were over. They each time looked at me like I was from another planet. They were right. I must have had a sheltered life with nice friends.

More recently I went to Dublin for a week of fun at the European Meteorological Society meeting and stayed at a bed and breakfast. As far as I can see I got the worst room. The landlord asked a few times whether I was German. Maybe because the answer, "No, I am Dutch", was too much of a shock to process in one step. The toilet was next to my pillow, a naked light bulb, the backside of the water basin was unfinished lumber. The other rooms looked better and were not all occupied during the week. When reserving a room a normally ask for a firm mattress, maybe I should add: "I did not start the war".

Fascism: I sometimes fear... (by Michael Rosen)

I sometimes fear that
people think that fascism arrives in fancy dress
worn by grotesques and monsters
as played out in endless re-runs of the Nazis.

Fascism arrives as your friend.
It will restore your honour,
make you feel proud,
protect your house,
give you a job,
clean up the neighbourhood,
remind you of how great you once were,
clear out the venal and the corrupt,
remove anything you feel is unlike you...

It doesn't walk in saying,
"Our programme means militias, mass imprisonments, transportations, war and persecution."

It made no sense to me when my first German language teacher said she felt personally responsible for the war. She was born well after the war. But if people treat you like you are guilty, it is easy to start feeling guilty. We are social animals after all. In a survey published today one in ten Germans agreed with the thesis: "Even if I did not do anything bad myself, I feel guilty for the Holocaust".

This shows the power of social contagion, when the way Germans are treated by others can make 10% believe something that is impossible. How much larger will this effect be in cases were it is hard to judge who is right, the person or many others. If people treat you badly because of the way you look, it is too easy to say you should just ignore that. It will leave its trace.

Ironically racists often call for an end to the shame and blame culture, while their counterparts in other countries produce it. While they are technically right that it is not logical to feel guilty, what they actually want is that people do not know what the consequences of their ideology of hate and conflict are.

Fortunately in the same survey 79% say it is important to teach history in school. The two main reasons for this are to learn about the damages caused by racism (79%) and to prevent a return of national socialism (84%). More than half reported to have victims of the Second World War in their families.

Not mentioned in the survey, but the independent public media are also very important. They feature German history regularly and show emotional interviews of victims of the Nazi regime. The most important lesson of such interviews may be that the Nazis did not start with the Holocaust, they started with parades, denigration, discrimination and deportation. It ended with the Holocaust.

Free public transport

In complete different German news today: The federal government is thinking about free public transport, starting with experiments in Bonn & four other cities, to reduce private transport & fight air pollution. They revealed these plans in a letter to the EU on how they will keep air pollution below the limits they themselves agreed to.

* Top photo Cochem with Reichsburg shot by Roger W, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) license.

Thursday, 1 February 2018

GCOS Newletter on designing a GCOS Surface Reference Network

Outcomes of AOPC Task Team, 1-3 November 2017, Maynooth, Ireland
Article in the GCOS Newsletter of January 2018

While not perfect, the in-situ component of the global climate observing system has been broadly successful in contributing to the detection, attribution, and monitoring of climate change. Measurements of surface meteorological parameters have been made for more than a century in many parts of the world and, together with satellites and other in-situ systems, have provided the evidence for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to conclude in its last two assessment reports that the evidence for a warming world is unequivocal (IPCC, 2013).

However, the demands on the climate observing systems are ever increasing and a more rigorous assessment of future climate change and variability is needed. This can most plausibly be delivered by a coordinated metrological reference-measurement approach to such monitoring at a sufficient subset of global sites. The principles for such a reference network are traceability, comparability, representativeness, long-term operational viability, full data and metadata retention and open data provision. Reference networks currently exist that have proven value, like the US Climate Reference Network (USCRN), the Global Climate Observing System (GCOS) Reference Upper Air Network (GRUAN), and Cryonet stations from WMO’s Global Cryosphere Watch.

At the request of GCOS Atmospheric Observation Panel for Climate (AOPC) and the WMO Commission for Climatology, a paper outlining the steps toward establishing a GCOS Surface Reference Network (GSRN) was developed and has now been accepted for publication in the International Journal of Climatology. In 2017, the AOPC agreed to the creation of a 2 year task team whose main objective is to assess the feasibility of a global surface reference network by identifying the major stakeholders, the benefits, the practicality of doing this, and the costs.

The task team, chaired by Howard Diamond (US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/Oceanic and Atmospheric Research NOAA/OAR, Air Resources Laboratory) includes experts from the metrology community, WMO’s CIMO, Numerical Weather Prediction, the climate community, other GCOS networks, and met for the first time from 1 to 3 November 2017 at Maynooth University, Ireland. The meeting agreed that the primary benefits of a GCOS Surface Reference Network would be:

  • A key step in improving the long-term accuracy, stability and comparability of the observations and result in an improved confidence in detecting the global increase in temperature, as well as the link to historical records.
  • Rigorously characterized time series from these sites will lead to the development of a better understanding of important climate related processes, including extreme events, and key to assessing mitigation effectiveness.
  • Observations from a GSRN can be used to improve measurements made at other, non-reference site, and co-located reference quality measurements will provide a valuable data set for the calibration and validation of satellite data.
  • New techniques and equipment can be tested at the reference sites which will also provide good locations to base future field campaigns. In addition to WMO Members contributing measurement sites, a key catalyst for the success of the GSRN would be the establishment of a global lead center structure to help ensure the adequate coordination of all GSRN activities.
The task team will produce a concept note that will be used to get feedback from the Members on whether there is interest from their country in participating, and it will include a proposed list of steps to follow in the GSRN implementation.

Related post

A stable global climate reference network. Some first thoughts on how to design and organise such a global reference network.

