Reviewing: The Three-Circle Method

Academic peer-review is unquestionably a vast and important topic. On the one hand, it is the key process, which currently can ensure some quality control, particularly regarding fradulent research and plagiarism. Yet, it can also be quite a burden on the academic community as good reviewing takes substantial time and not all review processes and decisions are as transparent/fair as they should be. Hence, many blog entries will be needed to cover the topic. Here I shall propose a simple method to gauge the overall quality of a paper.

Apart from particular details of the work such as certain formulations or presentation style, a key task of a reviewer is to eventually assign a rating. Many journals have a system based upon roughly three categories

(C) reject outright
(B) major revisions
(A) acceptance

Sometimes, there is also a minor revisions category but this tends to mean that upon fixing certain small points, the paper is likely to land in (A). So how to come to a decision? Here I would like to propose a relatively simple first screening test, which I personally call the three-circles approach. As a disclaimer, one should add that this method definitely is far from a full proper review, yet it is far more often than not indicative of the quality of the paper.


Stage 1 consists in the outmost largest circle as shown in the figure above. This stage involves carefully reading the paper once but at a very slow pace. One should think visually going around the large circle slowly, actually coming back to the promises in the abstract at the end. Via this process, one gets a good indication, whether the paper should belong to category (C). Major flaws tend to be very much visible at first glance, and they tend to come in multiples. Of course, the referee should be critical at any phase during the review. If already multiple major problems are visible with the work at this stage, then it is highly likely that the paper should be rejected. Just describing the objections carefully in the review does often settle the case. If no major objections arise at first reading, my suggestion would be to just leave the paper alone for some extended period of time.

Stage 2 means, we have passed to the middle circle. The smaller circumference represents visually that we should read the paper at a higher pace (after all, the outer circle means we got the broad picture already). This higher pace means going over critical parts multiple times to make sure, what the main idea is and whether it is conveyed in a suitable fashion. The review now really zooms in, it focuses on the core components of the argument. Generally speaking, most papers reveal their true quality at this stage. Either one can find initially hidden faults, deficits, lack of a creative idea, etc, or one cannot. If nothing serious can be found, and the paper is interesting to read, I personally tend to be of the opinion that the paper should probably be published as it almost surely has positive aspects. Of course, the type and level of journal is another matter to be taken into account (in a separate blog!).

Moving over to Stage 3, the smallest innermost circle is limiting the decision to the cases (A) or (B). The smallest circle represents that we have now to traverse it many times to obtain the same distance as on the outer circle. Hence, one can check smaller details, focus attention on potentially missed conclusions or variations, and on judging the precise level of the contribution. Of course, it may happen that even tiny errors propagate to major mistakes. This would then send the paper back to (C). But let us assume that we came to the conclusion that either (A) or (B) are correct. In this case, one can enter in the phase of writing a detailed report. Using the annotated paper with remarks from the three circles is a basis for a good report. How to formulate and phrase such a report is another important matter for a future blog, so stay tuned 🙂


Book Writing

An interesting question of 21st century science is, whether it makes sense to still invest time to write books? Some parts of science have essentially abandoned book writing already. The literature moves almost on a weekly pace in some areas. Maybe even having to look for daily updates in some large-scale laboratory-driven world-wide competitions will be our future. How can it be even reasonable to consider sitting down for multiple years to write a single book? In fact, it could actually be a practical method to deal with some madness.

After all, the scientific endeavor aims to generate long-lasting insight, which is useful not only today, not only tomorrow, but for generations. So there has to be a balance between pushing far beyond the frontier and trying to solidify the frontier itself. Neither extreme approach is going to get us very far. If one just latches out and tries to find hidden gems, the failure rate will be far too high, and one has to probably repeat the process many times to actually have solid knowledge. Just building a solid smooth frontier is also not going to cut it, the innovation level and progress are just too slow. Although it may not look like it, book writing can actually be an excellent way to balance the necessary processes in research.

From my personal experience, I found switching between writing a book (be it a monograph or a textbook) to thinking about research questions a very practical solution. In fact, it can be very frustrating if for several weeks one does not make progress towards a research idea. The thought process narrows down until it is almost impossible to make progress. If one then switches to writing a book, which organizes the results near the current frontier, one is bound to make progress. This yields new motivation and also provides additional insight into current techniques. Then one can use the additional motivation and new techniques to go back to the original research problem. In addition, book writing also indicates, where the gaps in our knowledge frontier are. Thereby, it provides a neat way to find new exciting problems. The interplay between the process of leaping out into the unknown and pushing/polishing the immediate knowledge frontier can lead to a positive feedback loop as shown in the figure below.


One may also view writing a book as a systematic procedure to carry out a scientific version of checks-and-balances. If a field is strictly dominated by hunting for the next large jump, then it can be difficult to systematically reproduce past results. This means a solid foundation is at least partially missing. Stories and concerns about results, which are not reproducible, are certainly available in the scientific literature as shown by just the following examples: click herehere, here, or here.

Never trying to aim high is probably equally as detrimental to a scientific field, progress is bound to asymptotically crawl to a halt. Creative new ideas are discarded as too much out-there by the vast majority in the field. This makes it difficult, if not impossible, to speculate on big ideas. Books tend to generate a broader perspective, they show us much more clearly, what we really know, what we just think we know, and what we may dream about.

