Friday, December 28, 2012

Scientists Who Fake Reviews of Their Papers

The pressure to publish is being blamed for the latest uptick in cases of scientific fraud and the appearance of new and devious means of getting one's work in print. An ongoing case involves a South Korean scientist who submitted glowing reviews of his own submitted papers (The Chronicle of Higher Education).

Hyung-In Moon submitted a manuscript to the Journal of Enzyme Inhibition and Medicinal Chemistry along with the names and email addresses of potential reviewers. So far, so good....many journals allow, or even require, such a list of reviewers by authors. The associate editor who handled the paper sent it out for review but became suspicious when they came back within 48 hours (those of us who have served as associate editors will recognize that the odds of two reviewers responding so quickly to be about the same as winning the recent Mega-Powerball lottery). The editor then sent the paper to two reviewers of his choosing; however, they recommended publication with some revisions, so the paper was published in 2010.

Apparently flush with success, Moon continued to submit manuscripts to JEIMC over the next year. According to an interview by the Chronicle, the associate editor who handled Moon's initial paper was still suspicious and took a closer look at the recommendations for reviewers. Although the referees appeared to be real scientists, the email addresses provided by Moon were commercial (g-mail, yahoo) rather than institutional. The editor finally wised up and contacted the reviewers directly. Not surprisingly, the email addresses provided were not theirs, and they had never heard of Moon.

Turns out, Moon had set up fake email addresses so that he could receive the journal's request for a review, and then it was a simple matter to send in a glowing review of his own work. When questioned, he apparently admitted this chicanery to the editor as well as to fabricating some of his data (!). The ensuing investigation has resulted in the retraction of his papers from various journals. According to Retraction Watch, 35 papers authored by Moon have been retracted.

Here is part of the retraction notice for the papers that were published in JEIMC:

"The peer-review process for all of the above articles was found to have been compromised and inappropriately influenced by the corresponding author, Professor HI Moon. As a result the findings and conclusions of these articles cannot be relied upon.

The corresponding author and the publisher wish to retract these papers to preserve the integrity of material published in the journal. The publisher acknowledges that the integrity of the peer review process should have been subject to more rigorous verification to ensure the reviews provided were genuine and impartial. The publisher apologizes for any inconvenience rendered to the readers of the journal and wishes to assure the reader that measures have been taken to ensure that the peer review process is comprehensively checked to avoid a similar error occurring."

Another journal editor-in-chief (Immunopharmacology and Immunotoxicology) has stepped down after 20 papers he handled by Moon were retracted.

To add insult to injury, Moon has suggested ways to avoid such problems in the future:

"There is nothing wrong with soliciting reviewers from authors, as long as there are some checks. Of course, authors will ask for their friends, but Editors are supposed to check they are not from the same institution or coauthors on previous papers. I know so many journals ask for *potential* reviewers, which they then add to a database of reviewers for the field the submission was made in. They then send the paper for review to other people on that database."  

He points out that it's the responsibility of the editor and the journal to check the feasibility of potential reviewers. It seems that he saw a loophole and took advantage of we shouldn't be so hard on him. 

When I was an associate editor, I never used the reviewers suggested by the corresponding author unless I was pretty certain that the suggested reviewer had no conflict with the author (and in those cases always solicited another review from someone of my choosing). I could not imagine being comfortable accepting two reviews by people suggested by any author. It may take a bit more effort, but it's relatively easy to identify appropriate reviewers from the paper's list of citations, the journal's database, and an internet search of the paper's topic.

And accepting without question the names and addresses of suggested reviewers from an author is just plain foolish.

Friday, December 21, 2012

New Year's Resolution: Be More Productive

Looking for advice on how to be more productive in the coming year? Check out this entertaining video about "The Science of Productivity", created by ASAPScience. In it, the creators discuss something called "deliberate practice", which we've discussed here previously.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Single-Space Me

Do you type one or two spaces after a period in a sentence? What were you taught?

I was taught to use two spaces, but I never realized that type setters are adamant about the use of one space between sentences. After forty years of writing, I find it extremely difficult not to double-space after a period. As I write this post, I am having difficulty not putting two spaces after typing that period.  See? I did it again.

Anyway, check out this article for a history of the two vs. one space rule and the rationale for the latter.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

More Gender Bias Uncovered: Conference Symposia Organizers

Think about the last scientific conference you attended.  Did the speaker roster reflect the composition of your science society?  At a recent meeting I attended, several of us (women) were discussing the fact that there seemed to be a preponderance of male speakers, a proportion that did not reflect the gender makeup of our society.  When we pointed this out to the (mostly male) organizers, they basically pooh-poohed our concerns and waved their arms at all the female participants milling around (mostly grad students) if that addressed the point we were trying to make.

Turns out, there is now some evidence that the gender of session organizers has a significant influence on who ends up speaking in the more prestigious symposia sessions.

A recently published paper in PLOS One, "Stag Parties Linger: Continued Gender Bias in a Female-Rich Scientific Discipline", examined participation by women and men at conferences in a field in which women are in the numerical majority.  Based on an analysis of 21 annual meetings of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, they found that in the subfield of primatology:

1. Women gave more posters than talks; men gave more talks than posters.

2. The proportion of female participants was lower in symposia organized by men (29%) compared to those organized by women only (64%) or by both men and women (58%).

They found the same pattern for 12 annual meetings of the American Society of Primatologists.

Primatology is a field that has had more female than male participants since the early 1970s and where women have achieved substantial peer and popular recognition for their achievements (Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey).  The results of this study suggest that even numerical dominance by females in a scientific field does not prevent gender bias. By looking at symposia participation, which is typically by invitation of the organizer, in relation to the gender of the organizer(s), the authors were able to say something about whether the underrepresentation by women at conferences might be due to lack of assertiveness by females or to bias.  Whereas posters and regular talks are self-motivated, the more prestigious symposia reflect a choice made by the organizer.  The results suggest that when men are the organizers, fewer women are invited to participate, but that men and women are equal participants in symposia organized by women (despite the larger numbers of women in the field).

Such bias may be unconscious on the part of the male symposia organizers.  I'm just guessing that this is the case as the authors have no data either way.  The authors of this paper, however, do state that they "cannot rule out" the possibility that male primatologists are more homophilic (homophily is preferential interaction with others who have similar attitudes, beliefs, or personal characteristics) than women.  The idea is that male symposia organizers have to spend more time interacting with their invitees, both before and after the symposium (e.g., to jointly prepare a conference proceedings) and simply prefer to work with other males.  Perhaps.  The jury is still out on that one.  But my guess is that this behavior is not restricted to male primatologists.

