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62 posts categorized "Science communication"

29 August 2017

I4OC: The British Library and open data

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In August the British Library joined the Initiative for Open Citations as a stakeholder. The I4OC’s aim of promoting the availability of structured, separable, open citation data fits perfectly with the Library's established strategy for open metadata which has just marked its seventh anniversary. I4oc logo

In August 2010, responding to UK Government calls for increased access to public data to promote transparency, economic growth and research, the British Library launched the strategy by offering over 16m CC0 licensed records from its catalogue and national bibliography datasets. This initiative aimed to remove constraints created by restrictive licensing and library specific standards to enable wider community re-use. In doing so the Library aimed to unlock the value of the data while improving access to information and culture in line with its wider strategic objectives.
The initial release was followed in 2011 by the launch of the Library’s first Linked Open Data (LOD) bibliographic service. The Library believed Linked Open Data to be a logical evolutionary step for the established principle of freedom of access to information, offering trusted knowledge organisations a central role in the new information landscape. The development proved influential among the library community in moving the Linked Data debate from theory to practice.

Over 1,700 organisations in 123 countries now use the Library’s open metadata services with many more taking single files. The value of the Library’s open data work was recognised by the British National Bibliography linked dataset receiving a 5 star rating on the UK Government site and certification from the Open Data Institute (ODI). In 2016 the Library launched the platform in order to offer copies of a range of its datasets available for research and creative purposes. In addition, the BL Labs initiative continues to explore new opportunities for public use of the Library’s digital collections and data in exciting and innovative ways. The British Library therefore remains committed to an open approach to enable the widest possible re-use of its rich metadata and generate the best return on the investment in its creation.

I4oc users
I4OC users by country


As the example of the British Library’s open data work shows, opening up metadata facilitates access to information, creates efficiencies and allows others to enhance existing and develop new services. This is particularly important for researchers and others who do not work for organisations with subscriptions to commercial citation databases. The British Library believes that opening up metadata on research facilitates both improved research information management and original research, and therefore benefits all.

The I4OC’s recent call to arms for its stakeholders is therefore very much in tune with the British Library’s open data work in promoting the many benefits of freely accessible citation data for scholars, publishers and wider communities. Such benefits proved compelling enough to enable the I4OC to secure publisher agreement for nearly half of indexed scholarly data to be made openly accessible. This data is now being used in a range of new projects and services including OpenCitations and Wikidata. It's encouraging to see I4OC spreading the open data ideal so successfully and it is to be hoped that it will also succeed in ensuring open citations become the default in future.

Correction: Image shows users of BL open data services by country, not I4OC

19 July 2017

William Perkin and mauveine

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We’ve been blogging and tweeting a lot about the historical inventions in the GREATforImagination campaign, with links to the key patents involved. Unfortunately, most British patents from before 1895 aren’t available free online and can only be seen if you come to our building at St Pancras. We’ll be making full blog posts about some of these, to give you some more detailed information than can fit into a Tweet or the Instagram post.

Not every invention is made by people who see a problem and set out to find a solution to it. Curiosity-driven science can produce useful inventions that the scientists involved never anticipated. A classic example of this took place in 1856, when William Perkin tried to make an artificial anti-malarial drug, and instead discovered what would become the first totally human-created molecule to become the centre of a profitable business.

The eighteen-year-old Perkin was a student of the chemist August Wilhelm von Hofmann at the Royal College of Chemistry in London (eventually merged into what would become Imperial College). Hofmann had speculated to Perkin that on the basis of the atomic formulas then assigned to the chemicals, it would be possible to create the drug quinine by somehow combining two molecules of napthylamine with one of water. Perkin decided to try to synthesise quinine by oxidising allyltoluidine with dichromate. It is now known that the complex structures of organic molecules make such a naïve approach based purely on atomic formulas useless. When Perkin failed, he decided to try oxidising aniline with dichromate (it was subsequently discovered that the aniline he used was contaminated with toluidine, with mauveine being created by the oxidation of both together), and discovered that the product obtained was a useful dye. Mauveine, as it became known, was the first cheap and stable purple dye, and when Perkin commercialised it a colour that had been traditionally associated with the richest in society became accessible to all. It was the first of the so-called azo dyes, which were among the first products of the modern chemical industry.

