ECCO Home

The ECCO Research Group

 

ECCO, the Evolution, Complexity and COgnition group, is a multidisciplinary research group, directed by Francis Heylighen. We are localized at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB), although our members are distributed across four continents. While founded under the present name in 2004, our informal history goes back many years earlier. In 2012, the Global Brain Institute has been founded as part of our larger group.

Our researchers come from a wide variety of backgrounds, from physical science and technology to the social sciences and humanities. 

Our philosophy is intrinsically transdisciplinary, transcending the traditional boundaries between "hard" and "soft" sciences, and between philosophical foundations and practical applications. 

Our research focuses on the emergence and evolution of organization:

Examples of such processes include the emergence of:

Understanding these processes allows us to design for self-organization: develop systems that spontaneously evolve towards synergy, adaptation and intelligence. Applications include:

We tackle these issues through a variety of research projects. ECCO members have published many papers and books on these subjects, and are regularly producing new working papers and computer simulations. We further provide a bibliography of recommended reading on the subject, and a list of related organizations

ECCO sometimes organizes international conferences on these issues, as well as weekly seminars at the VUB. We also provide teaching and consultancy about complexity and how to cope with it. 

If you are interested to collaborate with us, or apply to get a PhD or PostDoc here, check the FAQ on joining ECCO. Our FAQ on working in ECCO moreover provides useful tips on how to do academic research in general. Much of the information on this website is summarized in a PDF document for easy printing.

 ["zoacode" pictures courtesy of Ebon Fisher]



"ECCO ... mobilizing self-organization... "

 

ECCO People

ECCO, the Evolution, Complexity and COgnition group, is an interdisciplinary research center affiliated with the Center Leo Apostel and the Global Brain Institute at the (Dutch-speaking) Free University of Brussels (VUB). 

Address: ECCO, Center Leo Apostel,  Vrije Universiteit Brussel,  

Krijgskundestraat 33,  B-1160 Brussels, Belgium 

(This is just outside the main VUB campus, see map and directions; entrance to the Center: see photo on the right)

phone: +32-2-640 67 37

fax: +32-2-644 07 44

e-mail: secrecco at vub.ac.be (replace " at " by "@")

website: http://ecco.vub.ac.be

 

Members

The following lists the present members with their focus of research. "Core" members are those whose main research activities fall under ECCO; most of them make or have made a PhD under the guidance of F. Heylighen. The others participate in ECCO projects, but have their main activity elsewhere. All (and only) members subscribe to the [ECCO] mailing list for announcements and discussion. For more details on individual members, click on the name to go to the person's home page.

Director

Core members

 

Affiliated members

Photo: some ECCO members on the VUB Campus (Oct. 2008); left to right: Heylighen (Belgium), Vidal (France), Smart (USA), Nagarjuna (India), Stewart (Australia).

 

(Former) Students

Former members

Collaboration with other groups

 

 

Øyvind Vada: tribute page

Øyvind Vada, one of our Norwegian ECCO members, died on May 21, 2015, from the complications of cancer. The present page on the ECCO website is intended as a tribute to his academic work, which was unfortunately cut short before it could fully reach fruition.

Øyvind was a 49-year old political scientist from Oslo, and the founder and director of the company Memetor. Memetor (formerly Memetix) applies concepts from memetics and systems theory to teach company employees to reflect more creatively about their work and the organization of their firm. Øyvind had always been inspired by a number of intellectual traditions close to ECCO, and in particular by memetics, complex adaptive systems, pragmatism and semiotics.

I first met him in 2005, when he and his then Memetix colleague Petter Braathen (who is still a member of ECCO) reached out to propose a collaboration between their company and ECCO. Two years later, their plans had crystallized to the idea of making a PhD with me, in which they would develop a theoretical framework as a foundation for their practical work in Memetix. Given the many practical duties of running a company, the work on the PhD only advanced slowly. However, over that period, Øyvind gave several outstandingly clear seminars to ECCO, in which he sketched his method of "injecting memes" into a company so as to open up people's way of looking at things, while situating it within his broader intellectual framework.

He also discussed with me several strategies for disseminating the ideas of ECCO, e.g. by setting up what he called the Memeus foundation, or what I defined as a "European Institute for Complexity Studies" (which can be seen as a precursor of the Global Brain Institute). In 2012, he officially registered as a PhD student at the Free University of Brussels (VUB), in the hope that this would help him focus on the work that still needed to be done. His plan was to collect empirical data about the interventions he had done with Memetix/Memetor, so as to measure in how far the memes they had introduced were still present in some of the companies a few years after the intervention.

 

In 2013, however, I got an email from him that was innocuously entitled "Broccoli?", but which announced that he was being treated for cancer. Initially, he seemed to respond well to the treatment, and in his 2014 PhD progress report he noted that he had not been able to do much because of the treatment, but that now his work was back on track. In December 2014, he even sent me a 70 page, partial draft of his thesis. Over the years, he had also sent me several (unpublished) papers on memetics and complexity governance. All of these texts can be dowloaded below.

I last met him in November together with his friend Tor-Eigil Hodne in Brussels to discuss the possibilities of a joint project of GBI with the Norwegian energy company, Stattnet, for which Tor-Eigil works. Afterwards, he initially expressed his interest in joining the discussion about the consultancy network that we were planning around ECCO/GBI, but later said that because of his health he was unable to be involved. In the last few months, I did not hear from him, but I did not imagine that his condition would deteriorate so quickly. According to Tor-Eigil, "I talked with Øyvind a week before he died, and he was still aiming to get up from bed and out of hospital."

Given that ECCO meant a lot to Øyvind, it is only fair that we pay tribute to his work. We have dedicated our GBI session at the 2015 IS4IS conference in Vienna to him, while showing his TED talk on a big screen.

The present web page will further try to assemble and make available all his scientific contributions. The papers and PhD drafts below were sent to me by Øyvind at different stages as email attachments. They have as far as I know never been published. I have done some minimal editing for streamlining the format and adding a few of the missing references, so that the papers are easily readable as such. The PhD unfortunately lacks most of the planned chapters and references, but the existing material is quite understandable.