The finding that women gave more posters than talks and men the reverse is troubling and suggests the possibility that women are preferring the less visible presentation mode.  Although the study indicated that men were 12% more likely to request an oral talk over poster than women, which might explain the gender difference, the authors suggest that there still might be some bias occurring at the presentation selection/assignment stage (by the conference organizers).  Their data were pretty weak on this point, however.

In any case, this is yet another example of why it is important for women to be assertive in promoting themselves and their science.  We may need to encourage female students to give oral presentations. As for bias in inviting speakers, one solution is for more women to organize conference symposia and ensure that women are well represented in the speaker lineup.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Using Science Networking Sites to Increase the Online Visibility of Women in Science

In this series of posts, I'm talking about various ways women in science (as well as other minorities) can increase their online visibility.  In case you are wondering why this is important, see this post, this post, and this video.  In brief, male scientists tend to have a greater online presence than female scientists.  I'm talking about personal websites, profiles on science networking sites (e.g., ResearchGate, Google Scholar Citations, Epernicus), science blogs, Twitter and Facebook (used specifically to spread the word about scientific accomplishments), writing articles for Wikipedia (and being the subject of articles), to name a few things.

It's not clear why the gender difference exists, but the lower visibility of women can have a range of negative effects....from perpetuating the idea that women cannot be successful in discouraging girls and young women from envisioning a career in science.  In the past, women in science were overlooked or actively excluded by authors of textbooks, organizers of science conferences, and editors of journals. Because such platforms were controlled by others, women had no voice in promoting their contributions to science and little recourse when their work was overlooked.  Even today, major science journals discriminate against women, although apparently not consciously (see this surprising admission by the editors at Nature published 4 days ago).

Today, we have many options and opportunities to show how women are contributing to science.  The internet has helped to put us on equal footing with male colleagues in having a voice in describing our contributions to science.  We should take advantage of it, not shy away. Various efforts are in fact underway to encourage more women in science to improve their online visibility...from editing Wikipedia articles to establishing blogs chronicling their experiences in science.

Some may be reluctant, thinking that they need IT skills to create an online presence.  However, it's ridiculously easy to set up a scientific profile on a networking site, a blog, or a personal website where you can showcase your publications, your ongoing science projects, and your research group.  If you've got a Facebook page, you already have the know-how to set up a profile on ResearchGate, Google Scholar Citations, or similar sites.

In the last post, I described Google Scholar Citations as one place to establish an online profile.  In this post, I'll focus on ResearchGate, which is designed like a social networking site....for scientists.  Their website claims over 2.2 million members. On their homepage, the interactive piechart indicates that medicine and biology have the most members and the most publications.  To see how the site works, you are forced to create an account.  So, I'll give you a brief tour that will give you a peek inside without having to sign up.

Once you log into ResearchGate, it automatically identifies publications that you've authored and asks you to check off those that are yours.  Once it identifies you, ResearchGate then searches for other pubs as well as the full-text files and uploads them if available.  You can add a photo and other information to your profile.  Your main contributions page will look like the screenshot below (using the top-cited ecologist from the previous post as an example):

At the top of the page is your "RG Score", which is calculated "based on how other researchers interact with your content, how often, and who they are. The higher their score, the more yours will increase." Selecting the RG Score will take you to a page with additional analytics of your interactions and how you compare to other ResearchGate members. 

Below the profile are two tabs: contributions and info.  Your publications are listed under the contributions tab.  To the right is a running tally of total publications and numbers of articles, books, book chapters, conference proceedings, and other items.  Below that is a listing of followers and people you are following.  Your co-authors are also listed at the bottom of the page. 

Selecting the pub title or the document image will open up another page (below) where additional information is presented about that article, including the abstract, full-text article (if available), datasets, additional text files, and media.  You can upload a pdf of your published article...if you have permission to do so.  ResearchGate seems to add these automatically if they are available somewhere on the internet.  On my profile, I've additionally uploaded "research briefs" (described previously) for each publication; these can be viewed full-screen online or downloaded (and you can see on your analytics page how many times your pubs are viewed or downloaded). 

Topics for discussion are listed under the Info tab; here, people can ask questions and discuss topics.  There are general topics such as "climate change" and "botany", which thousands of people are following, but you can add specialized topics of interest to you.  Anyone can post a question, and others reply, providing, in some cases, links to relevant articles or simply their opinion.  You can see examples of questions in the screenshot below.

Another option is that members can start a "project" with "benches", which allows you invite others to share files and post comments...this would be convenient for a research group with members scattered around the world.

Overall, I found ResearchGate easy to navigate and to upload and organize my publications and supporting materials.  If you prefer your profile to be private and only interact with a select set of colleagues, you can do this by changing the privacy settings.  ResearchGate differs from Google Scholar Citations in that it quantifies a scientist's reputation based on a combination of factors, including publications (and their impact factor) as well as how many others are following that scientist and their interactions with others with high RG scores.  This aspect is interesting because it means that someone with fewer pubs or lower-impact pubs, e.g., early career folks, can raise their RG score by being more social and networking with colleagues, something that women often excel at.  If you're already skilled at socializing on Facebook, then you'll likely be at an advantage here.  Several of my colleagues have profiles on ResearchGate, and from what I can tell, the site has a more equal representation of women (about 48 % according to this reference) compared to Google Scholar Citations.  I also like the option of uploading full-text articles, media, and datasets to share with others as well as a way to track views of your profile or pubs.

On the downside, ResearchGate does not fully explain how they calculate the RG Score (or the contribution "total impact") least I couldn't find it.  Also, the emphasis on ranking scientific standing promotes competitiveness, which is can be off-putting, especially to women.  ResearchGate also has been criticized for sending spam to members' coauthors (inviting them to join). You are also encouraged to invite your co-authors to join.  But that's how Facebook and other social networking sites attract members; all you have to do is ignore the invitation if you receive one and don't want to join.  If any of your co-authors has a profile and articles in ResearchGate, however, then you're already in their system, and anyone searching for your name will likely find a page listing some of your publications.

One additional worry might be that such sites will end up being another online time-sink (as Facebook is for some).  I suppose that might be a possibility, but it doesn't seem likely (for me at least).  One could choose to establish a profile on a site like ResearchGate and only periodically visit to add new publications, much like updating a CV.  But for those who like to socialize or want to expand their professional network, this type of site might be a good option.

In addition to ResearchGate, there are other science networking sites such as, and  Some people have profiles on multiple sites, which increases their overall visibility.  Of course, there are other ways to increase the online visibility of women in science.  In coming posts, I'll talk a bit about those and my experiences with them.   

