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We are the British Library Science Team; we provide access to world-leading scientific information resources, manage UK DataCite and run science events and exhibitions. This blog highlights a variety of the activities we are involved with. Follow us on Twitter: @ScienceBL. Read more

31 March 2015

Access to Understanding 2015: In Summary

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The winners of the Access to Understanding science writing competition are revealed.

On Friday 27 March, under the striking façade of the King’s Library Tower, the British Library played host to the Access to Understanding Awards 2015. The event was a celebration of excellent science writing: an evening to recognise the efforts and accomplishments of our entrants and also, more broadly, to recognise the value of clear science communication. But before we reflect on the evening’s festivities, first we take a look back at the competition as a whole.

The competition is run in partnership by The British Library, eLife and Europe PMC. We asked entrants to write a summary of a research article at a level that an interested member of the public would understand. Each summary needed to explain why the research was done, what was done and why it was important, all in fewer than 800 words. Entrants could choose from twelve articles, freely available from Europe PMC.

Looking back at the competition...

Now in its third year, the competition has gone from strength to strength. We received over 300 entries and a record number of votes were cast for the People’s Choice Award (1604). If ever evidence were needed that there is a demand for plain-English science, from both the public and the scientific community, then Access to Understanding provides it.

The need for plain-English science summaries was further underlined by Professor Jim Smith, Deputy CEO of the MRC, in his keynote speech where he stated that “such summaries would be a huge contribution to our attempts to explain science and its significance”. He felt that, in combination with further open access publishing, “this democratisation of science is very important, [perhaps] the most radical change in science communication since… the first journal 350 years ago.” Simon Denegri, NIHR National Director for Patients and the Public in Research and chair of our judging panel, echoed the importance of plain-English science in his speech emphasising that “the knowledge gained from good [science] writing is empowering”.

Jim Smith keynote
Professor Jim Smith giving his keynote speech

Now, our shortlist represents some of the best plain-English science writing around, but who was the best?

Our shortlist (from left to right): Sabrina Talukdar (People's Choice), Elizabeth Randall, Hannah Ralph, Hannah Mackay, Carly Lawler, Natalie Edelman, Minghao Chia, Peter Canning (3rd), David Bowkett, Philippa Matthews (1st), Sophie Regnault, and chair of our judging panel Simon Denegri.

First place was awarded to Philippa Matthews for her entry ‘Rolling back malaria: A journey through space and time’, which described research exploring the changing patterns of malaria risk across Africa. Second place went to Juliet Lamb for her entry ‘Who you are, or who you’re with? Age predicts disease risk’. And third place was awarded to Peter Canning for his entry ‘Breaking through cancer’s acid shell’ which discussed drug absorption in the acidic environment around tumours. The People’s Choice Award – a key part of our competition – was won by Sabrina Talukdar for her entry ‘The persistent perils of puberty’. For more on these winning entries, please check out our previous blog announcing the competition winners.

Our winners (clockwise from top left): Peter Canning (3rd), Philippa Matthews (1st) and Sabrina Talukdar (People's Choice)

These Pulitzers of plain-English science are the culmination of several months of hard work – by entrants, funders and judges alike – without them there would be no competition. We’d like to thank everyone involved for their efforts and we look forward to doing it all over again in 2016!

27 March 2015

Access to Understanding 2015: Who Won What?

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With the Access to Understanding awards ceremony just about wrapping up, we can now announce the winners…

First place was awarded to Philippa Matthews for her entry ‘Rolling back malaria: A journey through space and time’, which described research exploring the changing patterns of malaria risk across Africa. The piece was praised by our judges for its enthusiasm, clear writing style, and sense of narrative; “using the facts to tell the story” with a “sense that the research team were on an expedition”. Congratulations Philippa!


Second place went to Juliet Lamb for her entry ‘Who you are, or who you’re with? Age predicts disease risk’. The judges felt that it was “confidently written” and did a “great job of clarifying the use of mathematical models in research”. And third place was awarded to Peter Canning for his entry ‘Breaking through cancer’s acid shell’ which “didn’t shy away from the hard science” of drug absorption in the acidic environment around tumours.