 

 

Talks

 

Papers

 

PhD Thesis

 

ECCO philosophy

General Approach

When studying the evolution of complexity, our emphasis is on the emergent organization or system: what is it precisely that the whole has more than the sum of its parts? In particular, our focus is on the intelligence of the system, i.e. its capacity to understand, adapt, solve problems, take adequate action, and learn from its experience. This is the perspective of collective intelligence, distributed cognition or the extended mind. We approach this problem with the help of the concept of stigmergy, i.e. a spontaneous, indirect coordination of actions, where the result of one action stimulates the performance of a subsequent action.

A complementary emphasis is on the dynamics or evolution of emergence: how do the interactions become gradually more coordinated? Which are the "forces" or selective pressures that push the system in the direction of increasing organization? Hoe does it self-organize and become cooperative, in spite of intrinsic obstacles such as uncertainty, conflict, competition and complexity?

This general problem is approached using a variety of ideas and methodologies from all the traditional disciplines:

 

Transdisciplinary perspective

ECCO aims at transdisciplinary integration, i.e. at the development of a unified conceptual framework that can be applied to problems in all the scientific disciplines, from the natural sciences to the humanities. As our name implies, we find the foundations for this framework at the point where the three approaches of complexity, evolution, and cognition meet.

The emerging science of complex systems extends the tradition of general systems theory, which sought to unify science by uncovering the principles common to the holistic organization of all systems, from atoms and molecules to mind and society. However, the classical systems approach failed because of two shortcomings: the systems it studied were considered as

  1. well-defined static structures,
  2. that are objectively given.

To really understand systems, you need to know how they have emerged and evolved, i.e. how they came into being and gradually developed their organization.

This brings us to the second strand of our conceptual framework: evolution and self-organization. Self-organization is the spontaneous process through which systems emerge and evolve, becoming ever more complex, more adaptive, and more synergetic. We see self-organization of a system as the co-evolution and mutual adaptation of the system's components. This process is driven by variation and selection internal to the system. Evolution in the traditional, Darwinian sense is then merely the adaptation of the system as a whole to its encompassing environment, driven by external, or "natural", selection. This holistic view of self-organization/evolution allows us to overcome the pitfalls of genetic or biological reductionism that are often associated with Darwinian approaches.

The other shortcoming of classical systems theory is overcome by noting that knowledge cannot be developed through passive observation of what “objectively” exists, but only through active construction combining a variety of subjective experiences. This brings us to the domain of cognitive science, which until recently was also stifled by a too reductionistic and static perspective. The newer approaches, however, emphasize the constant evolution and self-organization of knowledge, and the on-going interactions between subject and environment. This helps us to understand the intrinsic limitations, subjectivity and context-dependence of models, while still providing us with heuristics to improve our knowledge—however subjective or limited.

The integration of the three approaches—cognition, systems or complexity, and evolution or self-organization—points us to a wholly new philosophy of nature, mind and society. It sees the essential building blocks as processes and relations, rather than as bits of matter or energy. Their most important product is intelligent organization, which can be found at all levels, from molecules to global society. However, this deep metaphysical perspective is merely a starting point for concrete, scientific research with plenty of practical applications.

 

Theory and practice

Another unique aspect of ECCO’s perspective is that we develop and test our fundamental theories by applying them directly to concrete problems. The problems that presently confront individuals, organizations and society at large all concern complex, evolving systems, such as the global ecosystem, society, the market, and our own internal system of thoughts and emotions. Thanks to the success of classical, reductionist science, most of the simple problems have already been solved. The issues that remain are typically ill-defined, open-ended, with ramifications extending into an unlimited number of other domains, and constantly changing. Coping with these problems requires a set of new methods that take complexity and change as their starting points.

The advantage of the ECCO approach, with its high level of generality and abstraction, is that the concepts it produces are applicable to any system from any domain, whether biological, technological, mental or social. These concepts are applicable in particular to hybrid or mixed systems, such as the World-Wide Web with its technological, social, economical and psychological aspects. 

Unlike other high-level, abstract approaches, however, our concepts directly address problems and the processes that can solve them. Indeed, evolution is merely a giant problem-solving process in which systems are constantly trying to adapt to new circumstances, or improve their handling of existing situations. Cognition is merely an interiorization of this on-going process of trial-and-error and a registration of shortcuts that have proven to be useful for re-application later. Complexity is both a feature of the problems that need to be solved, and of the solutions that are most robust in handling multifarious and ever-changing demands.

Therefore, the ECCO perspective encompasses both the most abstract realms of ontology, epistemology and metaphysics, and the most concrete methods to solve problems in organizations, technology and society. These two aspects constantly interact and feed back into each other: practical experience in tackling problems suggest new concepts and principles for understanding complexity in science and philosophy. Clarifications and integrations in our theoretical framework, on the other hand, immediately suggest new ways to tackle concrete problems.

ECCO Worldview

What is a worldview?

For centuries, people have been wondering about their existence and place in the universe. These fundamental questions can be classified in six categories, each defining a particular philosophical domain:

1. What exists? What is reality?

Ontology: defining the constituents of reality

2. Why is the world the way it is? Where do we come from?

Metaphysics: determining the origins or ultimate causes

3. Where are we going to? Will the world come to an end?

Futurology: forecasting the future

4. What is good and what is evil? What should we strive for?

Axiology: a system of goals, values, and ethics

5. How should we act? How can we tackle our problems? 

Praxeology: a method for practical action

6. What is true and what is false? How can we know? 

Epistemology: a theory of knowledge

The answers to all these questions together determine a worldview, i.e. a comprehensive philosophical system, a coherent vision of the whole. A worldview gives meaning to our life, and helps us to understand the world around us.

A coherent worldview is particularly important in the current era of accelerating scientific, cultural and social developments, in which all the old certainties are put into question. The confusion and fragmentation associated with this often lead to pessimism and uncertainty, and the need for psychological guidance in the form of a clear and reliable system of thought.

Unfortunately such a framework is all too often found in fundamentalist ideologies, or in irrational beliefs and superstitions. Science should be our weapon in the fight against irrationality and fundamentalism. Unfortunately, contemporary science seems to contribute to the confusion by the avalanche of often contradictory observations and theories that it overloads us with. That is why we need to develop a coherent, new worldview that is solidly rooted in the most advanced scientific concepts and observations.

 

The ECCO worldview

Our ECCO philosophy tries to show how the different scientific and philosophical insights can be integrated in a coherent framework. This framework is based on the notion of evolution as a spontaneous force or drive for the self-organization of increasingly complex and intelligent systems. This evolution leads from particles to atoms, molecules, cells, organisms, humans, and societies to the emerging "global brain".

