A New Academic Year Begins… Bring on the Ig Nobels!

Summer is, sadly, over. Freshers week is, thankfully, also over. And yet another academic year kicked off with that most amusing of academic traditions: the Ig Nobel Prizes.

This year the Ig Nobels, which recognise research that “first makes people laugh then makes them think”, celebrated its 25th first annual award ceremony.

In case you’ve never heard of the Ig Nobels, they are described by singer Amanda Palmer, herself a little off-the-wall, as “a collection of, like, actual Nobel Prize winners giving away prizes to real scientists for doing f’d-up things…”

Ig Nobels Harvard

For a quarter-century, the Igs have been dishing out prizes for unusual research, ranging from the infamous case study of homosexual necrophilia in ducks, to the 2001 patent issued for a “circular transportation facilitation device” (i.e. a wheel).

The award ceremony takes place in Harvard’s largest theatre and resembles something akin to the Oscars crossed with the Rocky Horror Show. The lucky winners, drawn from a field of 9,000 hopefuls, are indeed presented their prize by a one of a “group of genuine, genuinely bemused Nobel Laureates”.

Michael Smith

In 2010, one scientist became the first to win both an Ig and a real Nobel: Sir Andre Geim was awarded the former for his work on graphene, and the latter for levitating a frog with super strong magnets (Geim also co-authored a paper with his pet hamster, Tisha).

By the far the most bizarre this year is a study in which chickens were fitted with prosthetic tails to see if their modified gait could provide clues as to how dinosaurs walked (yes, there is a video).

Sans titre

Other gems this year include:

  • A chemical recipe to partially un-boil an egg.
  • A paper answering the question: “Is ‘Huh’ A Universal World?”
  • A series of studies looking at the biomedical benefits, and consequences, of intense kissing.

If you are looking for a bit of distraction after the whirlwind of the first weeks of term, you can watch the whole ceremony online, or explore all the prizes to date with this neat data viz tool.

As is now the norm, the whole thing was also live-tweeted (#IgNobel). In fact, the Igs employ an “official observer” to linger on stage, head buried in smartphone, for this purpose.

Elsewhere on Twitter this week, I discovered:

  • That animated gifs make for great academic metaphors:

    • That the resident penguin at the University of Portsmouth library has its own account:

  • That National Punctuation Day is a thing:

10 Quite Useful Tools for Academics

Gone are the days of type-written papers and literature reviews built on index cards. In the age of information overload and email overwhelm, we need all the help we can get to stay sane and productive. I rely heavily on the 10 tools described here, and I hope that they might lighten your load a little too. 

Many of these tools require an initial time investment and/or steep learning curve before you realise their full potential, so I don’t recommend trying to integrate them into your workflow all at once. Start with one or two that you think might be most helpful: if you are about to begin a PhD, get friendly with a citation manager; if you have 8 post-its permanently affixed to your monitor, get your shit sorted with Trello. 

1. Citation manager
If I could give only one piece of advice for those starting out in academia, it would be this: use a citation manager! I use Mendeley, and get along reasonably well with it, but I recommend fiddling around with a few before settling (try Zotero, Papers, Endonte). Ultimately, the particular platform matters much less than the absolute necessity of integrating some sort of citation management software into your workflow. It may seem like a chore at first,1 but you’ll be glad you put the effort in.

scrivener-logo2. Scrivener
Whereas Word and its ilk are digital extensions of the typewriters of old, Scrivener is a word processor built from the ground up to redefine the way we write on computers. Scrivener is at once simple and versatile, and flexible enough to complement the way you think and work when writing, whatever your style. I put snippets of writing onto virtual note cards and organise them by theme. The cards are easily edited and reorganised by dragging and dropping, while the powerful export function turns it all into a formatted and ready-to-go doc file.

evernote3. Evernote
The Chinese word for computer literally translates as “electric brain”, and this is exactly how I would describe Evernote. I use Evernote as my second brain, a giant electronic notebook brimming with everything from research-related news stories to recipes. You can clip direct from the web, add photos from your phone, or email notes directly to your account. It is available online and syncs across all devices, so you can access your stuff wherever you are.

trello logo4. Trello
Trello is a sort of virtual pin board. Pre-Trello, I would have at least 3 to-do lists on the go at any given time and would waste an inordinate amount of time faffing around with them. Now, together with my calendar, I use Trello to organise my entire life. I have changed the way I use the app a few times based on my needs at the time, so I recommend experimenting until you find what works best for you. Currently I have four main columns: One Big Thing (i.e. my primary task for the today); “Three Smaller Things”, in case I get my one big thing done; “Later” (for everything else); and “Done”.2 I also colour code, because why not.

