Monthly Archives: July 2017

Top ten reasons why your Wikipedia edits get reverted

andy_mabbett_glamcamp_amsterdam_netherlands_img_1324_edit.jpgby Andy Mabbett, The Society’s Wikimedian in Residence.

Wikipedia’s great, isn’t it? All that free information, about the TV star whose name you can’t quite remember, the little fishing village where you’re spending your holiday, and the early singles history of the band you’ve just discovered and love to bits.

Wikipedia’s rubbish, isn’t it? Any fool can edit it, and put in anything they want. Not like a journal, with peer review and an editor. Only a fool would use it!

As a Wikipedia contributor since 2003, I’ve heard both of these things, many, many times. They can’t both be true, can they?

Of course they can’t, and it’s the latter that is a gross misrepresentation. Everyone who edits Wikipedia (in the sense of making any changes) is both a peer reviewer, and an editor (in the sense of exercising editorial oversight). It’s been said that Wikipedia is like a bumblebee – it doesn’t work in theory, only in practice.

Wikipedia needs subject experts, who know what should be in an article, and where to find that information. And when it comes to physiology, that might mean you. Spotted something wrong? You can fix it! Found something missing? You can add it. And please do!

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© Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

However, some new contributors do find Wikipedia unwelcoming. Sometimes the changes they make are summarily undone (or “reverted” in the jargon). Here are ten reasons why that happens, and what you can do to avoid it:

  1. You didn’t cite your source — The Wikipedia community (of which you’re a part!) wants people who read its articles to know where the information comes from. As with a journal article, what you assert to be true should be cited to an independent, reliable, source. By reliable, we mean something in good standing, with its own editorial process: a respected journal, not a parasitic one; not a tabloid newspaper; and not your own blog. There are two areas where this policy is applied most rigorously, namely claims about living people, and matters related to medicine and healthcare.
  2. You wrote about someone (or something) who isn’t “notable” — Wikipedia doesn’t want an article about everyone, nor everything. The determining factor is what Wikipedia calls “notability.” Ask yourself: has society at large noticed this entity? Have there been press articles, biographies, television documentaries etc. about the subject? Note the plural.
  3. You didn’t sign in — Anyone can edit Wikipedia, and that includes people who don’t create an account and sign in. For small changes, that’s not usually an issue, but if you’re making significant changes, people are instinctively less trusting of “anonymous” edits. It shouldn’t be like that, of course, but people are people, and so it is. Also, signing in makes additional tools and editing rights available to you, and it actually gives you more privacy, as it hides your IP address. It’s best to create an account.
  4. You repeated an edit that had already been reverted — To many Wikipedia contributors, this (called “edit warring”) is a real no-no. If your edit is reverted, consider why and whether you can do it again, but better. Maybe one of the other reasons in this post applies. If you’re unsure, start a discussion on the article’s associated talk page.
  5. You pushed a fringe theory — Wikipedia aims to maintain a neutral point of view, and to be balanced, but not to give every esoteric view equal weight. So, while it mentions that some people believe the Earth is flat, or believe that vaccines cause autism, or suchlike, there is no requirement to give such views equal weight, and Wikipedia reflects that the scientific consensus is otherwise.
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©20th Century Fox

  1. You published original research — Have you just discovered a cure for cancer? Or proven beyond any doubt that a politician’s expenses have been fiddled with? That’s great, but please don’t put anything in Wikipedia until the discovery has been published in the kind of reliable sources mentioned above. Because getting information on medical matters right is so important, Wikipedia has special guidance on finding suitable sources. For instance, review literature is preferred to new primary research, and single papers based on in-vitro or animal testing should not be used in an attempt to debunk the established scientific consensus of secondary sources.
  2. You had a conflict of interest — CoI editing on Wikipedia isn’t prohibited, but should be declared. If you do edit in such areas, only do so with great caution. And please don’t edit Wikipedia solely to cite your own work – that will be noticed!
  3. You didn’t declare that you were paid to edit — This form of CoI is one of the few things on Wikipedia where there is a hard-line rule, rather than guidance. Any edit for which you are paid – whether with money or in kind – must be declared.
  4. You edited an article “owned” by someone else — (don’t worry, you did nothing wrong!) It’s good that some contributors are dedicated enough to “steward” an article, and keep an eye on it, but sometimes they overstep the mark, and will let no one else (or only their friends) change it. If that happens, don’t panic, and don’t get into an edit war (see number four above). Instead, start a discussion, following Wikipedia’s dispute resolution process.
  5. You were wrong! — Yes, I know that this is highly unlikely, but maybe you simply misunderstood the subject, or the tone of the article, or a Wikipedia policy. Please don’t dig in – it’s a sure way to frustration – but instead listen to what people tell you in talk page discussions, and try to come to agreement with them as to how best to proceed.