Let us summarize this philosophy by the way its answers the fundamental questions:

Ontology

the most fundamental components of reality are actions and agents, i.e. elementary processes and relations, not independent, static pieces of matter. Out of their interactions, organization emerges. As these systems become more complex and adaptive, they start to exhibit cognition or intelligence, i.e. the ability to make informed choices. The fundamental concepts in our ontology are further defined in the Glossary of ECCO Concepts.

Metaphysics:

if we go back in time, towards the origin of the universe, systems and agents become ever simpler, until they lose any form of complexity or organization. The organization we see around us now can be explained by the processes of blind variation, that has been producing random combinations of agents and actions, and natural selection, that has retained only those combinations that are "fit", i.e. adapted internally to each other, and externally to their encompassing environment. Since natural selection or self-organization is a spontaneous, automatic process, there is no need to postulate external or supernatural causes or forces to explain the origin of the phenomena we see around us.

Futurology:

this process of on-going complexification and adaptation can be extrapolated towards the future. This allows us to predict that in the medium term conflict and friction within human society will diminish, cooperation will expand to the planetary level, well-being will increase, individuals will become ever more integrated with the socio-technological systems that surround them, while individual and collective intelligence will spectacularly augment. In the longer term, this increase in cooperation and evolvability is likely to expand beyond the planet into the universe. However, since evolution is a process of trial-and-error that is not accurately predictable, we should be ready for various unexpected problems and setbacks along the road.

Axiology:

the inner drive or implicit value governing all life is fitness, i.e. survival, growth and development. In the present human situation, this fundamental value can be translated as a universal and  sustainable quality-of-life, well-being or happiness. Evolutionary, psychological, and cybernetic theories allow us to derive a number of more concrete values from this overarching value, i.e. properties that are necessary for long-term well-being. These include openness, diversity, intelligence, knowledge, cooperation, freedom, personal control, health, and a coherent worldview. In the longer term, fitness implies increasing adaptiveness and evolvability beyond human society as we know it.  Actions that promote these values are intrinsically good, actions that suppress them are bad.

Praxeology:

to maximally achieve these values in real life, we will need to overcome a variety of problems and obstacles. Cognitive science, cybernetics, and complex systems science suggest various tools and strategies to tackle complex problems, and to stimulate and steer self-organization so as to be as efficient as possible. These methods include feedback control, anticipation, hierarchical decomposition, heuristic search, stigmergic coordination, and memetic engineering. At the level of society, these methods define a strategy for effective governance, for the maximization of collective intelligence, and the minimization of friction and conflicts. 

Epistemology:

in order to solve problems, we need adequate knowledge. Knowledge is not an objective reflection of reality, though, but a simple model that makes useful predictions. Different problems may require different models of the same reality, without any one being the "true" representation. However, models that make more wide-ranging and accurate predictions are intrinsically better. Cognitive science, cybernetics, and neuroscience help us to understand how the brain learns from experience and makes predictions via the self-organization of neural patterns, and the feedback between perception and conception, observation and theory. Similar mechanisms may be implemented as computer algorithms to extract new knowledge from unstructured data, and thus discover better concepts and theories.

 

References

Heylighen F. (2000): "Foundations and Methodology for an Evolutionary World View: a review of the Principia Cybernetica Project", Foundations of Science, 5, p. 457-490.

Vidal, C. (2008) Wat is een wereldbeeld? (What is a worldview?), in Van Belle, H. & Van der Veken, J., Editors, Nieuwheid denken. De wetenschappen en het creatieve aspect van de werkelijkheid, in press. Acco, Leuven.

 

Evolutionary Well-Being: the paleolithic model

by Francis Heylighen 

 

An evolutionary philosophy has direct implications for a happy and healthy lifestyle. By understanding how we as humans have evolved, we will get a much better understanding of how we can function optimally.

Natural selection has shaped our body and mind for life as paleolithic hunter-gatherers (HGs). Hominids have been living in that way for millions of years after they diverged from the chimpansees. Agriculture only appeared about 10 000 years ago in the Middle East, and even later in most other parts of the world. Therefore, our genes have not really had the time to adapt to the lifestyle of farmers or industrial workers: they still prepare us for a life of hunting and gathering.

This means that there is a fundamental misadaptation between our present lifestyle and the one that our genes expect. This discord can explain a host of so-called "diseases of civilisation": coronary heart disease, obesity, cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer, depression, chronic stress, anxiety, ADHD, etc. These diseases needlessly degrade body and mind, while significantly reducing our life expectancy and sense of well-being.

On the positive side, this insight now allows us to improve our quality of life. We first need to better understand how our paleolithic ancestors lived. We can then choose the elements of that lifestyle that are most appropriate to adopt in our present circumstances. As summarized below, there exists an extensive and quickly growing literature on changes in diet, exercise, and contact with nature that are inspired by the paleolithic lifestyle. Many of those have already been proven to increase our well-being, although further empirical tests are of course needed.

 

Life as an adventure

There is an aspect to the HG lifestyle that has received relatively little attention, an aspect that I have called "life as an adventure": the life of a hunter-gatherer is a sequence of smaller and larger challenges, positive as well as negative, with the main characteristic that most challenges are unpredictable, of short duration, and of extremely diverse type and intensity. In contrast, agricultural and industrial societies prescribe a highly regulated life, where tasks and duties are predictable, constant, uniform, and rule-bound.

While HG challenges can be very stressful, e.g. running away from a bear, falling from a tree or crossing an ice-cold river, this stress is typically acute, i.e. intense and of short duration (seconds to hours). The rush of adrenalin is followed shortly by a pleasurable feeling of relief. The stress of modern life, on the other hand, is typically chronic, i.e. of low intensity but long duration (weeks to years). Examples are waiting for an evaluation report, preparing a PhD thesis, or enduring the daily traffic jams. This produces continuously high levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which tends to break down muscle, suppress the immune system and promote obesity, anxiety and depression.

The modern approach to tackling challenges is based on formulating far-away goals, detailed planning to reach them, discipline and regularity in implementing the plans, and a strong sense of duty in order to keep on track and stick to the plan. This entails a constant worry about whether you are doing the right thing.