Gloriously simple, and incredibly effective.

My Trello setup Colour coding: red=work, blue=PhD, green=blog, orange=admin

On older Trello setup, before I started prioritising one big thing per day.
Colour coding: red=work, blue=PhD, green=blog, orange=admin

unrollme5. Unroll.me
If you want to reach the holy grail of inbox zero, Unroll.me is going to help you get there. It “rolls up” all of your regular email subscriptions and newsletters 3 into one neat bundle and sends it to you daily/weekly at a time of your choosing (I receive mine every day at 4pm, the time that I am usually started to either fall asleep or look at cats on the internet anyway). This reserves your inbox for priority emails and stops you getting distracted by junk during the day. Unroll.me detects new mailing lists and allows you to leave the messages in your inbox, add them to your rollup, or unsubscribe 4 This nifty little app has spared me the distracting allure of 12,000 emails in the two years since I started using it.

twitter6. Twitter
Academics are notoriously sceptical of the merits of Twitter. Despite initially sharing in this somewhat understandable reluctance, I am now a full convert. I use Twitter to keep up to date with news and developments in my field, request articles that I can’t access, and chat with other researchers. As long as you are vigilant not to let tweeting take up too much of your time, Twitter can be incredibly useful.

freedom7. Freedom/Anti-Social
While studies show that looking at pictures of kittens increases your productivity, wasting your day on the internet probably doesn’t. Freedom will lock you out of the internet for a designated period of time.5 The only way to get your connection back is to reset your computer, which is enough of a pain in the arse that you probably won’t do it. If you really do need the internet (e.g. for research) you can use Anti-Social instead, which only locks you out of particularly distracting sites. 

coach me8. Coach.me
Coach.Me is a motivation app for building good habits. You set up a checklist of things you want to do on a regular basis, and tick them off daily. I used it to get over my lifelong habit of biting my nails, to start brushing my teeth after lunch at work, and, during writing periods, to commit myself to X pomodoros a day. Not especially sexy, but eminently practical.

9. A clipboard manager
Modern academic writing involves as much copying and pasting as it does scribbling or typing, yet most of us still make do with the one-shot copy and paste feature built into our computers. I do not say this lightly, but a clipboard manager will change your life. The main advantage is the ability to copy more than one item for pasting later (if you’ve ever copied something only to forget to paste it and remember an hour later, you will understand the importance of this simple extension), but most of them have other handy features too. I swear by Copy’em Paste – while the $15 price tag might seem steep, it is pretty reasonable for an app that I use unthinkingly hundreds of times per day. 

10. An external hard drive/Dropbox/Drive/Crashplan
Computers die, so you should back up regularlymore or less constantlyas if your life depends on it. Invest in a decent external hard drive and make use of the backup software on your computer. Hard drives also die, so sign up for an online file storage service and put an extra copy your most important files in there too. I use Apple’s Time Machine to back up everything to an external drive (a recurring task in Trello nudges me to do this weekly), and I copy all my essential documents to dropbox as well. Better safe than sorry.

Already using these tools? What has your experience been? Did I miss something? Comment below or tweet @AcademiaObscura.

 

  1. Does footnoting ever not seem like a chore?
  2. When a task is done I drag it here – I could just delete it, but I find dropping something into the done list seriously gratifying
  3. To distinguish this from unsolicited emails, i.e. spam, the tech community coined the term “Bacn” to describe “email you want but not right now”
  4. Be careful though: it doesn’t actually unsubscribe you, it just funnels the messages away from your inbox, never to be seen again. This could be problematic if you stop using Unroll.me later and find a sudden influx of all this junk you thought you were rid of. Caveat emptor my friends.
  5. Yes, it is a damning indictment of our culture that ‘Freedom’ means turning off the internet so you can get more work done. Don’t hate the player…

11 Essential Hashtags for Academics

Academic twitterJust over a year ago I began tweeting as @AcademiaObscura, and in that time I have converted from a twitter sceptic to a fervent advocate. Twitter, and other social media tools, can be invaluable for connecting with others in your field, disseminating your work, and keeping up-to-date with the latest research and news. Indeed, once you are past the hump, Twitter becomes useful for all sorts of things. If you are new to Twitter I highly recommend the Thesis Whisperer’s explanation here (scroll down a little to the using twitter section) and LSE’s guide.