By encouraging all editors to avoid these pitfalls and adhere to the policies and guidelines to which this post links, Wikipedia seeks to make its content more reliable and useful to its readers, and to make the process of contributing more accessible and welcoming to everyone So what are you waiting for? Be bold!


Andy Mabbett – http://pigsonthewing.org.uk – is the Society’s Wikimedian in Residence. He is also Wikimedian in Residence at Queen Mary London University’s History of Modern Biomedicine Research Group, and with ORCID. He has previously held similar positions with the Royal Society of Chemistry, TED Talks, and a number of museums and art galleries.

The dangers of careless press releases

by Simon Cork, Imperial College London, @simon_c_c

This article originally appeared in Physiology News

Simon Cork

You open the morning paper and are excited to find an article about a newly published study in your area of interest. You start reading it and quickly realise that the journalist has completely taken the press release out of context. What was originally some preliminary cell culture work has turned into a front page splash solving an age-old problem or heralding a new cure. Sound familiar?

We live in a world of 24-hour rolling news coverage. The necessity to write punchy news headlines and be the first to break stories has never been greater. Because of this, it’s very easy for journalists to take press releases out of their original scientific context, and ‘sex’ them up in a way that sells. This is particularly the case for my own area of research, obesity.

The world is suffering from an obesity epidemic especially (but not exclusively) in the Western world. Reports suggest around two-thirds of people are dieting at any one time, and most of these diets don’t work. This is why stories about miracle weight loss cures and therapies are cat nip to journalists and readers alike.

Frustrated by the misrepresentation of obesity in the press, I decided to sign up to the Science Media Centre (SMC), not knowing it would lead to my television debut.

The remit of the SMC is to provide journalists with expert quotes on scientific studies that are likely to garner media attention. In the world of obesity and diabetes, this usually involves studies showing that eating too much of X will lead to diabetes, or that cutting Y out of your diet reduces body weight.

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I recently commented on a new study, which had followed approximately 20,000 children over a 10-year period, some born via caesarean and some born naturally, and found that those who were born via caesarean were more likely to be obese in later life. I was asked to comment whether or not the conclusions of the study were sound, and offer a possible explanation for the findings. In fact, this study adds to other literature supporting this relationship, and the most likely cause is exposure to different microbes when born naturally versus via caesarean, although the link hasn’t fully been proven.

Since the study used a large cohort, the results were more statistically significant. However, since it was an observational study there isn’t a causative link.

My comments were picked up by a number of news agencies, including The Guardian, Daily Mail and the BBC News website. Nerve-rackingly, I even got a call from the producer of BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme, who was interested in picking this piece up and wondered if I would pop into the studio the next morning. This was swiftly followed by Sky News, Jeremy Vine and BBC News.

Now all of this was a far cry from the ELISA that I was planning on carrying out that day, but was an interesting insight into the angle journalists take on scientific stories. Having received the call asking if I’d like to go on the Today programme at 11 pm the previous evening, I spent a number of hours doing a comprehensive PubMed search of all the most recent meta-analysis studies investigating caesarean births and obesity risk. Turns out all they’re really interested in is why. If the Brexit debate has taught us anything, it’s that the public switch-off at the sight of a percentage symbol or talk of numbers. What people want to know is why and how it affects them. So my interviews mostly revolved around why caesarean births seem to increase the risk of obesity and whether there is anything we can do to mitigate the risk. That and trying to politely convince a caller to the Jeremy Vine Show that her child’s obesity was probably more the result of her confessed feeding of copious amounts of chocolate to him, rather than his method of birth.

If, like me, you find yourself at odds with journalistic reporting of science stories, I would urge you to join the database at the Science Media Centre. You’re not guaranteed to get TV time, but you might get your name in the paper. Just make sure that you at least know enough about whatever it is you’re commenting on to make it through a 30-minute conversation with Jeremy Vine and John Humphrys!

Getting stressed out at the Lancashire Science Festival

By Rachel Boardman, University of Nottingham, UK, @boardventures

Two weeks ago, I formed part of The Physiological Society’s team of enthusiastic volunteers in the Biology Big Top area of Lancashire Science Festival. Dressed to impress in our ‘I love physiology’ t-shirts, we were all set to engage our audience about the effects of stress on the body.

