Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Current Issues in Educational Neuroscience: A workshop sponsored by the Bloomsbury and UCL Doctoral Training Centres

On Friday 20th November, postgraduate students and early career researchers attended a workshop to hear about and discuss current issues in educational neuroscience. The day started with a keynote talk from Professor Daphne Bavelier from the University of Geneva. Daphne’s research has shown that video games can produce a wide range of improvements beyond just video game performance, for example in attentional control. This work has clear implications for possible educational training programmes. The first symposium of the day examined the potential for training executive functions from infancy to adolescence. Following a lunchtime poster session, the second symposium looked at environmental factors associated with learning and development. The final session was a panel discussion, where the panel summed up their thoughts on the day and took questions from attendees. This was a particularly fruitful part of the workshop, as the panel considered a number of important issues in the field.

Daphne Bavelier began the panel session by posing the question of how intervention resources should be divided between family and school. On the one hand, family interventions seem to be more effective, but on the other hand, school interventions are cheaper and can be done on a larger scale. Daphne espoused research that includes teachers from the outset, arguing that these are the best projects.

Jeremy Dudman Jones, an Assistant Headteacher, was able to use his experiences in school to give the perspective of teachers. Jeremy explained that teachers often look to neuroscience for silver bullets that don’t exist, or alternatively teachers may have no interest in finding out about relevant neuroscientific findings. This highlights the fine balance between presenting findings in a relevant and interesting way, but without hyperbole. Jeremy also discussed the importance of sharing scientific debates with teachers: informing teachers of the lack of consensus in new research areas may help to guard against myths infiltrating educational practice, as well as engaging teachers in the topic. Finally, Jeremy argued that it is crucial for research to get into teacher training programmes, which unfortunately does not happen at the moment.

Lia Commissar from the Wellcome Trust spoke about the six projects that were awarded funding last year from the Wellcome Trust and Education Endowment Foundation. Each of these projects focuses on improving educational attainment, particularly in terms of closing the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their more affluent peers. Lia mentioned a number of current activities within the Wellcome Trust that aim to provide free materials that are accessible for teachers. The online Learning Zone forum on I’m A Scientist: Get me out of here features questions asked by teachers and answered by scientists. This is an excellent start but the next iteration will be more of a two-way conversation. Lia hoped that the future of the field would lead to research questions informed by the classroom. Teachers are in the unique position of being able to try out something in the classroom, and suggesting it to scientists for rigorous investigation. Lia was keen to invite researchers from any allied field to get involved in the Educational Neuroscience dialogue.

Professor Emily Farran from the UCL Institute of Education and the Centre for Educational Neuroscience spoke about both the scientific and practical elements of intervention research. Intervention studies require active control groups to ensure that any observed effects are due to the specific intervention rather than simply focusing on something for twenty minutes a day. Emily also stressed the importance of investigating individual differences due to genetics and environment, and how these factors might influence the effectiveness of training. Finally, Emily urged scientists to go back to the schools where they carried out their research to share their findings and communicate with teachers.

The workshop proved to be a thorough investigation of the hot topics in Educational Neuroscience: the current areas of research and the key issues with conducting such work. The inclusion of non-researchers in the discussion was a useful reminder of the benefits of involving all stakeholders in the Educational Neuroscience community. Hopefully future conferences and discussions will follow in the footsteps of this workshop and invite scientists, teachers, funders, and even policy makers. It is clear that opening up this dialogue is the best way to work together to improve teaching and learning.


Centre for Educational Neuroscience:

Daphne Bavelier’s TED talk:

Learning Zone on I’m A Scientist: Get me out of here:

Wellcome Trust and EEF funded projects:

Monday, 2 March 2015

Why and how we should all be making our research open access

How often have you come across an article that is relevant to your work, only to find that it is behind a paywall? You may eventually have gained access through your university’s journal subscriptions, but what about those who have no university affiliation? The issue of free, immediate, unlimited access to research is currently a hot topic across all sciences. But what exactly is meant by ‘open access’, what are the benefits, and how can you make sure your work is open access? This article will examine the issues and myths surrounding open access. 

