VSS 2012 abstracts, and Open satellite

Below are research presentations I’m involved in for Vision Sciences Society in May. If you’re attending VSS, don’t forget about the Publishing, Open Access, and Open Science satellite which will be Friday at 11am. Let us know your opinion on the issues and what should be discussed here

Splitting attention slows attention: poor temporal resolution in multiple object tracking

Alex O. Holcombe, Wei-Ying Chen

Session Name: Attention: Tracking (Talk session)

Session Date and Time: Sunday, May 13, 2012, 10:45 am – 12:30 pm

Location: Royal Ballroom 4-5

When attention is split into foci at disparate locations, the minimum size of the selection focus at each location is larger than if only one location is targeted (Franconeri, Alvarez, & Enns, 2007)- splitting attention reduces its spatial resolution. Here we tested temporal resolution and speed limits. STIMULUS. Three concentric circular arrays (separated by large distances to avoid spatial interactions between them) of identical discs were centered on fixation. Up to three discs (one from each ring) were designated as targets. The discs orbited fixation at a constant speed, occasionally reversing direction. After the discs stopped, participants were prompted to report the location of one of the targets. DESIGN. Across trials, the speed of the discs and the number in each array was varied, which jointly determined the temporal frequency. For instance, with 9 objects in the array, a speed of 1.1 rps would be 9.9 Hz. RESULTS. With only one target, tracking was not possible above about 9 Hz, far below the limits for perceiving the direction of the motion, and consistent with Verstraten, Cavanagh, & LaBianca (2000).  The data additionally suggest a speed limit, with tracking impossible above 1.8 rps, even when temporal frequency was relatively low. Tracking two targets could only be done at lower speeds (1.4 rps) and lower temporal frequencies (6 Hz). This decrease is approximately that predicted if at high speeds and high temporal frequencies, only a single target could be tracked. Tracking three yielded still lower limits. Little impairment was seen at very slow speeds, suggesting these results were not caused by a reduction in spatial resolution. CONCLUSION.  Splitting attention reduces the speed limits and the temporal frequency limits on tracking. We suggest a parallel processing resource is split among targets, with less resource on a target yielding poorer spatial and temporal precision and slower maximum speed.

A hemisphere-specific attentional resource supports tracking only one fast-moving object.

Wei-Ying Chen & Alex O. Holcombe

Session Name: Attention: Tracking (Talk session)

Session Date and Time: Sunday, May 13, 2012, 10:45 am – 12:30 pm

Location: Royal Ballroom 4-5

Playing a team sport or taking children to the beach involves tracking multiple moving targets. Resource theory asserts that a limited resource is divided among targets, and performance reflects the amount available per target. Holcombe and Chen (2011) validated this with evidence that tracking a fast-moving target depletes the resource. Using slow speeds Alvarez and Cavanagh (2005) found the resource consumed by additional targets is hemisphere-specific. They didn’t test the effect of speed, and here we tested whether speed also depletes a hemisphere-specific resource. To put any speed limit cost in perspective, we modeled a “total depletion” scenario- the speed limit cost if at high speeds one could not track the additional target at all and had to guess one target. Experiment 1 found that the speed limit for tracking two targets in one hemifield was similar to that predicted by total depletion, suggesting that the resource was totally depleted. If the second target was instead placed in the opposite hemifield, little decrement in speed limit occurred. Experiment 2 extended this comparison to tracking two vs. four targets. Compared to the speed limit for tracking two targets in a single hemifield, adding two more targets in the opposite hemifield left the speed limit largely unchanged. However starting with one target in both the left and right hemifields, adding another to each hemifield had a severe cost similar to that of the total depletion model. Both experiments support the theory that an object moving very fast exhausts a hemisphere-specific attentional tracking resource.

