Questionable research practices, peer review and an open access future?

Blimey—it’s been five weeks since my last post and I’m now a five weeks into my postgraduate studies. It’s gone quickly and I’ve been very busy.

As part of the doctoral training centre’s new/modern/[positive adjective] approach to a PhD we get (well, have) to take courses that ’round us out’ as modern researchers. A few weeks ago, we had a course on research ethics taught by Marianne Talbot. I did Philosophy A-level and especially enjoyed moral philosophy, so I was looking forward to it.

The course was attended not just by PE DTC students but also the CQD and TMS DTCs. Rather unsurprisingly (but disappointingly) there was a bit of a unfriendly vibe between the different DTCs. “We get MacBook Pros!” said one, “we don’t have to do experiments!” said another, to which we all replied “we get £18,000 to spend and we like lab experiments!” The conversation never progressed any further…

Overall the course was excellent and very enjoyable. I loved how Marianne dealt efficiently and firmly with the few people who wanted to deny the existence of everything! One of the afternoon sessions was on open access publishing, a topic I already had an interest in. I’ve read about it before but have never been entirely convinced (I’m not sure why). Marianne gave a strong case for open access is good. She referenced this website as a good overview. If you don’t know what open access is, then it’s worth a quick read. There was unanimous support of the open access concept.

Marianne then introduced a distinction I had never heard of before: green and gold open access methods. In the green method, papers are deposited in a public online repository. Papers are not peer reviewed prior to being published and anyone can upload an article. The most famous example of this is probably arXiv. In the gold method, you submit a paper to journal, it’s peer reviewed, and if accepted it’s published in a journal that is either entirely open access or permits some open access articles. An example of the former type is PLoS ONE.

The question Marianne asked us to discuss was “Do you think it is acceptable for scientist to self-archive pre-prints in repositories with peer-review?” The answers from students were quite vague. But generally it seemed that peer review was held in extremely high, almost reverent, regard.

I found this odd considering we had just been discussing questionable research practices. One example of a questionable research practice that stuck out to me was:

leaving important information out of methodology section of a manuscript or refusing to give peers reasonable access to unique research materials or data that support published papers.

One would expect that if peer review functioned as well as my fellow students said then readers would rarely come across this practice in the literature. Yet in my field of research, I encounter it all the time! Authors brag that they’ve found the way to make the biggest, smallest, longest or generally ‘best’ nanoparticle but then fail to tell you crucial information such the number of moles of reagents, reaction times and temperatures that allow you to repeat the work. I spent an unbelievable amount of time last year trying to figure out the required conditions to synthesise heterostructured quantum dots. If peer review did it’s job, then things like this wouldn’t get through.

Other students were arguing that because anyone can publish a paper in a green OA repository that there is no quality control. I disagree. I think a lot of students are assuming that readers are idiots and need peer review. If you uncritically read a paper or think that because it’s in a journal it must be true then you’re at best naive or at worst incompetent. Decent researchers will spot questionable claims and results.

Is peer review even really that good a quality control method? Typically you only have two reviewers. Can you be sure they read the paper instead of give it to a PhD/postdoc?

Imagine that rather than submitting papers to traditional peer reviewed journals researchers published their work in open access green repositories. No real scientist is going to post rubbish because their reputation is on the line. Rather than having only two reviewers as with traditional journals, you could have tens or even hundreds of reviewers. They could post their comments—the peer review—publicly on the repository article page (I’m thinking more along the lines of threaded discussions rather than linear blog-style comments).

I think it would be awesome. The authors could respond to readers’ questions, for example, asking for clarification of an experimental technique or reagent used, or post new versions of the article correcting mistakes or providing further information.

At present, reviewers’ comments are made privately and anonymously. These comments would be useful to the scientific community. There’s no reason why it should stay private. Science is all about debate, questioning and (a moderate dose of) scepticism. At conferences and in department presentations, researchers handle criticism and questions. There’s no reason why journal articles should be any different.

