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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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March 3, 2014

Sydney Brenner on the State of Science

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Posted by Derek

Via Retraction Watch, here's an outspoken interview with Sydney Brenner, who's never been the sort of person to keep his opinions bottled up inside him. Here, for example, are his views on graduate school in the US:

Today the Americans have developed a new culture in science based on the slavery of graduate students. Now graduate students of American institutions are afraid. He just performs. He’s got to perform. The post-doc is an indentured labourer. We now have labs that don’t work in the same way as the early labs where people were independent, where they could have their own ideas and could pursue them.

The most important thing today is for young people to take responsibility, to actually know how to formulate an idea and how to work on it. Not to buy into the so-called apprenticeship. I think you can only foster that by having sort of deviant studies. That is, you go on and do something really different. Then I think you will be able to foster it.

But today there is no way to do this without money. That’s the difficulty. In order to do science you have to have it supported. The supporters now, the bureaucrats of science, do not wish to take any risks. So in order to get it supported, they want to know from the start that it will work. This means you have to have preliminary information, which means that you are bound to follow the straight and narrow.

I can't argue with that. In academia these days, it seems to me that the main way that something really unusual or orthogonal gets done is by people doing something else with their grant money than they told people they'd do. Which has always been the case to some extent, but I get the impression it's more so than ever. The article also quotes from Brenner's appreciation of the late Fred Sanger, where he made a similar point:

A Fred Sanger would not survive today’s world of science. With continuous reporting and appraisals, some committee would note that he published little of import between insulin in 1952 and his first paper on RNA sequencing in 1967 with another long gap until DNA sequencing in 1977. He would be labelled as unproductive, and his modest personal support would be denied. We no longer have a culture that allows individuals to embark on long-term—and what would be considered today extremely risky—projects.

Here are Brenner's mild, temperate views on the peer-review system and its intersection with academic publishing:

. . .I don’t believe in peer review because I think it’s very distorted and as I’ve said, it’s simply a regression to the mean.

I think peer review is hindering science. In fact, I think it has become a completely corrupt system. It’s corrupt in many ways, in that scientists and academics have handed over to the editors of these journals the ability to make judgment on science and scientists. There are universities in America, and I’ve heard from many committees, that we won’t consider people’s publications in low impact factor journals.

Now I mean, people are trying to do something, but I think it’s not publish or perish, it’s publish in the okay places [or perish]. And this has assembled a most ridiculous group of people. I wrote a column for many years in the nineties, in a journal called Current Biology. In one article, “Hard Cases”, I campaigned against this [culture] because I think it is not only bad, it’s corrupt. In other words it puts the judgment in the hands of people who really have no reason to exercise judgment at all. And that’s all been done in the aid of commerce, because they are now giant organisations making money out of it.

I don't find a lot to disagree with there, either. The big scientific publishers have some good people working for them, but the entire cause is more and more suspect. THere's a huge moral hazard involved, which we don't seem to be avoiding very well at all.

Comments (35) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: General Scientific News | The Scientific Literature


1. SP on March 3, 2014 11:50 AM writes...

Re: publishing, this story from the NYT today on an apparent diabetes protective mutation: "the group wrote a paper and submitted it to a medical journal. It was rejected, he said, after one of the reviewers said it must be wrong because it contradicted what was known from studies with mice."
So not only are we great at curing mice, now we refuse to publish anything that doesn't cure mice!

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2. Curryworks on March 3, 2014 12:08 PM writes...

The argument that scientist that only publish once every few years is a Sanger in wait is false. With respect to the funding far to many people want to have labs vs funding so there needs to be some measures that can be quantified. Other than that if major earth shattering discoveries were made everyday all our problems would have been solved years ago.

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3. Graduate Student on March 3, 2014 12:26 PM writes...

As a graduate student, I also see a lot to agree with. From personal experience I can add that in many labs of young professors the ideas of students are actively discarded. Sometimes an advisor is so hell-bent on his/her way being the best that any issues then get blamed on the students who are trying to make what turns out to be a kind of shit idea work. Sometimes publishable work, or ideas with real promise, sits in a drawer for years because it isn't the big idea that will wow people. That's a major disservice to the students, who will need decent publication records to get jobs. In some circles any project that doesn't seem like a sure-thing for JACS gets trashed, and that's bonkers.

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4. The Iron Chemist on March 3, 2014 12:54 PM writes...