Hashtags are a great way to follow specific discussions, and a number have become staples of the academic twittersphere (side note: I use Tweetdeck to follow numerous hashtags simultaneously – intro here). This list is an attempt to introduce the essentials. Special thanks to Raul Pacheco-Vega, whose extremely useful post provided the basis and inspiration for this.

1. #PhDchat
The hashtag for all things PhD, PhDchat is a staple of academic Twitter, having been initially started all the way back in December 2009 by Nasima Riazat (@NSRiazat). A great place to discuss your research progress, get tips and tricks, share experiences etc. Structured sessions are also hosted:

  • UK/Europe: Wednesday nights, 7.30pm-8.30pm GMT (hosted by Nasima herself)
  • Australia: usually the first Wednesday each month, 7pm-8pm Sydney time (hosted by Inger Mewburn – @thesiswhisperer)

More: There is a satisfyingly geeky analysis of the #PhDchat community here.

2. #ECRchat/#AdjunctChat
As above, but specifically for ‘Early Career Researchers’ (ECR) and adjuncts.

3. #AltAc/#PostAc/#WithAPhD
A trio of useful hashtags for those trying to find alternative academic paths, get out of academia altogether, or figure out what to do with a PhD. Jennifer Polk (@FromPhDToLife) is your go-to person on all of these!

600_3663352324. #shutupandwrite
‘Shut Up and Write’, aside from being a great mantra in general, is the name for informal writing groups convened the world over. I guarantee that attending such a group will be the best decision you ever make in terms of writing productivity. But if there isn’t a group near you (and you don’t have the inclination to start one) you can join one virtually through twitter! They take place on the 1st & 3rd Tuesday each month (#suwtues):

5. #AcWri
AcWri, short for ‘academic writing’ is a great place to find helpful tips, motivational tidbits, and articles about the writing process itself.

6. #ICanHazPdf
Have you ever gone to download that crucial paper you need only to find that it is behind a paywall? If your institutional subscriptions don’t cover what you are looking for, simply tweet the details of the paper along with the hashtag and an email address. Usually someone will come through with the paper pretty quickly. Don’t forget to delete your tweet after!

More: Check out some interesting analysis of #ICanHazPdf here and here, and critical discussions here and here.

7. #ScholarSunday
There is a tradition on Twitter of doing #FollowFriday (or #ff) for short – sending a tweet with a few names of people you recommend to others. Raul Pacheco-Vega created Scholar Sunday to go a step further, calling on academics to share not only who they recommend, but also why.

More: discussion from the hashtags creator.

8. #AcaDowntime
Amongst all the writing, teaching, and general stress of academic life, it is more important than ever to set aside for rest and relaxation. #AcaDowntime calls for academics to share what fun things they are up to on their weekends and in their free time. Hopefully we can foster a culture of work-life balance and encourage us all to take time for ourselves.

More: I asked academics what they do in their ‘free’ time. Here’s what they said. Also read “The Workaholic and Academia: in defense of #AcaDowntime

9. Whatever is used in your field
There are many subject-specific hashtags: #twitterstorians, #realtimechem, #TrilobyteTuesday#archaeology#gistribe#runology (for the study of runes, not running)… Poke around a bit and you are bound to find something to take your fancy!

(Just for fun)

10. #AcademicsWithCats Are you an academic? Do you have a cat? Then this hashtag is for you. All the cute cats and kittens you could ever need, often in academic settings.  

More: A day in the life of an academic, with cats; The first annual Academics with Cats Awards.

11. #AcademicsWithBeer If you don’t have a cat but you do love beer, this one’s for you! We have Elena Milani (@biomug) to thank for this recent edition.

More: Read the call to arms (The King’s Arms, that is).

Did I miss anything? What are your favorites? Please post a comment or tweet me @AcademiaObscura. Happy tweeting!

Academics with BEER!