Perkin patented his dye and persuaded his relatives to fund him in creating a factory, near Greenford in west London. He continued to work in chemistry, discovering the “Perkin reaction” to make cinnamic acid from acetic anhydride and benzaldehyde, and developing a way to commercially synthesise the natural dye alizarin (from the madder plant) from coal tar. Unfortunately, a rival German team simultaneously developed the same process and patented it one day earlier! Perkin’s lasting fame can be gauged by the fact that the Perkin Medal, the most important American prize for organic chemistry, and Perkin Transactions, for many years the British Royal Society of Chemistry’s main scholarly journal on organic chemistry, were both named after him. Mauveine

Perkin’s mauveine is a mixture of up to twelve different compounds containing N-phenylphenazinium ring systems with additional amine and sometimes methyl groups. The structures of the most important two were not clearly discovered until 1994, because an incorrect structure of unclear origin had been repeatedly cited in the literature and assumed to be right. They are seen in the diagram, with the group "R" being a hydrogen atom in one of them, and a methyl (CH3) group in the other.

Further reading at the British Library:

Perkin, W.H. (1901). The origin of the coal-tar colour industry, and the contributions of Hofmann and his pupils. In Memorial lectures delivered before the Chemical Society 1893-1900 (pp. 596-637). London: Gurney & Barrow. Shelfmark W1/9939 – Perkin’s own description of his famous first synthesis of mauveine, the discussions that provoked the experiment, and his later career in the chemical industry.

Perkin, W.H. (1879). On mauveine and allied colouring matters. Journal of the Chemical Society, Transactions, 35, 717-32. Shelfmark (P) JB 00-E(8) – Perkin’s description of the physical properties and chemical reactions of mauveine.

Perkin, W.H. (1858). On the purple dye obtained from coal-tar. In Report of the twenty-eighth meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Paper presented at the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Leeds, September 1858 (p.58). London: John Murray. Shelfmark Ac.1181. – Perkin’s first brief scholarly announcement of mauveine.

Perkin, W.H. (1856). Producing a new coloring matter for dyeing with a lilac or purple color stuffs of silk, cotton, wool, or other materials. GB1984/1856. Shelfmark IP Reserve South – Perkin’s patent for the creation of azo dyes and dyeing techniques using them.

Meth-Cohn, O. and Smith, M. (1994). What did W. H. Perkin actually make when he oxidised aniline to obtain mauveine? Journal of the Chemical Society, Perkin Transactions 1, pp. 5-7. Shelfmark (P) JU 00 –E(9), also available in online subscription – the first investigation of Perkin’s preserved original samples of mauveine under modern spectroscopic techniques to determine the exact structures.

Written by Philip Eagle

08 June 2017

Untangling academic publishing

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Untangling Academic Publishing logo. Creator uncredited, published under CC-BY

On the 25th of May we attended the launch of the report Untangling Academic Publishing by Aileen Fyfe and others ( The report describes the history of scholarly publishing from the nineteenth century to the modern era of open access, “crises” in affordability of journals and books, and controversy over commercial publishers’ profits and competing business models.

The report discusses the post-WWII evolution of scholarly publishing from an original model where learned societies saw dissemination of research results as simply a part of their essential activity, with no expectations of profit and many copies of journals distributed free to public, academic and scholarly subscription libraries. After WWII an alliance became formed with profit-seeking scholarly publishers, under the pressure of the increasing quantity of publically-funded academic research and increasingly large numbers of universities and professional researchers in the developed world, and a growing proliferation of subdisciplines. Commercial publishers turned scholarly publication into a profitable business by setting up journals for subdisciplines without their own journals or learned societies, selling to institutions, and internationalising the market.

It was during this time that the current system of peer review was developed, and publication metrics became increasingly used to assess the prestige of individual academics and reward them with career progression and funding.

However, since the 1980s this period of close association between the interests of scholars and commercial publishers has ended, due to further expansion of the research base, reduced library budgets due to inflation and cuts in funding, and in the UK specifically issues related to exchange rates. University libraries have struggled to afford journal subscriptions and monograph purchases, leading to a vicious circle of declining sales and increasing costs. Increasingly scholars at all but the wealthiest institutions have found themselves unable to legally obtain material that they need to read, and resentment of the profit margins made by the “big four” commercial scholarly publishers in particular has developed.

Hopes that digital publication would allow cost-cutting have failed to materialise, with publishers arguing that the actual costs of distributing and printing hard copy publications are relatively small compared to editorial costs, and that providing online access mechanisms with the robustness and additional features that users want is not as cheap as some initial enthusiasts assumed. Open access, which covers a variety of business models not based on charging for access at the point of use, has been promoted for almost twenty years, but has failed to replace subscription publishing or, to a great extent, to challenge the market dominance of major commercial publishers, with much open access publishing based on the “gold” business model funded by article processing charges paid by authors or research funders, often offered by commercial publishers as an alternative. Hence universities often find themselves faced with paying both subscriptions and article processing charges instead of just subscriptions, and mechanisms offered by publishers to offset one against the other have been criticised as lacking transparency.