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

How to Increase Visibility of Female Scientists

In this series of posts, I'd like to focus on how women in science can increase their online visibility.  This strategy was a topic of discussion at the SpotOn London 2012, held November 11.  In the last post, I listed some of the resources SpotOn was gathering to assist women in improving their online science profiles, which are here, in case you missed it.

One of the simplest ways to create a professional online presence is to develop profiles on websites such as ResearchGate, Google Scholar Citations, and Epernicus.  Although someone can have a website or webpage that summarizes their professional accomplishments, these networked sites provide some options and advantages that a personal website cannot.  They are similar to social networking sites in that others can "follow" a specific scientist whose work is of interest. If you want to keep up with what the lead scientists in your field are publishing, you can "subscribe" to their profiles on Google Scholar or ResearchGate and they can subscribe to you. Subscribers are notified of new articles.  If you have a profile, you will be notified of new citations to your published papers.  ResearchGate offers the option to post full-text articles and supplementary information alongside each citation, which a follower can read online or download.

I have profiles on the first two and can describe how they work.  In this post, I'll focus on Google Scholar Citations.

Google Scholar Citations (GSC) is a fairly recent offering (2011), which is described as "a simple way for authors to compute their citation metrics and track them over time".  GSC is more than a tool for tracking one's citations, however.  Authors can create public or private profiles with options to show a photo, primary affiliation, email address, key words, and links to their professional websites.  Below that is a summary of citations, which shows the total number of citations your publications have received (all time and previous 5 years), your h-index, and your i10 index (the h-index is the largest number h such that h publications have at least h citations; the i10 index is the number of publications with at least 10 citations).  There is a summary graph showing numbers of citations per year over your publishing career.  Below that is a list of all your publications, each one showing the title and citation details, year published, and number of times cited.  The title is hyperlinked to a more detailed page showing the pattern of citations for that publication over its lifespan.  The number of citations is hyperlinked to a search page listing all sources that cite that publication.

As I've described previously, GSC does a good job of identifying publications belonging to a specific individual.  However, it's essential to carefully examine all publications ascribed to you to ensure they are correct.  Any incorrect entries are easily deleted, however, and missing publications can be added to your profile. On the downside, citation metrics are notoriously prone to error and various statistical biases.  The search option by discipline results in a listing of author profiles ranked by total number of citations, which encourages comparisons based on a single number (total citations).  See the screenshot below for the first ten profiles in the field of ecology:

Notice they are all male.  In fact, there seemed to be fewer women with online profiles in GSC than men, even in fields where women are well represented.  I conducted an in-depth analysis to see if my impression was correct. I searched for all individuals with public profiles in GSC who listed ecology as their field of expertise (search term = label:ecology).  I scanned through all 1700 entries starting with those individuals with the highest number of citations and counted all male and female entries (note that there is a third category (indeterminate) for individuals whose gender could not be conclusively ascertained from their photo or name).  The following breakdown shows the absolute number (top panel) and proportion (bottom panel) of male vs. female profiles by citation category (ranked from lowest to highest).

Out of 1,700 profiles for ecologists with public profiles in GSC, only 332 women are listed (19.5%).  In the top 100 authors (i.e., people with the most citations), there is only one female; there are no females in the group with >10,000 citations.  However, the proportion of females increases with decreasing numbers of citations.  In the group with fewer than 100 citations, including students and postdocs, the proportion of females is 41%.

It's not possible to determine why there are so few females with profiles on GSC.  Ecology is a discipline that has many female participants.  The Ecological Society of America, for example, has a 40% female membership (greater than 50% for age groups 21-30 years old). The profiles for physics, mathematics, astronomy, zoology, botany, and other sciences were similarly skewed toward the male gender (especially at the highly cited end of the spectrum).  In some cases, the 50 to 100 top-cited scientists were all male.

The impression one gets is that there are few females impacting science. This is certainly not true.  It's possible that women are less inclined to post public profiles on sites such as GSC.  Perhaps males are more inclined to compare themselves to their competitors using citation metrics, especially if they've totted up a high citation ranking.  Perhaps papers authored by women are less frequently cited (not supported by analysis of ecology papers, however).  Perhaps men tend to submit papers to higher impact journals that are more likely to be cited.  Whatever the reason, the paucity of female profiles on such sites adds to the overall impression that women are not major players in science.

In the next post, I'll look at ResearchGate, which is quite different in its emphasis compared to GSC.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Women in Science Resources

The SpotOn Blog is developing a toolkit of useful resources for female scientists wanting to raise their online profiles (note that some of these resources are useful for male scientists as well).  This effort is a really good one because it encourages women to get their names, their work, and their stories online.  As I've tried to emphasize on this blog, women must be their own advocates and make sure their voices are heard.  The Web is a great place to promote your accomplishments, advertise your skills, and generally make yourself more visible.

The resource pack has links organized into the following categories:

Important websites where every female scientist should have a profile

Other websites where it could be interesting for a female scientist to have a profile/be listed

Women in science on Twitter

Good tips about science communication

Where to create my blog

Good places to get a post hosted

Online communities

Everyone is invited to add links to useful blog posts, websites, twitter lists, and other online resources.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Beyond the Elevator Speech

In the last post, I talked about the "elevator speech" and why it's important to have one.  I described an experience that made me realize few students are trained to explain their research in terms that the average person can understand and appreciate.  Such an ability is not only good for an individual scientist (e.g., making a good impression on a potential employer or talking to the press), but it's good for science and the public's impression of scientists.  When scientists are unable to explain their work in everyday terms or relate it to the average person's experience, then the public may conclude that the research area is esoteric or not relevant to them.

During fieldwork, I've frequently come into contact with the public.  I've been approached by local fishermen, land managers, tourists, and various bystanders who ask what I'm doing and why.  I always take the time to talk to them and explain the importance of my work.  And I always answer carefully because you never know when the questioner might be someone of influence (member of Congress, local politician, land owner), which has happened to colleagues.  I'm especially circumspect if they happen to be armed (which has occurred to me a few times).  

I was confident about myself, but wondered about my research group.  So a number of years ago I decided to test them to see what they might say to a member of the public about our work.  I routinely held lab meetings and required semi-annual progress reports by group members.  Each person (student, technician, post-doc) would get up and give a short presentation about their project, and then I and other team members would ask questions or provide constructive criticism.  At one of these progress reviews, I told the group that I wanted to do something slightly different.  After the last person's presentation, I said, "OK. You've explained your work in terms that we understand.  I want you to pretend that you are out in the marsh doing your research and a local fisherman has stopped you and asked what you are doing.  How would you explain your work in everyday language?"