Hunting and gathering, on the other hand, cannot rely on planning, as it is impossible to predict precisely where or when a significant opportunity (e.g. prey to catch, or fruit to collect) or danger (e.g. a predator) will be encountered. This leads to a much more spontaneous, opportunistic style of problem solving, characterized by features such as intuition, improvisation, exploration, adaptation, and play.

There is plenty of evidence that this more playful HG style of living is what our brain was actually selected for, and what it is best at. Moreover, applying this lifestyle stimulates brain and body to further develop themselves. On the other hand, suppressing it, by sticking to unflinching rules and duties, produces chronic stress and its attendant health problems. This means that we would be happier, healthier and more effective if we could live more in the HG way.

That may seem naive and utopian, but the present state of our science, technology and economy perfectly allows such a more relaxed attitude. The strictly disciplined following of rules may have been necessary to build up the wealth we have now. But nowadays our technology has become so powerful that we can delegate that type of activities to machines. It is precisely the following of formally defined rules that machines are good at, while the more creative, "adventurous", intuitive aspects of problem solving are better left to humans.

 

The paleolithic prescription

Here is a summary of the life-style changes recommended to achieve the health and happiness of a hunter-gatherer:

1) eat plenty of the foods HGs ate: meat, fish, vegetables, fruit, nuts, eggs, ..., preferably from natural sources. These contain high concentrations of all the important nutrients that the body needs to grow and repair itself: proteins, fats, carbohydrates (in relatively small amounts), vitamins, antioxidants, minerals and fibers. No need to count calories: with these foods you will quickly be satiated, build muscle, and eventually lose fat (especially in combination with muscle-building exercises).

2) avoid foods that HGs did not eat: all sorts of grain-based products (bread, rice, corn, cereal, pasta...), sugars, milk-based products, most vegetable oils, and highly processed foods with lots of additives, such as cookies, doughnuts, sweets, or hamburgers. These foods contain mostly lots of calories, but very few nutrients, and often plenty of "anti-nutrients" (substances that tend to interfere with your metabolism).

Particularly dangerous  are the foods with a high "glycemic load", i.e. containing lots of easily digestible carbohydrates that are quickly converted to high levels of glucose in the blood. This leads to the release of insulin, which promotes the storage of glucose as fat. A chronic activation of this process produces the "metabolic syndrome", which is the precursor of most of the present "diseases of civilisation", including obesity, diabetes, coronary heart disease, cancer, chronic inflammation and Alzheimer.

3) skip meals from time to time: HGs did not eat at fixed times of the day, and sometimes went hungry for a day or more, but then compensated by "feasting" with a big meal. The practice of "intermittent fasting" without reduction in total amount of calories has been shown to significantly improve a variety of health indicators, such as cholesterol and glucose levels, triglycerides, and obesity.

4) move regularly according to the principle of power law variation: plenty of rest, lots of low intensity activity such as walking, cycling or swimming, regular medium level activity, and from time to time a short burst of very high intensity activity, such as sprinting, jumping, or lifting heavy weights.

Avoid repetitive, enduring high-intensity training such as jogging or power training several hours a week: such overtraining breaks down rather than builds up muscle tissue, is unhealthy in the long run, and anyway boring and difficult to sustain for the rest of your life. Marathons and similar extreme exertions in particular are counterindicated: the continuing aerobic exertion uses up the proteins in muscle mass, floods the body with free radicals and the stress hormone cortisol, and gives the body the signal to store more fat as energy reserves for future exhaustion.

5) make your exercises as varied and as interesting as possible, taking inspiration from the kind of movements that HGs or children tend to do: climbing, throwing, balancing, jumping, crawling, lifting, carrying, wrestling, ... Instead of using exercise machines that only allow a single type of movement, use a variety of objects, such as stones, chairs, tree trunks, etc., to lift, push or pull: the variety of forces stimulates body and brain to become more coordinated, makes you better prepared for something unexpected, and thus increases your sense of being in control.

6) spend as much time as possible in nature (exercising or relaxing), or at least change your environment so as to make it appear more "natural" (e.g. by putting plants in your office, or a poster with a forest landscape). Dozens of studies on biophilia (our inborn attraction to nature) have shown that this increases mental health, happiness, and recovery from illness.

7) regularly catch sunlight (without getting burned of course): sunlight is necessary for our skin to produce vitamin D, which according to recent research plays a much more vital role than previously thought, e.g. in supporting the immune system, preventing cancer, and building strong bones. Moreover, lack of (sun)light has been shown to be a cause of depression.

This is particularly important in winter, when sunlight tends to be weak. The resulting lack of vitamin D and reduced immunity explains why the "flu season" typically extends over the darkest months.

8) expose your body to the elements: walk (or even run) barefoot, use minimal clothing or supportive material, take hot and cold baths/showers or saunas, don't be afraid to go out in bad weather... The human body is not only made to withstand these physical stresses, it is stimulated by them to become stronger.

For example, barefoot walking strengthens muscles, tendons and general coordination, reducing the probability of developing acute or chronic problems, such as flat feet, knee injuries, or backache. Cold baths have been shown to boost the immune system, while saunas promote the release of "heat shock proteins" that protect and repair damage in the body's cells.

9) don't be afraid of dirt: modern society tends to be obsessed by hygiene, reminding us to constantly wash, clean, shower, and disinfect. However, our immune system must learn to distinguish dangerous pathogens from innocuous germs and own cells ("self'), and to effectively fight the pathogens. To achieve that, it needs exposure to a variety of common micro-organisms. Without such exposure from an early age, you are more likely to develop allergies, auto-immune diseases, and an immune system that is ill-prepared for the really dangerous germs (the hygiene hypothesis). 

Moreover, typical products used for hygiene, such as soaps, shampoos, deodorants and antiseptics, are full of irritant and potentially toxic chemicals. Common soil micro-organisms, on the other hand, live symbiotically on our skin and in our intestines, helping to protect us from serious disease. Epidemics typically do not spread through contact with "dirt", but through social interactions (such as breathing in the air that someone else breathed out a minute ago), helped by weakened immune systems...

10) play, explore and try out new things: don't let your life be governed by routines, plans, rules or expectations, but experiment with new challenges and explore new places, ideas, activities and things, in a playful, spontaneous manner. The best inspiration may come from how children play and explore, always being ready for something new to try. This makes sure that you constantly learn new skills and are ready to take up unexpected opportunities, while increasing rather than eroding your sense of mental and physical capability. New challenges and a playful attitude moreover are a powerful antidote against boredom, worrying, and depression.