At the event, there were presentations by Dr. Fyfe, her co-author Stephen Curry (whose views can be found here), and David Sweeney, Executive Chair Designate of Research England. Mr. Sweeney welcomed the report for describing the situation without demonising any parties, and pointed out that publishers are adding value and innovating. He suggested that a major current issue is that academics who choose how to publish their work have no real connection to the way that it is paid for – either by their institutional libraries paying subscriptions or by funders paying APC’s – and hence are often not aware of this as an issue. It was pointed out in discussion after the event that the conversation about publishing models is still almost completely among librarians and publishers, with few authors involved unless they are very interested in the subject – the report is aimed partly at raising awareness of the issues among authors.

The general argument of the report is that it is time to look again at whether learned societies should be taking more of a role in research dissemination and maybe financially supporting it, with particular criticism of those learned societies who contract out production of their publications to commercial publishers and do not pay attention to those publishers’ policies and behaviour. Although there is no direct allusion, it is interesting that soon after the report’s launch, this post was published on Scholarly Kitchen, discussing the concept of society-funded publication and putting forward the name of “diamond open access” for it.

05 May 2017

The first British-made satellite was launched fifty years ago today

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Scout rocket
A NASA Scout rocket of the type used to launch Ariel 3. Used under the NASA copyright policy.

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the launch of Ariel 3, the first satellite to be designed and constructed in the UK. The two previous Ariel satellites had been designed in Britain but constructed by NASA. It was launched by NASA in the USA on 5th May 1967, carrying five scientific experiments in the fields of astronomy and atmospheric studies. It was shut down in September 1969 and re-entered Earth’s atmosphere on 14th December 1970.


The international collaboration took place under COSPAR, the Committee on Space Research. Its experiments were:

An investigation of the electron density and temperature in the ionosphere (the portion of the upper atmosphere where air molecules are ionised by solar radiation) using a Langmuir probe, and a second experiment using a parallel-plate capacitor, both led by Professor James Sayers of the University of Birmingham.

A mapping of large-scape radio noise sources in the Milky Way, led by Professor F Graham Smith of the University of Cambridge.

Measuring the concentration of oxygen in the atmosphere at heights of 150-300 km, led by Dr. Kenneth H Stewart of the Meteorological Office.

Measuring radio emissions from thunderstorms and other natural terrestrial sources at six key frequencies, led by John A Murphy of the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory.

A worldwide survey of VLF radio signals, and an investigation of the effects of the propagation path on a 16kHz ground-based radio transmitter, led by Professor Thomas R Kaiser of the University of Sheffield.

For more information on the satellite, see the NASA catalog entry on it. Contemporary descriptions of the satellite and the results of the experiments were contained in two special journal issues:

Radio and Electronic Engineer, 1968, 35 (1). British Library shelfmark STM (P) RT 40-E(7) and DSC 7229.400000, also available online in our Reading Rooms through our subscription to IEEE Xplore.

Proceedings of the Royal Society, 1969, 311 (1507). British Library shelfmark (P) JA 00-E(12), also available online in our Reading Rooms through JSTOR.

01 March 2017

The 100 most reported and shared science articles of 2016

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Wright_of_Derby,_The_Orrery compressed
"A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery" by Joseph Wright of Derby. Since the 18th century, astronomy has remained popular among non-scientists. have recently published the list of the top 100 scholarly articles most mentioned in news and social media in 2016.  The subjects can be roughly assigned as:

Health and medicine     63
Biology   15
Environment 7
Astronomy 6
Computer science 2
Psychology 2
Scholarly publishing 2
Archaeology 1
Engineering 1
Statistics 1

Predictably, health and medicine articles were most of interest to the non-scholarly media, and social media, with many articles relating to high-profile issues such as obesity and the emergence of the Zika virus, or which could be considered to inspire "might someday lead to a cure for [condition]" stories. Environmental stories were unexpectedly low on the list. Two articles seemingly owed their popularity to a celebrity effect - President Obama's article on the Affordable Care Act, and an essay by the wife of the actor and comedian Robin Williams on the neurological problems that contributed to his suicide. Biology stories were dominated by ones on the always popular topic of prehistoric life, especially life that could be represented as particularly relevant to human ancestry. 

However, a few articles hit the headlines after arousing interest specifically within the scientific community, notably the American Statistical Association's statement stepping into the "p-value" debate about the reliability and meaningfulness of statistical significance testing in science, and the announcement of the long-awaited conclusive detection of gravitational waves. Two stories about the scientific publishing process itself got into the top 100 - the New England Journal of Medicine's controversial "research parasite" editorial on data sharing and a BMJ satirical piece on the perennial battle between authors and peer reviewers. 