* Top photo: US Climate Reference Network.
* Last photo of automatic weather station at Cape Morris Jesup, the northernmost point of mainland Greenland, taken by the technicians of the Danish weather service and kindly offered by Ruth Mottram.

Sunday, 21 January 2018

The variability diet

'Tis the time for dieting. Let me jump on the band wagon with a completely new diet that fits to this blog: the variability diet.

Antipodes can skip this post or stay for some interesting science ideas; countries in the Southern Hemisphere apparently do not have a seasonal cycle in dieting.

The National Weight Control Registry is proud they found ten thousand people who managed to keep the weight off for a longer time. Ten thousand people world wide sounds to me more as if most diets hopelessly fail on the long term.

It could naturally be that the obesity epidemic in the West is an epidemic of sloth, a failure to count calories as well as lions do.

Oh, wait.

I would venture: we need fresh ideas.

Most diets are defined by averages. The right amount of calories, the right macro-nutrients (carbs, fats and proteins), in the right number of portions per day. In observational studies, scientists compute the average number of calories eaten and calories burned, they compute the average fractions of every macro-nutrient, maybe even the average amount of vegetables and animal foods eaten, the average number of hours of sleep, the averages of this and the average of that. And even if they do not explicitly average, their analysis methods (for example, multiple regressions) will only notice differences in the average.

The main exception from prescribing the averages of a diet is the advice to eat a diverse diet or to eat many different colours of fruits and vegetables. For example in the USA one recommendation is: "A healthy eating pattern includes: A variety of vegetables from all of the subgroups—dark green, red and orange, legumes (beans and peas), starchy, and other."

To be honest, "a variety of" is a somewhat unsophisticated way to describe variability. First of all it is rather unspecific. Other formulations often ask for more variability, but just like for the average, you can have too much or too little variability and an optimal amount in the middle. But lets be generous and assume the typical variability is way below optimal.

The biggest problem is that for variability you always need to define an averaging (time) scale. The red and the blue symbols in the figure below have the same total variability (a standard deviation of one). However, as the thick line shows, the blue line has much more variability on longer averaging time scales, while the blue values vary less from day to day.

Daily eating a wide variety of vegetables of vegetables from all over the world is nowadays possible and produces a lot of variability on short time scales, like the red symbols. But on long time scales it lacks variability ($). My father complained that in his youth he had to eat beans for weeks on end when the beans in the garden were ready for harvest. That was a diet with not much variability on short time scales, but a lot on longer time scales, like the blue symbols.

There is a diet that mimics this, the seasonal diet. For out of touch city folks like me, there is even a seasonal food calendar; I have one on the inside of a kitchen cabinet. This diet is mostly promoted as a diet that saves you money and it good for the environment. Sometimes it is advised for ensuring the food is healthier and tastier because fresher, but maybe the variability is also helpful.

What is the right time scale? I do not know. One reason to write this post is the hope that a nutritional scientist is inspired to take variability into account. When it comes to carbohydrates (bread, pasta, rice) it may be good to once in a while empty the (glycogen; animal starch) stores and train your body to also use fat for fuel. The liver has about 10 to 12 hours of glycogen in store. I wonder whether this is related to the German advice not to eat after 6pm or the Italians who eat a lot in the evening, but hardly eat any breakfast. These two national recommendations seem to conflict, but have a fasting period of over 12 hours in common.

Intermittent fasting seems to be an effective way to lose weight, at least for people able to do so. There are many varieties. Some people only eat during a few hours a day, every day. Others once in a while do not eat for 24 hours (breakfast to breakfast; skip lunch and diner) or 36 hours (diner to breakfast). I like this method, at least in summer because I get cold after some time when my metabolism goes down. Women often do not like it.

"Ancient humans ate a large variety of foods, which is why we are adapted to so many. Human variation is high though, since our lineage has become so populous and geographically wide-ranging."
Melissa McEwen

Many diets have a honeymoon period of one or two months in which they work like a charm (raw food diet; low carb diet). A blog called 180 Degree Health claims to have success by breaking all the healthy eating rules. Apparently diametrically opposed diets work in the beginning. If you are lucky your diet works for about half a year, but typically the weight and the health problems come back.

From the variability point of view a new diet is initially a change, variability, in the long-term a diet often makes your food more monotonous.

This honeymoon period suggests that another interesting time scale is a month to half a year. This honeymoon period was what provoked my to start thinking about a variability diet. Why stick with a diet for a year, why not try 12 diets for a month and benefit from the honeymoon period 12 times?

The honeymoon period is also why diet studies without a control group are a problem.

Randomized Control Trials, difference in success after 6 months, similar and less success after 12 months.

Variability in sports

What is the right time scale? Maybe all of them!? Nature is characterized by variability on all time (and spatial) scales.

The importance of variability is broadly acknowledged in sports and sports training uses several time scales, from hours to years. Sports training is based on periodization. A simple [[periodization scheme]] for a beginning runner could be: one has microcycles of one week (one hard run a week), mesocycles of about one month (one more relaxed week a month) and macrocycles of a year (preparation, competition and transition (rest) phase). If you add to this a 4-year cycle for Olympic athletes and a career plan for a professional athlete you start to think in variability on all time scales.

In weight training a similar concept is to include a deloading period/week once in a while in which you take it easy, which helps to keep getting stronger in the long run. Weight training fans can talk for hours about how fast exercises should be performed, how many repetitions, how many sets and how often per week one should go to the gym. There we have four more time scales. Five if you make one exercise a week extra hard.

Intermittent fasting could be seem as weight training. A fruitarian diet may be the equivalent of lying in bed all day; if you can handle the sugar load, fruits normally eaten hardly contain any anti-nutrients you body needs to defend itself against. On the other side, a very low carb may for some be the equivalent of running a marathon every day. If you think in terms of exercise, you would set a stressor by eating very low carb for a short period and then recover and become stronger while eating a mixed diet including fruits. No idea whether this specific example works, but I wonder why people do not think in these terms when in comes to nutrition.