I do wonder whether I’m being overly optimistic or if I’ve missed out something crucial. What do you think? I’d like to know…

[^mywork]: I hope to blog about my work in less vague terms at some point but I’ll probably have to wait a while for various reasons.

*[DTC]: doctoral training centre

*[PE]: plastic electronics

Book Review: The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research

On Monday I start my PhD! I’m very excited. It has been great to relax over the summer but I’m keen to get back and make a start. It’s the first summer since I left secondary school that I haven’t been working full time in a bookshop (although last year I did a UROP placement at Imperial rather than sell books, so that’s not really work). Admittedly I have ended up a little bit further into my overdraft than I had hoped but I think I deserve a break after working so hard last year. It’s not really a problem anyway because of my PhD stipend. It still hasn’t sunk in that I’ll be paid actual money to do science!

I’ve taken advantage of my temporary freedom to read lots of books and reduce the size of my “to read” pile (you can see what I’ve been reading on my Goodreads profile). Earlier this summer Erika Cule blogged about a book called The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research by Marian Petre and Gordon Rugg. To be honest, I’ve always raised an eyebrow at educational guides like this and held a rather derisive view of self-help books in general; I hated maintaining the self-help section at work. However Erika’s post intrigued me and the Amazon reviews were good so I put my presumptions aside and ordered it. I’ve just finished it and I thought I’d write a short review. I haven’t written a book review in years but I’ll do my best!

Overall I thought it was great. It’s a light-hearted read and written in an informal, friendly tone. The blurb pitches the book as a guide to a the “whole PhD process” and I think—as far as I can tell anyway, considering I haven’t actually started yet—it achieves that. In the introduction the authors recommend you read the whole thing through once and then consult the appropriate chapters when needed.

Petre and Rugg write that the process of a PhD is a lot like making a fine cabinet. You, the apprentice, have to learn lots of skills and demonstrate them in your grand masterpiece—your dissertation—to prove that you are worthy to become a master cabinet maker. The whole cabinet is then inspected thoroughly by experts in a viva and they decide if you pass or fail.

The book is split up into chapters describing particular aspects of a PhD. Some are quite general, such as advice for supervisor-advisee relationships and becoming an independent researcher, whereas others a lot more specific, for example what you should do at a conference.

I particularly liked the chapters on the different types of academic paper and designing research, which will be very helpful when I write my research proposal and/or plan in the next few months. Writing and presentations are covered too. Petre and Rugg regularly point out the opportunities in things that seem to be an inconvenience or waste of time and say that one should to take care when considering fighting “The System” because it’s peculiar ways might just be peculiar for a good reason.

The chapter on reading was good too. You can get away with relatively little reading as an undergraduate but not as a postgraduate. I think I read a lot more papers than a typical undergraduate as I prefer to learn by reading rather than listening in lectures, so I think I’ll be fine with the hour a day they recommend. A couple of tips I liked were to maintain an annotated core bibliography of around a 100 papers and to make sure you read papers that are not just specific to your area but also more general to your discipline.

Academia seems a lot like a mysterious “clan” with the PhD being a prolonged admissions procedure. The chapters on reputations and habits point out potential pitfalls—the rules of the playground, if you like. Where the real science happens, beyond the walls of teaching labs and undergraduate computer rooms, has always seemed rather mysterious. After reading Petre and Rugg’s book I feel a little more enlightened and aware of the social aspects of scientific enterprise. I feel better prepared now than prior to reading the book. Overall I would highly recommend The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research to anyone about to embark on a PhD (or anyone has already started). After reading it through just once I feel quite confident that this will be an indispensable reference for many years.

Teach Children to Code

I read a fair few tweets last night on subject of teaching children to program in school. A lot of the discussion appears to have been prompted by Ben Goldacre’s link to a post by programmer/author John Graham-Cumming supporting a petition entitled “Teach Our Kids to Code”. The petition argues that we should teach kids to program from Year 5 (9-10 years old). Definitely! Just as I was about to sign the petition this morning I saw a tweet by Mark Henderson, The Times Science Editor, saying that David Willets MP had just announced a pilot programme to teach programming in schools! Great stuff.