So, what does this mean to us as scientific librarians? Most clearly, that at the extremes altmetrics are clearly dominated by what the general public is interested in rather than necessarily what is most important to the development of science. While we are always looking for new information to help us decide what to acquire, this list probably will not affect our purchasing much!

Posted by Philip Eagle - STM Content Expert

16 December 2016

9 famous scientists and their PhD theses

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If you are currently working towards a PhD you might worry that your thesis is destined for life as a handy doorstop, or to gather dust on a forgotten Library shelf. But this work can be a stepping stone - either to a career in academia or something else altogether. With this in mind we decided to check out the British Library’s electronic theses service EThOS to see what treasures we could unearth from influential scientists while they were lowly graduate students.

From 1970-1974 Brian May, Queen’s famous guitarist, studied for a PhD investigating interplanetary dust in the solar system. He abandoned his studies when Queen started to have international success. Many years later he returned to Imperial to complete his PhD studies. His final thesis was awarded in 2008 and was entitled A survey of radial velocities in the zodiacal dust cloud.

Brian Harold May_PhD thesis EThOS

Peter Higgs, who shot to fame in 2013 after his discovery of the Higgs Boson (or God particle) was honoured with the Nobel prize in Physics, started his scientific career studying for a PhD - mysteriously entitled “Some problems in the theory of molecular vibrations”.

D-Ream singer turned astrophysicist Brian Cox started his academic career with a PhD studying in high energy particle physics at the University of Manchester. Things could only get better from there... (sorry!)

By cellanr (Prof Brian Cox) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons


Rosalind Franklin is famous for producing the X-ray diffraction images of DNA that led to the discovery of its double helical structure. Her PhD research focussed on the molecular structure of coal and other organic materials.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell discovered radio pulsars while studying for a PhD at the University of Cambridge in the 1960s.  A visualisation of one of these pulsars was famously used as the cover art for Joy Division's best-selling album Unknown Pleasures.

JoyDivision_UnknownPleasures and Jocelyn Bell Burnell
Jocelyn bell Burnell image by Roger W Haworth (Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons


Theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking obtained his PhD from the University of Cambridge in 1966 after being diagnosed with motor neurone disease in 1963.  His PhD thesis, properties of expanding universes describes his theory for the creation of the universe and was inspired by Roger Penrose's work on space time singularities.

Jim Al-Khalili presents popular science on radio and TV including Radio 4’s The Life Scientific. He started his career at the University of Surrey with a PhD on “Immediate energy deuteron elastic scattering from nuclei in a three-body model”. Jim (or Jameel) Al-Khalili is now Professor of Physics at the University of Surrey.

Jim Al-Khalili PhD thesis
By Vera de Kok (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Sir Mark Walport investigated the “biology of complement receptors” for his PhD at the University of Cambridge. Complement receptors are key part of our immune system and are responsible for the detection of pathogens. He now serves the lofty position of Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK Government is former director of the biomedical research funder the Wellcome Trust.

Sir Paul Nurse is now President of the Royal Society and Director of the Francis Crick Institute. His PhD at the University of East Anglia investigated the organisation of amino acids in a species of yeast called Candia Utitlis.  Nurse continued to work on yeast after his PhD and in 1976 discovered the molecules which control the cell cycle in fission yeast. This discovery was honoured with the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2001.

Katie Howe

27 October 2016

Replace, Reduce, Refine: Animals in Research.

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PhD placement student Mandy Kleinsorge looks back on our most recent TalkScience@BL event.

TalkScience@BL - Replace, Reduce, Refine: Animals in Research

The use of animals in research is as controversial as ever. It is well-known that animal research has brought about some great discoveries in the past1, such as the development of Herceptin and Tamoxifen for the treatment of breast cancer or the discovery of bronchodilators to treat the symptoms of asthma. Today, the UK regulations for research involving animals are among the tightest in the world. In consequence, it is illegal in the UK (and in Europe) to use an animal in research if there is a viable non-animal alternative2. Despite this, the number of experimental procedures on animals in the UK has been steadily increasing over the last years3 and funding of non-animal research accounted for only 0.036 % of the UK national R&D science expenditure4 (2011). Apparently, three quarters of Britons agreed that there needs to be more research carried out into alternatives to animal experimentation5 (2012).

