Long-distance learning

559px-The_Inspiration_of_Saint_Matthew_by_Caravaggio copy.jpg
Caravaggio, “The inspiration of Saint Matthew”

Freddie Mercury, J K Rowling, and the scientific primary literature.

Rami Malek won the Best Actor Oscar last month for his portrayal of Freddie Mercury in the film “Bohemian Rhapsody”. It’s over 25 years since Mercury died, yet he’s still alive in a very real way – with his voice coming out of headphones, speakers, and radios.

A similar kind of immortality is found in books. Reading a book is not just ingestion of a story, it’s also a way of communing with the author, even if long dead. We might now fantasise about digitally downloading our memories, and science fiction writers like Iain M Banks have posited futures where entire consciousnesses can be copied and stored, but this overlooks something authors have known since time immemorial: a book is a small part of their mind downloaded and preserved for posterity. 

Organised religion and repressive governments have long recognised the power of people’s printed ideas by banning books and maintaining authorial censorship. J K Rowling similarly acknowledged the power of the recorded word in “The Chamber of Secrets” by making a malevolent diary literally contain a part of the antagonist’s soul.

This ability to commune with someone not present in person through reading is also pertinent in science. Familiarity with the scientific primary literature is obviously important for keeping up with recent conceptual and practical developments in a field, but it shouldn’t be overlooked that it’s also a means of indirectly communicating with the authors themselves. 

In the 19th century and earlier, scientists would directly correspond with each other in order to communicate their ideas and results; nowadays, mass media and publishing mean that those thoughts can be disseminated to a vastly broader audience. That wider circulation has also removed the obligation to write a reply, but papers remain in essence a direct message from the authors to the reader, albeit now conducted in massively parallel fashion. 

Consequently, by consuming published works, a reader can see how their peers go about constructing an argument, what controls they do, what standard of proof they demand of themselves, what level of quality they insist on, and how they communicate both their practice and their ideas.

Reading papers, therefore, can actually be a kind of remote mentoring. By reading good quality work and seeing what assays, what controls, what data quality are there, you can learn how to better your own science. The senior authors are effectively tutoring you at a distance, if you’ll let them. 

Unlike long-distance mentorship via Skype or other communication tools, with a paper you are free to absorb it at your own pace. You can go back over things as often as required. And once your critical faculties are far enough advanced, you can also start to see how things might even have been done better. Seen in this light, it’s also obvious why the trend to roll back restrictive wordcounts and encouraging greater transparency in reporting is unequivocally a good thing.

While you can’t be privy to how a paper is put together (and the gestation can sometimes be tortuous and traumatic in the extreme), a good paper does give you a sense of how science should be done. What good quality data looks like. What the right controls for particular assays are. And what important objections to particular ideas or approaches exist. 

It’s also why it’s so important to set aside time for reading, and why all scientists – but especially younger ones – should be aiming to read as much as possible. Reading means communing with the author or authors, whether still living or long dead, and their thoughts can still touch us, teach us, and inspire us. 

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