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After measuring a participant’s blood pressure and heart rate we would then expose them to either a mental or physical stress. The mental stress consisted of playing whack-a-mole – a version of the popular arcade game where you hit the mole when it lights up – while being asked maths questions. Evil, right?

I had a go, to errm test it out, and one of my fellow volunteers challenged me to count backwards from 100. Not so bad, I thought. She then added, “In 7s.”

“Oh errm.. 100, 93… errr…86. Yeah I’m out.”

A few of our participants were amazingly good at this (unlike me) while some heard the word maths and immediately opted for the physical stressor, the cold pressor test.IMG_2518

This involved sticking your hand in an ice-cold bucket of water for 1 minute (we toned it down to 30 seconds for the younger children because we’re not harsh). The shock on each participant’s face as they realised how cold the water actually was followed by the realisation that a whole 60 seconds doing this was far longer than they had realised. Most showed clear signs of discomfort, squirming and fidgeting in their seat, increasing their breathing rate and even providing a running commentary on just how they were feeling, but there were others that sat quite still with a wry smile on their face that said ‘this isn’t that cold’.

Once we had suitably stressed our victims participants out, we measured their blood pressure and heart rate again. What would you expect to happen?DEcsbysXUAAdU07.jpg

Well, if you know anything about science, then you will know that it doesn’t always go to plan. That is precisely what happened to us. The majority of people’s blood pressure and heart rate did increase. However, we also had participants who seemingly reacted to these stressors by relaxing, or for whom only blood pressure or heart rate changed. That’s science, guys!

Read Rachel’s full article on her blog, The Boardventures.

Shark Diary, Episode IV: Life on board

Aboard the RV Sanna, our days rotate around meals, fishing, and experiments.

dry fish and musk ox

Our ship is the newest vessel of the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources. Her name, RV Sanna, inspired from ‘Mother of the Ocean’ in Inuit mythology, shows the Institute’s commitment to safeguarding the aquatic environment and to advising governments on the sustainable use of living oceanic resources.

At 32 metres long, Sanna is small for an ocean-going vessel. She is, however, well-designed for scientific research in the marine environment. She is five stories tall, with engines in the bottom and the bridge, where the Captain sits, at the top. Our rooms are above the engines and below the waves.

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The hoverdeck on RV Sanna. Image courtesy of the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources

As the only female scientist aboard, I knew I’d have to share a room with one of the men. I ask for he-who-is-least-likely-to-snore, and that turns out to be Emil. He takes the bottom bunk, I take the top. It isn’t easy climbing up there on the rough seas. When a five-story-tall boat hits rough seas, you can really feel it!

Emil_rough_sea

Rocky ride to the fjords

From Nuuk, the 40-hour transit south to the fjords near Narsaq is really tough. We head down along Greenland’s west coast towards Cape Farewell in gale force winds. The northerly winds hit the ship at around more than 12 metres per second as we get to the open sea and worsen overnight, creating five metre swells waves hitting our ship from all sides. Most of us need to use the patch against seasickness. One of its side effects is blurred vision, so I spend the first few nights half blind trying not to roll out of my bunk.

Rough_sea

Life on board tries to proceed as normal during the onslaught. Our cook Caroline makes a valiant effort to feed us despite the sensation of living inside of a washing machine. At lunch one day, Caroline is caught off-guard by a rogue wave. It hits the ship so hard that she and everything else that is not tied down goes flying five metres through the air and across the room. Chairs break, and dishes in the kitchen fly out of the cupboards and smash!

Living conditions improve when we finally reach the calm waters of the southern fjords, and pull into the port at Narsaq. In the quiet of the harbour, we set up our scientific equipment. Microscopes come out of boxes, chilling water circulators are plugged in, and apparatus used to measure all sorts of forces (like pressure, flow and tension) are calibrated. Most importantly, everything is placed on top of non-slip mats and is tied down, just to be safe. In the evening, we head into town to have a pint, meet the locals, and ask them where the sharks are. The Greenland shark is very common bycatch for the major Greenlandic fisheries (like halibut), so the local fishermen know which fjords harbor sharks of which sizes. We celebrate everyone surviving the 40-hour transit in the rough seas, and buy some more dishes for the galley!

The pub is in a wooden shed, serves local microbrews, and features a band playing Greenlandic folk songs. I get asked to dance by an elderly Greenlander. I don’t think I have the right moves; we don’t even last a whole song!