On 13th October, we invited experts in the field to the British Library to publicly discuss the current state of alternatives to animals, as well as the efforts that are made to improve the welfare of animals that are still needed in scientific research. The concept of reducing or even substituting animals in scientific experiments (or at least improving the conditions under which these experiments are conducted) is not new. In 1959, Russell and Burch established the principles of the Three Rs (Replacement, Reduction and Refinement)6 which came to be EU-wide guidelines for the more ethical use – or non-use – of animals in research. Today, a number of organisations campaign for openness and education as to why animals are needed in some areas of research, but also as to where we might not actually need them anymore. One of those is the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement & Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs) who we collaborated with on our TalkScience event ‘Replace, Reduce, Refine: Animals in Research’. The event was chaired by Stephen Holgate, Professor of Medicine at the University of Southampton and Board Chair of the NC3Rs.

Taking a closer look at Robin's amoeba.
Taking a closer look at Robin's amoeba.

The first speaker of the evening was Robin Williams (Head of the Biomedical Sciences Centre at Royal Holloway, University of London). Robin uses Dictyostelium, a social amoeba and therefore non-animal model, to conduct research into neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s. He even brought some amoeba for the audience to look at! Besides bringing awareness to the fact that this organism can actually represent a viable alternative to animal experimentation, he also drew attention to two big problems that researchers using animal alternatives are facing. Acquiring funding and publishing scientific papers are the most important tasks of senior researchers and both of these are complicated by a limited acceptance of non-animal models. Although 3Rs practice is increasingly advocated in the UK, the peer review process regulating funding and publication of research projects is a global endeavour. Robin therefore called for a shift in attitude towards alternatives to animals on a world-wide level.

Our second speaker, Sally Robinson (Head of Laboratory Animal Science UK at AstraZeneca), shed some light into the use of animals in pharmaceutical research. Sally stressed the importance of using the most appropriate model – animal or non-animal – to answer the scientific question. This is not as trivial as it sounds, and is key to obtaining meaningful results and minimising use of animals where possible. The welfare of the animals used in drug development is equally important, as Sally illustrated with the refinement of dog housing. By optimising pen design7, the welfare of laboratory dogs can be drastically improved, and so can the quality of scientific research they’re involved in. Furthermore, Sally herself had a leading role in the challenging of the regulatory requirement for acute toxicity tests in drug development8, which ultimately changed international legislative guidance and reduced the number of animals needed in pharmaceutical research.

Our panel: Stephen Holgate, Robin Williams, Sally Robinson and Robin Lovell-Badge.
Our panel: Stephen Holgate, Robin Williams, Sally Robinson and Robin Lovell-Badge.

Our last speaker was Robin Lovell-Badge (Head of the Division of Stem Cell Biology and Developmental Genetics at the Francis Crick Institute). He opened his talk by endorsing openness in animal research. This is a welcome and necessary trend of the past few years – after animal research had been conducted behind closed doors in the UK for decades for fear of violent actions. The ‘Concordat on Openness on Animal Research’9 was initiated in 2012 and has been signed by 107 UK organisations to date. Robin explained which animals the newly built Francis Crick Institute will work with and why, and how Home Office guidelines on animal research have helped inform the design of their state-of-the-art facilities. He also mentioned some of their work that doesn’t involve animals, like research using induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. These iPS cells resemble embryonic stem cells and can be generated from any living cell of a human donor. They are able to differentiate into virtually every cell type of the body, presenting an alternative source of human tissue for drug screenings and the modelling of diseases10. This fairly new technology might even be useful as an alternative to animal experiments in the future.

In discussion with the audience it became clear that the UK is leading the world in the realisation of the 3Rs. However, there is still room for much improvement in furthering the 3Rs. While better experimental design using robust biostatistics and in-depth training of scientists handling animals is vital, increased acceptance of negative data would avoid unnecessary duplication of experiments using animals.

The discussion continued after the event.
The discussion continued after the event.

When asked whether an animal-free research in the immediate future was possible, the panel agreed that it wasn’t. A lot more research into alternatives as well as a change in people’s mindsets is needed beforehand. But how do we exert pressure for this change? Do we need animal activists to do this, one audience member asked. Good question. It is definitely necessary to bring different types of people together to have more balanced and open discussions about this emotive topic. So, thanks to the speakers and the audience of this TalkScience event for joining us to disuss this important issue.

Further reading:

1 Understanding Animal Research. Forty reasons why we need animals in research.
2 Animals in Science Committee. Consolidated version of the Animals Scientific Procedures Act 1986.
3 Home Office. Statistics of scientific procedures on living animals, Great Britain 2015.
4 Taylor, K. EU member state government contribution to alternative methods.
5 Ipsos MORI. Views on the use of animals in scientific research.
6 Russell, WMS and Burch, RL. The principles of humane experimental technique.
7 Refining Dog Care. Dog unit and home pen design.
8 Robinson, S et al. A European pharmaceutical company initiative challenging the regulatory requirement for acute toxicity studies in pharmaceutical drug development.
9 Understanding Animal Research. Concordat on Openness on Animal Research.
10 Takahashi, K and Yamanaka, S. A decade of transcription factor-mediated reprogramming to pluripotency.


