Category: Nature Index

How COVID-19 could make science kinder

In March 2020, several journal publishers introduced fast-tracked peer review for papers related to COVID-19, cutting the time from submission to publication in half.

While concerns over the move’s impact on research quality were predictable, the flow-on effect of a kinder peer review process was less so.

A new study has found that reviewers of COVID-19 papers provided more constructive feedback, such as suggestions to tone down conclusions rather than go back to the lab to do more time-consuming experiments.

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Rise of the zombie ants

When Jean-François Doherty first dipped into research papers on parasitic host-manipulation five years ago, he felt as though he was reading science fiction.

The technical jargon was peppered with colourful words and phrases such as ‘zombie’, ‘hijack’ and ‘mind control’. Even ‘puppeteer’ was used to describe host manipulation, whereby a parasitic organism significantly alters the appearance or behaviour of its host.

The “ample use of anthropomorphisms and words borrowed from science fiction” bothered Doherty, a PhD student studying host manipulation by hairworms at the University of Otago in New Zealand. “I knew these words were objectively inaccurate.”

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Three reasons to share your research failures

Science is often a one step forward, two steps back process, but most journals and researchers are reluctant to air the failures and drawbacks that precede success.

That’s where the new Journal of Trial and Error (JOTE) comes in. Launched in July 2020, its remit is to publish and discuss non-significant findings, technical and methodological flaws, rejected grant applications, and failed experiments.

Founded by a team of early-career researchers in the Netherlands, the journal is open access and multidisciplinary, and aims to “close the gap between what is published and what is researched”.

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Post-pandemic, fieldwork faces a remote future

When Richard Primack, a biologist at Boston University in Massachusetts, realised that many of his students would be unable to learn new fieldwork skills this year, he switched to teaching them how to analyse existing datasets more creatively.

In March, he and co-leader Amanda Bates launched the PAN-Environment working group to explore how lockdown measures are affecting the environment.

To date, 150 researchers have contributed more than 70 datasets collected in 47 countries, including turtle hatchling counts on deserted beaches in India and illegal deforestation rates in the Amazon rainforest.

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These materials scientists are a ‘power couple’ in the physical sciences

Two decades ago, Takashi Taniguchi had one goal: to produce a flawless piece of cubic boron nitride (c-BN), an ultra-hard material with a similar crystal structure to diamond, so he could explore the material’s potential as a semiconductor.

While Taniguchi spent hours trying to produce pure c-BN crystals without defects in his lab at the National Institute for Materials Science (NIMS) in Tsukuba, Japan, it was the by-products of his work that caught the attention of his research partner, Kenji Watanabe.

These tiny crystals of hexagonal boron nitride (h-BN) would soon become the material that Taniguchi and Watanabe are today renowned for. Since publishing their first paper on the material’s ultra-violet properties in 2004, the pair have worked together to produce high-quality h-BN crystals that are coveted by materials scientists around the world, as reported by Nature in August 2019.

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What’s wrong with the h-index, according to its inventor

Love it or hate it, the h-index has become one of the most widely used metrics in academia for measuring the productivity and impact of researchers. But when Jorge Hirsch proposed it as an objective measure of scientific achievement in 2005, he didn’t think it would be used outside theoretical physics.

“I wasn’t even sure whether to publish it or not,” says Hirsch, a physicist at the University of California, San Diego. “I did not expect it to have such a big impact.”

The metric takes into account both the number of papers a researcher has published and how many citations they receive. It has become a popular tool for assessing job candidates and grant applicants.

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Front line scientists call for mental health support in the wake of catastrophic ecosystem loss

When ecologist Daniella Teixeira visited her bushfire-ravaged study site on Kangaroo Island, South Australia in February this year, the scale of the damage hit her hard.

Teixeira, an ecologist at The University of Queensland, Australia, felt numb and deeply sad as she set foot among the blackened trees and melted nest boxes that were once home to the black glossy cockatoos she studied during her PhD. The fires had burnt through one-third of the island since they started in December 2019.

“Going back to the sites where I did my research was the hardest thing,” says Teixeira. “It was like a graveyard.”

But Teixeira was unsure about where to seek support for the emotional toll she was experiencing. She was also discomfited to hear other researchers urging the community to focus on action instead of anxiety and sadness.

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Struggling to win grants? Here’s how to crowdfund your research

Writing grant proposals is often a painstaking and time-consuming task for researchers, particularly when the rejection letters begin to pile up. A 2013 study on grant proposals submitted to Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council found that researchers spend an average of 34 days working on each application, with a success rate of just 21%.

But there’s another option for researchers who find it difficult to obtain funding the traditional way: gathering donations from the general public.

While crowdfunding has long been a go-to source of capital for entrepreneurs and creative types, it’s gaining momentum as a way to finance scientific research, particularly among early-career researchers who are just starting to build their publication record.

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Why sexual harassment needs tougher punishment

Funding agencies should cut off grant money to researchers who have been found guilty of sexual misconduct.

That’s one of the recommendations from a panel of 21 US-based scientists calling for stronger policies to address sexual harassment and gender bias in science.

Their statement, published in Science, is in response to a 2018 US National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) report, which advised that sexual misconduct should have consequences as severe as those associated with research misconduct.

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Scientists reveal what they learnt from their biggest mistakes

Be it a botched experiment or a coding error, mistakes are easily made but harder to handle, particularly if they find their way into a published paper.

Although retracting a paper due to an error may not seem a desirable career milestone, it is seen as important for building trust within the research community and upholding scientific rigor.

A 2017 study found that authors who retract their papers due to a mistake earn praise from peer-reviewers and other researchers for their honesty.

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