In summary, if you ever thought about writing a book yourself, I would recommend giving it a try if certain conditions are met. The main hint is: Planning ahead is key. It will never be finished in the time you calculated initially, and it might be out-dated, or out-competed, if planned incorrectly. Hence, you should probably only try it if you really enjoy it, and if you do not plan to depend upon it in any way. If these conditions are met, I personally think it is a very important experience, and a book can still make major contributions to the general scientific endeavour.


Lecture Duration (for teachers)

Big courses at universities can easily reach several hundred, if not several thousand, students in the lecture hall, just for one course. In these settings, it is almost impossible to generate a highly interactive structure, or there is the genuine risk of chaos involving a discussion of far too many simultaneous voices. Therefore, the main option is to just deliver a lecture, which tries to explain the main issues in pure presentation/monologue format. In fact, this format is not as bad as it may look, after all it has frequently worked a lot better in history at universities than it is given credit for. However, one key issue is timing.

If the lecture is too short, then one does not use the alloted time to really explain the material. If the lecture is too long, the average student’s attention tends to drop dramatically. It is an obvious practical science question any teacher/lecturer/professor has to answer: How is it possible to prepare a lecture, which exactly fits within the allocated time slot?

Of course, there is no perfect method to get the lecture duration correct but here are a few tricks, which I found helpful, just regarding timing:

1) Adapt to the format: It makes a massive difference, which media you use to present the lecture. Electronic presentations via slides, writing on a presentation computer/tablet, using the blackboard, using an electronic whiteboard, or many other options are available. Each tool has its advantages and disadvantages. In terms of timing, it is evident that slides tend to be faster than trying to write out an entire slide. However, using any hand-written strategy could be more flexible to explain details spontaneously. Each format requires different preparations to get the timing right.

2) Develop standard units: Let us suppose you use a computer and slides as your format. Then it helps to measure, how long you are taking for a certain number of slides. Then taking an average yields an excellent basic calculation unit to generate the correct number of total slides. For example, I know that it roughly takes me about 2 minutes per slide at a conference presentation, around 3 minutes in an advanced course and between 4-5 minutes per slide in a basic course.

3) Use a measurement standard: For a blackboard or hand-written presentation, it is a lot harder to measure the standard unit. For example, just using a different size paper, different electronic device for large lectures, or a different pen/chalk can make incredible differences. Hence, it makes sense to make your preparation setup as similar as possible for every lecture preparation. For example, I usually use a standard A4 paper, with given rectangles/lines of a certain size, a left-side margin, and I always use a certain type of pencil. In this setting, every page roughly counts for 20 minutes. Here is an example of this paper format:

4) Just finish on time: As many other lecturers, I have the tendency to go over time to finish explaining a result. A tiny bit of over-time is OK but over-doing it too frequently, is (a) not technically correct, (b) doesn’t really help the students to understand more since they are tired, and (c) tends you to rush things too often. A simple solution is to just stop, finish on time, and force yourself to plan better next time.

5) Visit other lectures: If you are uncomfortable with the planning or actual delivery of your lectures with respect to timing, it is very easy to learn other strategies. In fact, it is not even necessary to go to en entire lecture to learn about other strategies, just the last ten minutes are enough 🙂

There are certainly many other tips and tricks to use. The general message in my personal viewpoint is that just sticking to a standards, has helped me immensely to keep the lecture duration a lot closer to the target.

Last but not least, here is a little poll for all lectures. Suppose you present in a classroom setting of an undergraduate course and use slides (say a standard pdf file without a lot of media elements). How long does it take you to present a slide on average:

Exam Preparation (for students)

Preparing for an exam, particularly for the first few exams upon entering university, can be very challenging. I would like to summarize a few tips, which have helped me during my studies. Of course, practice habits can vary and different strategies can succeed.

1) Start early: Particularly if exams tend to come in bunches at your university (final exam period, yearly exam period, end of semester, or similar phases), then having a bit of extra time can be worth many grades. Therefore, if you give yourself, say, 20% more time than usual can often lead to substantial improvements. Another possible advantage is that this extra preparation period can mitigate unforseen circumstances (e.g. a flu).

Another key advantage of starting early is that you are going to learn the subject more thoroughly. At least for me, and as far as I have talked to others, spreading out the material and learning it in smaller bits and more slowly seems to transfer it better to long-term memory. Of course, this approach does mean that it is going to take more time to prepare in total. Or does it? In the short run, the answer is indeed affirmative. In the long run, the situation is less clear. If certain knowledge ‘leaks out’ then it might be necessary to try to put it back in for future exams. This can take considerable time!

2) Stick to a system: In the beginning of university studies, it usually takes a few trial-and-error attempts to find a working system for preparation. Personally, I have worked through the lecture notes first. During this process, I tried to condense the definitions, results and examples to an absolute minimum. This led to a survey of around 5-10 pages per course of essentials. This ‘summary sheet’ was then used during the entire learning phase and  I went through it again frequently. Then I considered exercises assigned during the course. The last step was to try to grasp more of the available literature and try to see, whether my knowledge would hold up in different contexts (new exercises, other books or lectures, trying to extend parts of the lecture notes myself, etc.)

The system at least guaranteed that I had the basics available to pass a course. Depending upon the time and effort, those basics would then scale to a level to completely master the material. However, this system is by no means perfect (can you see the flaws?). Nevertheless, having these standard steps, I always knew roughly, where I was in the process and I also had some confidence that the effort would pay off. Hence, if you have found a strategy that works for you, my personal advice would be to just stick to it for a considerable time frame (say multiple exams and semesters).