11) rest, relax or sleep whenever you feel the need: your body and mind need time to recover from the exertions, repair damage, and build new capabilities. If you can avoid it at all, don't force yourself to follow a tight schedule: you will not become more productive by working longer hours and constantly being on your guard, but merely exhaust your reserves. A good night of sleep, a relaxed game or chat with friends, or a diverting vacation will boost your energy and creativity, making you much more productive in the long run.

12) be in the present: stop your mind from constantly thinking about the past or the future—planning, worrying, feeling guilty or generally being preoccupied with anything except the here and the now. Fully experience and savour the sights, sounds, smells and feelings that surround you.

If this is difficult for you, you may find help in meditation or yoga exercises to quieten and focus your mind. Alternatively, you can pursue "flow" producing challenges (like most forms of involved play or paleolithic-style exercises). These will effectively keep your attention focused on the activity itself (but may leave you less open to other experiences).

 


The results of these interventions should be easy to see in a short time: more energy, less stress, stronger muscles, less fat, reduced levels of glucose, insulin, inflammation and triglycerides, better mood, more good-looking body, less illnesses, better coordination, more self-confidence, ... In short, you will become quickly and significantly healthier and happier thanks to the evolutionary paradigm!

Note that implementing all these recommendations at once may seem like a tall order. Therefore, you may want to go slowly, starting with a few changes here and there. This is no problem: any step in the right direction (especially replacing high-glycemic foods with protein-rich and antioxidant-rich foods, and shifting to a paleolithic style of exercise) will already make you feel significantly better, and thus motivate you to make further steps in the same direction.

Also take into account that your body may not prepared for some of the more drastic changes, such as high intensity exercises, barefoot running, or prolonged sessions in the sun or cold. Just take it slowly, step by step, so as to gradually build up your resistance...

 

Finally let's not forget to

13) care for the next generation: keep small children always in close physical contact with a caregiver (most often, but not always, the mother). This means a lot of carrying, cuddling or breast-feeding, and letting them sleep in the same bed (or at least in the same room). On the other hand, allow them to explore an play freely as they grow older and feel emboldened to move farther away. This nurturing but permissive approach is how HGs look after children. It is also the basis for the "secure attachment" that is necessary for their later social and emotional development, including their feelings of morality and compassion.

Keeping babies out of sight of a carer (e.g. in a separate room) is intrinsically very stressful to them, and absolutely unnatural from a HG perspective: paleolithic babies could not survive without continuous attention from others. On the other hand, keeping older children restricted to a "safe" place (typically their home, playground or school) suppresses their natural drive to explore, exercise and experiment and their need for contact with nature, while giving them the message that the world is an intrinsically frightening place. Plenty of studies have shown that unstructured play in nature is highly beneficial to children.

 


For more details on these recommendations, I refer below to a broad list of papers, books, websites and videos that develop these themes, and provide the scientific evidence. 

 

Websites

Good starting points are the following:

  • Arthur De Vany's site on evolutionary fitness. De Vany is an economist/complexity theorist who  applied his understanding of power laws to exercise, a very inspiring philosophy, as summarized in his essay on evolutionary fitness and an article in the Sunday Times. Unfortunately, you need to pay a subscription to get at much of the material.
  • Mark's Daily Apple: the site of Mark Sisson with a philosophy very similar to the one of De Vany and with tons of freely accessible material on food, exercise, health and life-style. The only disadvantage compared to De Vany is that Sisson is not a scientist, but scientifically his recommendations are sound and based on plenty of research.
  • The Paleo Diet: The site made by the team of Loren Cordain, who is one of the most active and respected researchers on the paleolithic diet and its benefits.
  • Movnat: Erwan Le Corre's "moving naturally/moving in nature" method of exercise inspired by paleo principles. Le Corre, described in one magazine article as "the world's fittest man", is not a scientist, but his approach is based on extensive experience and deep reflection, and convinces by the intuitive elegance of the movements he demonstrates in his videos (see below). Here's another magazine article on MovNat training and the paleo philosophy.
  • Evfit: reflections on health and fitness from an evolutionary perspective
  • Moral Landscapes: Darcia Narvaez's blog on paleo principles of child care and their importance for psychological and social development
  • Getting Stronger: a blog on the philosophy of hormetism, i.e. improving well-being by subjecting yourself to physical and mental challenges
  • For a quick introduction check this popular magazine article on the "evolutionary fitness" movement.

Books

The following are books intended for a wide audience, without a lot of scientific detail:

 

Scientific publications

For the scientific evidence behind these recommendations, here are some of the many references:

Paleolithic well-being

Contact with nature

Paleolithic lifestyle, exercise and health

Paleolithic diet

 Paleolithic Child-Care

  • McKenna, J. J, and T. McDade. 2005. Why babies should never sleep alone: A review of the co-sleeping controversy in relation to SIDS, bedsharing and breast feeding. Paediatric respiratory reviews 6, no. 2: 134–152.  
  • Schön, R. A, M. Silvén. 2007. Natural Parenting―Back to Basics in Infant Care. Evolutionary Psychology 5, no. 1: 102–183. 
  • Ball, H. 2008. Evolutionary Paediatrics. Medicine and evolution: current applications, future prospects.   
  • Hewlett B.S. and M.E. Lamb, 2005. Hunter-gatherer childhoods: evolutionary, developmental and cultural perspectives, Aldine, New Brunswick, NJ (2005).
  • Narvaez, D., Panksepp, J., Schore, A., & Gleason, T. (2011). The Value of the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness for Gauging Children’s Well-Being. in: Human Nature, Early Experience and the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness, New York: Oxford University Press. (Manuscript in preparation.)<!--StartFragment--> <!--EndFragment-->

Benefits of challenge, exposure and adventure 

  • Kyriazis M. (2010.). Nonlinear Stimulation and Hormesis in Human Aging: Practical Examples and Action Mechanisms. Rejuvenation Research, 347–351.
  • Neill, J. T. (2008). Enhancing life effectiveness: the impacts of outdoor education programs. PhD Thesis, University of Western Sydney.  
  • Neill, J. T., & Dias, K. L. (2001). Adventure education and resilience: The double-edged sword. Journal of Adventure Education & Outdoor Learning, 1(2), 35–42.
  • Richardson, E. D. (1998). Adventure-based therapy and self-efficacy theory: Test of a treatment model for late adolescents with depressive symptomatology. PhD Thesis, Virginia Polytechnic Institute.  
  • Seery, M. D., Holman, E. A., & Silver, R. C. (2010). Whatever does not kill us: Cumulative lifetime adversity, vulnerability, and resilience. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Videos

Here are the breathtakingly beautiful videos of Erwan Le Corre (best watched in high definition), illustrating the Paleolithic lifestyle with just images and music.

