Inspiration Information: some book recommendations for kids

As with children’s toys and clothes, books aimed at children tend to be targeted in a gender-stereotyped way. This is a bit depressing. While books about princesses can be inspirational to young girls – if the protagonist decides to give it all up and have a career as a medic instead (the plot to Zog by Julia Donaldson) – mostly they are not. How about injecting some real inspiration into reading matter for kids?

Here are a few recommendations. This is not a survey of the entire market, just a few books that I’ve come across that have been road-tested and received a mini-thumbs up from little people I know.

Little People Big Dreams: Marie Curie by Isabel Sanchez Vegara & Frau Isa

This is a wonderfully illustrated book that tells the story of Marie Curie. From a young girl growing up in Poland, overcoming gender restrictions to go and study in France and subsequently winning two Nobel Prizes and being a war hero! The front part of the book is written in simple language that kids can read while the last few pages are (I guess) for an adult to read aloud to the child, or for older children to read for themselves.

This book is part of a series which features inspirational women: Ada Lovelace, Rosa Parks, Emmeline Pankhurst, Amelia Earhart. What is nice is that the series also has books on women from creative fields Coco Chanel, Audrey Hepburn, Frida Kahlo, Ella Fitzgerald. Often non-fiction books for kids are centred on science/tech/human rights which is great but, let’s face it, not all kids will engage with these topics. The bigger message here is to show young people that little people with big dreams can change the world.

Ada Twist, Scientist by Andrea Beaty & David Roberts

A story about a young scientist who keeps on asking questions. The moral of the story is that there is nothing wrong with asking “why?”. The artwork is gorgeous and there are plenty of things to spot and look at on each page. The mystery of the book is not exactly solved either so there’s fun to be had discussing this as well as reading the book straight. Ada Marie Twist is named after Ada Lovelace and Marie Curie, two female giants of science.

This book is highly recommended. It’s fun and crammed full with positivity.

Rosie Revere, Engineer by Andrea Beaty & David Roberts

By the same author and illustrator, ‘Rosie Revere…’ tells the story of a young inventor. She overcomes ridicule when she is taken under the wing of her great aunt who is an inspirational engineer. Her great aunt Rose is I think supposed to be Rosie the Riveter, be-headscarfed feminist icon from WWII. A wonderful touch.

Rosie is a classmate of Ada Twist (see above) and there is another book featuring a young (male) architect which we have not yet road-tested. Rather than recruitment propaganda for Engineering degrees, the broader message of ‘Rosie Revere…’ is that persevering with your ideas and interests is a good thing, i.e. never give up.

Who was Charles Darwin? by Deborah Hopkinson & Nancy Harrison

This is a non-fiction book covering Darwin’s life from school days through the Beagle adventures and on to old age. It’s a book for children although compared to the books above, this is quite a dry biography with a few black-and-white illustrations. This says more about how well the books above are illustrated rather than anything particularly bad about “Who Was Charles Darwin?”. Making historical or biographical texts appealing to kids is a tough gig.

The text is somewhat inspirational – Darwin’s great achievements were made despite personal problems – but there is a disconnect between the life of a historical figure like Darwin and the children of today.

For older people

Quantum Mechanics by Jim Al-Khalili

Aimed at older children and adults, this book explains the basics behind the big concept of “Quantum Mechanics”. These Ladybird Expert books have a retro appeal, being similar to the original Ladybird books published over forty years ago. Jim Al-Khalili is a great science communicator and any young people (or adults) who have engaged with his TV work will enjoy this short format book.

Evolution by Steve Jones

This is another book in the Ladybird Expert series (there is one further book, on “Climate Change”). The brief here is the same: a short format explainer of a big concept, this time “Evolution”. The target audience is the same. It is too dry for young children but perfect for teens and for adults. Steve Jones is an engaging writer and this book doesn’t disappoint, although the format is limited to one-page large text vignettes on evolution with an illustration on the facing page.

It’s a gateway to further reading on the topic and there’s a nice list of resources at the end.



Computing for Kids

After posting this, I realised that we have lots of other children’s science and tech books that I could have included. The best of the rest is this “lift-the-flap” book on Computers and Coding published by Usborne. It’s a great book that introduces computing concepts in a fun gender-free way. It can inspire kids to get into programming perhaps making a step up from Scratch Jr or some other platform that they use at school.

I haven’t included any links to buy these books. Of course, they’re only a google search away. If you like the sound of any, why not drop in to your local independent bookshop and support them by buying a copy there.