Well, you can probably guess what happened.  If you read the last post, you may have guessed that everyone proceeded to spout off an incomprehensible explanation, even more convoluted and abstruse than their scientific presentation.  It was as if the challenge of explaining things to a non-specialist caused a brain malfunction.  This outcome turned out to be highly entertaining, and before long, we were all in stitches.  The succeeding speakers, who had laughed uproariously at the first person's attempt, did no better.  The more they tried to explain, the worse it got.

Despite the hilarity, I was horrified at what my team might be saying to members of the public they encountered in the course of their work.  At the end of the meeting, I told the group that I wanted them to think about this and by the next progress review to have a short, simple explanation of their work to present to the group.

I could see that they all expected a repeat of the first exercise:  to stand up and say a couple of sentences.  They would be ready for problem.  So I came up with a slightly different plan.  I enlisted the help of one of the administrative staff, a woman who agreed to dress up and act like a local fisherwoman, which would create a more realistic situation.  When the next progress meeting convened, I asked the group if they had their speeches ready.  They all eagerly responded that they were ready and confident.  I told them that I had invited a local fisherwoman to help with the exercise.  A few of them looked stunned, but soon began laughing when they saw it was a staff member.

However, she played her part perfectly.

When the first person started explaining their project on sea-level rise, she immediately interrupted and said she did not understand what sea-level rise was.  Did they mean vitamin C?  She proceeded to ask questions of each speaker, forcing them to explain unfamiliar terms and asking why they were studying those particular topics.  She soon had everyone flustered and stammering.  It was another eye-opening experience.  Whereas the first exercise revealed the lack of a good elevator speech, the second one showed that just having a canned elevator speech is not sufficient in a real world situation, with real people who ask difficult questions.

Some of my research group really liked the exercise and went on to become quite good at explaining their science to lay audiences.  Others were less enthusiastic and did not seem to understand the reason or the need for the exercise.  My goal was to get them (and me) to start looking at our research from an outsider's viewpoint and how best to explain it.  Turns out, it is very difficult to forget what we know about a topic and see it through the eyes of the non-expert.  

How good are you at explaining your work?  How do you know?  A good place to start is with your friends and family (assuming they are not in science).  You can not only practice on them, you can ask for their feedback as to how you are doing.  At family gatherings or similar events, you will run into people who will ask what you've been doing lately.  You can then try out your elevator speech, tailored for the non-specialist.  If your speech is short and intriguing, it will stimulate questions.  With experience, you'll learn what works and what doesn't.  You'll eventually develop responses appropriate for different situations and audiences.

Then, when you run into that Important Scientist or Potential Future Employer at a conference and she asks you about your work, you will know exactly what to say.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Your Elevator Speech

I've mentioned what is known as an "elevator speech" previously in the context of having a short description of a presentation you might be giving at a conference. I suggested that it would be worthwhile to have a one or two sentence description of your presentation to use in conversations during mixers or in the event you meet a potential employer or representative of a funding agency.

Having a well-thought-out speech that describes your work in brief, clear, simple terms is essential in a fast-paced, short-attention-span world. Most people, particularly those outside your area of specialty, are not going to want to listen to you hem and haw about what your work is all about. Few people are able to provide an off-the-cuff description of a complex topic in a way that the non-specialist will fully understand or appreciate. The rest of us need to plan and practice.

I recall distinctly when the idea of an elevator speech occurred to me (although I did not think of it in exactly those terms and had never heard that phrase before). I was working as a research associate and was returning from a field trip with a professor and one of his graduate students. It was late, around 9:00 pm, and we were passing through a swampy area locally known as a popular dumping ground for serial killers, when our vehicle suddenly conked out. There was little traffic, and in any case, no one was going to offer assistance to three scruffy looking people dressed in old, muddy clothes. We were about six miles from the next populated area likely to have a telephone (this was way, way before cell phones). It took us a couple of hours, but we finally made it to a public telephone and called a tow truck.  Once we got our vehicle hooked up, we all piled into the tow truck cab and headed back to campus.

During the drive, the tow truck driver asked us where we were coming from and what we were doing out in that area.  The professor explained that we were from the university and were returning from a field trip to conduct some research.  The driver then asked what kind of research.  The graduate student, who was quite full of himself, launched into a description of his research project, which was the reason for our field trip.  He explained that we were studying "anaerobic metabolism in Species name" and proceeded to talk about enzyme assays, adenine nucleotides, and various soil chemistry parameters.  You can imagine the puzzled look on the tow truck driver's face.  The professor just shook his head and  said, "We are trying to understand why our coastal wetlands are disappearing."  The truck driver flashed him a look of relief and said, "Oh, right. Now I understand.  That's really great what you are doing.  I do a lot of fishing at the coast and know that the marshes are really important."

That interaction stuck with me.  In the next post, I'll describe how I tried to train my own staff and students in the art of talking to non-specialists.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

How to Create a Research Brief

In the last post, I talked about factors that may (or may not) increase the citations of your papers.  Some of the bibliometric studies report correlations that have led to dubious recommendations about how an individual researcher can increase their own citation rate.  For example, one study found a correlation between numbers of references in a paper and the subsequent citations that paper garners.  A Nature News article took that finding and suggested that researchers might improve their citation rate by including more references in their papers. Such strategies rarely work because the observed relationship may not be due to cause and effect and, in any case, reflects statistical outcomes involving thousands of papers.

So what does work?  In this post, I'll be talking about some strategies that are more likely to attract attention to your publications and that simultaneously provide other benefits.

Why Worry About Citations?

But first, some of you may be wondering why anyone would worry about how many citations they have.  Citations provide an indication, along with other metrics such as the h-index, about what impact your work has on your field of science. Citations are important because most search committees and tenure review panels use citation information (e.g., in Thompson-Reuter's ISI Web of Science or Google Scholar Citations) to assess a candidate's credentials and potential for success.  Whether you like it or not, think citation metrics are valid or not, they will likely be used at some point in your science career to assess your qualifications for a future job or promotion.  Not knowing your citation rate or h-index is like a student not knowing their GPA.  Without that information, you have no way of gauging how you stack up against the competition or how much you may need to improve.

As long as review panels emphasize such metrics, we will have to be at least cognizant of, if not proactive about, our citations.  Being proactive does not mean trying to "game" the system, as some of the bibliometric studies seem to suggest.  Instead, it's much better to seek valid ways to promote the visibility of your work, which will lead people to your publications and hopefully to cite them.  I'm going to take the results of one of these bibliometric studies and show how you can take the concept and apply it in a more useful way to promote your work.