And finally, the People’s Choice Award – a key part of our competition – read by you and voted for by you. The overwhelming response to the award, with over 1600 votes across all entries, yet again demonstrates the public appetite for accessible science writing. This year’s winner with over 400 votes was Sabrina Talukdar with her entry ‘The persistent perils of puberty’. One reader commented that it was a “well written piece, making the original paper very accessible to lay people” which is exactly what Access to Understanding is about.

The standard of entries this year was very high, and it’s great to see the enthusiasm, talent and motivation of all the scientists who entered the competition.

You can read all of the shortlisted articles on our website, with topics ranging from body clocks to tinnitus. If you want to delve deeper, every article is also accompanied with a link to the original research paper freely available from Europe PMC – the European gateway to biomedical research.

Boudewijn Dominicus

16 March 2015

Shell shocked

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Continuing our series about the scientific advancements that emerged from the First World War, Paul Allchin examines how shell shock led to the development of treatments for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Confronted with the scale of shell shock during trench warfare, the British establishment and medical profession responded by gradually changing attitudes to mental illness from organic causes and punitive treatments to more sympathetic psychotherapeutic interventions. 

Dr William Halse Rivers Rivers is best known for his work with shell shocked soldiers during World War One. He and his contemporaries debated long after the war the merits of the organic versus psychotherapeutic approaches to treating shell shock. One of Rivers’ patients at Craiglockhart War Hospital near Edinburgh was the war poet Siegfried Sassoon. In Sassoon’s fictionalised autobiography, “The Complete Memoirs of George Sherston”, he described his observations of shell shock and its effects on soldiers:

“How many a brief bombardment had its long-delayed after effects in the minds of these survivors, many of whom had looked at their companions and laughed while inferno did its best to destroy them. Not then was their evil hour, but now; now, in the sweating suffocation of nightmare, in paralysis of limbs, in the stammering of dislocated speech. Worst of all in the disintegration of those qualities through which they had been so gallant and selfless and uncompromising – this, in the finer types of men, was the unspeakable tragedy of shell-shock …”

By June 1918, the government established a network of specialist hospitals to treat shell shock victims and specialist centres at Maghull and Netley for training medical field officers. However it was not until 1930 that the new Labour government changed UK legislation by removing the death penalty for desertion and cowardice in the armed forces.

Dr. Rivers. Dr. William Brown and Dr. Elliot Smith. Military hospital, Maghull, 1915. © The British Library Board

In contrast to the imperialist courage and valour expressed by war poets in the Victorian era, World War One saw a sea change in the way poetry and the theatre depicted the reality of war and disillusionment of those returning from battle. Sassoon's poem “Survivors” describes the experience of some.

It could well be argued that the government and establishment were very slow in responding to the needs of shell shock victims. Military authorities believed that training, morale, and discipline could prevent shell shock, and did not maintain a psychiatric service. When the Second World War broke out, only six regular officers in the British army had psychiatric training. Equally it was not until 1930 that the Mental Treatment Act made provision for voluntary treatment at outpatient clinics, providing the mentally afflicted with an alternative to the asylum.

Even though shell shocked veterans benefitted from special clinics, many also experienced considerable difficulties in claiming pensions for psychological injury and it was many years before an adequate mental health care system was established.

World War One accelerated advances in theory, practice and research in psychiatry, psychological medicine and psychotherapy, especially the cognitive model of PTSD treatment based on prompt intervention, re-processing the trauma, conceptual meaning making and reframing, developing the therapist/client alliance and reclaiming personal control in victim’s lives. These themes are echoed in the lives of all adults and children following their personal self-healing journeys whether they are male or female and whether their battles are in the military or domestic arenas. The social taboos and misunderstandings surrounding mental illness remain a challenge even today as mental health awareness programmes still need to remind us that we are human and not machines.

Shellshock in World War One. Image: Wikipedia; Public Domain

Our current understanding of shell-shock and PTSD is described in a chapter on trauma and stress in the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual DSM-5, Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, 5th edition, 2013 used throughout the medical profession today.

Paul Allchin

Reference Specialist – Science, Technology and Medicine

See here for a detailed bibliography and suggestions for further reading