Attending to one green item while ignoring another: Costly, but with curious effects of stimulus arrangement

Shih-Yu Lo & Alex O. Holcombe

Session Name: Attention: Features I (Poster session)

Session Date and Time: Monday, May 14, 2012, 8:15 am – 12:15 pm

Location: Vista Ballroom

Splitting attention between targets of different colors is not costly by itself. As we found previously, however, monitoring a target of a particular color makes one more vulnerable to interference by distracters that share the target color. Participants monitored the changing spatial frequencies of two targets of either the same (e.g., red and red) or different colors (e.g., red and green). The changing stimuli disappeared without warning and participants reported the final spatial frequency of one of the targets. In the different-colors condition, a large cost occurs if a green distracter is superposed on the red target in the first location and a red distracter is superposed on the green target in the second location. This likely reflects a difficulty with attending to a color in one location while ignoring it in another. Here we focus on a subsidiary finding regarding perceptual lags. Participants reported spatial frequency values from the past rather than the correct final value, and such lags were greater in the different-colors condition. This “perceptual lag” cost was found when the two stimuli were horizontally arrayed but not, curiously, when they were vertically arrayed. Arrangement was confounded however with processing by separate brain hemispheres (opposite hemifields). In our new study, we unconfounded arrangement and presentation in separate hemifields with a diagonal condition- targets were not horizontally arrayed but were still presented to different hemifields. No significant different-colors lag cost was found in this diagonal arrangement (5 ms) or in the vertical arrangement (86 ms), but the cost (167 ms) was significant in the horizontal arrangement, as in previous experiments. Horizontal arrangement apparently has a special effect apart from the targets being processed by different hemispheres. To speculate, this may reflect sensitivity to bilateral symmetry and its violation when the target colors are different.

Dysmetric saccades to targets moving in predictable but nonlinear trajectories

Reza Azadi, Alex Holcombe, and Jay Edelman


A saccadic eye movement to a moving object requires taking both the object’s position and velocity into account. While recent studies have demonstrated that saccades can do this quite well for linear trajectories, its ability to do so for stimuli moving in more complex, yet predictable, trajectories is unknown. With objects moving in circular trajectories, we document failures of saccades not only to compensate for target motion, but even to saccade successfully to any location on the object trajectory. While maintaining central fixation, subjects viewed a target moving in a circular trajectory at an eccentricity of 6, 9, or 12 deg for 1-2 sec. The stimulus orbited fixation at a rate of 0.375, 0.75, or 1.5 revolutions/sec. The disappearance of the central fixation point cued the saccade. Quite unexpectedly, the circularly moving stimuli substantially compromised saccade generation. Compared with saccades to non-moving targets, saccades to circularly moving targets at all eccentricities had substantially lower amplitude gains, greater curvature, and longer reaction times. Gains decreased by 20% at 0.375 cycles/sec and more than 50% at 1.5 cycles/sec. Reaction times increased by over 100ms for 1.5 cycles/sec. In contrast, the relationship between peak velocity and amplitude was unchanged. Given the delayed nature of the saccade task, the system ought to have sufficient time to program a reasonable voluntary saccade to some particular location on the trajectory. But, the abnormal gain, curvature, and increased reaction time indicate that something else is going on. The successive visual transients along the target trajectory perhaps engage elements of the reflexive system continually, possibly engaging vector averaging processes and preventing anticipation. These results indicate that motor output can be inextricably bound to sensory input even during a highly voluntary motor act, and thus suggest that current understanding of reflexive vs. voluntary saccades is incomplete.

PsychFileDrawer blog, commenting on Association for Research in Personality newsletter

I’ve started blogging at PsychFileDrawer.

One of our first posts is addressed to the Association for Research in Personality newsletter:

Regarding your article entitled “Personality Psychology Has a Serious Problem (And so Do Many Other Areas of Psychology)”,

We agree wholeheartedly with your diagnosis of a major problem in publication practices in psychology. As you explain, any solution has to include a reduction in the systematic bias against publishing non-replications that now exists. Such a bias seems to be present in the editorial practices of all of the major psychology journals.  In addition, discussions with colleagues lead us to believe that investigators themselves tend to lose interest in a phenomenon when they fail to replicate a result, partly because they know that publishing negative findings is likely to be difficult and writing the manuscript time-consuming.  Given these biases, it seems inevitable that our literature and even our textbooks are filling with fascinating “findings” that lack validity.  Read the rest at the PsychFileDrawer blog.