05 September 2016

Social Media Data: What’s the use?

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Team ScienceBL is pleased to bring you #TheDataDebates -  an exciting new partnership with the AHRC, the ESRC and the Alan Turing Institute. In our first event on 21st September we’re discussing social media. Join us!

Every day people around the world post a staggering 400 million tweets, upload 350 million photos to Facebook and view 4 billion videos on YouTube. Analysing this mass of data can help us understand how people think and act but there are also many potential problems.  Ahead of the event, we looked into a few interesting applications of social media data.

Politically correct? 

During the 2015 General Election, experts used a technique called sentiment analysis to examine Twitter users’ reactions to the televised leadership debates1. But is this type of analysis actually useful? Some think that tweets are spontaneous and might not represent the more calculated political decision of voters.

On the other side of the pond, Obama’s election strategy in 2012 made use of social media data on an unprecedented scale2. A huge data analytics team looked at social media data for patterns in past voter characteristics and used this information to inform their marketing strategy - e.g. broadcasting TV adverts in specific slots targeted at swing voters and virtually scouring the social media networks of Obama supporters on the hunt for friends who could be persuaded to join the campaign as well. 

Image from Flickr

In this year's US election, both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are making the most of social media's huge reach to rally support. The Trump campaign has recently released the America First app which collects personal data and awards points for recruiting friends3. Meanwhile Democrat nominee Clinton is building on the work of Barack Obama's social media team and exploring platforms such as Pinterest and YouTube4. Only time will tell who the eventual winner will be.

Playing the market

You know how Amazon suggests items you might like based on the items you’ve browsed on their site? This is a common marketing technique that allows companies to re-advertise products to users who have shown some interest in the brand but might not have bought anything. Linking browsing history to social media comments has the potential to make this targeted marketing even more sophisticated4.

Credit where credit’s due?

Many ‘new generation’ loan companies don’t use a traditional credit checks but instead gather other information on an individual - including social media data – and then decide whether to grant the loan5. Opinion is divided as to whether this new model is a good thing. On the one hand it allows people who might have been rejected by traditional checks to get credit. But critics say that people are being judged on data that they assume is private. And could this be a slippery slope to allowing other industries (e.g. insurance) to gather information in this way? Could this lead to discrimination?

Image from Flickr

What's the problem?

Despite all these applications there’s lots of discussion about the best way to analyse social media data. How can we control for biases and how do we make sure our samples are representative? There are also concerns about privacy and consent. Some social media data (like Twitter) is public and can be seen and used by anyone (subject to terms and conditions). But most Facebook data is only visible to people specified by the user. The problem is: do users always know what they are signing up for?

Image from Pixabay

Lots of big data companies are using anonymised data (where obvious identifiers like name and date of birth are removed) which can be distributed without the users consent. But there may still be the potential for individuals to be re-identified - especially if multiple datasets are combined - and this is a major problem for many concerned with privacy.

If you are an avid social media user, a big data specialist, a privacy advocate or are simply interested in finding out more join us on 21st September to discuss further. Tickets are available here.

Katie Howe

08 August 2016

Local heroes: “Without the least sense of pain or the movement of a muscle”

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As part of a new series exploring local heroes in the Knowledge Quarter area, Philip Eagle reveals the curious history of anesthesia. 

Francis Boott. Image: Public domain

A short bus ride away from the British Library, at 52 Gower Street, a blue plaque records the site of the first operation under general anaesthesia in the UK. On 19th December 1846, the dentist James Robinson performed a tooth extraction on a Miss Lonsdale. At the time, 52 Gower Street was the home of Dr. Francis Boott, an American expatriate physician who had heard from friends of the development of diethyl ether as an anaesthetic by William Morton in Boston.

Robinson lived further down the street towards the West End, at 14 Gower Street, where he has his own blue plaque. As well as his work on anaesthetics, he was the author of The Surgical and Mechanical Treatment of the Teeth, claimed to be the first British dental textbook of real scientific quality. He would later become dentist to Prince Albert, and be significantly involved in the creation of the College of Dentistry and the National Dental Hospital.

In a letter to the Lancet, Boott described the operation with the following words:

“I beg to add, that on Saturday, the 19th, a firmly fixed molar tooth was extracted in my study from Miss Lonsdale, by Mr. Robinson, in the presence of my wife, two of my daughters, and myself, without the least sense of pain, or the movement of a muscle”

In a book published later in the year, Robinson himself stated that the patient was only thirteen years old, and reported that:

“She had not felt the slightest pain, but had been dreaming of the country”.