Reasons why variability may be healthy

A healthy gut microbiome, that is the ecosystem in your intestines, is important for health and weight loss. A human has more mass (and stores) than a microbe. Missing nutrients thus hurt microbes more than us and fasting gives our immune system the possibility to fight bad germs more easily. This is a reason why we often do not feel like eating when ill. This also suggests that the microbiome may be the most sensitive to variability and the main target of a variability diet.

The biodiversity of the microbiome is linked to being overweight. The causal relationship may go both ways. Transferring the microbiome of a fat mouse to a skinny mouse makes it fatter, but losing weight also changes the microbiome. The obesity epidemic and other metabolic deceases in the West may be related to a reduced intestinal biodiversity in the West. This biodiversity has a seasonal cycle and the diversity increases on a calorie restricted diet, which gives hope this may be reversible.

Microbes are an ecosystem and their composition will as such highly likely be determined by variability (pioneer populations, tidal plain versus salt marsh; cactuses need to be dry regularly to fight root decease; palm trees grow where the minimum temperature is above zero degrees, fire keeps the savanna open, ...).

Variability also makes it easier for the body to learn which food does what to your body, especially when the short-period diets are relatively simple to get more long-term variability. Without paleo blogs, I would never have noticed that I do not handle grains well because I never went without grains for a long enough time to notice the difference.

My experiment

How could such a variability diet look like? Except for mimicking the seasonal diet your grandma ate, I have no idea. But this is the experiment I tried myself. I picked a period of 4 days and relatively large changes in diet. The 4 days nicely fit to my 2 times a week grocery shopping rhythm. These are some of the short-term diets I tried. The diets probably look funny to most because I do not eat grains.
  • 4 Days low protein: Fried potatoes, fruit meals and a large vegetable stew without meat, but with butter.
  • 4 Days low fat: I was at a conference and thought that low fat would be the easiest diet variety. Luckily they had lots of fish. Otherwise, vegetable omelets, meat, greens, yogurt with fruits.
  • 2 Days low carb: Brisket, fried eggs with cream, too much cashews, pork chops with red cabbage.
  • 7 Days deloading: Whatever my body wanted.
  • I started this 4 day period planning to eat yogurt and fruit. But after four meals, I just could not eat it any more and put in a low carb day. Repeat not to waste the fruits.
  • 6 Days a diet which was intended to be (almost) all animal products, but without dairy, so I used olive oil. That turned out to be too low carb, so I have added one fruit to most of my meals. This period was a bit longer than the others. It felt good and I made a delicious soup from whole 2-kg chicken, which takes some days to finish, if you would like to eat more than just soup.
  • 2 Transition days.
  • Started with a potato diet, with some vegetables and nut butter for taste. I mainly baked the potatoes in a little butter or olive oil. Plus about 2 fruits a day.
  • 5 Days low carb, mainly animal products, meat, eggs, heavy cream, butter, bacon, and one or two fruits a day. I had planned to do this one week, but my temperature started to drop (cold hands, feet and ears).
  • 3 Days my normal diet.
  • A low protein week: backed potatoes with butter and cream and fruits.
  • 2 Weeks of meetings and a conference in sugar and flour capital Vienna, These weeks I planned to eat whatever is available. To my surprise you can also get very good food in Vienna, lots of offal and grass-fed beef was available in the restaurants (Universitätsbräuhaus (University brewery, Unibräu) & Servitenwirt) I visited.
  • 1 Week my normal paleo-ish diet to recover from the meeting.
  • 3 Starch days, a lot of rice pudding (rice cooked in hay milk and butter, served with a little sugar and cinnamon or backed apples) and one normal meal.
There are many more things one could try. Also trying longer periods would make sense.
  • High Acid (vinegar)
  • Low Acid (My mum used to have chalk for cooking, no idea how she used it.)
  • No dairy
  • Salty or salt free
  • Pig out
  • Salad, raw vegetables
  • Drink a lot, or little
  • A lot of vegetables or just empty carbs.
  • Avoid nightshades, citrus fruits or [[FODMAPs]]
The good news is that I lost weight and felt good. The bad news is that I was not able to continue the diet. Inventing one or two new diets a week is exhausting. Thinking so much about what to eat is not my thing. So I went on with just occasional intermittent fasting (which requires no planning) and stopped doing that in winter.

It would be great if there were a traditional fasting celebration in spring to remind you to start with intermittent fasting again.

So you could say my n=1 experiment failed, because the main thing of a working diet is being able to stick to it. But maybe that is fixable (is there an app for that?) and people are different.

It is some time ago I tried this. I think I will try again. 'Tis the time of the year.

Related reading

Is obesity bias evolutionary?

Davenport and colleagues: Seasonal Variation in Human Gut Microbiome Composition.  PLoS ONE, 2014.

Mark's daily apple: The Pitfalls and Limitations of Self-Experimentation.

Are Diets Just Placebos?

Dietary intervention impact on gut microbial gene richness. This study suggest that a low fat diet good for microbiome diversity. I could imagine it was just the change.

Richness of human gut microbiome correlates with metabolic markers.

Photos: Pumpkin recipes by zsoolt used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0) license; yellow snap beans photo taken at Farmers Market by Alice Henneman used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license; Pepper Medley by Jitze Couperus used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) license; Grande Ronde Wild and Scenic River by the Bureau of Land Management Oregon and Washington used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) license; Fennel by Alice Henneman used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) license; seasonal by Lisa Ouellette used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) license; Sampler tray of Starbucks new Mocha Toffee Latte by urbanbohemian used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) license.