David Willetts has just announced pilot programme to teach schoolchildren coding & to develop a programming GCSE.

11:23 AM Thu Sep 15, 2011

I was about 10 years old when my parents bought our first computer. They had saved up for a long time and I was so excited about it. I remember the day we got it very clearly. It was a Compaq Presario with 2.2 GB hard drive, 64 MB RAM and 600 MHz Celeron CPU. The power! If I wasn’t out on my bike with friends you could find me endlessly fiddling, breaking and then fixing the computer (all whilst trying to hide the fact that I had broken it from Dad—I had to fix it otherwise they were going to be pretty angry/worried that I had broken their expensive new PC).

At a young age I was a logical thinker and quickly became computer literate, teaching myself HTML and then Javascript and PHP. If I, by no means a “child genius”, can work it out on my own from Internet resources then there is no reason why other children couldn’t learn to program in school with some good teaching.[^1] I think a 10 year old could easily cope with logical statements such as “if this then that” or “while this do that”—they naturally think like it in everyday life, they just need to help to translate it into the formal instructions a computer understands. Programming is fun and intellectually satisfying, much more so than the ridiculous ICT “lessons” that I used to have: open a Word document, copy some text, print, make a change, print again. Completely pointless.

It’s a useful skill too. Being able to program has been really handy for me at university. Last year I recorded probably around a hundred absorption and emission spectra (and maybe thousands using an automated system) which would have been impossible to analyse using Excel, the standard tool of choice amongst undergrads in my department. A bit of code in MATLAB and you can analyse as much data as your computer can cope with. For some reason my department didn’t teach a programming language like other departments such as Physics who taught C++. Instead we had “maths lab” where we used Excel for numerical methods. Not very useful (and very dull). Solving Project Euler-style problems with something like MATLAB or even better a proper, open source, high level language like Python (with SciPy and matplotlib) would be much more useful. I’ve been learning it myself over the summer. It’s a fun language that I’d love to teach to a class of undergraduate chemists.

I think it’s clear that school children would benefit from being able to program. Even if they never use code again, they would gain an understanding of how a computer functions and can then use this knowledge to work out how new software works. Rather than teach specific software applications, teach computing. It’d benefit industry too. Fingers crossed that the government doesn’t force schools to teach a horrible proprietary language outsourced as a “solution” on a ludicrously expensive contract and instead choose something open source and useful. A recent report about open source in Whitehall doesn’t bode well…

[^1]: Interestingly, my teacher told my parents in year 4 that I “had reached my plateau”. I’d quite like to let him know where I am now!

Profiteering, Secretive Chemists and Open Access

Yesterday George Monbiot published a scathing piece in the Guardian about academic publishers, writing that they are the “most ruthless capitalists in the western world” and that “the racket they run is most urgently in need of referral to the competition authorities”.

I agree that journal pricing is absurd. Viewing a single article will cost you around $30–40. I’ve never understood how it can cost that much to publish and provide one-time access to a single article considering distribution is electronic and journals don’t pay for peer-review.

Libraries spend a large proportion of their budgets on journal subscription deals where they get access to thousands of journals, but are tied into 6% yearly price increases. One wonders why libraries agreed to such high yearly increases in the first place, well above the rate of inflation. Imperial’s library spends £3.8 million—43% of its budget—on journal subscriptions every year. However, Deborah Shorley, Director of Imperial’s Library, isn’t going to let this continue by trying to get publishers to accept payments in Sterling and reduce subscription fees by 15%.

My biggest gripe is that research funded by the tax payer isn’t freely available to the public. I agree with Monbiot that all research funded by the tax payer should be freely available to the public. It seems that private individuals all too often make vast profits from public investment.

Where’s the chemistry arXiv?

Nature recently published a piece about the pre-print server arXiv on its 20th anniversary. ArXiv seems like an excellent resource but chemistry has nothing like it. Why? Derek Lowe wrote today that he doesn’t know; nor do I. I think The Curious Wavefunction is on to something in that chemists are more secretive than physicists.