Any other recommendations for inspirational reading for kids? Leave a comment below.

The post title comes from the title track of the “Inspiration Information” LP by Shuggie Otis. The version I have is the re-release with  ‘Strawberry Letter 23’ on it from ‘Freedom Flight’ – probably his best known track – as well as a host of other great tunes. Highly underrated, check it out. There’s another recommendation for you.

To Open Closed Doors: How open is your reference list?

Our most recent manuscript was almost ready for submission. We were planning to send it to an open access journal. It was then that I had the thought: how many papers in the reference list are freely available?

It somehow didn’t make much sense to point readers towards papers that they might not be able to access. So, I wondered if there was a quick way to determine how papers in my reference list were open access. I asked on twitter and got a number of suggestions:

  1. Search crossref to find out if the journal is in DOAJ (@epentz)
  2. How Open Is It? from Cottage Labs will check a list of DOIs (up to 20) for openness (@emanuil_tolev)
  3. Open access DOI Resolver will perform a similar task (@neurocraig)

I actually used a fourth method (from @biochemistries and @invisiblecomma) which was to use HubMed, although in the end a similar solution can be reached by searching PubMed itself. Whereas the other strategies will work for a range of academic texts, everything in my reference list was from PubMed. So this solution worked well for me. I pulled out the list of Accessions (PMIDs) for my reference list. This was because some papers were old and I did not have their DOIs. The quickest way to do this was to make a new EndNote style that only contained the field Accession and get it to generate a new bibliography from my manuscript. I appended [uid] OR after each one and searched with that term.

What happened?

My paper had 44 references. Of these, 35 were freely available to read. I was actually surprised by how many were available. So, 9 papers were not free to read. As advised, I checked each one to really make sure that the HubMed result was accurate, and it was.

Please note that I’d written the paper without giving this a thought and citing papers as I normally do: the best demonstration of something, the first paper to show something, using primary papers as far as possible.

Seven of the nine I couldn’t compromise on. They’re classic papers from 80s and 90s that are still paywalled but are unique in what they describe. However, two papers were reviews in closed access journals. Now these I could do something about! Especially as I prefer to cite the primary literature anyway. Plus, most reviews are pretty unoriginal in what they cover and an alternative open access version that is fairly recent can easily be found. I’ll probably run this check for future manuscripts and see what it throws up.


It’s often said that papers are our currency in science. The valuation of this currency comes from citations. Funnily enough, we the authors are in a position to actually do something about this. I don’t think any of us should compromise the science in our manuscripts. However, I think we could all probably pay a bit more attention to the citations that we dish out when writing a paper. Whether this is simply to make sure that what we cite is widely accessible, or just making sure that credit goes to the right people.

The post title is taken from “To Open Closed Doors” by D.R.I. from the Dirty Rotten LP

Strange Things

I noticed something strange about the 2013 Impact Factor data for eLife.

Before I get onto the problem. I feel I need to point out that I dislike Impact Factors and think that their influence on science is corrosive. I am a DORA signatory and I try to uphold those principles. I admit that, in the past, I used to check the new Impact Factors when they were released, but no longer. This year, when the 2013 Impact Factors came out I didn’t bother to log on to take a look. A chance Twitter conversation with Manuel Théry (@ManuelTHERY) and Christophe Leterrier (@christlet) was my first encounter with the new numbers.

Huh? eLife has an Impact Factor?

For those that don’t know, the 2013 Impact Factor is worked out by counting the total number of 2013 cites to articles in a given journal that were published in 2011 and 2012. This number is divided by the number of “citable items” in that journal in 2011 and 2012.

Now, eLife launched in October 2012. So it seems unfair that it gets an Impact Factor since it only published papers for 12.5% of the window under scrutiny. Is this normal?

I looked up the 2013 Impact Factor for Biology Open, a Company of Biologists journal that launched in January 2012* and… it doesn’t have one! So why does eLife get an Impact Factor but Biology Open doesn’t?**

elife-JIFLooking at the numbers for eLife revealed that there were 230 citations in 2013 to eLife papers in 2011 and 2012. One of which was a mis-citation to an article in 2011. This article does not exist (the next column shows that there were no articles in 2011). My guess is that Thomson Reuters view this as the journal existing for 2011 and 2012, and therefore deserving of an Impact Factor. Presumably there are no mis-cites in the Biology Open record and it will only get an Impact Factor next year. Doesn’t this call into question the veracity of the database? I have found other errors in records previously (see here). I also find it difficult to believe that no-one checked this particular record given the profile of eLife.

elfie-citesPerhaps unsurprisingly, I couldn’t track down the rogue citation. I did look at the cites to eLife articles from all years in Web of Science, the Thomson Reuters database (which again showed that eLife only started publishing in Oct 2012). As described before there are spurious citations in the database. Josh Kaplan’s eLife paper on UNC13/Tomosyn managed to rack up 5 citations in 2004, some 9 years before it was published (in 2013)! This was along with nine other papers that somehow managed to be cited in 2004 before they were published. It’s concerning enough that these data are used for hiring, firing and funding decisions, but if the data are incomplete or incorrect this is even worse.