As a faculty member, I have let students develop their own projects; indeed, it's a good sign that they've "made it" with respect to their development as an independent scientist. Younger students often need an established project from which they can learn skills and the more philosophical aspects surrounding the work and pick up a couple of publications. If I shoot down an idea of theirs, I try to explain why I shot it down.

Of course, I can't promise that everyone else does it that way, but I like to think that I'm trying to do the right thing by my students.

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5. The Iron Chemist on March 3, 2014 12:56 PM writes...

As a faculty member, I have let students develop their own projects; indeed, it's a good sign that they've "made it" with respect to their development as an independent scientist. Younger students often need an established project from which they can learn skills and the more philosophical aspects surrounding the work and pick up a couple of publications. If I shoot down an idea of theirs, I try to explain why I shot it down.

Of course, I can't promise that everyone else does it that way, but I like to think that I'm trying to do the right thing by my students.

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6. Virgil on March 3, 2014 1:10 PM writes...

Regarding his comments on Sanger not making it these days due to being seen as unproductive, I have another interpretation - you need to do everything.

It's not that today's environment stops anyone from doing research that's a little "out there", it just requires you to maintain a bread-and-butter line of research as well. There's nothing stopping anyone from doing the crazy stuff, but you need a solid line of non-crazy, to pay the bills and get the students graduated before you can worry about the back-burner project that's gonna change the world. Is that a bad thing? Should we be throwing money at people who only do crazy stuff and don't have a solid track record in more mainstream science?

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7. Curious Wavefunction on March 3, 2014 1:35 PM writes...

I very much sympathize with Brenner's views but let me play a reasonable devil's advocate here; there's only one Sanger among a hundred thousand people who publish little of value for ten years. To support even ten thousand of these and bank on the dim chance that they will produce the next breakthrough is just not financially feasible. I think it's ok to expect young people to come up with good ideas every year or so; what I I completely agree with is that any consideration of what journal they publish these ideas in should be secondary.

What should count is the content of the idea. The MRC actually does this when recruiting new personnel; not look at publication number or journal of publication but instead objectively evaluate the merit of the research by looking at its novelty and promise.

With everything else in the article I agree, especially the part about the corrupt, venal, exclusive mutual admiration society that modern peer review has turned into. But that's what blogs like this are for.

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8. Hap on March 3, 2014 1:50 PM writes...

1) Did reviewers have an idea that Sanger was doing something special and that they should fund him despite his lack of immediate production, or was there enough money to fund him at some level without immediate evidence of production?

If they had an idea what he was and so funded him, then why are reviewers unable to do so now; alternatively, if we were able to fund people on flyers then (but aren't now), then we have to decide if that's feasible and worthwhile. If it is, then it needs to be clearer to the people holding the purse strings that being pennywise and pound-foolish will not get them what they want. If we can't or shouldn't fund such people, then we need to have some way to have an idea which ones to fund if any.

2) How can people tell if the current system for reviewing grants and approving them works (for some explicit, internally consistent definition of "works")? If people can't tell what achieves the desired ends, it's hard to change anything to better achieve them (and maybe time to wonder whether we should be doing something different, or anything at all).

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9. DLIB on March 3, 2014 2:01 PM writes...

Hear Hear!!!

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10. pete on March 3, 2014 3:39 PM writes...

Right on, Sydney.

With respect to graduate students and research culture, I think (at least in part) it gets back to whether or not there's an excess of advanced bio & chem degrees being granted these days. Almost certainly there are now FAR more grad students + science Ph.D-granting programs than there were back in the mid-20th century labs of Sydney's day. That difference alone could engender some of the current "indentured servitude" culture that Dr Brenner notes between some American PI's and their grad students.

But is this really a uniquely American phenomenon? Any non-US readers care to chime in?

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11. NoDrugsNoJobs on March 3, 2014 4:06 PM writes...

I was so lucky to work with a new professor having start up funds, we were able to creativelty experiemnt much more than if we had a grant to satisfy and try and renew. we got to blaze several new paths that deviated significantly from the original proposal and that work later used to support grants and so on.

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12. dearieme on March 3, 2014 4:20 PM writes...

"The argument that scientist that only publish once every few years is a Sanger in wait is false." It would be if anyone had advanced it. The argument seems to be the other way round: a Sanger needs the chance to publish only a little while he incubates good ideas.

"With respect to the funding far to many people want to have labs vs funding so there needs to be some measures that can be quantified." Nope: just draw lots for part of the grants budget.