3) Examples vs theory: Most exams, at least those testing material beyond multiple choice, require some more theoretical aspects as well as practical ones. For example, you may need to know facts, results, definitions and so on. Practical and more open-ended aspects include new calculations, creative writing, etc. Preparing for both aspects of an exam simultaneously can be very challenging. However, this problem can be actually used to one’s advantage.

Just studying an endless string of facts can be quite boring and may not be motivating. Similarly, just playing around with simple examples, reading certain parts superficially and trying to do exercises by trial-and-error without any background knowledge is often equally frustrating. Therefore, one advice is simply to switch if one aspect becomes repetitive or dull, i.e., to change from more creative practice to learning facts and vice versa.

Of course, if an exam just requires a large number of facts via multiple choice, then the most important aspect is to develop a strategy to avoid frustration while studying. Once you found one, which works for you, just stick to it (see 2).

4) Be aware of risks: Exams may have many different formats and regulations. This may include, what you can bring to the exam (e.g. some exams may allow a single page of notes while others are closed book). The duration of exams may differ drastically, some professors may structure exams differently than others, or parts of the material may not be exam relevant (usually distrust this statement, if it is in the notes, just learn it). There are many other changes and variations, which you may encounter for the first time at university.

The key issue in this regard is to be aware of the most problematic aspects already during the preparation phase. Suppose you have identified that the highest risk regarding a bad grade and/or even failing, is the limited time available. However, the material is not too difficult. Then it does not help much to repeat simple theoretical facts multiple times in the last few days but it would be more helpful to practice time-demanding questions. As an example, suppose you have to solve a certain class of equations in the exam as an auxiliary task. If solving this problem is easy but takes you a very long time in practice, just doing the calculations several times on different examples should increase the speed quite naturally. Similar remarks apply for other high-risk issues as there is usually some aspect in the preparation process to reduce the risk considerably.

5) Reach out: If you really feel stuck while studying and simply cannot comprehend several aspects, don’t despair. First, try to learn all those aspects well, which you can grasp. In breaks from learning these parts, reach out to others. Probably the most natural place to start is not the academic staff in the first place. The far more natural starting point is the discussion with your fellow students. Usually, the skills and perceptions are somewhat complementary and this can clear up already 90% of the difficulties via discussions, and be it only 10 minute exchanges at lunch. Furthermore, this helps you to isolate the really difficult aspects from those, where just you have managed to be quite stubborn or were misled somehow.

In the second step it is then crucial to approach the academic staff with the remaining aspects, where most of the class is stuck. This is tremendously helpful for both sides as it makes it a lot clearer for professors and teaching assistants, where the difficulties really lie and how to improve the material. Furthermore, as students the process to sort the challenging from the straightforward aspects should have already produced a tremendous practice effect.

6) Take it seriously: Although this may sound obvious to most of you, it may be the most important aspect in the preparation for an exam. Do take the preparation for an exam seriously, i.e., really view it as an important task or a critical job that needs to get done thoroughly and accurately. The moment you try to reduce the exam to a nuisance or minor matter, this is the moment, when you have already failed. It is worth remembering that in the vast majority of cases, failure in an exam is not caused by ‘having a bad day on the day of the exam’. It is simply caused by lackluster preparation. Therefore, you should think of the preparation phase as the real exam, the day of the exam is there to actually give a condensed survey, how your preparation went.

Disclaimer: As with all my previous posts, the discussion above is certainly not exhaustive. Please feel encouraged to comment, criticize and propose other helpful strategies.


Conference/Workshop Selection

There are many scientific conferences and workshops run around the world each week.  Lots of topics may sound interesting, so how should one decide, where it may be worth going, listening and discussing, or when it is better to spend the time otherwise? Obviously it is a very debatable topic, how to select and plan a conference trip. In this blog I have just collected a few practical experiences and thoughts, which could be useful, particularly for younger scientists such as doctoral students and beginning postdocs.

A (for AVOID): Any conference charging extremely large conference fees and/or organized by scientifically very low profile organisations focusing on commercial profit should be avoided. There are regularly announcements via rather dubious e-mails and/or websites of these types of predatory conferences. Mostly these conferences are run in places far from major academic centers but there are several organizations trying to use major scientific areas and cities for their advantage so it is helpful to pay attention. The best indicator, how to identify these conferences and workshops is to just use common sense and historical data from previous conferences of the same organizer, name or format.

B (for BEAUTIFUL SCENERY): Another warning sign for places to avoid are strange remote locations, which sometimes look more like holiday destinations. For example, just to exaggerate it makes very little sense to hold a big scientific meeting in the Himalayas, on the beaches of Zanzibar or Brazilian rainforest. Of course, there is sometimes a grey area in this criterion as one could use empty or cheap holiday destinations outside of the tourist season as conference centers. Major cities are generally exempt from this warning, e.g., it might make excellent sense to hold a very large conference in a major city. It is easily reachable with lots of flights, there are enough hotel rooms available, there is a sufficiently large conference center, etc. Also, most conferences held at major top-ranked universities should be very reasonable although it can always happen that university authorities make mistakes and endorse a conference or workshop that they definitely should not have supported.

