The Transparent Psychologist

Bringing transparency to neuroscience, including recent advances in clinical psychology, human brain imaging and cognitive science. De-bunking myths and critically evaluating research. Exploring how the public interacts with neuroscience by examining popular coverage in the media.

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Interview with Dr Jake Fairnie from MiniManuscript.com

Biography and Introduction

Dr Jake Fairnie was born in Bristol. He now lives in London and completed his BSc in Psychology in 2009 at University College London (UCL) with First Class Honours. He went on to study for a PhD in Cognitive Neuroscience, under the supervision of Professor Nilli Lavie, based in the Attention and Cognitive Control group at the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience (ICN).

Dr Jake Fairnie

In his spare time he produces short films. His film ‘We Didn’t Start the scanner’ (www.youtube.com/watch?v=iDDzJv3DqXw ) won the ‘ICN Brains on Film’ competition in 2012, as well as the ‘Guerilla Science Eat My Sci Short Film’ competition in 2012.

He completed his PhD earlier this year, and has since been working on MiniManuscript.com, an exciting new project that he co-founded and that he has kindly agreed to talk to The Transparent Psychologist about!

MiniManuscipt.com Interview 

Leila Jameel = LJ

Dr Jake Fairnie = JF

LJ: Congratulations on completing your PhD! So tell me about your research interests…

JF: I’m deeply fascinated by human perception. More specifically the way in which our brains cope with the overwhelming amount of sensory information in today’s hectic world. For instance, we can be distracted by our name in a distant conversation at a party; an attractive individual in the street; or a spider on a dashboard. Yet at the same time, we fail to notice a magician’s sleight of hand, the touch of a pickpocket, or even (as in one experiment) a ‘moonwalking gorilla’ set up to infiltrate a basketball game.

LJ: You are the co-founder of MiniManuscript.com. Tell me about it; what is it and what does it do?

JF: MiniManuscript.com is the only free, openly editable online database of article summaries. Users can post, read and discuss condensed versions of scientific publications and related online content such as YouTube videos and podcasts. The site allows students and the academic community to examine a large amount of literature in a short space of time. I guess MiniManuscript.com is a bit like Wikipedia but for academic literature.

LJ: It sounds great. What prompted you to set up MiniManuscript.com?

JF: MiniManuscript.com was born out of something that Dr Anna Remington (a Junior Research Fellow at the University of Oxford and the other co-founder of MiniManuscript.com) and I found ourselves doing when we began working together in the Attention and Cognitive Control group at UCL. Students and academics spend a huge amount of time reading literature and as we worked in a similar area of research we quickly realised that we were reading the same publications. So we created a shared online document where we would write summary versions of articles we’d read allowing us to cover twice the material in the same amount of time. It struck us that this should happen on a global scale: imagine how much time could be saved if the whole academic world worked together in this manner! MiniManuscript.com was born.

LJ: How is an article summary different from an abstract?

JF: An abstract is the author’s subjective interpretation of the paper (e.g. ‘This is the first paper to report the impact of cellphone use on visual awareness’) and can sometimes be misleading. As with newspaper headlines – it can appear to be one thing, and then you get to the end, and realise it’s another! However, MiniManuscript text summaries focus on the raw facts, such as what they did and what they found (e.g. ‘30% of individuals failed to notice an unexpected salient object, this increased to 90% for individuals that were engaged in a phone conversation’). One colleague summarised MiniManuscript as: “open platform for re-writing the abstract.” I really like that way of looking at it, even if it doesn’t paint the full picture of what MiniManuscript offers.

MiniManuscript.com saves people time by making it easier to work out whether a research paper is really relevant. Given the premium placed on Twitter-style brevity nowadays and the limited capacity of the brain, it is highly valuable to have a resource that encourages people to focus on the relevant information and not to dwell on the irrelevant details. We think MiniManuscript.com could not have come at a better time for the academic world!

LJ: So is it just for the academic community, or can it be used by the general public?

JF: MiniManuscript.com is completely free and open for anyone to view any of the content (note that you’d need to sign up for a free account in order to contribute). We have no restrictions, exclusions or paywalls. Given that the site contains summaries of academic publications, we are currently focussed on spreading the word within the academic community, but we welcome anyone who wants to take a look and contribute!  We believe that there can be benefits from having an open dialogue with people from a wide range of disciplines. Our ethos is that scientific knowledge should be shared in the most efficient, open and connected way.

In fact, MiniManuscript.com text summaries are not only beneficial to researchers (in allowing them to assess a large amount of information in a short space of time), but also to journalists, dyslexics and people who do not speak English as their first language.

LJ: Do you think there are there any risks or drawback to using MiniManuscript.com?

JF: There are no drawbacks or risks to MiniManuscript.com. Users can opt to remain anonymous; all we require is that contributors provide their academic status. This protects anyone that might be frightened of causing upset with their comments. Our discussion threads are a great platform for debate (which is the basis of good science) and we want to encourage as much participation as possible.

LJ: I think anonymity is great, as it will encourage people to be free and open about their thoughts. But, with anonymity may also come risks…how do you moderate the forums?

JF: We have a couple of ways to moderate the forums on MiniManuscript.com Users can flag other users, or their comments (like on Facebook) which notifies the MiniManuscript team with a high priority marker. This provides an initial safety barrier. Within the comment thread there is potential for people to be abusive, but that is not the aim. The aim is to talk about the research openly.

