Monday, December 18, 2006

Self-archiving and open access

My dissertation is now available! (It's even had a flattering review.)
The main part of the dissertation is based around a survey of 430 or so people on whether they knew about self-archiving and whether they accessed journal articles online from sources other than the official publishers' website. Over 70% of respondents did, a higher proportion than in previous surveys, though it depended a great deal on subject area. People in the field of medicine had hardly heard of it at all and were very unwilling to trust self-archived material. Why should this be?

There's a possibility of a sample bias, but other studies have found a similar tendency in medicine (there is much less self-archived material available in medicine than in other fields, as well). I suspect two things: firstly, that many researchers in medicine spend a lot less time immersed in academia than people in other subjects, and the concept of open access hasn't spread beyond academia yet; and secondly, that there is a much greater need for papers in medicine to be seen as authoritative, as determining the trustworthiness of articles is both more important and more difficult. More difficult, because the trials and experiments described are often expensive, long-term, or subject to stringent ethical stipulations; more important, because of the consequences if, say, a doctor acts on incorrect advice.
Whether these attitudes will change as self-archiving increases in popularity (as I believe it will) remains to be seen.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Science as entertainment

Mark Liberman at the Language Log has been tackling for some time the misinformation in Luanne Brizendine's book The Female Brain. In the latest twist, despite Brizendine's retraction of the material in question, the popular press are still promulgating it as if nothing had happened.

The press appear to rarely bother to check scientific facts before posting something, and may not admit their mistakes (another example, this time with the BBC as the culprit, has been dealt with in depth elsewhere). Mark Liberman suggests that this is because science news is viewed as entertainment, rather than on the same level as current events stories.

In a way, of course, almost all news is entertainment. There's very little in the daily news that directly affects people's everyday lives. Instead, as C.S. Lewis famously had it, 'He reads daily, with unwearied relish, how, in some place he has never seen, under circumstances which never become quite clear, someone he doesn't know has married, rescued, robbed, raped, or murdered someone else he doesn't know.' And, while scientific discoveries do have the potential to affect everybody's lives, the chance of any individual discovery directly affecting any given individual person is quite small.

On the other hand, that shouldn't stop journalists from checking their facts.

Friday, December 01, 2006

GM potatoes

As a gardener, I welcome the announcement of UK trials of potatoes genetically modified to be resistant to blight, for reasons given below. I was rather less pleased at the reaction of the GMWatch spokeswoman on the Today programme. She used the event as a hook to hang a very standard anti-GM rant off, without dealing in any way with the specifics of this particular implementation – and this is not a standard GM trial.

There are several ways in which this particular GM trial differs from many others that have occurred in the past. The gene inserted is from a wild potato plant, not a gene from another species. The same effect might be attained through many years of careful cross-breeding in the traditional manner; genetic modification just gets it done more quickly and more surely.

The purpose of the gene transfer is to give the plants resistance to potato blight, which is a deadly disease for which there is no organic treatment (organic potato farmers are permitted to use Bordeaux Mixture, which is primarily copper sulphate, but this is a concession by the Soil Association to the fact that without using some sort of inorganic compound, it is impossible to grow potatoes in an area subject to blight.

Potatoes crop, and reproduce, not by setting seed but by producing tubers. There is therefore a much lower chance of 'contamination' with other plant species (especially as there are far fewer relatives of the potato in the wild than there are of grass-based plants such as wheat). And, as I said above, the gene is one that occurs in wild potatoes anyway, and confers resistance to a fungal infection, not a weedkiller or pesticide. So if the gene did start appearing in wild plants, what harm would it do anyway?

It is true that reports of a toxicology experiment in the past have claimed that rats fed a certain strain of GM potato had damaged immune systems. But the full results of that trial, when they were finally released, were inconclusive, and some claimed the design was flawed and the paper should not have been published. And in any case, this is a different strain and would be expected to behave differently. But how can we tell that for sure without doing the trials?