C (for COST): Cost is an issue. I have declined several conference invitations just based upon the actual travel cost and/or size of the conference fee. For some major meetings, travelling and actually paying the cost is unavoidable as big conference venues usually cost a lot of money to rent and to actually organize a meeting in. However, if the destination is remote, it is a very small workshop, and the conference fee is gigantic, then it would definitely be a strong consideration to put such a meeting into the low-priority list. Furthermore, many excellent smaller conference centers actually charge no conference fees as they are partially state-funded, which are often excellent meeting venues. For example, in mathematics there are MSRI/ICERM/MBI/IMA/etc in the USA, MFO in Germany, INI in England, CIRM in France, MLI in Sweden, and so on. These places are frequently excellent locations for meetings organized with little to no conference fee.

D (for DEFINITELY-Go): There are circumstances, where attending a conference or a workshop is just a very important part of the scientific endeavour and imperative for a successful career path. In those cases, the only realistic option is to go. There are many good reasons, let me just name a few:

  • (I) The conference is ‘the’ meeting point for the community you work in, i.e., it defines the field, it shapes the frontiers, it is super-efficient to work at, and all the major experts go. Hence, so should you.
  • (II) It is extremely important for your current work to get an impression of the research progress. In particular, without a status report on ongoing work from colleagues you may just waste several years by either going into a path that has been proven to be unsuccessful already or has already being researched sufficiently.
  • (III) It may shape your future career path in a consistent and positive way. For example, you get an invitation to a very prestigious workshop with many plenary speakers being the leaders in your field. You are also invited and given the opportunity to give a plenary talk. All the key contributors in your field are going to listen. For a young researcher, this is a rare opportunity. You can present your work and yourself in a situation with potentially very high career upside if you do excellent work and give a brilliant talk about it.
  • (IV) “Many other good reasons.” Personally, I always like to attend at least one conference per year, which is really quite far away but still somewhat connected to my main areas of research. A change of perspective is necessary from time to time for me. It can provide inspiring ideas, which would be impossible to obtain without attending a conference outside your community

E (for EXCEPTIONS): To any of the guidelines A-D there are exceptions. Hence, developing experience and a gut feeling, whether it is a good idea to go in debatable cases can be of tremendous help. As a personal example, I learned about myself on several conference trips that I do not enjoy destinations, even if the conference is brilliant and would be useful, if there are too many dangerous side effects. I am just not focused enough to make the conference efficient while worrying about personal security near or at the conference, major visa issues while travelling, problems with health due to environmental conditions such as extremely high temperatures, and so on. Therefore, I have decided to try to avoid such situations if possible and select conferences, where my focus is as close to 100% on science as possible.

F (for FAILURE): Sometimes it is helpful to learn from failure. Even attending a meeting, which didn’t turn out well can have positive future impact. On the one hand, it may avoid incorrect selection of conferences in the future. On the other hand, suppose there is a small apparently successful workshop series you always wanted to go but never did due to some of the concerns raised above. How would you know whether these concerns are really justified until you at least went once? Maybe you are missing out on a really useful platform? Perhaps the community meeting there could be really interesting to talk to for your interests?

G (for GOOD-NIGHTS-SLEEP): Actually this entry should appear under T for time zones but this blog entry has a very low probability to ever reaching the letter T. Another issue to consider for conferences is the danger of just not being fit due to lack of sleep caused by time zone shifts. Personally, I have no trouble flying west for a 6 to 8 hour difference and then just stay up very long. I am tired, I can sleep well enough and then I am well-prepared the next morning. This means a conference trip from Europe to the US is relatively easy for me. Doing it the other direction, i.e., going 6 to 8 hours east, say with a redeye flight, is just not good for my personal biorythm. The conference could easily become a mess. Hence, you have to figure out, which distances and time shifts your body tolerates. If it just does not tolerate certain time shifts, you might want to make conference a low priority that require such a shift to get there.

H (for HELP): Accepting help from more senior colleagues in your department is almost always a good idea, when trying to select or decide for a workshop or conference. In such a practical issue, it is actually perfectly OK to copy a colleague, who has experience with different communities, conferences and workshop series. If your colleague has shown to make good selections in this regard that worked out for his research discussions at conferences, it might be at least worth a try to see yourself, why it has turned out this way and go to the same conference.

I (for IDEAS): Any further ideas are very much welcome and can be added below in the comments. I would then even consider assigning them to a new letter and update my blog accordingly. THX in advance.

The Paper-Writing Process

What is the best way to write a research paper? More precisely, how to communicate the research you do or have done in written form? Obviously there will never be a conclusive answer. Styles differ dramatically depending upon the person. And different approaches can be successful. Nevertheless, there are certainly a few different natural alternatives, all with their own traps and pitfalls. Here I shall try to just give a snapshot of various approaches in the hope that it helps others to reflect upon the practical process of paper preparation.

The main decision one has to make is regarding timing. When do I even have to start trying to write results up? Personally, I believe there are two philosophies:

a) Write-once-finished (let’s call it “wronfi”): The paper is started once the research is finished, i.e., you deem the result you have obtained to be useful and relevant enough for a paper. Then you collect everything you need such as notes, data, simulations, etc and try to compile it into a coherent manuscript.

b) Write-as-you-go (let’s call it: “wraygo”): Every part or result is written up as it is discovered. This may sound like a mad idea. Just immediately trying to pin down everything in a paper format once it is discovered.