LJ: What are your long term plans for MiniManuscript.com? What do you think its impact and role will be?

JF: We believe that MiniManuscript.com can become an accepted tool in the world of research. The site is particularly helpful in the preliminary stages of scientific projects (e.g. literature reviews, grant proposals, publications) and the discussion threads provide a great platform for post-publication peer review. We are creating a more efficient, open and connected culture within academia.

We want to evolve the site’s functionality around our users. Twitter is a great example of what I mean by this. When Twitter was first launched, the hashtag symbol (#) was just a keyboard character like any other. However, the founders quickly noticed that people were using the symbol to mark keywords or topics in their Tweets. The site soon began hyperlinking the hashtags and added trending topics to the homepage. Similarly, we are paying close attention to MiniManuscript users, and aim to build functionality around them.

LJ: On that note, what are your thoughts about open access?

NB Open access refers to the open and free availability of publicly-funded research outputs. Historically readers or institutions have had to subscribe to specific journals or publishers in order to access research papers. However, the culture is changing and many journals are ceasing to charge readers and are going ‘open access’.

JF: MiniManuscript.com approaches the open access debate in a radically different way. It’s not only about financial access, it’s also about conceptual access, making sure that ideas in papers are easily understood. We can all be guilty of using unnecessary jargon, and this is particularly apparent in scientific writing. In a MiniManuscript text summary only the bare essentials of a paper are outlined. This promotes an environment where potentially complex concepts are explained in their most simple terms, and thus making the concept more accessible.

LJ: How is MiniManuscript.com funded?

JF: So far we have managed to sustain the site through institutional grants. We won the UCL Bright Ideas Award 2012 and the Shell LiveWIRE Grand Ideas Award 2012 that provided the seed capital to develop, launch and promote the website. While advertising is brilliant and keeps much of the internet free, it is distracting – and distraction is the enemy of efficiency. So we are doing all we can to avoid it.  Keeping MiniManuscript.com free from charges and adverts does mean that we rely on sponsorship and donations to keep going.

LJ: Fantastic!

On a lighter note, tell me an interesting fact about yourself?

JF: U2 once flashed my name up on screen at Glastonbury… it is a long story!

(www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=L3Lh5elQFuQ ).

LJ: And finally, what are your plans for the future?

JF: I’m keeping my options open at the moment, so Mystic Meg would have a tricky time with me…!

LJ: Many thanks for talking to me. I hope MiniManuscript.com is a success!

The Modern Freak Show? Our Obsession With The Weird and Wonderful.

The recent slew of TV programs about ‘weird and wonderful’ people raises interesting questions. What is the purpose of these shows; to inform and educate, or to entertain? From “The Town that caught Tourette’s” to “Obsessive Compulsive Hoarders”, 4od is awash with documentaries about extraordinary people. But, they aren’t just extraordinary, some of the subjects of these shows are very, very ill. Some of them struggle to function in everyday life as a result of their conditions or disabilities. 

The Undateables” is a channel 4 documentary that has become a hit show, and has just been commissioned for its third series. The premise is that people living with challenging conditions are often considered ‘undateable’. The series meets some of these people and follows them on their quest for love. So what is the point of putting cameras in their life to document their perspective’s and struggles? Is it to give us a right old laugh at their expense, or to sympathise with their needs? And is it all doom and gloom, or can they inspire us by demonstrating a positive outlook in often dire circumstances?

It features a range of people with a range of difficulties. We have met a couple of Tourette’s sufferers, whose attempts to suppress their less-than-appropriate-date-time tics are excruciating to watch. On the other hand, it is also refreshing to see this condition represented in a serious light. The coverage of people with Tourette’s Syndrome tends to focus on the hilarity of involuntarily shouting obscenities. Having worked with people with Tourette’s I know this is far from the truth; it not only affects their love lives but every single aspect of their daily life.

We have also met a couple of people with Autistic Spectrum Disorders. From Michael whose conversation relies on catch phrases he has rote learnt, or prompts on his phone from his mum, to Richard, to whom the prospect of dating someone from outside of a 5-mile radius is terrifying. Again, I find a tension; between documenting how the mundane and everyday to you and I is extremely challenging for these individuals, and exploiting their difficulties to pull in viewers like spectators to a circus.

As one would expect public opinion has been mixed on this… a quick search on twitter reveals an awful lot of encouraging tweets such as “I really do love the #Undateables …they are all inspiring people…”*. On the other hand, there is also some rather less ‘positive’ exposure, for example, “I got my mum a bunch of flowers. I am sitting at the front of the bus with them looking like a fat virgin on his first date #Undateable.”*

*Tweets have been paraphrased to protect author anonymity!

The advertising watchdog has received complaints that the show is offensive towards disabled people, and encourages stereotyping and bullying. And, the individual’s featured ability to make an informed decision to consent has also been called into question. While Channel 4 argue that they hope to change perceptions of disability, the show has been attacked in the media for clearly setting up a distinction between disabled people and non-disabled people. Surely the way to address this is normalise rather than emphasise the differences between us all? Whilst showing disabled people dating is a rather radical concept, the show capitalizes on the paramount difficulties this poses the individuals featured. Instead it should focus on the fact that everyone, disabled and non-disabled alike, wants to find “the one” and that for many people it is a challenging and demoralizing experience!