Perhaps it’s because cutting edge physics experiments are large and require lots of collaboration, unlike most chemistry research. A big development in chemistry could come from a small group working in a couple of fume hoods. They are much more easily beaten to publication by a competing group (and consequently lose out on any subsequent recognition) than physicists working on something like the LHC, so they are secretive until their work is published.[^cwblogcomment]

I hope that there will be a shift to open access but my feeling is there won’t. There’s no incentive for those in positions to bring about such a change to actually do so. Widely read, high impact journals are closed access and make lots of money from subscription fees, so there isn’t an incentive for publishers to switch to open access and charge authors to publish instead. Additionally, only well established researchers can afford to publish in a low impact open access journal rather than high impact closed journal.

[^cwblogcomment]: I posted this point as a comment on The Curious Wavefunction’s original post. Might be some discussion over there Indeed there is!

Searching For Yet Another Home

It’s that time of year again — looking for somewhere to live, traipsing around south west London stopping in every letting agent to give my well-rehearsed spiel of requirements.[^req] I’ve been dreading the search for quite some time. Reading Money Saving Expert’s advice to tenants is most definitely bad for my health; I leave my computer a wreck, paranoid that every landlord and letting agent is out to rip me off.

This will be fifth “home” in as many years. My halls were in Hammersmith, which was quite good as there were lots of bars and pubs and good night bus routes. Most of Imperial’s halls were in South Kensington, which I think is rubbish as you there’s nothing you can afford or would want to do — Boujis is not my idea of a good night out. Halls went downhill in the summer term when a noisy exchange student and about ten of his friends moved in next door and cockroaches infested our flat. It didn’t help that he never used a plate when eating.

In my second year I lived with a couple of friends in a nice three bed terraced house with a garden in Putney. Well, not Putney, more like Roehampton, and the commute was the entire 430 bus route. My room was tiny but I liked living there until new neighbours moved in and installed an incinerator in their garden. This filled our house with smoke every day.

Third year was the worst. My friends and I agreed to find a house with an additional friend and his girlfriend. We struggled to find a five bed house so settled on a four bed in North Kensington[^NK] with the lounge as the fifth bedroom. I wasn’t happy about it and in hindsight it was a very bad decision. The house was filthy and full of miscellaneous rubbish from previous tenants, but seemed nice at the time because all the other places we viewed were so awful. The couple’s relationship was rocky to say the least and they were, to put it bluntly, idiots. They were awful to live with—never paying rent and bills on time, never cleaning up after themselves—and a big argument with them resulted in the house becoming a terrible place to live. I believe they moved into a flat together the following year then split up midway through the tenancy. I’m not surprised.

I found someone to take my room for the last month of the tenancy and moved into a one bed flat in West Kensington/Brompton with my girlfriend for my final year. It was a great decision to move in together. It was a 30 minute walk to Imperial, spacious and nice inside, but like all the other places it had its problems. It was on a very noisy road where drunks and wannabe gangsters loitered. Attached to the outside of our bedroom wall was a air conditioning unit for the shop downstairs that ran all night long. You couldn’t open any windows because of the noise. The neighbours also played bangra late into the night, every night. When the music stopped, we could hear mice squeaking and scurrying around in the bedroom walls and under the kitchen cupboards. We moved out at the end of the year and have spent the summer at our parents’ houses, which has been good but difficult at times.

So now we’re looking for another flat in Wandsworth. Since it isn’t in central London it’s a lot cheaper and for the first time ever letting agents are telling us that we have a good budget and should be able to find somewhere nice! We were even asked what kind of flat we wanted — Victorian conversion, purpose-built… As long as it’s bricks and mortar I don’t really care! Unfortunately the market moves very quickly and properties are on the market, viewed and let in the same day, so I’m phoning agents everyday to try and make viewings. I hope that we won’t have to move again for at least a couple of years.