In fact, I believe that wronfi and wraygo both have merit, both are called for at times. In principle one may always tweak an experiment or a mathematical generality for an arbitrary period of time. There is always something to improve. Hence, following the wronfi philosophy completely, one never even starts to write a research paper. Writing up any little intermediate result daily is also dangerous. It is possible to get lost in little details. Switching between writing and doing an experiment or calculation can be time-consuming as one has to switch gears almost hourly. Therefore, following the wraygo approach blindly is not going to lead to acceptable results.

Personally, I believe that one should find out, which mix of the two approaches suits your personal style and working hours best. This process should not be taken too lightly. Doing it well usually means increased productivity and this implies additional available hours each day, probably the most valuable resource a scientist can have. But this raises the question: how to actually find out the balance between wronfi and wraygo in your daily scientific ‘diet’? In fact, it essentially does work like trying to lose weight to a certain degree. One can try different strategies and methods but how your body responds is actually quite difficult to determine a-priori. You may be more productive for a while writing things immediately but then struggle to find your focus. This is the well-known jo-jo effect, initially you lose weight just to gain it back again after a few weeks or months.

One trick that worked reasonably well for me is to try to check out those diets, which work out over longer periods of time. For example, when I do have an idea that I would like to write down – e.g. like this blog – then I don’t really feel like waiting. It somehow dilutes my thought process. Unfortunately, this wraygo-type approach has the drawback that I need a suitable computing environment to type everything, otherwise one has to type up hand-written notes, convert things between different formats, or – even worse – keep different versions on different computers (laptop, home, work, etc). However, there is a practical solution by just using a folder in a cloud storage data service. In this folder you can save all your scientific wraygo projects and always be able to add or modify them at minimal opportunity cost. For actual mathematical theorem-proving and doing simulations, I prefer a fixed environment in my office with a computing setup and a corner for doing all the pen-and-paper calculations. This naturally adds a wronfi element to my work. Although this is just one possible ‘diet’, I believe that using a certain scheme that works towards your strengths and tendencies can drastically improve productivity. Of course, there are many other scientists, who have thought about this process. For example, I remember that Terence Tao wrote once on his excellent blog, that he likes to ‘batch-job’ low-brain administrative tasks in one period so he has other periods free for demanding calculations and writing papers. I found that suggestion logical and tried it. Somehow it did not work out directly for me. Initially I had no clue why. The main point was that I had put the administrative batch-job parts on an empty afternoon, did them all in a row, it was horribly boring and I was unmotivated afterwards. The solution was to put them onto a day, where there are already a lot of meetings, i.e., schedule them into the gaps of the day. This has worked out a lot better for me. Maybe for someone else it would work better to schedule them for an evening session, or directly before breakfast. The motivating point I am trying to make is that you should go and try to find out for yourself, it really pays off. Once the correct wronfi-wraygo balance has been determined, I would almost guarantee anyone to be more productive and happy in the paper-writing process.

Air Travel

Sometimes it turns to be necessary for scientific exchange and to develop new ideas to travel to international conferences. Of course, travel can sometimes be avoided using, electronic communication (voice-over-ip, remote presentations, videotaped lectures, etc) but for direct discussions about new topics and with new colleagues, personal communication is very valuable. Several international conferences require travel by plane. Personally, I do like aerospace engineering, fluid dynamics problems, as well as travel planning quite a bit! However, being locked in a metal box for several hours with almost no real space is not fun. It is mostly just annoying and can be a waste of time. So I thought it would be useful to discuss in a blog a few tips and tricks, how to make air travel more convenient and arrive more relaxed at a conference. I am going to discuss airport tricks in a different blog and entirely focus on the plane trip here. The suggestions essentially come from my personal experiences. So it is certain that I have missed a few useful hints. Please use the commenting option below to add anything that you find is missing.

1) Getting on the plane: The key issue is to judge the trade-off between trying to queue early, or wait and enter as one of the last few passengers. Being early, means more luggage space. Entering late often means a smoother trip onto the plane and more time to stretch your legs or use the time for work in the boarding area. The general rule seems to be that on buisness-oriented flights, there is more carry-on luggage so entering early makes sense. On commuting or not-fully booked flights, there is often plenty of space. Hence, it just boils down to a rough glance at the number of typical carry-on luggage passengers in the lounge and the decision is made.

2) Seat: Aisle or window? This is the question. Well, not quite. It also depends significantly on the type of aircraft, which seats are more comfortable. I prefer the aisle seat and tend to go for a seat as far forward in the plane to allow for quicker changes if I have a connecting flight. In terms of airplanes, if there is a triple-configuration, e.g. 2-3-2 or 2-4-2 seats per row then an aisle seat in the middle segment might get you extra room if you are flying alone since if someone else blocks the other aisle seat then the middle seat in 2-3-2 is really bad and nobody is going to want it. Hence, if the plane is not full, the middle space is an ideal hub for stretching your legs and putting papers, your laptop, etc.

3) Working: Even for expert frequent fliers, working productively on a plane can be very difficult. There is very little room, it is noisy, the air is quite strange through the ventilation system, so is the pressurized cabin environment as such. My recommendation would be to avoid creative work almost completely, even writing a talk is dangerous, particularly if it is a last-minute pressure situation, where all you are going to achieve is conveying some elements of what you really want to say. Instead, just bring plenty of routine work. Examples are typing up hand-written notes, run simulations for different parameter values, type up the report for a paper you have already read and marked, draft/correct any administrative proposals, sort/browse recent papers or watch lectures saved on your laptop for later viewing. Also: writing e-mails, which you always wanted to write, as offline drafts, and then sending them off once you land has been an effective strategy for me.