 

Here is the first part of the 1980 movie "The Gods Must be Crazy", a humorous look at the contrast between the HG life of the Kalahari Bushmen and modern society:

Happiness vs. Long-term Advancement?

 

It is a common assumption, being stressed in many religions and political systems, that individual happiness should be sacrificed for the "greater good" (whether of the group, society, humanity as a whole, or some higher-order emergent system such as the planet or the global brain). The logic of preferring global, collective, long-term solutions over local, individual, short-term ones appears inexorable, especially from a systemic-evolutionary perspective. However, the implicit assumption behind  this form of moral reasoning is much less obvious: that individual happiness would be intrinsically inconsistent, or in competition, with the greater good.

 

What we have learned from studying happiness, both theoretically via evolutionary theory, psychology and cybernetics, and empirically by analysing vast amounts of data on what makes people happy, is that those two perspectives, local and global, are surprisingly consonant. In other words, what is good for the whole tends to be good for the individual components, and vice-versa.

 

The most fundamental reason is that happiness is an evolved, biological signal that tells us whether things are going in the right direction. If that signal were systematically off-mark, we would be constantly making wrong decisions, engaging in behaviors that are ultimately deleterious for individuals, groups, and species. This means that we would be quickly eliminated by natural selection.

 

Of course, we all know cases in which biological signals are off-mark, because they were selected for circumstances very different from the present ones. Most extremely, a heroin addict who gets a new shot will get a very strong positive signal of pleasure, even though his habit is likely to kill him in the medium term. However, there is a difference between immediate, short-term signals such as pleasure and pain, and the much broader, long-term "happiness".

 

Let me emphasize the essential difference between happiness and pleasure. Because of physiological saturation mechanisms, pleasure is a state that cannot be sustained: whatever the pleasure you derive from eating a good meal when you are hungry, once your belly is full, the pleasure dissipates--however much you try to eat additionally. The more intense pleasure of an orgasm is even more short-lived, and cannot be repeated more than once or twice a day.

 

Happiness, on the other hand, is often defined as the balance of pleasure and pain over an extended period. Another common measure is life satisfaction, i.e. the degree to which you are pleased with your life as a whole. Because of the saturation mechanisms above, there is no easy way to increase happiness by increasing the amount of pleasure you get. Most methods to artificially increase pleasure, such as heroin, overeating, or sex addiction, not only fail in extending pleasure beyond the natural saturation point, they create pain, displeasure or stress as side effects, meaning that the overall balance becomes negative.

 

Empirical studies find that the successful pursuit of happiness is actually antithetical to such instant gratification. Happiness depends on your overall life or activity pattern, i.e. the way you interact with the people and environment around you. Happy people are those that are autonomous, free, feel in control, are involved in social groups and projects, have a sense of purpose or goal-directedness, feel part of a larger whole, get the material and social support they need... All of these require investment of energy for the long term and broad scale, not immediate, individual satisfaction.

 

The simplest and in many ways most coherent model of happiness is Csikszentmihalyi's notion of flow, which requires three things: goal-directedness, feedback, and challenges matching skills. However, flow only covers short-term activities, such as playing or performing a sport. What it still lacks is the requirement that the goals should be meaningful or satisfactory in the long term: you can get a lot of satisfaction from playing computer games or climbing mountains, but in the end that hardly  improves your overall situation.

 

If now you add the empirical criteria that characterize happy societies (health, wealth, freedom, education, equality, social participation, sense of larger purpose, etc.), you get a pretty concrete picture of how you can make individuals happy, but in such a way that society too maximizes its well-being and long term evolutionary fitness.

 

Indeed, the essence of flow is to continuously increase your skills in tackling problems, so as to be maximally in control in whatever difficulty is thrown at you. There is no endpoint to this process: it is truly evolutionary, focused on continuing self-improvement (or what Maslow calls "self-actualization"). Therefore, maximizing individuals' happiness here and now seems to be a good strategy for maximizing the "evolvability" (to use John Stewart's term ) and cooperativeness of society.

 

What makes it even better as a strategy is that:

 

  •  happiness is a very attractive goal that is almost ideal for motivating people to follow the precepts;
  •  happy people simply function better than unhappy people: they live longer, they are healthier, more resilient, more open-minded, more creative, less anxious, more altruistic, more inclined to think for the long term, less inclined to conflict, etc. Therefore, they will be more effective in implementing long-term strategies for global progress.

 

While this may seem almost too good to be true, it is important to remember the remaining obstacles to achieving this ideal.

 

The most obvious obstacle is that many people, especially in the Third World, still don't have the necessary material means to satisfy their most basic, physical needs, such as health and nutrition. However, global society is evolving at a quick enough pace to tackle all these problems in a relatively short future. (Actually, we already have the means to tackle them here and now, if only we had the political will and an efficient system of governance for implementing it).

 

The more difficult obstacle is that most people have not yet understood (and even less implemented) the difference between happiness (in the sense of sustainable well-being as sketched above) and quick gratification. That is why they still invest most of their energy in mindless consumption, competition for status, and cheap thrills (such as most TV programs offer). Csikszentmihalyi and others have convincingly argued that these activities produce the exact opposite of happiness (independently of them moreover being bad for the planet). John Stewart's recent research on the "future evolution of consciousness" addresses this problem, among others by exploring techniques from Buddhism to teach people how to detach themselves from their drives for quick gratification.

 

Maslow's theory of self-actualization gives us even more reason to be optimistic. It states that as basic needs are better satisfied during childhood, they stop controlling behavior during adulthood, thus enabling and inciting people to explore their "higher" needs of personal development and self-actualization (which are in practive synonymous to happiness as I sketched it). This means that as society further develops economically and especially socially, what John calls "evolutionary consciousness" will come more easily and naturally to people, without the need for them to follow strict disciplines like the ones prescibed by Buddhism...