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13. Catherine on March 3, 2014 5:11 PM writes...

Can you talk more about this? What moral hazards do you have in mind?

"The big scientific publishers have some good people working for them, but the entire cause is more and more suspect. THere's a huge moral hazard involved, which we don't seem to be avoiding very well at all."

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14. Anonymous on March 3, 2014 5:44 PM writes...

It is fairly typical in many environments that the larger older entities tend to be more risk averse and better at producing polished and "safe" products, while smaller newer entities tend to have risky, more innovative and purposely field breaking (rather than the many which started as accidents and then pursued until it was understood).

Movies, games, art, tech - all have some degree of both major and minor counterparts which are often very distinct from each other. Science certainly has its examples in this too, but now it has become impossible to do so due to expenses.

Or assumed so. Are we sure this is the case?

Generally the success stories for other industries tend to either involve reducing the entry point (allowing personal/amateur counterparts), encouraging it as a "separate" movement (ex: indie movies or indie games), or a new vehicle for support (ex: crowd funding).

That said, I'm not sure if any of the above is a solution. My own proposal would be to push graduates and possibly even post-docs to these rather than the sort of slave labor that they tend to be viewed as now. Graded by the performance of how they did the experiment rather than the success of them - though feasiblility should still be a criteria. Also a separate channel aimed at "industry jobs" to work on replication and refinement which I feel needs more activity.

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15. Anonymous on March 3, 2014 5:53 PM writes...

Er, when I mean push- I mean to actually MAKE it their education and split off the current RA type research entirely. Those will need to be fielded by actual full time/part time workers rather than just students. They should pay to be educated to learn to work as a scientist, not to pay to do work of other scientists.

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16. yunus on March 3, 2014 6:38 PM writes...

ok, here's what I think and also what I understand from what Sanger and Higgs said: We now live in a fast world, especially for the last 15 years or so. everything is fast, and we rush continuously. From the time we wake up till we go to sleep. both physically and mentally. During the day, we see hundreds or maybe thousands of tweets, facebook posts, blog posts, etc. People nowadays don't read papers, they just scan them with their eyes. Look at the figures and schemes, look at the numbers, read the conclusion and that's it. Even when you think that you read it, in fact you don't. Because you have to grasp it, sit down for half an hour, an hour, take a walk and think about it. But there's no time. If you're a PhD student or a postdoc, you have to go back to the experiment; if you're a faculty, you have to deal with all the crap paperwork, etc. This is what is missing: what I call "deep thinking", what Sherlock calls "mind palace". Buried in this rush, and without this deep thinking, no big, revolutionary ideas will come out. And they're not coming. When I learned Sanger's DNA sequencing method in my undergrad, I remember saying man, this is beautiful. When was the last time you saw a paper truly creative and beautiful? Of course there has to be an evaluation system, the funding should go to the right places, etc. but again, in this super-fast world, nothing more than a "copy-paste research" will come out..

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17. sgcox on March 3, 2014 7:42 PM writes...

#17, Old news I am afraid:

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18. tt on March 3, 2014 8:21 PM writes...

dude got a nobel prize in 1958.
that cuts you a lot of slack for the rest
of your life.

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19. sam adams the dog (@samadamsthedog) on March 3, 2014 8:53 PM writes...

"I think [peer review] has become a completely corrupt system. It’s corrupt in many ways, in that scientists and academics have handed over to the editors of these journals the ability to make judgment on science and scientists."

This does not scan. In fact, the editors have handed this ability over to the reviewers, who are supposed to be peers of the authors.

Though I agree with most of what he says, the above quotation does not make sense to me.

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20. T on March 4, 2014 1:20 AM writes...

Also a little puzzled by the rant against editors. I actually think the issue of whether the current publishing system is fit for purpose and what it could be replaced with is worth discussing, but there don't seem to be any obvious solutions. Many people think that papers should just be posted online and reviewed afterwards an a "comments section" like format, but attempts at this seem to have so far met with apathy; most scientists can't be bothered to sift through reams of unfiltered rubbish.

As for the bit about the misuse of impact factors by lazy funding bodies, that is hardly the publishers' fault. All the editors I know think that impact factors are detrimental to science and should be abolished.

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21. post-doc2 on March 4, 2014 2:47 AM writes...

Let me chime in as a American system graduate student post-docing in Switzerland.