4) Noise: Depending on the type of plane, the noise level can really be annoying. A relatively simple solution to get rid of the plane noise is to use noise cancellation headphones. Obviously I won’t advocate a specific brand here but I found proper over-ear versions of noise-cancellation headphones to be best. Make sure to try them first before you buy them to make sure they are also extremely comfortable as one has to wear them for many hours on long-distance flights. Unfortunately, even modern technology cannot get rid of all types of noise. When I want to have it really quite, I use a pack of ear-plugs, which can be used as the first layer below the over-ear headphones. Again, there are many ear-plug products on the market. Since they are quite cheap you might want to try several options until deciding on one type to stockpile and just grab a new set before each trip.

5) Sleeping: In fact, the previous combination for noise reduction can already work wonders to catch some sleep. Generally, you have to feel out your own biorythm well enough to be able to trick your body to sleep in a situation, where it feels really uncomfortable doing so, i.e., sitting up, crammed between other people and in a strange microclimate. [Remark: If you fly business or first class, and hence can lie down in your seat, you are probably not a scientist and can safely ignore this blog.] Another important trick to get some sleep is to use temperature regulation. Often the air-conditioning system is on a rather cold level on long-distance flights. This makes sense as airlines try to save money. However, this can be used to your advantage by bringing socks, a neck-pillow, a warm jacket, etc. Personally, I use an inflatable neck-pillow to save space in my carry-on and backpack. The idea is to create the same temperature scenario most people sleep in comfortably, i.e., a relatively cold room but using a warm blanket. In addition, I found it very helpful to take the ‘red-eye’ flight when travelling long distances, i.e., go for the overnight version if available on one leg of your trip.

6) Food: The main hint is to always carry around emergency food and drinks (buy the drinks after the security check). I found still mineral water and cereal/vitamin/sports bars the best solution. You can use them if you don’t like (part of) a meal or when there are significant delays. In addition, I highly recommend trying to eat, what your stomach is most familiar with before and during the flight and/or to opt for the simple menu choices at restaurants inside the airport. Catching a stomach bug or, even worse, some form of serious food poisoning definitely ruins even an otherwise well-planned flight completely.

7) Infections: Being in a new environment with several hundred people inside a small space necessarily is a test for anyone’s immune system. Also, airlines do not really advertise that air-conditioning on planes is ‘clean and healthy’, and they would certainly do so if this would be the case; in fact, for some new airplanes those advertisements seem to slowly surface so you can judge for yourself, how clean the air is inside older planes. In conclusion, you can be sure that you may have to fight off potential infections. Since time zone differences can weaken your immune system as well, as it is difficult to sleep regularly, it is helpful to take precautions. For example, trying to eat extra-healthy the week before the flight and during a long trip is more than worth it. Also, if you are unsure whether you can follow your regular diet, it might be useful to take supplements such as certain vitamins as you do not have full control, what is served on the plane and in restaurants during your trip. The usual precautions of washing hands after a flight and not touching your face with your hands during the flight, etc. are all useful. Personally, I try to avoid flying during the peak of flu season (northern hemisphere, roughly around January-March/April) completely.

8) Other: As stated above, I am sure there are many other hints that are useful and I urge readers to provide them below. Thank you in advance for contributing and making conference trips more productive and enjoyable.

The Commercial Cost of Knowledge

The title of today’s blog is a modification of a quite famous title of a website/blog (“The Cost of Knowledge”) started by Professor Timothy Gowers (University of Cambridge) in 2012. I would encourage the reader to read the relevant main statement here and the blog before proceeding with this blog. However, a large part of the audience of this blog is probably familiar with the problem of journal pricing anyway.

Simply put: many journals are far too expensive. Publishers have drastically increased profit margins (we are talking actual PROFIT here!) over many years. The problem is known in the academic community, and certainly to librarians at universities, as many years of blogging and discussion show. Just a standard internet search yields opinion pieces with creative titles and content, e.g., here, here, here, here, and here. Presumably, there are hundreds of other interesting pieces to be read (please feel free to post links to those in the comments).

So what’s new here? The main new ingredient I am going to try to suggest here are a few, potentially quite novel, alternative solutions. Let’s briefly recap the main issues. Referees and editors work for free for most journals, articles are essentially delivered ‘camera-ready’ and correctly formatted, the logistic and computational infrastructure to run a journal have become substantially cheaper, yet prices of many journals are high and publisher profits are surging. Seems counter-intuitive, if you are new to the topic, doesn’t it? Some suggest that switching the publication model, say to an open-access format, is going to cure the problem. Quite frankly, I don’t agree with this view. If a journal is run by a commercial publisher, the primary commercial goal is profit. Therefore, open-access journals can just become another way to squeeze money out of universities, i.e., out of the taxpayer. Some say, that open-access costs will just be the actual publication cost… but then the commercial publisher may just claim that the cost is higher than the true cost. Nothing can really be done against this tactic. Once a journal has gained a serious international reputation as a high-quality publication forum, it may take decades, if not more, for the academic community to abandon it. In this time, it is easy for the publisher to make money. Some publishers, let’s call one ‘Reivesle’ for concreteness, have spotted this. Suppose a commercial journal has a high reputation, then Reivesle just buys it, then increases the price. Reivesle reaps the rewards of many years of hard scientists’ work in running and promoting the journal. Even if Reivesle has to drop the journal eventually, no problem, just buy the next one.