Some evidence suggests that open-access papers garner more citations than papers requiring a subscription to access.  The implication is that when more people can easily acquire and read your paper, the more likely they are to cite something in that paper.  However, many scientists lack the funds to pay for open-access for all their publications.  Some may think that a less expensive option is to offer their papers as pdfs on their personal websites.  There are two problems with this option.  First is that it's unlikely that your website (and your papers) will show up on the first page of an internet search of your topic of research, unless you are working in a really obscure field.  Second, and more importantly, unless you have the journal publisher's permission, posting pdfs of your published papers on your website  is copyright infringement.  When you signed that copyright agreement with the publisher of the journal, you gave over that right to the publisher.

Is there anything else you can do to attract attention to your papers, perhaps increasing citations of your work?  The answer is yes.  Some people post the unformatted manuscript version on their own website or in an article repository.  Through these versions, others can access the content of the work without paying the subscription fee to the journal.  However, there is another way, which is the topic of this post.

A Better Idea

You can create an attractive, informative, and interesting brief, which describes the essence of a paper, along with some key photographs or other images.  The image above illustrates an example of a template I've used to create a one-page brief for a number of my past publications.  I used Pages, which is an Apple application, to create this template, but PC users can use Microsoft Publisher or a similar program.  These applications have a number of templates to choose from and come in a range of visually pleasing designs.  They are very easy to use and to modify for your purposes.  They can be one pagers or more, but generally shorter is better.

The briefs that I've created for my publications typically contain the abstract or a summary of the paper along with a sentence or two stating the take-home message plus several photographs or figures.  Note that it's important not to use any graphs or other figures from the published paper unless you get permission from the publisher.  However, I've found it easy to pick one of the many unpublished photos or other images from my media library to illustrate my briefs.  Most journals will allow an author to post the abstract of a paper on their website because these are usually publicly available anyway (as long as you provide the journal citation along with the abstract).  So adding the abstract to your brief is usually acceptable (however, if you are not the author, using an abstract this way is not advisable).  If you think using the abstract verbatim might be challenged by a publisher or is just too technical, then it's relatively easy to write another, less technical summary.  Within the brief, I provide the citation information and create a hyperlink to the journal page where the full paper is published.  I also include links to my websites and my email address where someone can contact me for a reprint of the technical paper.

Click on the above image to see the additional instructions for creating a brief with this template.

You may be thinking that this is a lot of effort that takes too much time.  However, I found that once I created the template, that I could complete a research brief in five to ten minutes, depending on how long it took me to find appropriate photographs.  The process involved four steps:

1. I find three photographs to illustrate the paper (you might choose to show only one photo).  I have an extensive media library of photographs I've accrued over the past 40 years, so there's no problem with choices.  I usually only need to modify the size of the image so that the brief is not too large.  Then, the images can be dragged and dropped into the photo placeholders.  This takes only a few minutes.

2. I add the paper title, authors, and journal citation in the appropriate places (along with the hyperlink).  A couple of minutes.

3.  I copy and paste the paper's abstract into the main text box and resize to fit. Another minute or two.

4.  I then think of a sentence or two to summarize the significance of the work or the take-home message and type that into the appropriate text box.  That may take a few minutes.

And that's it.

Once the brief is finished, it can be exported as a pdf or jpg, which can then be posted on a personal website.  I've created briefs for around twenty of my recent publications and posted these on my professional profile website.  On the webpage where my publications are listed, I've put a thumbnail of the research brief alongside the relevant citation.  When the viewer clicks on the thumbnail, the brief opens up in a high resolution image that can be read online.  I also provide a link that allows the brief to be downloaded as a pdf.

What Are the Advantages?

The beauty of this approach is that images or pdfs (as opposed to text) can get your brief listed higher on a search engine ranking.  For example, if there are a lot of text-based listings for the topic of your research, your paper is likely listed on page 41 of a Google search.  On the other hand, if there are no or only a few images associated with your research topic, then your brief (posted as a jpg file) will more likely show up on the Google Image page.

Even if you don't want to go to the effort of creating a research brief for every one of your journal articles, just posting a thumbnail photo alongside each text citation will get your work noticed by search engines looking for images about a topic.  You want to be sure, however, to include appropriate keywords in the file name as well as any other tags or alternate titles associated with that image so that Google can associate it with you and your research.

Another idea is to post an image of a conference poster, which offers similar information as your publication, but in a non-copyrighted format.  You can create a one-page flyer, similar to the ones people often offer as poster take-aways, and add it as a thumbnail image next to the journal citation in your publication list.  Because it is visual and clickable, people will have immediate access to the key information that is in the journal publication.  Again, you want to include somewhere on the poster image a link to the journal article, your professional website, and email address.

By the way, videos about your research are very effective in getting a high ranking by search engines, especially when your topic has mostly text-based listings.  I've created and posted several videos about my research on YouTube and professional multimedia galleries.  When a search is conducted for the topic of my research, the Web listings do not include links to any of my technical papers on the first page, but the only videos listed on the topic are mine and show up on the first page of a Google search.  So anyone (especially students) searching for information on the topic of my research will see the link to my video, likely click on it (because it is visual and potentially interesting), and ultimately be led to my technical papers, which are listed at the end of the video and in the text description accompanying the video.  On my webpage listing of publications, I have a link to these videos alongside those relevant citations.  At this point, so few scientists use videos to describe their work, that this strategy will put you in a league of your own.

The feedback I've gotten, especially from students, is that they really like these one-page summaries and videos. They bring the dry, sometimes esoteric, information in the technical paper alive. The photos and video footage appeal to the current generation of students who are accustomed to acquiring their information from audiovisual media.  They obviously appeal also to visual learners and to those students and scientists in other fields who want to know more about a topic, but not enough to read the technical paper.

So in addition to making your publications more visible to those likely to cite it, this approach will also help you reach a broader audience.  Explaining your research in a way that is interesting and understandable by non-technical audiences will help promote the value of science to the general public and to familiarize the public with the scientists behind the research.

Another advantage of developing audiovisual communication products to accompany your technical articles is that they can fulfill the "broader impacts" criterion required by some funding agencies (e.g., NSF).  In addition to having a clear plan to address the "broader impacts" criterion, successful proposals include evidence that the PI has previously developed materials that, for example, explain the significance of their work to broader audiences such as the general public or policymakers.  Having created semi- or non-technical fact sheets, podcasts, interactive graphics, and videos to explain your technical work shows review panels that you have the capability of meeting the broader impacts criterion.  I'll talk more about this aspect in future posts.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Initial Rejection Leads to More Citations Later

You've been waiting anxiously for that email from the journal with news about your latest submission.  It finally arrives in your inbox and you open the message:  "We regret to inform you....blah, blah, blah."