Any ideas for enticing people contribute replication attempts to PsychFileDrawer will be gratefully received!

Top 15 most popular laws in psychology journal abstracts

How many of these laws do you know? The top 15, listed below, are based on psychology journal articles 1900-1999, as calculated by Teigen (2002):

1. Weber’s law (Weber 1834)  336
2. Stevens’ power law (Stevens 1957)  241
3. Matching law (Herrnstein 1961)  183
4. Law of effect (Thorndike 1911)  177
5. Fechner’s law (Fechner 1860) 100
6. Fitts’ Law (Fitts 1954) 82
7. Law of initial values (Wilder 1957) 82
8. Law of comparative judgment (Thurstone 1927) 72
9. Yerkes-Dodson law (Yerkes & Dodson 1908) 52
10. All-or-none law (Bowditch 1871) 45
11. Emmert’s law (Emmert 1881) 43
12. Bloch’s law (Bloch 1885) 41
13. Gestalt laws (Wertheimer 1923) 41
14. Hick’s law (Hick 1952) 31
15. Listing’s law (Listing 1870) 29

Although it’s no longer in fashion in psychology to suggest that empirical generalizations are “laws”, I think the perception ones have held up fairly well. In perhaps every case exceptions have been found, but most of the laws are still useful as generalizations over a lot of empirical territory.

Many people are generally skeptical of psychology as a science, and their voices have grown louder thanks to recent cases of fraud and to articles such as “Undisclosed Flexibility in Data Collection and Analysis Allows Presenting Anything as Significant”, recently published in Psychological Science. So it’s nice to be reminded that psychological science has produced robust generalizations.

On the other hand, few question the validity of perception and psychophysics, which provides many of the laws above; the skeptics are thinking more of other areas, perhaps social psychology, clinical psychology, or developmental psychology. In those areas, effect sizes are smaller and data is harder to gather, so published results are more likely to be statistical flukes.

The “file drawer problem” is clearly one of the biggest reasons to mistrust psychological results, and I’d say it’s probably the biggest problem in all of science. The file drawer problem refers in part to the fact that when scientists can’t replicate a previously published effect, they are very likely to file the results away rather than try to publish them. So I’ve been helping create a website, psychfiledrawer.org (currently in beta), for people to report their failed replications.

Teigen, K. (2002). One Hundred Years of Laws in Psychology The American Journal of Psychology, 115 (1) DOI: 10.2307/1423676

Opening access with peer reviewing pledges

Most academics agree that most scientific articles should be freely available, but we’re stuck in a system where scientific articles still tend to be submitted to journals that one needs a subscription to read.

One way we researchers perpetuate this system is by donating our labor to provide “peer review” of manuscripts that will require others to pay hefty subscription fees to read.

Over the years, some researchers have pledged to no longer do this. It’s been only a trickle, and I thought getting more visibility for open access pledgers would help the cause. I made a web page listing those I could find and also created a site people could pledge with, but getting the pledge right is tough.

Some think we should refuse to do any reviews for journals that are not open access- journals whose articles are behind paywalls rather than free for anyone to download. Mike Taylor wrote an angry article advocating this, and several commenters agreed with him, such as Peter Murray-Rust, who frequently blogs about the issue. In the area of computer security conference proceedings and journals, there’s been enormous success with a strong pledge, thanks to an independently- and concurrently-created excellent pledge registration website by Stuart Schechter. Although it’s evident that in the computer security conference and journal domain, the field may be ready and has the infrastructure to transition almost immediately to full open access, I don’t think that’s true in most of the traditional sciences.

Unwillingness to sign on to a categorical pledge of no reviewing for closed journals is something I’ve heard from many colleagues, including several long-time open science advocates that I’ve been communicating with about the issues over the last few months. I’ve come to share two of their objections:

The hypocrite objection It looks hypocritical to refuse to review for closed journals unless one also stops submitting manuscripts to closed journals. Where one submits to is more constrained, by one’s co-authors and one’s career prospects, so it’s harder to stop submitting. Although I’m not sure there’s anything wrong with donating one’s reviewing time only to open access journals, I do know it looks hypocritical (I have been called a hypocrite for this reason), which hurts the cause. This also can lead to the perception that pledgers are finding a convenient way to shirk the extra work of reviewing. Maybe these arguments can be won with individual name-callers, but it takes a lot of time to win those fights.