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Open science and science communication at #EGU18, the European Geophysical Union General Assembly

The EGU General Assembly 2018 will bring 14,500 geoscientists from all over the world to Vienna. Those are not just climate scientists plotting to take over the world. Climatology is just one of 22 disciplines present. In my last post on interesting meetings for climate data scientists, I already pointed to the relevant scientific meetings taking place for climate data scientists.

In this post I wanted to point to more general meetings (sessions, debates and short courses) that take place that may be of interest to climate scientists on Open Science, Science Communication, scientific publishing and climate change.

Such big conferences have downsides, if you meet someone you will have to immediately get contact information because chances of meeting twice by accident are small. But an advantage is the attention for topics affecting many sciences, which do not take place at more focussed workshops and smaller meetings. There are sessions on nonlinear physics, which pose methodological problems almost all geoscientists have to deal with and I attended a lot as young scientist.

There was also a time where I worked on many different topics, clouds, downscaling, homogenisation, where EGU was great for meeting all these communities in the same week. Lately I was mostly focussed on homogenisation and I have not visited EGU for some time. If you are mostly interested in one session, it is a long trip and an expensive conference for just a few talks and a poster session.

Maybe I paid less attention to this in the past, but it looks like EGU nowadays has a very wide range of meetings on Open Data, Open Code, Open Science, Publishing, Citizen Science and Science Communication. As I am thinking of destroying a multi-billion dollar scientific publishing industry, those are topics very much on my mind. So I think I will visit EGU this year and have curated a list below of meetings that I think climate scientists could be interested in. (Descriptions are often shortened.)

Bottom up scientific conferences

Old rabbits, with which the Germans do not only mean our professorial chemistry bunny, can skip to the list, but for young scientists and outsiders I thought it would be interesting to explain how such a huge conference is organised. With 14,500 geoscientists writing more than 20,000 abstracts on the work they would like to present, it is impossible for the conference organisers to determine what will happen and the content of the conference is very much a bottom-up affair.

The conference is split up in 22 disciplinary divisions and 13 divisions of general interest. One of these divisions is "Climate: Past, Present, Future". It could have been called "climate". Within these divisions you have dozens of so called "sessions", which are meetings on a specific topic.

Everyone can propose a session. For this EGU there was a call-for-sessions with a deadline in September. As far as I know the only condition is that one of the organisers of the session needs to have a PhD.

The next step is the call-for-abstracts, which for EGU2018 ends the 10th of January. Everyone can submit an abstract to a session of their liking describing what they would like to talk about. Again bottom-up.

Normally abstracts are accepted. When I was organiser of the downscaling session, I could see the number and about 1% of the abstracts was rejected. They were mostly double or empty ones, where something had gone wrong during submission. If the organiser thinks there is something wrong with your work, the abstract is normally still accepted, but you will likely get a poster.

Space is limited and the organiser can only select one third of the abstracts as talks, the others become posters. One time block with talks is one and a half hour in which six presentations can be given. The minimum size of a session is thus 18 abstracts. If your session gets less, the divisions leaders will merge your session with another one on a similar topic. Getting to 18 abstracts is the main barrier to organising your own session.

Talks are best for broadcasting a new result, you reach more people, but there is only time for a few questions and thus little feedback. Posters are much better for feedback. As a convener an important criterion for making an abstract a talk or a poster is thus the stage the study seemed to be in. In the early phase feedback is important, if the work is finished broadcasting is important. In addition talks are typically for studies of more general interest and if it is known how well someone talks that is also an important consideration. Thus if you want to get talk, make sure to mention some results to make clear you are in the final stages and make sure the abstract is clear and contains no typos, which are proxies for being able to present your work clearly.

The posters are EGU are typically well visited, especially the main evening poster session with free beer and wine to get people talking. Personally I spend most of my time at the posters. If a talk is not interesting, 15 precious minutes are gone, if a poster is not interesting you just walk along.

Some sessions at EGU have a system been a talk and a poster called a PICO session. Here people present their work in a 2-minute talk and afterwards every presenter stands next to a touch screen with the presentation for detailed discussions. The advantage of a poster over a PICO is that the poster is up all day.

Next to these sessions where people present their latest, you can also reserve rooms for splinter meetings to talk with each other or organise short courses. Many of the interesting meetings listed below are short courses.


Great Debate 4 Low-risk geo-engineering: are techniques available now?

With the Paris agreement, a majority of the world’s countries have agreed to keep anthropogenic warming below 2 °C. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change*, this target would require not only reducing all man-made greenhouse gas emissions to zero but also removal of large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, or other type of geo-engineering techniques. The issue of geo-engineering has been heavily debated during the last years and we are therefore asking: Are the potential risks with geo-engineering sufficiently known? Are safe geo-engineering techniques available? Are they available now?

This debate will address these questions of crucial importance for today’s society. It will discuss the most recent discoveries of geo-engineering techniques, their potential to reduce global warming and their potential risks.
* I am not sure whether the IPCC states this. The scenarios that stay below 2 °C do have carbon dioxide removal. But scenarios are just that, scenarios, not predictions for the future.

I think we urgently need to talk about a geo-intervention. There is no reason to wait until the Earth has warmed 2 °C, climate change does unacceptable damage right now.

Great Debate 2 Hands on or hands off?

A great debate on whether scientists should get involved in policy.
In recent years there has been a growing distrust of experts in the public imagination which has been expressed in numerous debates from Brexit to the US presidential election. This gives rise to serious questions about the role of scientists in policy making and the political sphere. As geoscientists, our disciplines can have a real impact on the way humanity organises itself, so what should our role in that be? There are serious tensions here between the desire for our knowledge to have real impact and make a difference, the need for scientific detachment and objectivity, and respect for broader perspectives and for democracy itself.