Open access refers to the publishing of research and scientific data online at no cost to the reader. As researchers, we want our work to be accessed by the maximum number of people, not only for improving our citations, but also to spread knowledge about our exciting areas of research. Academics in low income countries may not have university journal subscriptions, leaving them unable to keep up with the latest work in their area. Doctors, teachers and policy makers may also want access to the latest research to inform decisions about practice (The Right to Research Coalition, 2014). Further, patients might want to look at possible adverse effects from different treatments as reported in journal articles. More generally, members of the public may simply have an interest in research findings. Given that much of our research is funded by the tax payer, we have a duty to make our outputs accessible to everyone. 

Surprisingly then, open access is still debated, and many researchers are still choosing not to publish through this route (Rhodes, 2014). This is partly a result of widespread misunderstandings about open access (Suber, 2013). One myth is that submissions do not go through such rigorous peer review. This is certainly not a feature of open access publishing. In fact a number of journals publish peer reviews alongside accepted articles, so that you can see the reviewer comments. Reading through these (for example, at the open access journal PeerJ (www.peerj.com)), will show that the peer review standard is equivalent to traditional journals. It is also commonly believed that open access publishing is expensive, but it can be cheap and in many cases it is free to submit to an open access journal. The Directory of Open Access Journals (2014) has a search engine that allows you to look for free journals. A further concern about open access is that papers do not reach high impact compared to traditional journals. If you measure impact by wide readership, then it is clearly the case that your paper can go further when it is freely accessible online across the globe. Indeed, research has shown that open access articles received more citations than closed access articles within the same journal (Eysenbach, 2006). Academics are becoming increasingly critical of journal impact factors (Curry, 2012), and with the rise of public engagement, research impact is starting to be measured in more real terms than a journal’s impact factor. The Research Councils UK (2014) Pathways to Impact go beyond academic impact alone, and encourage researchers to have economic and societal impacts.

So how should you go about making your work open access? As a postgraduate student, the first thing you can do is discuss options with your supervisor. When you are working on a paper, make it clear that you’d like to go open access. As with all paper submissions, look for related work and see where it has been published. Some journals are not fully open access but allow you to pay to make your own article open. The Research Councils UK and the Wellcome Trust have pots of money available for open access fees. Again, speak with your supervisor, and ask your librarian, who should know the procedure for accessing this money. Your university should also have an online repository for uploading your article after it has been accepted for publication. This can often just be a pre-print version, but it means that others can access your work straight away.

In terms of open data, many journals will allow you to include your raw data in a supplementary section, or you could upload it to a separate online repository and refer to it. There is an increasing push to make raw research data open access (Alsheikh–Ali, 2011) as it increases the transparency of your work and allows the data to be used by other researchers. How often have you read a paper and been dubious about the results? Or perhaps you’ve wondered what the raw data looks like? By providing this data, you are allowing others to look at it and confirm that your conclusions fit the data. Given recent fraud in our field, this is one way of building trust, and it allows others to play with your data. Rather than worrying about others seeing our raw data, we should be flattered that it is deemed interesting enough to be explored! Storing data online is also a nice way of preserving it, following the hours (if not months or years!) that went into collection and input. The Dryad Digital Repository (2013) is one example of a website that allows you to upload your data.

As early career researchers, we may find ourselves faced with difficult decisions when it comes to open access. Erin McKiernan is an early career researcher who has pledged to be open (McKiernan, 2014). McKiernan will not edit or review papers for closed access journals, nor will she publish in closed access journals. McKiernan has therefore pledged to take her name off of a paper if her co-authors refuse to publish open access. These are decisions that need made individually, and they are likely to be difficult at times. If you are lucky enough to discover something groundbreaking in your research, you may be forced to choose between submitting to a careermaking high impact journal such as Nature or Science, and submitting to an open access journal that may be overlooked by future employers. Awareness of these issues is increasing, evidenced by the second open access conference, which was held in October last year (OpenCon 2014, 2014). At the moment there are no right or wrong answers to these scenarios, but it is hoped that with time all journals will be freely accessible across the globe, and we won’t have to make these decisions. Visit Right to Research (www.righttoresearch.org) to find out more about the steps you can take to support open access.

This article was originally published in PsyPAG Quarterly, a peer-reviewed publication by and for psychology postgraduates at UK universities. Full reference:
Brookman, A. (2015). Why and how we should all be making our research open access. PsyPAG Quarterly, 94, 53-54.