We get back to the ship around midnight to find it locked up. The captain must have gone off to bed. We try every door at no avail. Julius valiantly squeezes through the window used to tie the ship off, and lets us in from the cold. We all troop off to bed right away, as we need to be fresh for pulling up the longlines bright and early in the morning.

How to catch sharks, and only sharks

lonf lining from frdcdotcomdotau

Long line fishing. Image courtesy of the FRDC

Longlining is a fishing technique we use because the sharks swim up to 1.5 kilometers deep. The longline is the main line of reel that starts and ends with a buoy that floats on the top.  Between the buoys, our longlines sit at around 200 metres deep. From that main line, are a series of lines that end with baited hooks. These secondary lines are between 100 and 200 metres long. You can vary the depth of each set of lines to place the hooks in the part of the water column where you expect your fish to be. We usually set one or two longlines each morning and evening.

Each of our sets of lines has about ten hooks baited with ringed seal that we buy from local hunters. Seal meat is a common food in Greenland, but apparently sexually mature males don’t taste very good, so this is what we buy to bait the hooks. Seal meat is very oily and attracts the sharks better than other fish-based bait. Stomach content analysis confirms that these sharks eat seal. In fact, their stomachs contain whole seals suggesting that they sneak up from the depths and swallow the sleeping seals whole!

Setting_longline   Longline

Longline fishing has been criticized, especially in commercial fisheries such as for swordfish, because of the large amount of bycatch: the other marine creatures that are caught unintentionally. It’s a major problem for fisheries and is something that governments, environmental groups, and commercial fisheries are working to reduce globally. Our crew knew the correct combination of bait, depth and positioning needed to prevent bycatch. In our ten days of setting longlines, we caught 27 Greenland sharks, and had no bycatch whatsoever.

Follow #SharkDiary on Twitter to see all the updates about the expedition.


This expedition was made possible by funding from the Danish Centre for Marine Research, the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources, The Danish Natural Science Research Council and the Carlsberg Foundation.

Parliamentary Links Day 2017: Connecting science and politicians

By Charles Laing, @spacecharlieuk

The largest science event in the annual parliamentary calendar was held last week, with scientists and engineers from all over the UK meeting Members of both Houses of Parliament. Parliamentary Links Day provides an opportunity for learned societies to have their views heard and represented in Parliament, and with Brexit looming this year was particularly important.

It was great to be invited along, after recently joining the Policy & Communications Committee of the Physiological Society, so I could listen to the discussion of some of the major issues facing UK science today.

 

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The title for this year’s event was ‘UK Science and Global Opportunities?’ and included talks from the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow; the Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, Jo Johnson; and Chair Designate of UK Research and Innovation, Sir John Kingman. Interesting sessions included a panel hosted by BBC science journalist Pallab Ghosh, with several opportunities for the audience to engage and ask questions.

A key theme for all involved that emerged from the discussions was the real need to ensure that the level of UK science funding continues post-Brexit. Sir John Kingman noted that all major UK political parties had solid manifesto commitments indicating the importance of science to the UK and its wider economy – a hopeful sign as we exit the European Union.

Other matters of concern among the room full of scientists, policymakers, politicians, and leaders in the science sector included the issue of international collaborations and how this would be dealt with in the future. Consensus was that in order for the UK to access the full range of global opportunities moving forward, access to intellectual talent overseas should not be a barrier to fruitful collaborations.

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Following discussions, lunch was hosted out on the House of Lords’ terrace. A great way to finish off a packed day full of debates. The Physiological Society table was joined by Baroness Margaret Prosser and Lord Ronald Oxburgh – both members of the House of Lords – as well as Dr Sarah Main, Director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering. The guest speaker after lunch was Professor Alex Halliday, Vice-President of the Royal Society, who spoke about the importance of the people in the room flying the flag for UK science.

Shark Diary, Episode III: The oldest living vertebrate

The Greenland shark’s scientific name is Somniosus microcephaly, which means ‘sleepy small brain’.  They live in the cold waters of the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans, and are members of the family Somniosidae – the Sleeper Sharks. This name implies their slow growth and low levels of activity. In some ways they live up to their name, but in many other ways they are anything but sleepy, small-brained creatures!

Native range of the Greenland shark. Source: FishBase

How old is old? 

These sharks were known by Greenlanders to grow slowly and the fact that they can reach lengths of 5.5 metres implied they may also be very old. It wasn’t until a few years ago that a Danish team led by Prof John Steffensen was able to confirm their extreme longevity, and publish the findings last year in the journal Science.