The key questions for this debate are:
  • Should geoscientists restrict themselves to knowledge generation and stay out of the policy world?
  • Or should we be getting involved and making change happen?
  • Should our voices as experts be heard louder than others?
  • Or does evidence-based policy undermine democracy?
  • Should we be hands on or keep our hands off
Conferences are busy, so let me answer the questions so you do not have to go.

Four of the five organisers are from the UK, but I hope that at least outside of Anglo-America it is uncontroversial for scientists to inform the public and policy makers of their findings. Scientists are humans and have human rights, including free speech. Germany and several other European countries have even set up climate service centres to facilitate the flow of information from science to groups that need to adapt to climatic changes.

When it goes further, trying to convince people of certain solutions, please let go of your saviour complex, you will mostly like not achieve much. The way scientists are trained to think and communicate works well for science, but it is not particularly convincing outside of it. The chance you are good at convincing people is not much better than the chance of some random dude or grandma down the road.

When it comes to informing people of our findings our voice should naturally be louder than that of groups misinforming people. In countries with a functioning media that does not need to be particularly loud. The opposite of evidence-based policy is misinformation-based policy. It is clearly less democratic and an abuse of power to set up a misinformation campaign to get your way politically because the public would not support your policies if they knew the truth. That is a violation of the self-determination of people to control their lives.

Educational and Outreach Symposia Session Geoethics: ethical, social and cultural implications of geoscience knowledge, education, communication, research and practice


Educational and Outreach Symposia Session Vision for Earth Observations in 2040

Educational and Outreach Symposia is a surprising place for this session. I hope the right people find it.
As both Earth science and technology advance while the expectations for the extent, quality, and timeliness of environmental information to be provided to the world’s population increases, the opportunity exists to harness the increased knowledge and capability to improve those products and services.

The World Meteorological Organization has made important contributions in making the connection between knowledge and products in the areas of weather, water, and climate through its periodic visions, most recently the Vision for the Global Observing System (GOS) in 2025. The WMO is now in the process of doing an update for the 2040 time frame, taking into account both surface and space-based measurements.

In this session, presentations that look ahead to the 2040 time frame and address expected observational capability that can realistically be expected to be available in that time frame, the expected demand for products and services informed by observational data that may be required for public use in that time frame, and mechanisms for connecting the two are all sought. Presentations for this session can address the full range of products for Earth System Science and are not limited to those addressed by the WMO in its development of the 2040 vision.
I hope a global climate station reference network will be part of this vision for 2040.

Interdisciplinary Session Big data and machine learning in geosciences

This session aims to bring together researchers working with big data sets generated from monitoring networks, extensive observational campaigns and extremely detailed modeling efforts across various fields of geosciences. Topics of this session will include the identification and handling of specific problems arising from the need to analyze such large-scale data sets, together with and methodological approaches towards automatically inferring relevant patterns in time and space aided by computer science-inspired techniques. Among others, this session shall address approaches from the following fields:
  • Dimensionality and complexity of big data sets
  • Data mining and machine learning
  • Deep learning in geo- and environmental sciences
  • Visualization and visual analytics of big data
  • Complex networks and graph analysis
  • Informatics and data science

Interdisciplinary PICO Session R’s deliberate role in Earth sciences


Interdisciplinary Session Citizen Science in the Era of Big Data

I wish they were a bit clearer on what kind of statistics specially for Big Data they are thinking of. I guess with lots of data it is easy to a result that is statistically significant, but physically negligibly small and not interesting. If you start analysing the data like a fishing expedition you should be extra careful not to fall into the multiple testing gap. It may be that they mean that with "Big Data approaches."
Citizen Science (the involvement of laypeople in scientific processes) is gaining momentum in one discipline after another, thereby more and more data on biodiversity, earthquakes, weather, climate, health issues among others are being collected at different scales. In many cases these datasets contain huge amounts of data points collected by various stakeholders. There is definitely power in numbers of data points, however, the full potential of these datasets is not realized yet. Traditional statistics often fail to utilize these prospects. Statistics for Big Data can unveil patterns hidden that are otherwise would not be visible in datasets. Since Big Data approaches and citizen science are still developing fields, most projects miss Big Data analyses.

In this session we are looking for successful approaches of working with Big Data in all fields of citizen science. We want to ask and find answers to the following questions:
  • Which Big Data approaches can be used in citizen science?
  • What are the biggest challenges and how to overcome them?
  • How to ensure data quality?
  • How to involve citizen scientists in Big Data Analyses, or is it possible?

Scientific publishing

Great Debate 1 Who pays for Scientific Publishing?

This Great Debate will address the following questions: whether the profits generated by traditional publishers are justifiable and sustainable, to what extent scientists should contribute to the business, what are the current and future alternatives, and what role will preprint servers play?
See also my recent post on the new preprint servers for the Earth Sciences and the townhall meeting below on self-archiving and EarthArXiv.

Townhall Meeting EarthArXiv - a preprint server for the Earth Sciences

Preprints and preprint servers are set to revolutionise and disrupt the standard approaches to scholarly publishing in the Earth Sciences. Yet, despite being widely-used and demonstrably successful in several other core science disciplines, the concept of preprints is new to many Earth Sciences. As a result, education is needed, such that Earth Scientists can benefit from the use of preprints and preprint servers. In this townhall we will introduce the general concepts of preprints and preprint servers, illustrating this with a demonstration of EarthArXiv, a community-led preprint server. We will also lead a general discussion of the use of preprints.