Glossary of ECCO Concepts

This is a first draft of a glossary defining the most fundamental concepts of the ECCO ontology. Eventually, this glossary should evolve into a kind of semantic network of nodes (concepts) connected by links (relationships) of different types.

The present draft focuses on the concepts that are unique, or at least typical, for the ECCO world view, which centers around the self-organization of agent collectives. In our research, we make use of many other concepts from the domains of complexity, cybernetics, evolution and cognition, such as: feedback, control, emergence, hierarchy, chaos, non-linearity, etc. However, most of these concepts have already been defined elsewhere, in our work (e.g. Gershenson & Heylighen (2004): How can we think the complex?) and the one of others. They will therefore be added to the Glossary later.

 


Agents and Evolution

action

a change in the state of the world governed by a causal relationship. This cause-effect relation can be represented as a condition -> action rule: whenever a certain condition (state of affairs, functioning as cause) is encountered, a particular action (change of that state, effect) is performed, deterministically or probabilistically, that modifies that state of affairs. Although we informally explained action as a change of state, action is the true primitive of our ontology, and therefore all other concepts, including "state" must be defined in terms of action or derived concepts. 

state

The state of the world at a particular instant is defined by the set of all actions that could be performed at that moment. (If actions are probabilistic, the state includes the probability distribution of all the actions.) This maps to the more intuitive notion of state as the set of all properties that are actual or "true" at a certain moment if we remember that a property needs to be observed to be deemed "true", and that an observation, as shown by quantum mechanics, is an action, which typically changes the observed state.

agent

an autonomous, persistent producer of actions. Agents can be people, animals, robots, organizations, cells, or even molecules. Agents have preferences for certain actions over others, in the sense that when offered a choice they are more likely to perform the "preferred" actions. Preference functions like a gradient or force field that pushes the agent in a particular direction.

goal

an end state or "attractor" to which an agent's actions lead, i.e. a state where the preference is for not further changing the state. For a physical object, the implicit goal is to minimize potential energy or free energy (this is equivalent to maximizing equilibrium or stability). For a living organism the implicit goal is to maximize fitness, i.e. survival and reproduction.

utility

a measure of the "success" of an action, i.e. the degree to which the action has made the agent advance towards its goals; the amount of "reward", "benefit" or "satisfaction" that an agent obtains from an action. When confronted with different options for actions, agents will normally choose the one from which they expect the highest utility.

cost

the amount of utility consumed or wasted by performing an action. An action normally uses energy, and some of this energy will be wasted or dissipated and therefore no longer be available to perform further actions.

event

an action that is not produced by a (goal-directed) agent. An example is the spontaneous decay of a radioactive particle, or the mutation of a string of DNA during replication.

variation

an on-going change in the state of world caused by subsequent actions. Variation produced by events is in general undirected, variation produced by an agent is directed towards the agent's goal. However, since the agent merely has a short-term, local knowledge of the effects of its actions (bounded rationality), there is no guarantee that variation will reach the goal in the long term. Therefore, variation is always to some degree blind, since the agent cannot foresee all the consequences of its actions.

selection

the selective retention of a particular state, because no further actions occur to change that state. Such a state typically corresponds to a (local) maximum of the utility function for the agents involved, i.e. a state that they cannot improve by further actions. Such maxima of the utility function define the "attractors" of the dynamics.

evolution

the long-term, directed change in the state of world towards higher overall utility which results from the interplay of variation of states and the selection of states with higher utility. Evolution can be seen as a search for utility based on trial-and-error, where variation produces the trials, and selection eliminates the errors.

 

Cognition

uncertainty

the degree to which an agent is unsure about what to do or to expect. The larger the number of options that can potentially occur, the larger the uncertainty, and therefore the larger the amount of trial-and-error that the agent will have to perform before it can be certain to have made a satisfactory decision. Agents with high uncertainty will therefore be very inefficient in accumulating utility. Uncertainty is normally measured using Shannon's formula for entropy, which is based on the probability distribution of the different options.

information

anything that reduces uncertainty. Using Shannon's formula, the amount of information in a message can be calculated as the initial uncertainty minus the new uncertainty (after the message has been received). The value of information can in principle be calculated as the expected increase in utility made possible by applying that information to the selection of actions. In practice, this calculation is rarely doable since the outcome depends on the agent's intelligence, which is much more difficult to quantify.

intelligence

given a certain information, the degree to which an agent is able to make good decisions, i.e. selections of actions that maximally accumulate utility in the long term. A zero-intelligence agent is one that selects actions at random. Intelligence has two components: knowledge (or "crystallized intelligence"), and fluid intelligence.

knowledge

the ability, typically derived from experience or communication, to anticipate the consequences of a given action or event. Knowledge can be represented in the form of condition -> action or condition-> condition rules. The latter specifies which new condition can be expected to follow a given condition. Knowledge differs from information in that it produces general predictions or expectancies, applicable in many different situations, while information strictly speaking only applies to the present situation.

fluid intelligence

the ability to internally explore many different combinations of possible events and actions in order to find the one that according to the existing knowledge would produce the largest utility. This requires a mechanism of inference, such as the concatenation of condition-condition rules, e.g. A -> B, B -> C, therefore A -> C.

cognition

the acquisition, processing, storage, and use of information and knowledge to support intelligent decision-making

rationality

the hypothetical ability of an agent to always choose the best action. In reality, rationality is restricted or bounded, as an agent never has enough information, knowledge or intelligence to accurately determine the utility of all possible courses of action. Bounded rationality implies that there is always an element of uncertainty or trial-and-error involved in making decisions; no decision can be a priori proven to be the best one.

intelligence amplification

a process that increases the ability of an agent to make good decisions. Intelligence can be amplified by providing more or better knowledge (e.g. an encyclopedia in which facts can be checked), by increasing the ability to explore many different possibilities (e.g. by means of a computer program that can make more and faster inferences than a human brain, or via drugs that improve thinking in the brain), or by some combination of these.