I love beer. So does Elena Milani (@biomug). When the Italian Neuroscientist and SciComm expert realised that no hashtag yet existed for academic beer-lovers, she set about creating one. This is her call to arms! 

tapsThe Internet and social media are plenty of cute fluffy cats, because kittens sell, especially among academics. Everybody knows that!

But what about beer? I love craft beer (and kittens, of course), and in Twitter I’ve found many hashtags on beers such as #beer #craftbeer #beerbods #beertography #breweries #beerselfie and so on.

However, there isn’t a hashtag for academics who love beer, as me, and I was curious if beer could help me to engage others scholars in Twitter. So, I started “an experiment” launching #academicswithbeer with the help of Cristina Rigutto.

A lot of people replied, retweeted and favorited this tweet! And you are invited to join the conversation too!

You can tweet:

  • Quotes
  • Selfies
  • Sketches
  • Sketchnotes or mind maps
  • Other pics or texts

But you must include beer in your pic/text/tweet!

Now, join the #academicswithbeer stream 😉

This post originally appeared at Elena’s blog, SciCommLab.

Why does it always rain on me? Academics forecast their day

People have, on occasion, asked how a particular hashtag came about. I have often wondered the same of others’ hashtag creations (#PhDAsExistentialCrucible anyone?) but usually struggle to remember what the thinking was behind my own. The latest, #AcademicForecast, is easily explained.

I started out today by trying to tackle some ‘minor revisions’ on a paper. About an hour into this process, I started to ponder, as I’m sure many of you have, why supposedly minor revisions take so long? Admittedly some of the reviewer’s comments were indeed minor and swiftly dealt with (I had failed to capitalize the word ‘Tuna’, perish the thought). Others, seemingly innocuous, are probably going to take a few hours to tick off the list.

I didn’t much fancy doing the big changes at that moment so I headed to Twitter to procrastinate. I’ve been seeing an unusually high level of pedantry on Twitter lately, and today was no different. Slightly deflated by the fact that my options for the day seemed to be pedantry from Reviewer B (I assume it was Reviewer B, it usually is) or pedantry on twitter, I wrote the following:

I quite liked the idea of an academic day being summed up by a slightly sarcastic weather forecast, and figured that others may wish to join me:

 

As usual, the academic twittersphere did not disappoint! A hundred or so tweets came in; here are a few of my favorites:

 

Even grammar got involved:

And, as usual, a good time was had by all 🙂

An Academic Guide to Love & Romance – Happy Valentine’s Day!

This post originally appeared on the Guardian Higher Education Network.

Whether you find yourself alone this Valentine’s Day, or you just need some top tips on pleasing your partner, our guide to love is sure to help. So put down your pen, back away from the UCLA Loneliness Scale, and read on.

If you do happen to find yourself alone, there are some reasons to be thankful. A study of 5,000 American adults found that you are still better off alone than in a dysfunctional relationship. Those in strained and unsupportive relationships were significantly more likely to develop depression compared with singletons.

Be careful though, unhealthy relationships are easy to fall into once you have been alone for a while, and research confirms that people settle for less due to a fear of being lonely. Best not to start dating during your PhD then, as this is likely the loneliest you will ever feel.

When the search for love commences, a tool created by Ben Schmidt could help. Intended to analyse gendered use of words in reviews on Rate My Professor, Schmidt’s nifty app can also narrow down your field of search for a potential mate. For example, a search for “cute” will show that the language department is the place to go, regardless of your sexual preference, while if it is intelligence you seek, philosophy and political science is where you shall find it. If you aren’t a fan of elbow patches and tweed, best steer clear of the music school.

Once you are partnered up, get into the sack as often as possible. More sex means fewer colds, not to mention that it is just plain good exercise​. There is a vast sexology literature that can be drawn on to improve your love life.

For those interested in the female orgasm, I give you the only piece of advice you will ever need, probably: ensure that the woman is wearing socks. In one study, only half of the women were able to reach orgasm, but this jumped to 80% upon the provision of socks. Warm and cosy feet calm the amygdala and prefrontal cortex, the brain regions responsible for anxiety and fear.

Even if you do find a mate and manage to live happily ever after in a blissful bubble of heteronormativity, love might still get you in the end. Being in a relationship is the most common cause of weight gain (according to research reported by the Daily Mail. I’ll say no more), and the medical literature is replete with cases of Broken Heart Syndrome. A 70 year-old woman with no prior heart problems collapsed in hospital after being informed that her husband of 45 years had died. While this is the stuff of urban legend, the jury is still out on the causal link.