So what are the possible solutions? One solution is already in place: Let professional non-profit academic societies run a whole range of journals. At least, this way, there is better direct control regarding the way journals are run, priced and developed. The disadvantage of this system is that it may not guarantee sufficient diversity. What if certain influential society members and long-term editors gain too much influence on the journal content and the selection of the editorial board? Since there are just a few professional societies (maybe only one) in many research areas, just opening another journal would be quite difficult.

Therefore, we need to develop a way to achieve a non-commercial diversification of journal portfolios. This requires to identify key institutions, which may be able to efficiently run journals. One possibility is already in place and consists of university presses (but even these often act like commercial publishers by now). One option that is seemingly available and not utilized to the fullest are the libraries themselves. Electronic publishing means that we are moving towards a world where actually less ‘book-keeping’ in libraries is needed. However, we do have a very high-level education system for librarians in place in many countries. It seems plausible that librarians could act as journal publishers. The money to employ them could simply come from cancelling many commercial journals. At least, in this way, the control over journals is within a university. Since the university landscape is extremely diverse, it seems highly unlikely that even leading educational centers can gain a suitable monopoly position in the market.

The third option that I believe could be considered are government organizations that could set up publishing houses: in fact, this is not as absurd as it may sound. What is the point of using taxpayers money to give it to scientists, then they give it to libraries, the library pays the journal publishers, and the publishers end up with the pure profit? The only danger with relying on professional societies, university publishers and libraries and government organizations would be that the last two options are government run and political decisions might not always be the best ones for fundamental long-term research.

Hence, as a fourth pillar, one might think about setting up non-profit NGOs that run journals. These NGOs should be allowed to use their journals to raise money for a clearly identifiable good cause. For example, there are many causes, one could agree upon using such a profit for: helping people in regions affected by natural disasters, providing clean drinking water and hospitals, improving educational opportunities for children in the developing world, fighting global deadly diseases, and so on.

These four pillars of journal publishing would then have a healthy competition with each other. The money for publication costs would then be distributed quite nicely to the scientific advance (‘professional societies’), to universities (‘libraries’), to the reduction of administrative tax overhead (‘governments’) and to general good causes (‘NGOs’). Obviously, even in this system abuse is possible. The main argument for it would be that there quite easy legal ways to prevent exploitation of the system. Currently this is impossible as commercial publishers are covered by law in most countries, i.e., they can just make an extremely large profit out of free labor without any legal consequences (of course, from the viewpoint of the CEO of a publication house, actually making this available profit does make sense!).

Furthermore, if a new non-commercial system does turn out not to work optimally, one certainly can give commercial publishers an opportunity to enrich the four pillar system sketched above. As long as the four main pillars do not sell their journals to commercial publishers, I would expect that prices simply cannot sky-rocket but remain at more moderate levels.

Transdisciplinary Courses

Transdisciplinary courses are probably among the most difficult to plan, implement and teach. A first natural question is whether one needs such courses at all? Modern science, and complex global life, pose challenges that may be difficult to address with classical techniques from just one particular field. Indeed, if individual fields would be enough, there would be a lot less (open) problems. The need to branch out, combine, connect and intertwine as a problem solving-strategy has already produced tremendous results, e.g., modern medicine would be impossible without heavy input via tools and approaches from chemistry and physics. It seems quite likely that the next generations of students could benefit from learning how to bridge disciplines. A key question is when students should branch out: immediately when starting at university, in the intermediate part of their studies, or just when needed in doctoral studies or even via continuing education? This question is already a tricky one. The standard answer is: it depends! However, it seems that a balanced approach is to be called for, i.e., starting far too early, might mean that the basics suffer while starting too late, or never, could lead to missing out on a potentially promising approach. It seems reasonable to roughly spend six semesters really focusing mostly on technical groundwork. it should be noted that this does not necessarily mean to just take courses from one particular area. Many classical established combinations of subjects have been proven to be successful roads. From my personal experience, this has been the interface between mathematics and physics as well as to computer science. Learning fundamental mathematical tools is necessary for physics and computer science. Being able to program and to understand algorithms is a key skill for mathematics and physics, while basic physical intuition and core problems motivate many parts of mathematical thinking and computing. Hence, there is literally no reason why, say a mathematics major, should not aim to maybe take a minor in physics, computer science or a related discipline. Once major technical skills have been acquired during the first few years, there is opportunity in the curriculum to expand horizons if students continue at university; if not, training on-the-job in an industrial setup is a suitable broadening of horizons anyhow. On the university level, continuing to a master-level or doctoral degree should give students at least some flexibility. In this situation expanding to new areas can easily be accomplished. Students are now prepared with a toolkit from their core discipline, which allows them to start out on firm ground. Practical issues are mostly sorted as having a first degree usually implies familiarity with studying and learning principles at university. Even though there may be no real consensus on the timing, let us suppose now that one wants to offer a few transdisciplinary courses around the time of semesters 7-10 to supplement master-level or beginning doctoral studies. Then one has to decide how to practically implement a course. Administrative hurdles do arise: which department is responsible, what amount of credit to give, and whether the course should be co-taught by two faculty members, are just the tip of the iceberg of questions. In fact, the ‘underwater’ part of the iceberg might be even more dangerous as we all known. I would argue that the university should just provide a broad skeleton and leave the precise decisions to individual departments. On the departmental level, a simple rule could be to implement an equal contribution principle. This means that each department contributes equally in all regards: faculty support, credit points, topical contributions, and so on. This would ensure that not too much additional strain is placed on the existing curricula. To guarantee flexibility, the courses should be oriented towards challenges that are recent and of general interest. For example, it is clearly a mathematical challenge how to analyze the dynamical processes of and on complex networks while the impetus and implications for this class of problems can easily be found in the stability of financial markets or in the sustainability of ecological diversity. An advantage in this context is that students would adapt and learn new methods from distant subjects on the fly. To pick up the last example, agent-based and game-theoretic models from economics or foodweb modeling and structure could be picked up in a course on economic or ecological network dynamics. These tools are also important from theoretical standpoint in mathematics per se. They are frequently not part of the undergraduate curriculum so a transdisciplinary course is an excellent opportunity to introduce them. Overall, I would argue that if a transdisciplinary course is well-prepared, it can open up new horizons for students after some technical groundwork. After all, leading students to the edge of knowledge and new research horizons is also one of the goals of university education.