PICO Session Future of (hydrological) publishing

This session was one reason to write this blog post. It sounds really interesting and it is somewhat hidden by being in the Hydrology Division, where non-hydrologists may miss it. This could be a good place for my coming out with the idea of grassroots scientific publishing, where the scientific community takes back control of the quality assessment, beginning with making more informative open reviews of already published articles.
In recent years, the current and future system of scientific publishing has been heavily debated. Most of these discussions focused on criticizing aspects of the current system such as:
  • the scientific publishing industry being one of the most profitable branches (Guardian, 2017) in media, because the scientific community basically does all the work for free
  • the peer review system being corrupted, or at least not functioning perfectly
  • the limited access to scientific papers due to its current business model
  • the surging number of submitted papers in recent years, especially with strict publication requirements for PhD candidates. This is putting more pressure on editors, reviewers and readership, and will decrease the visibility and impact of each publication.
Times are changing, which can be seen in the increased demand and supply for open access publishing. However, we believe there might be plenty of other ideas and suggestions on how to improve scientific publishing. We invite and challenge everyone from the scientific community to propose ideas on how to do so in 5 minute presentations. Afterwards we will continue the discussion to answer questions such as: Who needs to pay for reading our work? Who should publish our work? How to cope with the excessive amount of submitted papers? Should we even be publishing?

Short course What are the key problems in Climate Science?

Climate science is a wide discipline that encompasses many of the EGU divisions, yet it is not always easy to know what the key problems are outside of your own specific area. ... During the short course, four climate experts from different divisions will introduce the “key problems” in their discipline, giving you an overview of what the current “hot topics” are. This course will provide you with enough background to venture into other divisions during the rest of the meeting. The floor will then be open for questions and discussion with our experts.
With so many disciplines together EGU would theoretically be an important place to learn about problem in other fields and see how that fits to yours.

However, the talks at EGU are very short, just 12 minutes. They do not leave much time for an introduction and are thus hard to follow for outsiders. It may be nice to extend the idea of this short course with just four hot topics to many more topics. Make it into a science slam, where you do not talk about your own work, but introduce the field in a way an outsider can get it.

It looks like these four key problems and their speakers are selected by the conveners. A science slam could be open to all like the normal talks.

Open Science

Townhall Meeting OSGeo Townhall: Open Science demystified

OSGeo is hosting this Townhall event to support the collaborative development of open source geospatial software by promoting sustainable Open Science within EGU. The Open Source Geospatial Foundation, or OSGeo, is a not-for-profit umbrella organization for Free and Open Source geospatial tools, including QGIS, gvSIG, GRASS GIS, Geoserver and many others.
The paradigm of Open Science is based on the tiers Open Access, Open Data and Free Open Source Software (FOSS). However, the interconnections between the tiers remain to be improved. This is a critical factor to enable Open Science.
This Townhall meeting reaches out all across EGU, especially welcoming Early Career Scientists, to network and discuss the current challenges and opportunities of the FOSS tier, including:
  • the easy approach to choosing software licences
  • recognition for scientific software: how to write a software paper?
  • software life cycle: who will maintain your software after you've finished your PhD and found a decent job?
  • funding software development: evolving software begun for your own research needs into something larger, that serves other's needs, and boosts your scientific reputation.
  • software reviews: how to set up software development such that other developers get involved in an early stage?
  • how can OSGeo help you with all these questions?

Short course How to find and share data in geosciences?

This short course aims to present some tips and tricks to accelerate the process of finding, processing and sharing the Geosciences data. We will also discuss the importance of open science and the opportunities it provides.

Short course Writing reproducible geoscience papers using R Markdown, Docker, and GitLab

I think code reproducibility is overrated. It is much stronger to make an independent reproduction and if the result depends on minute details being the same, it is mostly likely not a useful result. But the most of the same methods can be useful to speed up scientific progress. Sharing data and code is wonderful and helps other scientists get going faster. The code should thus preferably also run somewhere else.
Reproducibility is unquestionably at the heart of science. Scientists face numerous challenges in this context, not least the lack of concepts, tools, and workflows for reproducible research in Today's curricula.
This short course introduces established and powerful tools that enable reproducibility of computational geoscientific research, statistical analyses, and visualisation of results using R ( in two lessons:

1. Reproducible Research with R Markdown
Open Data, Open Source, Open Reviews and Open Science are important aspects of science today. In the first lesson, basic motivations and concepts for reproducible research touching on these topics are briefly introduced. During a hands-on session the course participants write R Markdown documents, which include text and code and can be compiled to static documents (e.g. HTML, PDF).
R Markdown is equally well suited for day-to-day digital notebooks as it is for scientific publications when using publisher templates.
To understand the rest of the description, I need to explain what Docker means:
Docker is a tool that can package an application and its dependencies in a virtual container that can run on any Linux server. This helps enable flexibility and portability on where the application can run, whether on premises, public cloud, private cloud, bare metal, etc.
Gitlab is a collaborative coding system based on the versioning system [[Git]]. Comparable to be probably better known [[GitHub]] and [[Bitbucket]].
2. GitLab and Docker
In the second lesson, the R Markdown files are published and enriched on an online collaboration platform. Participants learn how to save and version documents using GitLab ( and compile them using [[Docker]] containers ( These containers capture the full computational environment and can be transported, executed, examined, shared and archived. Furthermore, GitLab's collaboration features are explored as an environment for Open Science.
P.S. Those homepages really suck big time, except if their goal is to scare away anyone who is a hard core coder and already knows the product. That is why I mostly linked to Wikipedia.

Short course Building and maintaining R packages

R is a free and open software that gained paramount relevance in data science, including fields of Earth sciences such as climatology, hydrology, geomorphology and remote sensing. R heavily relies on thousands of user-contributed collections of functions tailored to specific problems, called packages. Such packages are self-consistent, platform independent sets of documented functions, along with their documentations, examples and extensive tutorials/vignettes, which form the backbone of quantitative research across disciplines.