Is your paper doomed to oblivion?  Not by a long shot, according to a recent study that followed the submission histories of 80,748 manuscripts submitted to 923 bioscience journals.  Vincent Calcagno and colleagues obtained information from authors to allow tracking of their papers and used the data to construct a network of manuscript trajectories and eventual citations.  Although some of their findings were unsurprising (resubmission trajectories often involved going from higher- to lower-impact journals), there was one interesting and unexpected outcome:  Those papers that were initially rejected ultimately received significantly more citations on average when they were finally published than those accepted upon first submission.

The main reason for this finding, according to the authors, is due to input from editors and reviewers on the initially rejected manuscript.  The presumably more critical reviews (which would be likely, given that the paper was rejected) led to improvements that ultimately resulted in more citations when the paper was published elsewhere.  And this result occurred regardless of whether the paper was eventually published in a lower vs. higher impact journal than the original.

Although this seems like good news for you and your just-rejected paper, the reality is that you will still need to spend time and effort to revise your manuscript, resubmit it somewhere, and then deal with a new set of reviews and editorial comments.  In some cases, your manuscript might get rejected several times before it finds a home.  During that time, which can be months or even years, your work is not being read or cited.

The paper by Calcagno et al. is one of many that try to explain citation metrics.  There have been other studies of factors influencing citations such as numbers of references in the cited paper (more references = more citations), the length of the paper's title (longer title = more citations), and open-access publications (open-access = more citations).  Such factors have been touted as ways to boost one's own citations and h-index.  However, such anticipated outcomes may not pan out because some are based on spurious bivariate relationships, not necessarily cause and effect.  I've also seen some advice about self-citations:  cite one or more of your own papers in each new work to boost overall numbers of citations.  However, most bibliometrics allow exclusion of self citations in assessing someone's citation rate.  So padding one's paper with extra references or self-citations or similar tactics likely won't work.

Similarly, even though the statistics described above suggest that those papers initially rejected eventually get more citations on average than those accepted upon first submission, it's still a better individual strategy to avoid rejection in the first place by submitting the best paper you can (which means revising many times before submission) to the most appropriate journal for your topic.  And if your paper gets rejected?  Don't give up and pay close attention to the reviewers' criticisms when making your revisions.


Calcagno, V. et al.  2012.  Flows of research manuscripts among scientific journals reveal hidden submission patterns. Science online. DOI: 10.1126/science.1227833

Corbyn, Z.  2010.  An easy way to boost a paper's citations.  Nature News. doi:10.1038/news.2010.406.

Jacques, T.S. and Sebire, N.J. 2010. The impact of article titles on citation hits: an analysis of general and specialist medical journals. J R Soc Med Sh Rep. vol. 1 no. 1 2. doi:10.1258/shorts.2009.100020

MacCallum C.J., Parthasarathy H. 2006. Open access increases citation rate. PLoS Biol 4(5): e176. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0040176

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Do Science Faculty Favor Male Students?

Scientists are supposed to be unbiased.  So it was perhaps a shock to some when a paper was published a few weeks ago in PNAS called, "Science Faculty's Subtle Gender Biases Favor Male Students".  In this study, the researchers gave faculty members (both male and female) fake applications of undergraduate students who were thinking about going to graduate school and who would be applying for a lab manager position.  The application packages were exactly the same...except for the gender of the applicant (John or Jennifer).  What were the results?  According to the authors, the faculty members "rated the male applicants significantly more competent and hirable than the (identical) female applicant." The male applicants were also thought to deserve a significantly higher salary (about 14% higher) than the female student applicants.  The other surprise was that both male and female faculty exhibited similar levels of bias.

Although some critics have questioned the findings, I was impressed with how thorough the authors were and with the insights their study revealed about stereotypical thinking.  If you read the paper and the supplementary information, you see that the authors went to great lengths to ensure their methods were solid.  Although the differences between the male and female student evaluations were not huge percentage-wise, they were nonetheless significant.  The presence of a small but significant bias suggests that the lower percentages of women achieving faculty or other senior science positions could be partly due to subtle bias as well as to other factors such as work-family issues (child-bearing/rearing) and related personal choices affecting success in STEM fields (see references at the end for several reports that discuss these different influences).

I know that the work-life balance explanation would not apply to my experience because I never had children (or work vs. family choices) that interfered with my science career. Yet I always struggled to gain recognition in my field, was consistently underpaid in relation to male counterparts, and had to achieve several times more than male colleagues for the same level of acceptance, salary, and advancement opportunities.  My experience, of course, does not preclude the possibility that the main obstacle for some women is related to the work-life balance issue.  Similarly, the results of this study do not suggest that bias is the only reason for a disproportionately low number of women faculty in STEM fields.  The point is that it could have an effect, which on top of other obstacles, may tip the balance.

A single instance of bias...a negative comment, a less enthusiastic mentor, or a luke-warm letter of recommendation will not kill someone's career.  However, when someone is treated to subtle bias on a regular basis throughout their training and career, it has an effect, not only directly on the opportunities offered to that person, but on their confidence.  Perhaps the latter is the most important effect because it quickly becomes a feedback loop.  If faculty advisers treat female students with slightly less enthusiasm than male counterparts, this may cause the student to question themselves (or to view themselves as being slightly less worthy of attention), which makes them more tentative in their interactions with superiors and colleagues, which makes people question their capabilities, which leads to fewer job offers, lower salary offers, fewer nominations for awards, and fewer opportunities for advancement.

The authors discuss how this subtle bias may be rooted in stereotypical thinking about the social roles of men and women. I should note here that the authors of this paper do not propose that the bias they measured in the science faculty participants was conscious....they did not think that the faculty participants were deliberately rating the female applicants as inferior.  Their interpretation was that this bias is subconscious and that we all suffer from it to one degree or another.  You can check out your gender objectivity, subconscious and otherwise, at Project Implicit.

An article written by Meg Urry (a professor of physics) about her impressions of this gender study and bias, made an interesting observation along these lines.  She noted that those people who swear they are not biased are the most likely to make biased judgements; conversely, those who are aware of their subconscious biases are less likely to succumb to that internal bias.  Urry's observation reminds me of the Dunning-Kruger personality type, which causes someone to overestimate their abilities:  the more incompetent they are, the higher their confidence.  This seemingly paradoxical effect occurs because the mental skills required to be competent at most tasks are the same skills needed to accurately evaluate one's own abilities in relation to others.  I speculated in a series of previous posts (starting here) that such people fall back on stereotypes to gauge other people's competence because they lack the mental skills to assess them based on more objective evidence.  Perhaps also, when busy people are faced with a complex set of materials and are asked to make a recommendation, they are more susceptible to subconscious biases or may rely more on them to make a decision.