Summary: I’m sure the Impact Factor of eLife will rise as soon as it has a full window for measurement. This would actually be 2016 when the 2015 Impact Factors are released. The journal has made it clear in past editorials (and here) that it is not interested in an Impact Factor and won’t promote one if it is awarded. So, this issue makes no difference to the journal. I guess the moral of the story is: don’t take the Impact Factor at face value. But then we all knew that already. Didn’t we?

* For clarity, I should declare that we have published papers in eLife and Biology Open this year.

** The only other reason I can think of is that eLife was listed on PubMed right away, while Biology Open had to wait. This caused some controversy at the time. I can’t see why a PubMed listing should affect Impact Factor. Anyhow, I noticed that Biology Open got listed in PubMed by October 2012, so in the end it is comparable to eLife.

Edit: There is an update to this post here.

Edit 2: This post is the most popular on Quantixed. A screenshot of visitors’ search engine queries (Nov 2014)…


The post title is taken from “Strange Things” from Big Black’s Atomizer LP released in 1986.

My Blank Pages

Books about the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology are plentiful. If you haven’t read any, the best place to start are the books written by some of the Nobelists themselves: “I Wish I’d Made You Angry Earlier” by Perutz, “My Life in Science” by Brenner. Also, “Sequences, Sequence, Sequences” by Sanger, “What Mad Pursuit” by Crick and even Watson’s “The Double Helix” cover ‘how it was done’ and ‘what the place is like’. After that are the biographies of the Nobelists and their associates. Then comes the next layer, the comprehensive but rather dry “Designs for Life: Molecular Biology after World War II” by de Chadarevian and hell, even “The Eighth Day of Creation” by Judson is substantially about the LMB, since so many major discoveries in Molecular Biology happened there.

If your appetite is not sated after wading through all of those, then there are the books for the insiders.

John Finch wrote a book “A Nobel Fellow on Every Floor” which was enjoyable, if rather selective on who and what was included. The latest book from the LMB Press is a collection of essays entitled “Memories and Consequences: Visiting Scientists at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge”. It was edited by Hugh Huxley and was made available last summer (around the time of his death).
You can get it here



The premise of Memories and Consequences is that there were a large number of postdoctoral fellows, mainly from the USA, who spent time at the LMB (in the 60s, mainly) and then went away and had hugely successful scientific careers. At one point in the book, Tom Steitz writes that, of his friends during this period, 40% are now NAS members! The essays cover the time of these visitors in England and how it shaped their subsequent careers.

This is definitely a book to dip in and out of. The experiences are actually pretty repetitive: yes, we drive on the other side of the road; Cambridge is a very stuffy place and Max Perutz liked to be called Max. This repetition is amplified if the chapters are read one-after-the-other. Overall however, the essays are nice reminiscences of a booming time in Molecular Biology and many capture the magic of working at the LMB during this period. Brenner and Crick come to life and even Sir Lawrence Bragg looms large in many chapters filling the authors with awe.

When I first downloaded the book, I read the chapters by those whose work I am most familiar. I didn’t even know that Dick McIntosh had spent not one but two sabbaticals at the LMB. Tom Pollard, Harvey Lodish etc. followed. I then read the other chapters when I had more time.

The best chapters were those by Harry Noller and by Peter Moore who gave the right amount (for my taste) of personal insight to their stay at the LMB. I would recommend that the reader skips the chapter by William Dove and Alexandra Shevlovsky, who tried to be a bit clever and didn’t quite pull it off. Sid Altman’s chapter has previously been published and I actually witnessed him read this out (more-or-less) verbatim at the DNA50+1 celebrations – which was far more enjoyable than it sounds.

In short, I enjoyed the book and it’s worth reading some of the chapters if you have a leaning towards the history of science, but there are plenty of other books (listed above) where you should start if you want to find out what life is like inside the Nobel Prize Factory.