In Europe, PhD degrees are granted much quicker compared to US, although you could think of it instead that the PhD degrees take as long as they used to (3-4 years after short masters), and the US degrees have been extended.

I think that the american system abuses the grad students who get paid pennies, work many more years and in the end don't have great job prospects.

To any future PhD I would highly highly recommend going to Europe, getting a PhD and post-docing in the States (or another good school in Europe).

You're probably less trained after your PhD (the years do add something), but you still call yourself PhD, and given the long long time you will probably spend post-docing (easier to find a post-doc position than a job), the extra training of a US PhD no longer puts them at the advantage whereas you are still younger and have had different lab experiences.

Also, with a PhD in Europe it is also really difficult to get a job, just like north america (although probably Boston is your best bet right now?).

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22. cliffintokyo on March 4, 2014 2:48 AM writes...

@20: Most scientists DO NOT sift through unfiltered rubbish.
We use the TOC to select titles of papers that are relevant to our own research and/or are of interest to us personally. We then triage the selected papers for the ones that seem to be the most important to study in depth.
So why not use critiques by people who have read papers because they want to as the peer reviews? (Need to think more about the implications for papers that never get reviewed voluntarily...)
On impact factors, I agree that journal impact factors are misleading; citations of individual papers are probably a better reflection of the value of the lit. However, there are still serious pitfalls, such as the time-lag for the true significance of basic research to be realized (can be years) and, on the other hand, the distortions due to publishing on a hot topic.
The rant against editors may be directed at those who trumpet their journal impact factors a little too loudly; because, frankly speaking, this is solely for commercial reasons - but hey, its a competitive world out there!

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23. Morten G on March 4, 2014 7:55 AM writes...

2 years of funding.
½ year getting settled and into the area.
½ year doing actual research.
1 year looking for new funding or job.

And don't forget that methods development generally don't get funded. Which is what Sanger got his second (more important) Nobel prize for.

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24. UIC Alchemist on March 4, 2014 8:49 AM writes...

What is the solution to the "corrupt publishing" problem? ..... Have a referee look through manuscripts for clearly fraudulent activity and if none is found then publish it....? I agree there are problems, but does anyone have the answer?

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25. will on March 4, 2014 9:00 AM writes...

My thoughts about hiring committees evaluating impact factor of the journals their candidates have

it seems essentially an outsourcing of the candidate evaluation from the hiring committee to the journal community at large, whether this is a result of laziness/unwillingness to actually read the candidates work and see what has the most merit, or more of a cover-your-ass mentality I don't know (i.e., "how was I supposed to know he wouldn't work out? he had three jacs communications! the other guy only had 1 joc and two tet-letts"

i wonder how feasible a reddit style system of publishing would work, folks publish a paper, and then on a reddit thread people who find it interesting upvote it. obviously such a system could be gamed, but if it reached critical mass of legit voters, it might be another way of distinguishing the good from the average from the poor

not unlike the citation system suggested by @22 above, but maybe a little more instanteous than waiting three years to see how often a paper is cited

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26. Anonymous on March 4, 2014 12:25 PM writes...

Future potential is based only on attitude, not past publication history. When will people understand this???

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27. Anonymous on March 4, 2014 2:36 PM writes...

To 22. Yes that sounds like a standard way of doing a literature search ie sifting through the already filtered (by the editorial and peer review process, which I admit has flaws) literature. Would you be willing to do the same searching all papers any scientist anywhere in the world decides to post online in a given week, bearing in mind that pre-editing titles are often not usefully searchable? And would you be motivated not only to judge them for yourself but to post a comment on them, including those you didn't find useful/of good quality? Perhaps you would, but this suggests that most researchers can't be bothered.

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28. Nimrod on March 5, 2014 1:55 AM writes...

"If they had an idea what he [Sanger] was and so funded him, then why are reviewers unable to do so now; alternatively, if we were able to fund people on flyers then (but aren't now), then we have to decide if that's feasible and worthwhile."

It is impossible now because grad school has turned into a diploma mill where people unable to find a job hide out, instead of where only people who want to do science for life go. There are entirely too many grad students, for the number of faculty positions available, and that both drives down their salary and ensures a funding crunch. Multi-track the damned thing, so one track goes on to become tenured researchers, another goes into teaching, and the rest of them to wherever. Or just admit fewer grad students.

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29. Anonymous on March 5, 2014 9:59 AM writes...