Alsheikh–Ali, A.A., Qureshi, W., Al-Mallah, M.H. & Ioannidis, J. P. A. (2011). Public availability of published research data in high-impact journals. PLoS ONE, 6, e24357.

Curry, S. (2012). Sick of Impact Factors. Reciprocal Space. [Blog post]. Retrieved 11 December 2014 from www.occamstypewriter.org/scurry/2012/08/13/sick-of-impact-factors

Dryad (2013, December 18). The repository: Key features. Dryad Digital Repository. Retrieved 11 December 2014 from www.datadryad.org/pages/repository

Infrastructure Services for Open Access (2014). Directory of Open Access Journals. Retrieved 11 December 2014 from www.doaj.org

McKiernan, E. (2014). Being Open as an Early-Career Researcher. Paper Presented at OpenCon 2014, 21 November. Video available from www.youtube.com/ watch?v=h4jWAj6Ji08&feature=youtu.be

Eysenbach, G. (2006). Citation Advantage of Open Access Articles. PLoS Biology, 4(5), e157.

OpenCon 2014 (2014). About OpenCon. Retrieved 11 December 2014 from www.opencon2014.org

Research Councils UK (2014). What do Research Councils mean by ‘impact’? Retrieved 11 December 2014 from www.rcuk.ac.uk/ke/impacts/meanbyimpact

Rhodes, E. (2014). Open-access concerns. The Psychologist, 27(12), p.905.

The Right to Research Coalition (2014). Why Open Access? Retrieved 11 December 2014 from www.righttoresearch.org/learn/whyOA/index.shtml

Suber, P. (2013, October 21). Open access: Six myths to put to rest. The Guardian. Retrieved 11 December 2014 from www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/ blog/2013/oct/21/open-access-myths-peter-suber-harvard

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

‘G is for Genes: The impact of genetics on education and achievement’ by Kathryn Asbury and Robert Plomin – book review

The study of genetics in relation to intelligence and educational achievement is controversial. There is fear that children with ‘good’ genes would get extra resources while those with ‘bad’ genes would get ignored. However, this book shows that far from having good or bad genes that determine academic outcomes, environment has a really important impact. Aimed at a wide-ranging audience, the book describes findings from the Twins Early Development Study (TEDS), a study of over 15,000 families with twins born from 1994 to 1996.

An outline of the methods used to study genetic versus environmental influence is provided, offering a great introduction to genetics for those new to this area. The twin method works by looking at differences between identical (monozygotic) and non-identical (dizygotic) sets of twins. If the differences in a certain ability are smaller between the identical twins than the non-identical twins, we can conclude that genetics are playing an important role. This is because identical twins share all of their genetic code, while non-identical twins share around half of their genetic code. Analyses allow researchers to tease apart genetic and environmental effects. The book describes findings about science, maths, language, and PE. It also discusses special educational needs, genetic disorders, socioeconomic status and school quality. My main take-home message is that it is a very complicated picture, whereby lots of genes contribute to academic outcomes and each has a small effect (for example there is no single maths ability gene).

Finally, the authors provide a list of practical applications that teachers and policy makers could put in place based on the findings. This is my favourite part of the book, as it helps to close what initially seems like a large gap between genetics and education. I think it is important for all scientists whose work is relevant in a practical setting to outline the implications, rather than leaving it to non-experts to extrapolate. This reminds me of the recent push for educational neuroscience; teachers are keen to use neuroscience in their classrooms but without expert advice may unwittingly follow unscientific methods. Although some of the recommendations given are not necessarily contingent on genetics findings per se (for example, studying behaviour alone may have led to the conclusion that labelling children is not helpful), an understanding of genetics may make these arguments more convincing. Policy makers, teachers, parents and pupils may be more convinced by a school change that is 'genetically sensitive’.

Overall the book is a great introduction for those new to genetics, and is an excellent example of how researchers should be relating their scientific findings to education.

To find out more about how genetics may relate to education, and in particular intelligence, I recommend this BBC podcast which examines some of the moral debates.


Asbury, K., & Plomin, R. (2014). G is for Genes: The impact of genetics on education and achievement. West Sussex, UK: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.