The green road objection Most journals, including closed access journals, allow researchers to put their post-print (their final version of the manuscript, before the publisher type-sets it) up on the web in their university’s or institution’s digital repository. In other words, the only thing stopping all these articles from being freely available is the authors themselves. If everybody posted their articles in their institution’s repository, then the articles would all be free, publishers couldn’t charge exorbitant subscription fees (although they might still have a role) and we wouldn’t have to win any fights or topple any publishers. This is called the green road (as explained here by Stevan Harnad), as opposed to the gold road of paying open-access journals to publish our articles. If you believe this is the best way to achieve open access, then you may be more concerned with supporting this then to starving the closed journals.

A couple other, more straightforward objections I heard were that some people want to continue reviewing the best articles in their field (or not give up that opportunity if they are junior and aren’t asked often) and others are in fields that don’t have a good open-access outlet, meaning they would end up not reviewing any articles.

The feedback I got (thanks especially to Fabiana Kubke and Rochelle Tractenberg) was that the hypocrite and green road pledging problems could be solved by adding some clauses to the pledge. The pledge I’ve arrived at is this:

I pledge to devote most of my reviewing and editing efforts to manuscripts destined for open access. For other manuscripts, I will restrict myself to one review by me for each review obtained for me by an outlet that is not open access.

The hypocrite problem is solved by the second sentence- one agrees to return the favor for each review of one’s own work that one gets from a closed outlet.

The green road problem is solved by the phrasing “destined for open access”. I defined “destined for open access” as “those that the authors or journal post on institutional or university web repositories, or those that are made open access by the publisher within 12 months.”  (the reason that personal webpages aren’t mentioned is that those are notoriously transient and not always indexed appropriately by scholarly search engines) The tricky bit is that one usually doesn’t know whether the authors will be putting their post-print in a repository, in which case my plan is to put the onus on the journal editor, telling them I can’t review the manuscript unless the authors have promised to put it in a repository. If the authors are funded by the NIH or the Wellcome Trust or are at certain universities with strong open access mandates, it’s reasonable to assume the manuscripts will be posted (although that doesn’t always happen).

I set up openaccesspledge.com, but didn’t try to promote it much, as I thought (as suggested by Mike Taylor) we might instead do some sort of multiple-choice pledge, but that would require some php programming that’s beyond me (any volunteers?), and I’m not sure it’s the best course. In the meantime we’ve collected more than 14 signatures- if you want to take the pledge, please sign.

What do people think of this?  Should we peer-review only for gold open access journals, or also for manuscripts headed for repositories?

Can “Responsible Conduct of Research” include publishing science via blogs?

For Open Access Week 2011, which starts today, I’ve made a video, a draft pledging website, an inspirational website, am giving a talk, and co-written a group letter. This post is about the letter.

As discussed in my last post, there’s a web-based course called “Responsible Conduct of Research” that many thousands of researchers are required to complete each year.  Brad Voytek spotted this question that seems a bit hostile (although quite possibly unintentionally) to new forms of scientific communication outside traditional journals.

I suggested we should write to the organization responsible for the course, and a few people commented on my post to indicate that they agreed. A few tweets later, we had a draft letter going. It’s been really cool to see how social media was able to quickly get a bunch of like-minded scientists together to achieve a goal. This in and of itself undermines the question that we wanted to question :)  Below see our letter- we emailed it to CITI and they responded promptly to thank us for the feedback and to say they’d consider the issues we raised.
Dear Professor Braunschweiger (CITI co-founder) and Professor Ed Prentice (CITI Executive Advisory Committee chair):

We write to challenge the answer to one of the questions in the “Responsible Conduct of Research” online course. The question reads “A good alternative to the current peer review process would be web logs (BLOGS) where papers would be posted and reviewed by those who have an interest in the work”. The answer deemed correct by your system is “False” and the explanation provided includes the assertion that “It is likely that the peer review process will evolve to minimize bias and conflicts of interest”.