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Calculating the age of a cartilaginous shark is more complicated than it is for a bony fish. This is because bony fish have otoliths, bones of the inner ear which grow in rings, much like that of a tree. By counting the rings of the otolith, you can determine the fish’s age. Cartilaginous fish like sharks (and rays) do not have otoliths, nor do they have any other true bones.

To overcome this challenge, John and his team used carbon dating techniques to determine the age of 28 female sharks (81 to 502 cm total length) collected during expeditions to Greenland between 2010 and 2013. Carbon dating is famously used to determine the age of fossils, but they used this same technique on the carbon in lenses in the sharks’ eyes. This carbon comes from the  “bomb-pulse” that entered the ecosystem following the nuclear tests of the 1950s. The carbon in body parts formed during that time is in a different form.

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From these sharks, growth curves were established linking a shark’s age to its size. Using these, we can now calculate the age of live sharks from their measurements, which we took on the expedition. Current estimates suggest that the average Greenland shark grows less than one cm per year. That makes animals longer than 5 metres between 275 and 510 years old!

How does living so long affect the shark’s bodies?

Aging is decay, at least in humans. Indeed, the biggest risk factor for a large number of diseases like heart disease and cancer is advancing age. So how is it that the Greenland shark can live for so long?

At the moment, we know very little. Very early evidence from previous work suggests these sharks do not have any special strategies for surviving damage from free radicals. Another health concern specific to top oceanic predators is accumulation of toxic substances in their bodies. However, recent work on accumulation of organic pollutants does not suggest that they accumulate with age in the Greenland Shark either. We hope to learn much more about how these sharks age as we process the samples from our expedition. For instance, Takuji Noda, Bob Shadwick and Diego Bernal are studying movement and skeletal muscle function in sharks of different ages. This could tell us whether Greenland sharks deal with frailty, another plague of human aging.

Eye_parasite

Most sharks caught have this parasite hanging from their eye.

Some aspects of a shark’s long life bear no comparison to humans. Although dimming eyesight might feel like an inevitable part of aging to us, Greenland sharks contract a parasite on their cornea, so they may need more than a pair of reading glasses as they age! A 4-6 cm long crustacean dangling from the centre of a shark’s eye is off-putting, but also intriguing. It raises obvious questions about how the parasite affects vision and how the fish survives with potential vision-impairment. General consensus is that the parasite severely impairs the ability of the eye to form images, but how important is vision in animals living 1 kilometer below the surface? Perhaps they rely more on their other senses, like smell. In any case, gut contents show these sharks eat everything from small fish to whole seals, suggesting they forage successfully even with a large crustacean dangling from their eye!

Conserving this old shark 

The Greenland shark is slow-growing and thus also slow to reach reproductive age. A member of our team on the expedition, PhD student Julius Nielsen, from the University of Copenhagen has been trying to understand how body length relates to reproductive maturity in both males and female sharks. Their current estimate is that females reach sexual maturity at lengths of over 400 cm, which makes them at least 150 years old. Males, who are smaller than the females, may reach reproductive maturity at slightly shorter lengths.

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Ovaries and uteri recovered from an injured female shark humanely euthanised during the expedition. Watch Julius talk you through them, and what he hopes to learn from tracking shark’s movements after their release, below.

This slow maturation means it takes at least 150 years for shark pups to start reproducing! This has big implications for the population, and for conservation. Indeed, the Greenland shark population may still be recovering from being over-fished before World War II, when their livers were used for machine oil. Calculating back from the amount of machine oil produced suggests that between 50,000 and 150,000 animals were caught per year between 1900 and 1938. Prices of shark-liver oil fell in 1949 as other options became viable, and the fishery then collapsed. Hatchlings born to parents who were caught for their livers are now teenagers and still not quite at reproductive age. That may be the reason why there are very few reports of juvenile Greenland sharks.

Slow growth leading to late reproductive maturity is a big factor for conservation strategies in this animal. At present, the Greenland shark is a common by-catch, meaning it’s unintentionally caught along with other fish, in the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans. This suggests that its population is still quite strong. But as it takes so long to increase the population of adult animals, they are vulnerable to increased fishing pressure in a warming Arctic environment. Thus they are listed as near-threatened on the ICUN list and there is a growing need to understand their physiology, life history and their role as top predator in the Arctic marine ecosystem.

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The tag on this shark will transmit data via satellite about where it goes after being released.

Follow #SharkDiary on Twitter to see all the updates about the expedition.


This expedition was made possible by funding from the Danish Centre for Marine Research, the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources, The Danish Natural Science Research Council and the Carlsberg Foundation.