I’ll leave you with three quotes that I enjoyed immensely:

“I remember seeing copies of the journal Cell, where we all yearned to publish (though, I noticed, not the really great scientists, like John Sulston or Sydney Brenner). I would shudder and turn away; Cell was for other scientists, not for me.”
Cynthia Kenyon

“Like many others who worked at the LMB in that era, I still think of its modus operandi as exemplifying the blueprint that all scientific research establishments should aspire to emulate. Pack the very best scientists you can find into a building, so densely that they cannot avoid talking to each other, and encourage them to interact in every other way you can. A canteen or dining room might be a good idea. (The facility itself need not be luxurious, and indeed, it is probably better if it is not.) Give those scientists ample staff support, and all the money they need to get on with the job. Stir well, and then be patient because good science takes time. My subsequent career has taught me that this recipe is much harder to execute than it is to describe. I still wonder how the MRC managed to do it so well for so long.”
Peter Moore

“I learned that protein chemistry didn’t need me, that King’s College High Table was for tougher folk than I, and that Sydney talked but Francis conversed.”
Frank Stahl

A comprehensive guide to LMB books is available here

Don’t worry, book reviews will be a very infrequent feature as I hardly have any time to read books these days!

The post title is from My Blank Pages – Velvet Crush from their LP Teenage Symphonies to God. Presumably a play on the Dylan/Byrds song My Back Pages.

A Day In The Life

#paperoftheday #potd

A common complaint from other PIs is that they “don’t read enough any more”. I feel like this too and a solution was proposed by a friend of a friend*: try to read one paper per day.

This seemed like a good idea and I started to do this in 2013. The rules, obviously, can be set by you. Here’s my version:

  1. Read one paper each working day.
  2. If I am away, or reviewing a paper for a journal or colleague, then I get a pass.
  3. Read it sufficiently to be able to explain it to somebody else, i.e. don’t just scan the abstract and look at the figures. Really read it and understand it. Scan and skim as many other papers as you normally would!
  4. Only papers reporting primary research count towards #paperoftheday.
  5. If it was really good or worth telling people about – tweet about it.
  6. Make a simple database in Excel or Papers – this helps you keep track, make notes about the paper (to see if you meet #3) and allows you to find the paper easily in the future (this last point turned out to be very useful).

I started this in 2013 (for one full year) and am trying to continue in 2014. I feel that this is succeeding in making me read more than I would have otherwise done.

My stats for 2013 were:

  • 85% success rate. Filling that last 15% will be tough.
  • Stats errors in 48% of papers! Most common error was incorrect use of Student’s  t-test.
  • 68% of papers were from 2013 and 22% were from 2009-2012.

The big surprise was which journals I read most:

  1. J Cell Biol 13
  2. PLOS One 12
  3. Nat Cell Biol 10
  4. PNAS 10
  5. Curr Biol 9
  6. Mol Biol Cell 8
  7. Nature 8
  8. Dev Cell 7
  9. eLife 7
  10. Nature Methods 7
  11. Cell 6
  12. Neuron 6
  13. Traffic 6
  14. J Cell Sci 4
  15. Science 4

I thought that Cell would be much higher and PNAS would be much lower. Since where we publish is dictated by who is likely to see and read the paper, this list was thought-provoking.

*I think this was a colleague of @david_s_bristol who suggested it, sometime in 2012.

The post title is of course from A Day in The Life – The Beatles from the LP Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. For the first line…

So Long

How long does it take to publish a paper?

I posted the picture below on Twitter to show how long it takes for us to publish a paper.


The answer is 235 days. This is the median time from submission at the first journal to publication online or in print. The data are from our last ten papers.

The infographic proved popular with 40 retweets and 22 favourites. It was pointed out to me that the a few things would improve this visualisation:

1. Showing the names of the journals

2. Showing when the 1st submission was relative to the 1st submission at the journal that finally accepted the paper

3. What about reviews and other types of publication.

I am working on updating the graph to show all of these things… watch this space.

My point was really to show (perhaps to non-scientists) how long the process of publishing a paper can be. There is other information that can be gleaned from this, e.g. what proportion of time is at the journal’s side and how much is at our end?

The people who are eager to see which journals perform badly (slowly) will be disappointed: this is a very small subset of papers from one lab. I’d be interested in scraping the information on journal tardiness on a larger scale and synthesising this so that it can inform journal choice. Recently though major publishers have taken steps to make this information less accessible so don’t hold your breath.

The title of this post is from So Long by Cian Ciarán from the LP ‘Outside In’