Whatever the reason for the difference in how male and female student applicants were assessed by science faculty members, the results of this study should make everyone more conscious of the possibility that we may be biased, especially when we think we are not.

Some Additional Reading:

Beade, D. et al. 2011.  Women in STEM:  A gender gap to innovation.  ESA Issue Brief 04-11. [Link]

Hill, C. et al. Why So Few?  American Association of University Women.  [Link]

Ivey, E. 2005. Gender differences among contingent faculty: a literature review. Association for Women in Science. [Link]

NAS.  2007.  Beyond bias and barriers: Fulfilling the role of women in academic science and engineering.  National Academies Press [Link]

National Science Foundation, Division of Science Resources Statistics, Gender Differences in the Careers of Academic Scientists and Engineers, NSF 04-323, Project Officer, Alan I. Rapoport (Arlington, VA, 2004). [Link]

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Using Minimalism to Promote Women in Science

Here's a nice idea to celebrate women in science:  minimalist posters.

The six examples you see to the right were done by Hydrogene to highlight several pioneering women in science:  Marie Curie (physicist & chemist who won 2 Nobel Prizes for work on radioactivity), Rachel Carson (marine biologist and author of Silent Spring, which kickstarted the environmental movement), Sally Ride (astrophysicist and first American female in space), Grace Hopper (computer scientist who pioneered programming language), Rosalind Franklin (biophysicist whose work laid the foundation for understanding the structure of DNA), and Jane Goodall (primatologist who did ground-breaking work with chimpanzees).

The concept of minimalism is used mostly in art and music to convey the essence of a subject.  All extraneous and distracting aspects are eliminated, leading to the core identifying elements.  It's a concept that I find to be appealing and highly effective in conveying an abstract idea, or in this case, pioneering women and their contributions to science. Some might argue that it is overly simplistic and fails to capture the complexity of these women and their contributions. However, there are other works (their publications, biographies, etc.) that accomplish those things.

What these minimalist posters do is capture the imagination of the viewer who then wonders who these women are and why their names are associated with these striking images.  Perhaps the viewer becomes curious and looks for more information about the less familiar ones.  For example, the image of a moth on the Grace Hopper poster refers to the story about how she coined the term "debugging" to describe fixing computer glitches after a real moth was removed from the innards of a malfunctioning computer (see this bio for a picture of the log entry with the actual moth taped to the page and the accompanying log entry, "First actual case of bug being found").

Of all the posters, that one is my favorite because it's the least obvious, and the link between name and image derives from a controversial story.  Apparently, there is some disagreement over whether Hopper actually coined the term "computer bug" or "debugging" in reference to computers.  You'll find several websites arguing about this point, and reading them one gets the feeling that the authors think that by discrediting this story they also discredit Hopper.  This one, for example, debunks the story but never mentions Hopper's real contributions to computer science.  Even if the intent in debunking the moth story was not to discredit Hopper, the failure to even briefly acknowledge her role as one of the first computer programmers is telling.  Whereas other blogs question the story but acknowledge (and celebrate) Hopper's work.  I did not have time to track down all the historical details, but my impression is that no one knows the real story about who coined the computer bug terminology.  Maybe Hopper didn't coin the term, but she appears to have helped spread its use by retelling the moth story.  And she certainly made other, more substantial contributions.  That's what's really important.

I'll have more to say about this general idea of minimalism in coming posts and how we might use it to promote our own science accomplishments.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Grandiloquent Erudite Vernacular

I've mentioned in previous posts how the best authors use simple language to convey their opposed to verbose, pretentious wording designed to sound impressive.  I've had many a distressing discussion with certain students and postdocs who insisted that their abstruse writing, sprinkled with many multiple-syllable words, was superior to a more straightforward approach using simpler language.  I always argued that they were not fooling anyone and were likely annoying and confusing the reader (and journal editors and reviewers) with their convoluted constructions.  I knew that I was annoyed.

I came across an article containing evidence that stating familiar ideas in pretentious language is viewed as a sign of low intelligence and is less credible than a simpler message.  The article, authored by Danny Openheimer, is entitled: "Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly".  The paper (seen here) starts out by quoting from Strunk and White to "omit needless words" and Daryl Bem's guidelines for a psychology journal submission that "the first step towards clarity is writing simply".  The paper by Openheimer describes a series of experiments in which the complexity of the text is manipulated, and the readers' impression of the author's intelligence is assessed.  There was a negative relationship between text complexity and judged intelligence, even when various factors were controlled.  The conclusion was that the more simply and clearly you write, the more intelligent you are judged to be.

Two-thirds of 110 undergraduates answered yes to the question, ‘When you write an essay, do you turn to the thesaurus to choose words that are more complex to give the impression that the content is more valid or intelligent?’ This behavior is apparently a reflection of the widespread myth (at least among students) that using more complicated words in their writing will make their essays sound more credible.  And I can attest that this idea is very difficult to eradicate once entrenched in the student's mind.  This paper, however, might help to counter this myth so that students are more receptive to their adviser's suggestion that clarity, brevity, and simplicity are what a writer should be striving for.

Having worked in the Federal government, I've probably seen more than the usual amount of convoluted writing.  There are a bunch of amusing examples of before and after government writing at  Here's one example, which won the No Gobbledygook Award:


"Section 301-2.5(b) Indirect-route or interrupted travel.

When a person for his/her own convenience travels by an indirect route or interrupts travel by a direct route, the extra expenses shall be borne by him/her. Reimbursement for expenses shall be based only on such charges as would have been incurred by a usually traveled route. An employee may not use contract airline/rail passenger service provided under contract with the General Services Administration (see part 301-15, subpart B, or this chapter) for that portion of travel by an indirect route which is for personal convenience. Additionally, an employee may not use a U.S. Government Transportation Request (GTR) (see section 301-10.2 of this chapter) or a contractor-issued charge card (see part 301-15, subpart C, of this chapter) for procurement of commercial carrier transportation services for that portion of travel by an indirect route which is for personal convenience. An employee may, however, use contract airline/rail passenger service, as well as a GTR or contractor-issued charge card, for portions of travel that are authorized to be performed at Government expense. (See section 301-11.5(a) of this chapter regarding reimbursement claims for travel that involves an indirect route.)"


"Section 301.10.8 What is my liability if, for personal convenience, I travel or use an indirect route?

If you travel on government business by anything other than the most direct, least cost route available, you must pay for the added costs so the taxpayers don't."

Now if we can only convince science students that simple is better.....  Maybe we need a similar contest to the No Gobbledygook Award for improved science writing?

Saturday, September 29, 2012

How Do You Illustrate A Ph.D.?

Or more accurately, how do you illustrate the process leading to a Ph.D. and what that degree means in the scheme of things.