This short course focuses on consolidated R users that have already written their functions and wish to i) start appropriately organizing these in packages and ii) keep track of the evolution of the changes the package experiences. While there are already plenty of introductory courses to R we identified a considerable gap in the next evolutionary step: writing and maintaining packages.

Short course Improving statistical evaluations in the geosciences

I love the (long) description of topics. Looks like just what a geo-scientist needs.

During my studies I got lucky. Studying physics, the only statistics we got was some error propagation for lab work. Somehow I was not happy with that and I found a statistics course in the sociology department. There was not much mathematics, one student even asked what the dot between X and Y was. I did not even understand the question, but the teacher casually answered that that was the multiplication sign. Maybe out of need it focussed on the big ideas, on the main problems and typical mistakes people make. It looks like this could be a similar course, but likely with more math.

Session Open Data, Reproducible Research, and Open Science

Open Data and Open Science not only address publications, but scientific research results in general, including figures, data, models, algorithms, software, tools, notebooks, laboratory designs, recipes, samples and much more.

Furthermore, they relate to the communication, review, and discussion of research results and consider changing needs regarding incentives, quality assessment, metrics, impact, reputation, grants and funding. Thus Open Data and Open Science encompass licensing, policy-making, infrastructures and scientific heritage, while safeguarding the dynamic nature of science and its evolving forms.
The speakers present success stories, failures, best practices, solutions and introduce networks. It is aimed to show how researchers, citizens, funding agencies, governments and other stakeholders can benefit from Open Data, Reproducible Research, and Open Science in various flavors, acknowledging the drawbacks and highlighting the opportunities available for geoscientists.

The session shall open a space to exchange experiences and to present either successful examples or failed efforts. Learning from others and understanding what to adopt and what to change are to help towards own undertakings and new initiatives, so that they become successes.

Educational and Outreach Symposia Session Promoting and supporting equality of opportunities in geosciences

Following the success of previous years, this session will be exploring reasons for the existence of underrepresentation of different groups (cultural, national and gender) by welcoming a debate with scientists, decision-makers and policy analysts related to geosciences.

The session will be focusing on both remaining obstacles that contribute to underrepresentation and on best practices and innovative ideas to tackle obstacles.

Science communication

Short course Help! I'm presenting at a scientific conference!

Sounds like this short course on giving a scientific presentation is tailored to newbies, although the seniors could also use some help. The seniors are hardest to change, they have learned that they have a highly motivated captive audience an that after a crappy talk everyone will pretend it was a good one.
Presenting at a scientific conference can be daunting for early career scientist and established. How can you optimally take advantage of those 12 minutes to communicate your research effectively? How do you cope with nervousness? What happens if someone asks a question that you don’t think you can answer? Is your talk tailored to the audience?

Giving a scientific talk is a really effective way to communicate your research to the wider community and it is something anyone can learn to do well! This short course provides the audience with hands-on tips and tricks in order to make your talk memorable and enjoyable for both speaker and audience.

Short course Once upon a time in Vienna

A short course on story telling, which is really important for readable prose. Although this blog post is probably not the best place to make this case.
This is an interactive workshop led by a professional communications facilitator and writer, and academics with a range of earth science outreach experience. Through a combination of expert talks, informal discussion, and practical activities, the session will guide you through the importance of storytelling, how to find exciting stories within your own research, and the tools to build a memorable narrative arc.

Short course Rhyme your research

After seeing the term "experienced science-poet" I was forced to include this short course. They missed the opportunity to write the description as poem.
Poetry is one of the oldest forms of art, potentially even predating literacy. However, what on Earth does it have to do with science? One is usually subjective and emotive, whilst the other (for the most part) is objective and empirical. However, poetry can be a very effective tool in communicating science to a broader audience, and can even help to enhance the long-term retention of scientific content. During this session, we will discuss how poetry can be used to make (your) science more accessible to the world, including to your students, your professors, your (grand)parents, and the general public.

Writing a poem is not a particularly difficult task, but writing a good poem requires both dedication and technique; anyone can write poetry, but it takes practice and process to make it effective. In this session, experienced science-poets will discuss the basics of poetry, before encouraging all participants to grab a pen and start writing themselves. We aim to maximise empowerment and minimise intimidation. Participants will have the opportunity to work on poems that help to communicate their research, and will be provided with feedback and advice on how to make them more effective, engaging and empathetic. Those who wish to do so may also recite their creations during the “EGU Science Poetry Slam 2018”.

Educational and Outreach Symposia Session Scientists, artists and the Earth: co-operating for a better planet sustainability

As communicators and artists, ​we have a shared responsibility ​to raise awareness of the importance of planet sustainability. ​ Educating people ​in this regard has normally been executed through traditional educational method​s.​ ​But ​there is evidence that science-art collaborations play a vital role in contributing to this issue, through the emotional and human connection that the arts can provide. This session,​ already in​ its fourth edition, has presented interesting ​and progressive ​​art science collaborations across a number of disciplines focussed on representing Earth science content. ​We have witnessed that climate change, natural hazard, meteo​rol​o​gy, palaeontology, earthquakes and volcanoes, geology have ​been successfully presented through music, visual art, photography, theatre, literature, digital art, ​where the artists ​explored new ​practices and methods in their work with scientists. ​A fundamental part of all art is the presentation of their final work. Then we provide a related 'performative session', to allow artists perform excerpts of their work and fully reveal the impact of this work in communicating the bigger planet sustainability message. This related session is entitled “A pilot-platform for performing your Earth&Art work”​​.

