Matthew Cobb, Professor of Zoology at the University of Manchester, explores the hidden world of prestige, profits and piracy that lurks behind scientific journals.
Each year, hundreds of thousands of articles on the findings on research are published, forming the official record of science. This has been going on since the 17th century, but recently a kind of war has broken out over the cost of journals to the universities and research institutions where scientists work, and to anyone else who wants to access the research, such as policy makers, patient support groups and the general public.
Traditionally journals charge their readers a subscription, but since the start of the 21st century there's been a move to what's called open access, where the authors pay to get their articles published but anyone can read them, without charge. In Europe Plan S has called for all research funded by the public purse to be open access, by 2021. If and when this is implemented it could have downsides on learned societies who depend on income from journal subscriptions to support young researchers and on scientists in the less developed world.
Some universities, and even countries, have recently refused to pay the subscriptions charged by some of the big science publishers. This has led to some scientists using a service run by a Russian hacker, which has effectively stolen the whole of the scientific literature and gives it away, free, on the internet.
Matthew Cobb looks back at how the scientific publishing industry got to its current state and asks how it could change. He argues that scientists themselves need to break their addiction to wanting their articles to appear in a few well known journals, and instead concentrate on the quality of their research.
Dr Erica McAlister, of London's Natural History Museum, talks to Jim Al-Khalili about the beautiful world of flies and the 2.5 million specimens for which she is jointly responsible.
According to Erica, a world without flies would be full of faeces and dead bodies. Unlike, for example, butterflies and moths, whose caterpillars spend their time devouring our crops and plants, fly larvae tend to help rid the world of waste materials and then, as adults, perform essential work as pollinators. Yet they are rather unloved by humans who tend to regard them as pests at best and disease vectors at worst.
2019 is international Year of the Fly, and dipterists and entomologists around the world are working to raise the profile of the many thousands of species so far known to science.
Erica tells Jim about her work in the museum, cataloguing and identifying new species either sent in from other researchers or discovered by her and her colleagues on swashbuckling trips around the world. Modern gene sequencing techniques are revealing new chapters in the life histories of species, and her collection of 300 year old dead flies continues to expand our knowledge of how the world works.
Perhaps in the future, she argues, we will all be eating pasta and bread made from fly-larvae protein, or using small tea-bag like packets of maggots in our wounds to clean out gangrenous infection.
When Sir Richard Peto began work with the late Richard Doll fifty years ago, the UK had the worst death rates from smoking in the world. Smoking was the cause of more than half of all premature deaths of British men. The fact that this country now boasts the biggest decrease in tobacco-linked mortality is in no doubt partly due to Doll and Peto's thirty year collaboration.
Professor of Medical Statistics and Epidemiology at the University of Oxford and until last year co-director of the Clinical Trial Service Unit with Professor Sir Rory Collins, Richard Peto pioneered "big data", setting up enormous randomised clinical trials and then, in a novel approach, combining results in what became known as meta-analyses, amassing unequivocal evidence about how early death could be avoided. He showed how asprin could prevent heart attacks and how the oestrogen-blocking drug tamoxifen really did affect survival rates for breast cancer patients.
Results on paper saves lives in the real world, he says, and he's famous for catchphrases like: "death in old age is inevitable, but death before old age is not" and "you can avoid more deaths by a moderate reduction of a big cause, than by a big reduction in a small cause" as well as "take the big numbers seriously".
One of the world's leading epidemiologists, Richard Peto's landmark study with Alan Lopez at the World Health Organisation predicted that a billion people would die from diseases associated with tobacco this century, compared to a hundred million killed by tobacco in the 20th century. The chilling message galvanised governments around the world to adopt anti-smoking policies. And Professor Peto's studies about smoking cessation ("smoking kills, stopping works") provided the public health evidence needed to encourage smokers that, however long they had smoked for, it was always worth quitting.
Lovelock at 100: Gaia on Gaia
James Lovelock is one of the most influential thinkers on the environment of the last half century. His grand theory of planet earth, Gaia, the idea that from the bottom of the earth's crust to the upper reaches of the atmosphere, planet earth is one giant inter-connected and self-regulating system, has had an impact way beyond the world of science.
As James Lovelock, celebrates his hundredth birthday (he was born on 26th July 1919) he talks to science writer Gaia Vince about the freedom and frustrations of fifty years spent working outside the scientific establishment. While working at the National Institute for Medical Research he invented the Electron Capture Detector - an exquisitely sensitive device for detecting the presence of the tiniest quantities of gases in the atmosphere and led to a global ban on CFCs. It also took him to NASA and via designing a detector to look for life on Mars gave him the idea of Gaia.
Public interest in Gaia proliferated after the publication of his first book Gaia: a new look at life on earth in 1979; but the scientific community remained highly sceptical. For decades Gaia was ignored, dismissed and even ridiculed as a scientific theory. To this day, evolutionary biologists, in particular, take issue with the notion of a self-regulating planet though some are coming round to the idea.
Gaia Vince talks to earth system scientists Professor Andrew Watson and Professor Tim Lenton of Exeter University who have both championed the Gaia theory, and to Professor Ford Doolittle of Dalhousie University, an evolutionary biologist who has changed his mind about the theory.
Producer: Deborah Cohen
Picture: British scientist James Lovelock poses on March 17, 2009 in Paris. Credit: Jacques Demarthon / AFP / Getty Images.
What next for the Moon?
The Moon rush is back on. And this time it’s a global race. The USA has promised boots on the lunar surface by 2024. But China already has a rover exploring the farside. India is on the point of sending one too. Europe and Russia are cooperating to deliver more robots. And that’s not to mention the private companies also getting into the competition. Roland Pease looks at the prospects and challenges for all the participants.
(Image caption: Chinese lunar probe and rover lands on the far side of moon. Credit: CNSA via EPA)