The Conference Badge

Welcome everybody to my blog! It was a difficult decision what topic to select for the first post. Since the main goal of this blog is to discuss practical issues in science, I thought it would be good idea to think briefly about the item that leads to a lot of first contacts in the scientific world: the conference badge. As many scientists know, it serves the vital function of introducing each other as it contains basic information, usually ”name” + “affiliation”, e.g., Professor John Doe, University of Smalltown. However, as a conference organizer, one may actually enhance the function of the conference badge quite considerably by making a few sensible decisions.

The first decision is: metal pin, plastic clip or lanyard? Personally, I find the choice easy as plastic badges fixed with a metal pin damage clothes and tend to tilt making the information invisible. The last argument also applies to plastic clips. The main disadvantage of a lanyard is that the plastic badge can rotate. However, this can be fixed by the practical solution to put the key information on both sides of the actual inset. Whether one wants to print a logo, the conference name or nothing on the lanyard is a matter of preference. All three options have advantages. For conferences at universities, a preference might be to use the university logo and name if one aims to recycle the lanyards, clearly the conference name would not work in this case. Also a blank version makes sense as it does keep costs down.

The second problem: What to write on the badge itself? In principle, a lot of information would be available such as name, main affiliation, institutes, research area, etc. Most conferences organizers seem to agree that less is more in this case. Indeed, the key information is the name. My personal preference would be to make the name relatively large and clearly visible. Quite a few scientists seem to wear glasses, indicating eyesight restrictions. Some conference organizers just use the participant name and I can see some logic behind this decision: treat everybody equally and use minimal personal data. However, the main goal of a scientific conference must be to foster discussions, create new collaborations, and define key problems. The discussion part works best if participants also talk to each other during coffee breaks (a topic to be discussed in detail in this blog at some point!). To start a conversion, a simple icebreaker is useful and this is where a second piece of information is valuable. The ‘home institution’ is a well proven choice. Although other creative choices might be worth thinking about – since institutional information requires a detour to move the conservation to research problems – it is difficult to think of good alternatives.

So now, the conference badge is finished, or is it? It seems that many conference organizing committees do finish at this stage and this is perfectly OK. Nevertheless, I have been at conferences, where organizers thought a few steps further. One common idea is that the space between two name tags inside the badge is useful! Indeed, one thing I like to store there are lunch vouchers if the conference provides lunch as many bigger conferences do (and we are talking here about a conference, not a smaller workshop). Therefore, the lunch vouchers should have the right size to fit inside the badge. Similarly, one can also print public transport information on the badge if this is included in the conference fee.

So now we are finally done? At a recent conference I was surprised by a very good idea to think even further. The idea is to think BIG. In fact, at Equadiff Lyon 2015, I received a badge which was quite large but also contained a folding program with the main data (program overiew, speakers, locations) as well as basic facts about the conference (city sketch, conference site directions, public transport map, etc.). Overall, this is a really good idea! There are certain things I would like to look up frequently such as the basics ‘where’, ‘who’ and ‘when’? Therefore, having everything available without having to search through the backpack is definitely convenient. Of course, one does have to add a few grams of weight to the badge and there is some additional cost but this trade-off could well be worth it. In principle, this would make the compelte conference accessible from a practical standpoint by just using your badge. In this context, it would also be welcome if conference organizers thought about a place at the registration desk where the badge could be handed in after the conference for recycling, or even better, for re-using the lanyard and/or plastic badge holder at future conferences.

Are there even further innovations possible? Likely, but they may be (a) costly if one thinks electronically and (b) potentially irritating if one uses too creative design elements. So after quite a few recent conferences my personal preference would be to try to scale it to the occasion. For a small conference, keep it simple, keep costs down, and  use the key information. For big conferences additional practical help via the conference badge can be useful!

My conference badge from Equadiff Lyon 2015.
My conference badge from Equadiff Lyon 2015.
My conference badge from Equadiff Lyon 2015.
My conference badge from Equadiff Lyon 2015 – folding program.
My conference badge from Equadiff Lyon 2015.
My conference badge from Equadiff Lyon 2015 – basic information.