Short course Visualization in Earth Science: best practices

This short course is co-organized by the ESSI division: Earth & Space Science Informatics.
With constantly growing data sizes, both an effective visualization, as well as an efficient data analysis are getting more and more important. Different tasks in visualization require different visualization strategies. Geoscience data presents particular challenges, being typically large, multivariate, multidimensional, time-varying and uncertain. This short course aims at the presentation and demonstration of commonly available visualization tools, that are especially well suited to analyze earth science data sets. We at DKRZ -- the German Climate Computing Centre -- have many years of experience in the visualization of earth science data sets, and the goal of this workshop is to pass this knowledge on to you. We will show, explain and demonstrate the tools live, with which we work in our daily routine, and show you how to create effective and meaningful visualizations using free software.

Short course How to cartoon science


 Short course Science for Policy: What is it and how can scientists become involved in policy processes?

Organised by the EGU policy expert Chloe Hill.
Part 1: will focus on basic science for policy and communication techniques that can be used to engage policymakers. It will be of particular interest to anyone who wants to make their research more policy relevant and learn more about science-policy.

Part 2: will include invited speakers who will outline specific EU processes and initiatives and explain how scientists can become involved with them.

Short course Communicating your research to teachers, schools and the public - interactively

If you are serious about communicating your research to teachers, schools and the public then you should know something about these audiences, be familiar with the most effective ways of engaging with each of them and be clear about what the ‘take away’ messages would be. ... Methods of engaging the public and families through open days and similar events are different again, and usually use a range of activities to engage and educate at the same time. We will discuss insights and strategies for these different audiences and ask you to have a go yourself.

Short course Debunking myths and fake news: how can geoscientists fight misinformation and false claims

Maybe you’ve had an argument on social media with a climate change denier who is convinced the Earth is not warming. Or maybe you’ve received an email from a scared relative forwarding you a piece from an unreliable website about how total solar eclipses produce harmful rays that can make you blind. How do you go about convincing them they are mistaken without them holding on even more to their false beliefs? In the age of Brexit and Trump, of fake news and of expert snubbing, geoscientists have a role to play in tactfully fighting misinformation related to the Earth, space and planetary sciences. This short course will explore ways in which researchers can promote evidence and facts, prevent fake news from spreading, and successfully debunk false claims.

Short course Connect2Communicate: communicating your message with charisma, clarity and conviction

Making use of established techniques from the world of theatre and improvisation, this session will enable participants to make genuine connection with their audience.

Short course Science writing: selling your research through press releases and articles

Our press office once organised a short workshop on writing press releases, which was given by a former journalist. He could explain well what a journalist wanted from a press release, but did not understand that the interests of scientists are different. This course may be better, it is given by scientists.
The course will consist of: an introduction on how to identify a good science story; general tips on how to write with clarity and flair; an introduction on how to go about promoting your work via press releases and working with embargoes; tips on working with press officers and journalists; practical exercises on headline writing; and practical exercises about turning abstracts into press releases.

Short course Communicating geoscience to the media

The news media is a powerful tool to help scientists communicate their research to wider audiences. However, at times, messages in news reports do not properly reflect the real scientific facts and discoveries, resulting in misleading coverage and wary scientists. This is especially problematic in fields such as climate science, where climate skeptics can twist the research results to draw conclusions that are baseless. A way scientists have to prevent misleading or even inaccurate coverage is to improve the way they communicate and work with journalists. In this short course, co-organised with the CL and CR divisions, we will bring together science journalists and researchers with experience working with the media to provide tips and tricks on how scientists can better prepare for interviews with reporters. We will also provide pointers on how to ensure a smooth working relationship between researchers and journalists by addressing the needs and expectations of both parties. The focus will be on climate topics, but much of the advice would be applicable to other geoscience areas.

Educational and Outreach Symposia Session ECORD IODP Outreach: Past, Present and Future

The International Ocean Discovery Program is an international programme that works to explore the oceans and the rocks beneath them. ...
This session addresses the formats by which we disseminate scientific information and discoveries arising from ocean drilling – what have we done in the past, what are we doing now, and what ideas do we have for the future engagement of students with ocean research drilling. Experiences and examples of best practice illustrated in poster or oral format will present school teachers, university lecturers and researchers that describe their outreach efforts in the lab, field and geoscience classrooms to promote high-quality geoscience education at all levels.

Educational and Outreach Symposia Session Games for Geoscience

Games have the power to ignite imaginations and place you in someone else’s shoes or situation, often forcing you into making decisions from perspectives other than your own. This makes them potentially powerful tools for communication, through use in outreach, disseminating research, in education at all levels, and as a method to train the public, practitioners and decision makers in order to build environmental resilience. The session is a chance to share your experiences and best practice with using games to communicate geosciences, be they analogue, digital and/or serious games.

Educational and Outreach Symposia Session Communication and Education in Geoscience: Practice, Research and Reflection

Do you consider yourself a science communicator? Does your research group or institution participate in public engagement activities? Have you ever evaluated or published your education and outreach efforts?

Scientists communicate to non-peer audiences through numerous pathways including websites, blogs, public lectures, media interviews, and educational collaborations. A considerable amount of time and money is invested in this public engagement and these efforts are to a large extent responsible for the public perception of science. However, few incentives exist for researchers to optimize their communication practices to ensure effective outreach. This session encourages critical reflection on science communication practices and provides an opportunity for science communicators to share best practice and experiences with evaluation and research in this field.

Related reading

Slides of the talk: How to convene a session at the EGU General Assembly by Stephanie Zihms, Roelof Rietbroek and Helen Glaves.

EGU2018 and its call-for-abstracts.

The call-for-session of EMS2018 is currently open. Suggestions for improvements of the description of the "Climate monitoring: data rescue, management, quality and homogenization" session are welcome.

The fight for the future of science in Berlin. My report of thisyear's conference on scholarly communication, which lots of ideas and initiatives on Open Science and publishing.

Where is a climate data scientist to go in 2018?