We question these claims for two reasons. First, we see real examples of rigorous science happening outside of the traditional system of journal-based peer review. Second, we believe that the future path of scholarly communication is uncertain, and indicating to young researchers that such an important issue is closed is both inaccurate and unhelpful to informed debate.

As an example of science that does not fit the mold suggested by the phrase “the current peer review process”, consider the use of the arXiv preprint server in certain areas of astronomy and physics. In these areas, researchers usually begin by posting their manuscripts to the arXiv server. They then receive comments by those who have an interest in the work. Some of those manuscripts subsequently are submitted to journals and undergo traditional peer review, but many working scientists stay abreast of their field chiefly by reading manuscripts in the arXiv before they are accepted by journals.

Even in areas that are more tightly bound to traditional journals, there are recent examples where both effective peer review of science [1] and science itself [2] have occurred primarily via blogs and other online platforms. In these cases, the online activity appears to have resulted in more rapid progress than would have been possible through the traditional system. A growing body of research suggests that scholars use social media in ways that reflect and produce serious scholarship [3][4][5].

As for the future path of the current mainstream peer review model, we believe it is speculation to say that “It is likely that the peer review process will evolve to minimize bias and conflicts of interest”. The current peer review process may be under considerable strain [6] and unfortunately there is little evidence that it significantly improves the quality of manuscripts [7]. This raises the possibility that big changes are required, not just modifications to reduce bias and conflicts of interest. Furthermore, the question presupposes that the future entity into which peer review will evolve does not involve blogging. No one can see the future clearly enough to make that assumption.

We encourage discussion of this important topic, and would be interested in the inclusion in your program of material that sparks such discussion. However, we believe a true/false question on this topic to be inappropriate, as it limits rather than promotes discussion. All of us wish to see the development and optimization of rigorous systems, both new and traditional, for scientific scholarship. Requiring young researchers to adopt a particular position on this controversial, multifaceted issue may hinder open discussion and future progress.


Bradley Voytek, PhD, University of California, San Francisco Department of Neurology
Jason Snyder, PhD, National Institutes of Health, USA
Alex O. Holcombe, PhD, School of Psychology, University of Sydney, Australia
William G. Gunn, PhD, Mendeley, USA/UK
Matthew Todd, PhD, School of Chemistry, University of Sydney, Australia
Daniel Mietchen, PhD, Open Knowledge Foundation Germany
Jason Priem, School of Library and Information Science, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Heather Piwowar, PhD, DataONE/NESCent, Canada
Todd Vision, PhD, Department of Biology, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Cameron Neylon, PhD, Science and Technology Facilities Council, UK, Editor in Chief, Open Research Computation

[1] Online experimental peer review of the “Arsenic Life” paper that recently appeared in Science: http://rrresearch.fieldofscience.com/2010/12/arsenic-associated-bacteria-nasas.html
[2] Open Science is a Research Accelerator, M. Woelfle, P. Olliaro and M. H. Todd, Nature Chemistry 2011, 3, 745-748. http://www.nature.com/nchem/journal/v3/n10/full/nchem.1149.html
[3] Groth, P., & Gurney, T. (2010). Studying Scientific Discourse on the Web using Bibliometrics: A Chemistry Blogging Case Study. Presented at the WebSci10: Extending the Frontiers of Society On-Line, Raleigh, NC: US. Retrieved from http://journal.webscience.org/308/
[4] Priem, J., & Costello, K. L. (2010). How and why scholars cite on Twitter. Proceedings of the 73rd ASIS&T Annual Meeting. Presented at the American Society for Information Science & Technology Annual Meeting, Pittsburgh PA, USA. doi:10.1002/meet.14504701201
[5] Weller, K., Dröge, E., & Puschmann, C. (2011). Citation Analysis in Twitter. Approaches for Defining and Measuring Information Flows within Tweets during Scientific Conferences. Proceedings of Making Sense of Microposts Workshop (# MSM2011). Co-located with Extended Semantic Web Conference, Crete, Greece.
[6] Smith R. Classical peer review: an empty gun. Breast Cancer Research 2010, 12(Suppl 4):S13 http://dx.doi.org/10.1186/bcr2742
[7] Jefferson T, Rudin M, Brodney Folse S, Davidoff F. Editorial peer review for improving the quality of reports of biomedical studies. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2007, 2:MR000016. http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/14651858.MR000016.pub3

Everything’s fine with peer review- if there are any flaws, they’ll be taken care of by evolution?