My PhD stipend will mean that, for the first time in the last four years, I’ll be in a relatively good financial position. I’ve always worked part time to support myself and at times money worries caused me a lot of stress. Rent is still eye-wateringly expensive and I wonder how anyone on an average income can afford to live in London, especially with rising living costs.

In the past year there has been a lot of controversy over the government’s decision to increase the cap on tuition fees to £9000 a year. If I was going to university this September I would be a lot more worried about living costs rather than the £9000 tuition fees. Finding reasonably priced accommodation in London is really difficult — my maintenance loan only just covered my rent. It deeply concerns me that Imperial keeps building luxury halls that cost around £220 per week! This is blatantly to encourage wealthy international students, who pay higher fees than home students, to come to Imperial. Thankfully, the new union president, Scott Heath, has made it one of his priorities to keep accommodation costs down but I’m sceptical as to how much any sabbatical can achieve in a year. He was interviewed in a recent Guardian article about student debt and my position and experiences were very similar. I hope something will be done to help students like myself who aren’t from poor enough families to receive significant bursaries but not wealthy enough to be supported by their parents.

Update (25th August 2011): We got a flat! We had to make a few compromises, but it’s really nicely decorated. Pleased and relieved it has been sorted relatively quickly.

*[PCM]: per calendar month

[^req]: “We’re looking for a one bed flat—no studios—for £1000 PCM, furnished, a bit of space, just nice, not grotty. No mice. … Yes, that is our maximum budget.”

[^NK]: North Kensington is nothing like South Kensington — more the complete opposite. West Kensington is alright. East Kensington doesn’t exist.

“I’ll just memorise it for the exam”

Back in May, I read a blog post by Nick Morris titled Do students need to know facts or do they just need to know how to interpret them? in which he wrote that if students don’t need to know the facts, but instead only understand them, then there needs to be a major change in teaching and subsequent assessment at university. I intended to write a response but never really got round to it. A recent post by The Curious Wavefunction, On Chemistry’s Multiple Cultures, got me thinking about it all again.

At the time of Nick’s post I had just finished my last ever set of written exams, but morale was not exactly high as our research project reports were due in couple of weeks and then we had viva voce exams (covering years 1-3 of our degree…). It occurred to me that throughout the whole of my degree I have had to endlessly memorise facts in order to be successful in exams. Why?

Some memorisation is necessary because every scientist needs to know the foundations of their discipline. Memorisation should be restricted to the foundations. All chemists, for example, need to know all of the functional groups. However memorising facts, in my experience, isn’t confined to the foundations. I’ve been expected to memorise trivial details of advanced courses that are forgotten as soon as the exam is over. For example, in one course I was required to memorise the half-lives, precursors and corresponding nuclear reactions of radioactive isotopes used in positron emission topography and write them down when proposing synthetic routes to molecules. Yes, the half-life is important, but why are marks wasted on these details when they could be provided in the exam. The marks should be used to assess understanding, not the ability to memorise numbers.

Another course wholly consisted of memorising reactions in the presence and absence of ultrasound or microwaves, and then writing them down in the exam. Third and fourth years, who have mastered the foundations, should study advanced material by looking at the patterns and trends. They should be thinking, understanding and reasoning, not memorising.

In my final year I spent the majority of my time working on my research project. Memorisation was of no use to me then—what good is the ability to memorise when “the facts” are not yet known? I’ve seen friends who ace exams because they can memorise derivations and reaction conditions fail miserably in the lab because they can’t work out what to do when things don’t go quite as the textbooks would suggest. One friend used to memorise whole derivations for exams, even though he didn’t understand them. Far too much emphasis is placed on an undergraduate’s ability to memorise rather than think, considering the former is, in my limited experience, of little use in research and to employers.

I think there are three reasons why some courses require the memorisation of an extraordinary amount of information.

Firstly, I think a minority of lecturers simply don’t realise how much they are asking their students to learn. They are the experts in their field who have spent years working on a specific area and know it inside out. Without realising, they expect their students to know the same facts they do. I think the majority of “bad” lecturers fall in to this category.