Below is a reproduction of "The Illustrated Guide to a Ph.D." by Matt Might.  He has a website chockfull of lots of information for the graduate student, from how to get into graduate school in the first place to how to get a great reference letter.  There is even advice for those of you who have managed to graduate and get a job.

Here's the guide, which is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 License (meaning that you can use and modify for non-commercial purposes, but need to attribute the author).

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Is Your Writing Readable?

Some novice writers think that the more abstruse their writing is (and filled with technical jargon), the more knowledgeable they will appear.
If you’ve read my other posts on the topic, you know that I think the opposite is true.  The mark of a skilled author is the ability to write simple, concise narratives that provide clear, unambiguous interpretations of their work.  This characteristic is true of both the technical writer (e.g., of scientific papers) and the writer of non-technical articles.  However, if your target audience is the non-specialist, you need to strive for even clearer, jargon-free writing.
In previous posts, I’ve talked at length about various writing topics (you can do a search on “writing” to find them on this blog).  In this post, I’d like to mention a useful tool that can be used to assess and improve the readability of your writing, whether for technical or popular outlets.
The tool I’m talking about is the “readability statistics” found in some word-processing programs, including Word.  This function is found within the Grammar and Spell-Checking option.  The readability statistics function is not turned on by default, but you can activate it by selecting Options under the Tools menu (or Preferences for the Mac).  You then select the Grammar and Spelling tab and check the box “show readability statistics”.  Then all you do is select Spelling and Grammar under the Tools menu in Word, and you will automatically get readability statistics for any text you select.  
The two readability indices are the Flesch Reading Ease Score and the Flesch-Kincaid Score.  The Flesch Reading Ease Score rates text on a 100 point scale; the higher the score, the easier it is to understand the document; and for most non-technical documents, you want to aim for a score around 60 or 70.  The Flesch-Kincaid Score rates text on a US school grade level.  For example, a score of 8 means that an eighth grader can understand the document.  Note that earlier Microsoft Word versions artificially capped this at grade 12; the original formula extended the scoring to grade 17.  Later PC versions go above 12, but the Mac version has not been fixed to my knowledge. 
 Let’s give it a try with an example from the government website, Plain Language (for some hilarious reading, check this site out).  This is the “before” version of a government regulation: 
 “Under 25 CFR §1.4(b), the Secretary of the Interior may in specific cases or in specific geographic areas, adopt or make applicable to off-reservation Indian lands all or any part of such laws, ordinances, codes, resolutions, rules or other regulations of the State and political subdivisions in which the land is located as the Secretary shall determine to be in the best interest of the Indian owner or owners in achieving the highest and best use of such property.” 
 If we examine the readability statistics (left), we are not surprised to find that it gets a zero score for Flesch Reading Ease and a 12 for the Flesch-Kincaid score.    
 Here is how it was improved:
Section 1.4(b) of 25 CFR allows us to make State or local laws or regulations apply to your off-reservation lands. We will do this only if we find that it will help you to achieve the highest and best use of your lands.” 
 I think this version is more readable than the original, and the readability statistics confirm this.  The Flesch Reading Ease Score has been increased to 67.2 and a 9th grader should be able to understand it.
Let’s try a science example.  Here is a sentence from Margaret Mead’s “Coming of Age in Samoa” (which I’ve analyzed in a previous post): 
 "For it must be realised by any student of civilisation that we pay heavily for our heterogeneous, rapidly changing civilisation; we pay in high proportions of crime and delinquency, we pay in the conflicts of youth, we pay in an ever-increasing number of neuroses, we pay in the lack of a coherent tradition without which the development of art is sadly handicapped." 
Its Flesch Reading Ease Score is 29.3, and someone would need a 12th grade education (or higher) to understand it.  Part of the reason it gets a low score is that the sentence is long and convoluted.  If we change it a bit, we can raise the score:
 “Any student should realize that our complex and changing civilization costs us in terms of greater crime and more neuroses.  This situation leads to a lack of coherent traditions, which hampers the development of art”.
This revision raises the Flesch Reading Ease Score to 51.2 and a 10th grader should understand it.
Now, let me hasten to add that I’m just using this as an example of how these readability indices work.  I’m not suggesting that Mead’s sentence was poorly written and needed revision.  In fact, in my previous post, I used this example to illustrate the additive style of sentence construction….one that usually adds to the emotion or “atmosphere” of a piece.  
The point here is that you can use such readability indices to see how much mental effort a reader needs to exert to understand a statement you’ve written.  There are certainly limitations to the use of such indices, and there are critics (see this paper for a more detailed description of these indices and the main criticisms).  You definitely don’t want to write solely to meet these or other readability statistics, which have their limitations; you should always write to your audience and use common-sense in constructing your narratives.  However, I’ve found such statistics to be useful especially in taking a description and seeing if it would be understandable by a non-specialist.  
And there are other statistics given along with the two scores discussed above. 
Another useful bit of information that comes with the readability statistics is the number of passive sentences (see screenshots above).  Technical writing tends to use this type of construction, but should strive to use an active construction whenever feasible.  Word’s readability statistics includes an estimate of the proportion of passive sentences in a passage.
Many people are confused, however, about what is meant by active versus passive construction (see this post for more discussion).  People often think that an active construction involves the use of first-person pronouns: “We reviewed the data in multiple studies.” As opposed to : “The data in multiple studies were reviewed.”  Yes, these are examples of active versus passive constructions, respectively, but not because of the personal pronoun.  The distinction is whether or not the action of the subject is expressed in the verb.   
To illustrate, here’s another example of a passive construction: “Increased salinity was found to cause a shift in species composition.” Here, the subject of the sentence receives the action expressed in the verb.  
 Here is the active construction of that sentence: “Increased salinity caused a shift in species composition. “ In this version, the subject of the sentence performs the action expressed in the verb.  No first-person pronouns are involved.
Unfortunately, the calculation of passive sentences in Word sometimes underestimates the percentage (for a longer discussion, see the reference above).  However, it’s still useful, especially if it encourages the writer to be aware of passive versus active sentence construction.  Overall, the active construction tends to be shorter and easier to understand.  It also leads to more dynamic writing that is more enjoyable to read.  Technical writing typically must fit into a word limit set by a journal.  By reducing the proportion of passive sentences, you can often reduce the word count of your document and at the same time increase its readability.  The total words in a passage, as well as number of words per sentence, are also given in the readability statistics.  These statistics can be very helpful when you need to reduce the length of your narrative.
If you’ve never tried the readability statistics offered in Word or other programs, give it a try, especially if you frequently get the criticism that your writing is difficult to understand.