Bradley Voytek spotted a disturbing question in an official “Responsible Conduct of Research” training program:

This defense of the status quo has no place in a “Responsible Conduct of Research” training program. It reads like the old guard self-interestedly maintaining the current system by foisting unjustified beliefs onto young researchers!

The part that bothers me the most is the sentence “It is likely that the peer review process will evolve to minimize bias and conflicts of interest”. What is the evidence for this?

Has the process been evolving to minimize bias and conflicts, or to increase them? I don’t think the answer is very clear. As counterweight to the official optimistic opinion, here are a few corrupting influences:

  • Pharmaceutical companies continue to buy influence with medical journals, by buying hundreds of copies of journal issues that run studies that support their products.
  • Pharmaceutical companies continue to ghostwrite journal articles for doctors, to plant their views in the medical literature.
  • Scientists of every stripe often fail to disclose their conflicts of interest.
  • Journals develop new revenue streams, like fast-tracking articles for a fee, that may open them to favoring the select authors who pay.
  • Many reviewers are, like most humans, biased towards their own self-interest. This can yield a bias to recommend rejection of papers by rivals. Because reviewers in most journals are anonymous, they are never held to account.
  • Journals don’t have the resources to investigate authors accused of fraud, and universities often try to avoid finding fault with the researchers they employ.

Many people have suggested partial remedies to these problems, but it’s an uphill battle to implement them, due to the slow pace of change in the journal system. We have to remember this and not be lulled into complacency by the propaganda seen in that training program. It was created by an organization of academics called CITI.

UPDATE: In the comments below, Jason Snyder pointed out an article from CITI in which CITI reports that over 6,000 researchers a month are taking this course — being subjected to this biased question. Some of us object not only to their characterization of the peer review process, but also to their suggestion that blogs are not a good place to do science. We don’t want thousands of researchers to continue to be forced to assent to the conservative opinion articulated by CITI, so we’re drafting a letter asking them to delete the question.

Scientist meets Publisher- Explaining the video

Academic publishing is stuck in an outmoded system. Most scientific research is paid for by government and non-profit university funds, but high-profit corporate publishers often control access to the results of the research. In this video, we showcased the absurdity of the situation and also pointed towards how to get ourselves un-stuck.

There are significant costs associated with what journal publishers do, so we need publishers in some form. But there’s no need for publishing to involve millions in profits and universities having to pay many thousands of dollars for a subscription to a journal.

In the video, the scientist mentions two of the ways we can move towards journal articles being available for free. First is supporting open-access journals. Most charge authors a fee, but one that is not too much higher than their costs, and the result is that anyone can download the article for free.

Another way a researcher can make an article freely available is by depositing the “post-print” in their university or institutional repository. A “post-print” is the draft of the article after it has been peer-reviewed. After a researcher revises their article in accordance with the comments of reviewers, they’ve got a file that may have the same content as that which the journal typesets and publishes. Although the journal usually owns the copyright to the journal version (after the author signs the copyright form), the researcher still in nearly all cases can take their own file, the post-print, and put it in an institution’s official web repository.

If enough of us supported open-access journals, and deposited our other manuscripts in repositories, then journals could no longer charge exorbitant subscription fees. The reason is that with a high percentage of manuscripts available from open-access journals and repositories, universities would cancel their subscriptions to particularly expensive journals.

It’s not just authors that provide free labor to the publishers. It’s also the academics that review each of the articles. So, as reviewers we can also push things towards open access, by saying yes more often to reviewing manuscripts that will be open access, and less often to those that won’t. If we can get a lot of people together to commit to this, it will make a direct impact as well as let others know how many of us support open access. To organize that, I’ve drafted a website called openaccesspledge.com. It also lists other pledges.