Secondly, it makes assessment straightforward. It’s easy to assess a student if you ask them to write down a reaction or fill in the product of a given set of reagents and conditions. When students complain about or do badly on an exam question, examiners can say, and have said, in exam feedback that “it was in the notes”.

Thirdly, I think an even smaller minority of lecturers are bitter and don’t want to change things because they had to memorise everything and so should we. Once a lecturer asked us how we would improve our course and commented that there are some members of staff who, if they had their own way, would have the course exactly the same as it was 30 years ago. This is not good; we do not live in the 1980s.

I want to emphasise that the vast majority of my lectures have been good, and a few have been truly awesome, but I think assessment methods need to change. Students need to be assessed on what they understand and how they think rather than what they have memorised for the exam. “I’ll just memorise it for the exam” was a phrase heard far too often in my department.

One final year lecture course, “Green Solvents”, was outstanding and is definitely up there in my top five courses of all time. I feel like I learnt more in those eight lectures than any other course throughout my whole degree. Before each lecture we were given one or two fairly lengthy reviews to read, which we then discussed in the following lecture. Not only did we learn about green solvents, we learnt about science as a process and how to read papers more critically. Even if I were to never look at green solvents ever again, the course was still worthwhile. For assessment, rather than a traditional written exam, we had to write an essay assessing a paper of our choice that claimed to have “greened” an industrial process. It was much more enjoyable and stimulating than the brain-numbing and soul-destroying revision for all the other exams I took. We need more courses like this that require thinking rather than regurgitation.

The Curious Wavefunction’s post On Chemistry’s Multiple Cultures made me think that the segregation between chemists starts as undergraduate. I didn’t take many organic courses because I’m rubbish at learning all the reaction conditions, reagents and solvents which score you a lot of marks in the exam. Friends who struggle with equations and maths hate physical chemistry. They’ll then go on to be an “x” chemist who hates “y” and won’t have anything to do with it. Surely this is bad for chemistry as a whole? Perhaps if assessment methods changed so that they tested understanding rather than trivial details, students wouldn’t specialise so early and neglect whole swathes of their discipline.

Name Change and an Excuse

Firstly, after much deliberation I’ve decided to give my blog a proper name and call it A Chemical Education. I think it fits quite nicely! It’s a lot better than just my name.

Secondly, I haven’t posted anything lately because I’ve been suffering with a particularly nasty bout of RSI. It started whilst I was writing my final year project report and significantly worsened in the last few weeks with a lot of typing on my MacBook’s built-in keyboard. This unergonomic monstrosity hasn’t helped either.

Posts shall gradually resume once my tendons aren’t quite so inflamed.

*[RSI]: Repetitive Strain Injury

MSci Project Part 1: Quantum Dots

I don’t start my PhD until October so I won’t be posting much about it for a couple of months. In the mean time, I thought it would be nice to talk about what I did for my final year research project as part of my MSci degree.

The aim was to synthesis quantum dots[^1] using microfluidic reactors. It sounds complicated, but really it’s quite straight forward! An explanation of it all in one post would be rather long so I’m going to break it down into two posts, starting with quantum dots and then moving on to microfluidic reactors.

What are Quantum Dots?

Quantum dots are nanoparticles—particles only a few billionths of a metre in size—made from semiconductors. Semiconductors are materials whose electrical conductivity is midway between that of insulators and conductors. They are the foundation of modern electronics and without them we wouldn’t have components like transistors and diodes which are essential building blocks of the technology we use every day.

All materials have particular physical properties—such as the melting point or density—that are independent of how much of the material you have. For example, if you measured the melting point of a material, cut it in half, then remeasured the melting point, the melting point would not change. Properties like these are called intensive properties.