@28: You can't blame universities for this, they are simply responding to more demand from more people wanting to study for more degrees. Ultimately it is up to individuals to realize that further study adds too little value to their earning potential to justify the fees and opportunity cost.

By all means start a course, but the most successful people have dropped out half way through to pursue their idea for a real business venture.

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30. RET on March 5, 2014 1:35 PM writes...

If you read the masthead of the journals you will see that the Associate Editors of journals are responsible for accepting or rejecting a paper (not reviewers) and they may choose to use reviewers to assist their decision. Thus each one has the right to accept reviewers opinions or simply choose reviewers that will give them the decision they have already made.

I learned this as an assistant professor when I had a paper rejected for JACS and was sent the decision letter from the AE along with three "accept with no/little revision" reviewer reports.

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31. Anonymous on March 5, 2014 6:01 PM writes...

This blog entry is absolutely 100% true. It's absolutely frustrating when the NIH turns away very novel grant ideas "because you don't have data". WELL ISN'T THAT THE POINT OF THE STUPID GRANT! TO GET DATA! The only way to get data for high risk projects that'll never get funding from bureaucratic suits is to simply do experiments on the side with other grant money. Unfortunately if you get caught your grant money will get pulled, which is what happened to our lab. Never mind the fact that what we were working on could have significant benefit and was completely novel.

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32. jbosch on March 6, 2014 10:28 PM writes...

I completely agree with Sidney, he’s spot on. And again this paper from Greg Petzko comes to mind:
PMID: 22594909
Genome Biol. 2012;13(5):155.
Goodbye, Columbus.

There’s still a difference between US and European grad students.
I’m speaking now for Germany in particular. Before you start your PhD you are done with all types of courses lectures etc. You usually have to write a Diploma thesis which includes full time experimental procedures in the lab and takes anywhere between 6-9 months. THEN you are entitled to start your PHD and solely focus on science.
Once you have this completed you can start your PhD, non interrupted by calsses.
In the US system most if not all PhD students in their first two years are still taking classes and perform rotations in labs to later decide which one to join. I agree that some PI have a high retention factor for graduate students, that then graduate in their 7-10 year after joining a program and I think that is wrong.
But a 5 year PhD in Germany equals to a 7 year US PhD. I try to have my students ready by year 5, but that depends on their publication record. These days to secure the position you actually would like to have one publication is not going to bring you very far.

admitting fewer graduate students is bad for universities for finical reasons - and there we are again the rat biting it’ own tail.

Master students in particular are cash cows in some institutions and one should really wonder if the education they get is worth the 30K$-50K$. Or is it that you just need a prestigious University in your CV to prepare the way to success ?

Education should and most be free another big difference between US and Germany. I believe the current enrolling fee per year is now around 400 Euro and in some states it’s still “free” you are paying a handling fee of 80 Euro.

I hear you.
I foresee the loss of brains in US citizens as well as permanent residents as the incremental science that seems to be fundable these days will not help to continue secure the lead of US science as was the case over the past 50 years. The influence of US science is declining dramatically. And my assumption is that no corrective measures will be applied until the system drowns really badly. I don’t think we have reached that point yet. But if you forgot to water a plant - even a cactus - it will decide to say good-bye, at some point irreversibly.

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33. tgibbs on March 7, 2014 8:43 AM writes...

There are really two major issues. One, of course, is the tight funding. When that happens, everybody gets excessively conservative. Even if in theory you favor original, ground-breaking research, it is very hard to support an original, high-risk proposal when there is one next to it that is certain to succeed and supported by a ton of preliminary data on every aspect of the proposal. In addition, I believe that after a certain point in their careers, scientists with a track record of past discoveries should get a "pass" -- basically, the ability to get a moderate level of funding based on an abstract and their name. It is absurd to see great scientists having to struggle for funds just because they want to try something that is different from what they have done in the past.

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34. jbosch on March 7, 2014 1:56 PM writes...

why would you fund somebody with tons of preliminary data - then (s)he has essentially already done the work that is proposed. The money from the grant will then be used for something else. That's a sick system !

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35. cliffintokyo on March 10, 2014 1:28 AM writes...

@27: "this is a standard way of doing a literature search..."
Wrong! This is a fairly standard approach to maintaining current awareness.
I will give you the benefit of doubt in assuming that you were carried away by enthusiasm for the debate in your reply, rather than casting aspersions on your bone fide scientist's view, which would mean that you do not know what the hell you are talking about.....

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