Academic Peer Review

What is the difference between online content and journal publications, when it comes to science?

The majority of published academic work will go through what is known as a ‘Peer Review Process’. The idea behind this is to provide quality control by having experts question the scientific method employed, the analysis of data obtained, and the arguments put forward to explain what is happening. This largely acts as a ‘fact-checking’ step in the publication process.

For a typical publication, a manuscript will be drafted and sent to the editors of a journal. These can either be employed, full time editors (such as at Nature or Science), volunteers from the academic community (such as most Conference proceedings), or a combination of both (e.g. European Physics Letters).

The manuscript will first be checked for a minimum standard (this varies between journals), and then sent out to experts in the international community who volunteer their time to perform these peer reviews.

The result of such peer review is normally one of the following:

  1. Acceptance – the article may require small changes, but is otherwise accepted for publication.
  2. Rejection – the article is not of sufficient quality or interest for the particular journal and is recommended to be published elsewhere.
  3. Respond to reviewers – the peer review process has identified potential questions or weaknesses in the manuscript. There are specific changes or questions that need to be addressed after which the manuscript will go through a second round of peer review and either accepted or rejected.

Open access publishing

Historically, scientific publications have fallen under the ‘subscription’ model, where an individual or their employer/institution paid a fee to access journal articles. You will have probably seen this if you ever tried to find a journal article whilst at home.

There has in recent years been a push from the academic community as well as some  Governments away from this model, so that the research is more readily available. This is where open access publishing comes in.

In the UK, for example, the Government requires some open access version of every publication that an institution wants to submit to the REF (a regular quality assessment of University research outputs). This can be done in one of 2 ways:

(1) By paying ‘open-access charges’ to the Publisher of any research outputs. There is some money available for this for UK funded research. Charges vary from publisher to publisher, and an also depend on the length and composition of the journal article (for example, whether colour images are included).

(2) By depositing a version of the publication on an institutional repository or archive. This requires some knowledge of the copyright restrictions for each publisher and is usually handled by the institution’s librarians. It is quite common for science articles to be deposited on the ArXiv prior to submission to a publisher for peer review.

The ArXiv

The ArXiv is a server that hosts pre-submitted journal articles. It was established by  Paul Ginsparg, originally at Los Alamos National Laboratory, who later moved to Cornell University. It is currently hosted by Cornell University’s library and is commonly used to quickly disseminate scientific results, especially for research that is moving quickly.

Conflict of interest

Of course some might argue that there is a conflict of interest in these proceedings, as the peer reviewers can be influenced by their own biases. There is often also anecdotal stories of ‘discoveries’ being blocked from publication by a peer reviewer working in the same field who wants to publish first, or who are proponents of alternative theories. This can largely be avoided at the submission stage by identifying specific individuals that may have a conflict of interest.

Characterisation Methods in Solid State and Materials Science

I’m in the process of writing a textbook for the IOP E-book portfolio that will focus on characterisation techniques, in particular for solid state physics.

This will include:

  • X-ray and Neutron Techniques
  • Microscopy Techniques
  • Spectroscopy Techniques
  • Magnetic, Electric, and Thermal Characterisation Techniques.

And will, as far as possible make use of open source data to provide real world problems for students to tackle (focusing on data analysis).

I am therefore, actively looking for journal articles that may use one or more of these techniques and where the original datafiles are accessible. If you have work that you think would be relevant then please contact me. Of course all relevant files and journal articles would be referenced.

Double Rainbow

Can you see the double rainbow?

Ever noticed how the order of the colours changes for the second rainbow (red – yellow – green – blue – violet…)

Typically rainbows are formed when light is refracted (bent) through a raindrop.

A double rainbow forms when light is refracted twice in a raindrop, and occurs commonly when the sunlight is low in the sky. See here for more.


Useful Resources

I will be adding resources here as I find them – mostly Maths and Physics themed.

Online Mathematics Course

Loughborough’s Mathematics Education Centre runs a free, three-week MOOC – Getting a Grip on Mathematical Symbolism – designed for those students aspiring to become scientists or engineers but who lack mathematical confidence.

It will run again on the FutureLearn platform starting May 8th. Registration is open now:

The course is designed for students who have some engineering or science knowledge gained through vocational qualifications or through workplace experience but who perhaps have not studied mathematics formally since leaving school. It will be appropriate for those who lack confidence but who need to establish a bedrock of knowledge in order to further their education.
This is a foundation, entry-level course and is not intended for those who already possess recent post-GCSE mathematics qualifications. It is highly recommended for those students going to university who have not studied maths beyond GCSE. Please share when appropriate.
Note that it is planned to run this course again shortly before the start of the new academic year in September.

Magnet Academy

Magnet Academy is an online resource provided by the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory — the largest, most high-powered magnet lab in the world. It has a wide selection of useful tutorials about electromagnetism for ages 5 upwards.

Interactive Magnetic Tutorials

British Science Week

As part of British Science Week, Loughborough University hosts a ‘Community Day’ event where Loughborough locals are invited on campus to take part in various ‘science based’ activities.

This year it falls on 25th March I will be:

  • Coordinating an Electrodough workshop – for which we’re looking for student ambassadors.
  • Running a ‘Cold Science’ demonstration with liquid nitrogen.
  • Working with the East Midlands Institute of Physics to deliver several ‘busking’ activities –  for which I’m looking for student ambassadors.

If you’re interested in getting involved please let me know.


Liquid nitrogen

Roughly the same cost (weight for weight) as a pint of milk, it’s a common feature in science fiction films: the nitrogen dewar in the background that might at some point be used to freeze that alien chasing you down the corridor…

But how much liquid nitrogen would it actually take to do this?

Hint: Assume the creature weighs about 50kg and has a heat capacity of 2000 J/K/kg. Liquid nitrogen has a temperature of 77K and latent heat of 199 kJ/kg. For arguments sake, let’s say the creature becomes vulnerable at 250K…

Now let’s add another complication: the Leidenfrost effect. As a coolant, the low boiling point of liquid nitrogen (77K) typically means that it will boil off so fast on contact with another object much hotter than it, that a ‘protective’ layer of air is formed. This will insulate said object from the cooling effects of the liquid nitrogen, for example preventing cold burns for anyone crazy enough to stick their hand in a bucket of liquid nitrogen for a second or two. CAUTION: This effect will not stop you from getting burnt as more nitrogen is added.

For more see Wikipedia entry for liquid nitrogen