Imagine you had a piece of semiconductor and repeatedly measured an intensive property, such as melting point, then cut it in half. You would expect intensive properties to stay the same, regardless of the amount of material. However, if you carried on doing this for quite some time—so that your semiconductor was just a few billionths of a metre across—you would find that its properties would start to change: properties which were intensive become extensive and dependent on how much of the material you have. Chemists take can advantage of this phenomenon to tune the properties of semiconductors for particular applications by controlling the particle size.[^2]

Making Quantum Dots

Rather than breaking down macro- or microscopic bits of semiconductor to make nanoparticles (“top-down”), chemists usually make quantum dots from individual atoms (“bottom-up”). This is most commonly achieved by injecting the appropriate reagents into a hot solvent. The quantum dots spontaneously form in the hot solvent and are left to grow to the desired size.

The photo below is of some cadmium selenide quantum dots that I made last year. I think it’s a wonderful example of their size-dependent properties.

CdSe Quantum Dots
CdSe quantum dots fluorescing under UV light.

Each vial contains quantum dots that were removed from the reaction vessel at regular intervals. The vial on the far left hand side contains quantum dots grown for 30 seconds and the vial on the far right hand side contains quantum dots grown for 3 hours. The mean size of the particles grown for 30 seconds and 3 hours was 2.8 nm and 4.2 nm respectively, so the nanoparticle size increases from left to right.[^3]

The colour arises from a process called fluorescence. The vials are sat on top of an ultraviolet lamp which causes the quantum dots to fluoresce and emit light, the wavelength of which is dependent on the size of the quantum dots.

These unique optical properties make quantum dots very attractive for use in solar cells, displays and even in medical imaging. The trouble is that high-quality quantum dots are quite tricky to make, especially on an industrial scale. In part 2, I’ll talk a bit more about the applications of quantum dots, what microfluidics is and why it’s great for making quantum dots. If anyone has any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask!

[^1]: For the chemists/physicists: I was working on core-shell and ternary quantum dots rather than regular binary quantum dots.

[^2]: This behaviour isn’t unique to semiconductors—it’s just that the change occurs at a much larger particle size for semiconductors than for metals because of differences in the arrangement of electron energy levels in metals and semiconductors. See this very frequently cited paper in Science if you want the details.

[^3]: Analysis was performed using a technique called transmission electron microscopy, if you were wondering. It’s very cool.

An Introduction


My name is Tom and I’ve just finished my undergraduate degree in chemistry at Imperial College London. In October I’ll be starting a PhD in the Plastic Electronics Doctoral Training Centre. Four years down, another four to go!

Motivation to start blogging

I enjoy reading blogs written by scientists and for quite some time I have been thinking about writing my own chemistry-orientated blog. I’ve always felt that as a scientist I should engage with the public, not just because the tax payer funds a lot of research but because I want others—especially young people—to be interested in science too.

However I’ve had a few reservations, mostly about damaging my career as a chemist. I was particularly worried about putting off PhD supervisors, but since that’s all sorted out now it’s not really an issue. I was slightly concerned that anything stupid I write will be preserved in Google’s cache and haunt me for years to come! After reading other blogging scientists’ opinions on blogging, I now think my concerns were unjustified.

I found Professor Stephen Curry’s talk describing his early experiences as a blogger, Blogging for Impact, to be quite motivational and is worth watching. His blog, Reciprocal Space, is good too!

Stephen T Casper wrote my favourite piece on academic blogging titled Why Academics Should Blog: A College of One’s Own. If you’re an academic, you should have a read. I especially like Alice Bell’s comment that you should “treat blogging as an open notebook.” I think that’s what I intend to do here; it’s something to complement my work and personal interests—a “high quality hobby”—and good writing practice. I also quite like the idea of having a record of my experiences as a PhD student—a bit like Erika Cule’s Blogging the PhD.

Where are all the chemistry blogs?

I’ve always thought that chemistry is underepresented both in blogging and in “popular science” as a whole. For nearly 4 years I worked in the now closed Science Museum branch of Waterstone’s and always struggled to find good chemistry titles.

A few eyebrows were raised at the absence of any chemistry blogs from the recent launch of the new Scientific American blog network. It does seem that most chemistry blogs are written for other chemists compared to other disciplines like physics. I’m not entirely sure why. I might try and do something about that here.

But anyway, I think this is a long enough introduction—time to write something proper!