Anaesthesia blue plaques
Blue plaque images by Spudgun67 CC BY-SA 4.0

Subsequently in the nineteenth century, diethyl ether was largely replaced as a general anaesthetic in the UK by chloroform, which was less irritating to the throat and lungs and less likely to have the initially stimulant effect that ether had on some patients. Since the mid twentieth century, the most important inhaled anaesthetics have been the fluorinated alkane halothane and fluorinated ethers such as sevoflurane and desflurane, which are pharmacologically safer and more effective, and also physically safer due to their lower flammability.

Philip Eagle, STM Content Expert

Sources and further reading:

  • Anesthesiology, Science, Technology & Business (P) GY 30-E(4), since 2012 available electronically through Ovid in the Reading Rooms
  • Boott, F. Surgical operations performed during insensibility produced by the inhalation of sulphuric ether*, Lancet, 1847, 49 (1218): 5-8. General Reference Collection P.P.2787. Also available electronically through Science Direct in the Reading Rooms. * Note for chemists: “sulphuric ether” was a common name at the time for diethyl ether, due to its preparation by reacting ethanol with sulphuric acid. The chemical itself did not contain any sulphur.
  • British Journal of Anaesthesia, Science, Technology & Business (P) GY 30-E(2), since 2014 available electronically through OUP in the Reading Rooms
  • Ellis, R H. James Robinson: England’s true pioneer of anaesthesia. In The History of Anesthesia, Third International Symposium, Proceedings, 1992: 153-164. Document Supply 4317.854000. Available online.
  • Johnson, K B. Clinical pharmacology for anesthesiology. London: McGraw-Hill Education, 2015. Science, Technology & Business (B) 615.781
  • Pain, Document Supply 6333.795000, also available electronically through Ovid in the Reading Rooms
  • Robinson, J. Treatise on the inhalation of the vapour of ether for the prevention of pain in surgical operations, etc. London: Webster & Co. 1847. General Reference Collection
  • Robinson, J. The surgical and mechanical treatment of the teeth: including dental mechanics. London, 1846. General Reference Collection 1186.c.46 and RB.23.a.27503.
  • Shafer, S L and others. Stoelting’s pharmacology and physiology in anesthetic practice. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2015. Science, Technology & Business (B) 615.781.
  • Snow, S J. Blessed days of anaesthesia. New York: Oxford University Press. 2008. General Reference Collection YC.2009.a.15022

23 June 2016

Illegal substances or aiding physical excellence? A few historical perspectives

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Ahead of next week's TalkScience event on Doping in Sport Julian Walker explores some historical examples of performance enhancement described in his new book "The Roar of the Crowd".

The essence of the debate regarding the use of drugs in sport is: what is an unfair substance to use, and how do we decide? The F60146-12dividing line between acceptable and unacceptable is, and for decades has been, constantly moving. For the lay-person the terms ‘anabolic steroids’ and ‘human growth hormones’ sound warning bells, but the equally prohibited ‘diuretics’ sound relatively harmless, and the word ‘stimulants’ requires detailed specification to the point where the word itself is more or less meaningless. How does the cultural history of sport handle this subject?

In Book 23 of Homer’s Iliad the funeral games held for Patroclus include a boxing match and a wrestling match. When the boxing match is announced forward comes Epeues, who has certainly done his mental preparation:

"I boast myself To all superior"

His endorphins are running and performance-enhancing even before he has a challenger, his control of the mind-game as assured as Ferguson’s or Mourinho’s. He is answered by the equally confident Euryalus. The fighters each dress for the fight, and:

"Mingling with fists, to furious fight they fell;

  Dire was the crash of jaws, and the sweat stream'd

  From every limb"

Eurylaus looks for an opening but effectively the fight is over with a single blow from Epeues, and he is taken away, spitting blood.

The wrestling bout is more of a match, Homer pitting brain against brawn, Ulysses against Ajax, neither managing to lift and throw the other. Ulysses then enters the running match, against Oiliades. It’s a close thing, Ulysses is probably tired from the wrestling, and it looks like he is going to lose:


  Led swift the course, and closely at his heels

  Ulysses ran. Near as some cinctured maid

  Industrious holds the distaff to her breast,                  

  While to and fro with practised finger neat

  She tends the flax drawing it to a thread,

  So near Ulysses follow'd him, and press'd

  His footsteps, ere the dust fill'd them again,

  Pouring his breath into his neck behind,                      

  And never slackening pace.[1]"

At this point Ulysses uses the Ancient Greek equivalent of a performance-enhancing drug – he calls on Minerva for help; and sure enough she trips his opponent so that he falls face-down in some cow-poo (ironically his prize for coming second is an ox). Quite blatantly Ulysses has use external assistance to gain victory, and got away with it. Oiliades puts in a complaint:

"Ah--Pallas tripp'd my footsteps; she attends                

  Ulysses ever with a mother's care."