The academic Twittersphere has been particularly amusing, if a little cynical, as Valentine’s Day approaches. The hashtag how to ruin a date with an academic in five words has academics pitching in with pithy comments on how not to wine and dine them:

Others have used the occasion to have a dig at the broken model of academic publishing:

#ScienceValentines is a little more warm and fuzzy, if asteroids and cold fusion are your cup of tea:

However, the romantic side of scientists apparently only extends so far, as Guardian blogger Dean Burnett demonstrates:

Best of luck in all your romantic and academic endeavours. Tweet me @AcademiaObscura and let us know how you fare. If this guide hasn’t helped you, then lock the doors, crack open a bottle of wine, and spend the evening writing that latest paper by candlelight. So romantic.

Proof that academia is teeming with humour, wit… and general oddness

This post originally appeared on my Guardian Higher Education blog.

Though we academics are often maligned for our perceived stuffiness, academia is in fact teeming with humour, wit, and general oddness. This blog, which I have every intention of publishing every two weeks (lest it perish), is my attempt to collate some of this oddity for your Friday procrastination and amusement.

This first post hails the progenitor of much academic obscurity, the Ig Nobel prizes. The Igs, which recognise research that “first makes people laugh then makes them think”, recently celebrated its 24th first annual award ceremony.

The ceremony has been described as “a collection of, like, actual Nobel Prize winners giving away prizes to real scientists for doing f’d-up things… it’s awesome”. Indeed, one scientist, the flamboyant Andre Geim, has won both an Ig and a real Nobel; the former for levitating a frog using really strong magnets and the latter for the development of graphene. (Geim also co-authored a paper with his pet hamster, Tisha.)

My favourites from this year include:

  • dogs defecating research

    An image taken from the published study. Photograph: Hart et al.

    A study finding that dogs align their body axis with Earth’s north-south geomagnetic field lines while they are “doing their business”. This necessitated the rigorous scientific observation of no fewer than 1,893 defecations.

  • A study measuring the frictional forces at play when a person steps on a banana skin.
  • A study entitled, ‘Seeing Jesus in Toast’. It’s about seeing Jesus in toast.
  • A medical report documenting the stemming of severe nosebleeds by stuffing strips of cured pork up the nostrils (you literally couldn’t make this stuff up).
  • A study in which researchers play dress up to see how reindeer react to humans disguised as polar bears. The authors shirked the usual convention of publishing in the most appropriate journal available by choosing not to publish in the ultra-specific Rangifer: Research, Management and Husbandry of Reindeer and Other Northern Ungulates.

For the sacrilegious academics who slipped away from academia, there are still opportunities to win: the economics prize went to the Italian government’s National Institute of Statistics. They admittedly don’t sound like such a fun bunch, but when the meddling powers at the EU mandated that each member increase the size of its economy, the Institute took the lead by counting a range of “innovative” revenues in its accounts, including those from prostitution, illegal drug sales, smuggling, and other unlawful financial transactions.

The Igs are almost as popular as the real Nobels these days. Marc Abrahams, the organiser, reckons that many want to follow in Geim’s footsteps, conducting studies with the sole aim of netting an Ig. About 10-20% of the 9,000 nominations received each year are self-nominations from self-appointed academic-comedians (academedians?!).

The Igs spawned an accompanying journal, the Annals of Improbable Research, in turn no doubt inspiring the Journal of Universal Rejection, which rejects every submission received, and the recently launched Proceedings of the Natural Institute of Science, whose acronym (PNIS) speaks for itself.

And so it is that this humble blog reaches you, merely the latest in a long line of academics trying to prove their unstuffiness. We hope you enjoy it!

The best thing I’ve seen this week
The hashtag #AcademicInsults was trending this week, proving that academics can be as cruel as they can be funny. The most withering and sharp-tongued offerings concern poorly written papers (“Some journal with a low impact factor will be happy to take that”), viva pep talk (“Don’t worry, you can still get a job as a sales rep”), and your general lack of worth in the field to which you have dedicated your life (“Oh sorry, I’m not aware of your work”).

Overheard on Twitter