And what happens?

    "Loud laugh'd the Grecians."

It’s a disgrace.

Robert Burton explores, in The Anatomy of Melancholy (1652), the role of exercise in balancing the body. He notes the Roman physician Galen’s contention that ‘to play at ball, be it with the hand or racket, in tennis-courts or otherwise, … exerciseth each part of the body, and doth much good, so that they sweat not too much’[2]. Burton here points out the control on exercise – do it to a certain level of sweating, but stop there; earlier he says that exercise should be done ‘after he hath done his ordinary needs, rubbed his body, washed his hands and face, combed his head and gargarised [gargled]’. These are physical and mental preparations, getting the body empty (I take this to be the meaning of ‘done his ordinary needs’), clean and warmed, and knowing exactly how far to go. While not explicitly involving the ingesting of external substances, they do indicate that exercise does not stand in isolation: the mind and body are made ready for maximum benefit by specific preparation.

F60146-17The pre-match preparation of Captain Barclay, the early nineteenth-century endurance athlete, pushed this process further, and was carefully described by Walter Thom in Pedestrianism (1813). Using Barclay as a model, Thom offers a regimen for the preparing athlete, beginning with ‘a regular course of physic, which consists of three dozes [doses]. Glauber salts are generally preferred’. Glauber salt, sodium sulphate decahydrate, is named after Joseph Glauber, who isolated it in 1625, and named it ‘sal mirabilis’ for its supposed medicinal properties; it was used as a purgative (laxative), and is currently deemed acceptable. Thom’s diet list for the aspiring athlete starts with ‘beef-steaks or mutton-chops under-done, with stale bread and old beer’, and goes on to prohibit any ‘preparations of vegetable matter’ other than ‘biscuit and stale bread’. Prohibited foods include veal, lamb and pork, vegetables, as well as fish, butter, cheese, or milk. Profuse sweating is required, induced by running four miles in flannel at top speed, followed by the imbibing of ‘sweating liquor’, made from caraway-seed, coriander-seed, and liquorice, boiled down in cider, after which the athlete is ‘put to bed in his flannels, and being covered with six or eight pairs of blankets, and a feather-bed’ for about half an hour. As regards hydration ‘water is never given alone … avoid liquids as much as possible, and no more liquor of any kind is allowed to be taken than what is merely requisite to quench the thirst’.

While none of these steps, however eccentric, look ethically dubious, they do make up a massive control regimen for the enhancement of the athlete’s performance. The commodified successor to Capt Barclay’s ‘red-meat & no veg’ diet was Vin Mariani, the so-called ‘athlete’s wine’, launched in 1863. This popular concoction of red wine and coca leaves, whose stimulant properties were praised by the mostly sedentary great and the good, also happened to aid endurance for athletes and cyclists. Cocaine is now, of course, a banned substance for athletes, but Capt Barclay’s coriander-seed and caraway-seed are both diuretics.

By the end of the 19th century training itself, in some circles, was deemed unsporting. When Blackburn Olympic had the temerity to beat the Old Etonians in the 1883 FA Cup Final the Eton College Chronicle wrote,

‘So great was their desire to wrest the Cup from the holders that they introduced into football a practice which has excited the greatest disapprobation in the South.  For three weeks before the final match they went into a strict course of training …’

Blackburn Olympic won 2:1 after extra time. Somehow the Old Etonians had not noticed that the goalposts had moved.


But that perhaps is the question: when we come to look at acceptable or unacceptable substances, can we compare them to laxatives, diuretics, diets and sweating regimes, training or neglecting to train, or even the possible advantage of supreme arrogance, which though it did not work for the 1883 Old Etonians probably helped Epeues? Seeding, records, divisions and trophy cabinets ensure that competing athletes never start on a level playing field. Professional status, sponsorship and training facilities make a real difference to achievement. The ethical paradigms by which we judge acceptable from unacceptable are based on judgements and categorisations that fluctuate all the time. When we compare Phendimetrazine with good old mutton chops are we looking at a difference of kind or a difference of degree?

Julian Walker is an artist, writer, researcher and educator. His latest book "The Roar of the Crowd" is a major new anthology of sports writing that captures the drama, excitement and intrigue of athletic achievement and celebrates the innate urge to compete, to fight, and to test the human body. He is also the author of "The Finishing Touch: Cosmetics Through the Ages" and "How to Cure the Plague and other Curious Remedies".

[1] William Cowper’s translation, 1791

[2] Part 2, Section 2, Member 4.