 

Cybernetics

course of action

the trajectory that an agent would describe through its state space if left undisturbed, by performing subsequent actions that bring the present state closer to a goal state.

diversion

any change in the agent's situation that makes the agent deviate from its present course of action. This deviation can be positive (moving it closer to the goals), negative (moving away from the goals), or neutral. The defining characteristic of a diversion is that the agent has no control over it (although the agent may try to control its subsequent effects): it does not originate from the agent's decision-making, but is unexpected, coming from an initially unknown origin. Examples are a sudden discovery, an obstacle appearing on the road, an apple falling from a tree, an unexpected phone call.

disturbance

a negative diversion. A phenomenon that, if left unchecked, would make the agent's situation deviate from its goals, i.e. reduce its  utility. Disturbances typically originate in the environment, but can also appear because of some malfunctioning within the agent itself. Examples are obstacles, accidents, encounters with predators, parasites or otherwise hostile agents, diseases, poor weather conditions, etc. 

affordance

a positive diversion. A unexpected change in the situation that creates an opportunity for the agent to perform an action that increases its utility, so that it can reach its goals more quickly or easily than expected. Affordances can be tools, means or resources (e.g. a phone, a hammer, food, someone that can give advice)  that help the agent achieve its goals, or the disappearance of obstacles or constraints (e.g. a clearing up of the weather, a reduction in the price of energy).

counteraction

an action performed by an agent that suppresses or compensates for a disturbance, so as to minimize any deviation from the goal or course of action

regulation or control

the process by which an agent constantly minimizes deviations from its goals, by appropriately counteracting disturbances. Regulation makes use of negative feedback: deviations in one direction are compensated by actions that push the state in the opposite direction.

exploitation

the use of known affordances in order to maximize the increase in utility they can bring about. Examples are harvesting fruit, mining for coal, cultivating crops.

exploration 

the process by which an agent seeks for affordances, by trying out actions without specific expectation of what the action would bring about, in the hope that one of them would uncover an affordance. Examples are animals foraging for food, children playing, or people browsing magazines.

the exploration-exploitation trade-off

the difficult decision for an agent about how much energy to invest in exploration rather than exploitation. While exploitation of known affordances makes the agent advance to the goal most reliably, affordances can become exhausted, lose their usefulness because of a change in the situation, or lose their competitive edge relative to new affordances. Therefore it is wise to invest in discovering new affordances before the old ones have lost their power. But exploration alone is a too risky and inefficient, and must be complemented by exploitation. The general rule is that a more variable, unpredictable environment will necessitate more exploration; a more stable environment lends itself more to exploitation.

 

navigation

the process by which an agent constantly adjusts its course of action so as to maximally counteract disturbances and exploit affordances, i.e. so  as to dynamically maximize its advance in utility taking into account the diversions it encounters. Navigation includes regulation, exploration and exploitation.

 

Systems

system

a cohesive group of agents held together by a network of strong interactions. This cohesion distinguishes it from the environment, which groups any other agents with which there is a weak(er) interaction. If the agents in the system share a goal, the system functions like a higher-order agent.

environment  

everything that is considered to be external to a given agent or system, but that still interacts with it

complex adaptive system

a system consisting of many interacting agents, where their interactions are not rigidly fixed, preprogrammed or controlled, but continuously adapt to changes in the system and in its environment

collective intelligence

the degree to which the agents in a system collectively can make good decisions as to their future course of action; in particular, the degree to which the agents collectively can make better decisions than any of them individually.

distributed cognition

the acquisition, storage and use of information and knowledge distributed over different agents in a system, so as to support their collective intelligence

medium

the substrate that carries or supports the interactions between agents; that part of the world that is changed by an action, and whose changed state is perceived as a condition for a subsequent action by another agent. Examples of media are air for acoustic interaction, the electromagnetic field for electric interactions, the physical surroundings for collaborative building. The medium is often the environment shared by the interacting agents, but can also be internal to the agents.

 

 

Interactions

 

interaction

reciprocal effect of two agents (say, A  and B) on each other: the action performed by A creates a condition that triggers another action (reaction) from B, which in turn affects the condition of A, stimulating it to react in turn, and so on. Interaction can go on indefinitely, or stop when the final condition does not trigger any further action.

 

zero-sum interaction

an interaction in which every gain in utility for one agent is counterbalanced by an equal loss in utility for the other agent. This typically occurs when utility is proportional to the amount of "material" resources (such as food, money or energy) that an agent acquires: when the total amount of resources is conserved, the sum of gains (positive changes) and losses (negative changes) must equal zero.

synergy

increase in overall utility caused by interaction; characteristic of an interaction with a positive sum, i.e. a win-win situation where all parties gain in utility. This typically happens when the action performed by one agent to advance towards its goals makes it easier for another agent to achieve its goals as well. An example is the sharing of information or knowledge so that every advance or discovery made by one agent can benefit the other agents as well. Unlike material resources, information is not conserved, and therefore a gain for one agent  can be accompanied by a gain for the other.

friction

the opposite of synergy; decrease in overall utility caused by interaction; characteristic of an interaction with negative sum, where all parties together lose (although one may gain at the expense of a larger loss by the others). This typically occurs when resources are dissipated or wasted during the interaction.  An example is a traffic jam, where enormous amounts of fuel, time and energy are wasted because of mutual obstruction between vehicles. The dissipation can be physical (dissipation of energy or thermodynamic entropy, because of diffusion or physical friction), or informational (waste of resources because of uncertainty leading to many trials ending in error).

cooperation

the relation between agents involved in a synergetic or positive sum interaction. Usually, cooperation is assumed to be intentional, i.e. the agents act in the expectation of a positive sum result (now or later). If the positive sum interaction is unintentional, we may just call it "synergy".

competition

the relation between agents involved in a zero sum interaction

conflict

the relation between agents involved in an interaction with friction or negative sum. Usually, conflict is assumed to be intentional, i.e. the agents act in the expectation of inflicting a loss on the other party. If a negative sum interaction is unintentional, like in a traffic jam, we may just call it "friction".

transaction costs

the degree to which utility in a positive-sum interaction is lost to friction. Even when the interaction overall is synergetic, some of the generated utility will be dissipated during the process. Typical transactions costs are the effort invested in finding the right partner to interact with, negotiating who will contribute what to the transaction, and making sure that everything happens as planned. According to some estimates, in our present economic system more than half of economic value generated is lost to transaction costs. The most fundamental source of transaction costs is uncertainty: since the agent does not know what transaction to enter into, what to agree upon, or what to expect, it will need to spend a lot of energy in search, negotiation, and enforcement of agreements.

 

Organization

coordination

the arrangement or mutual alignment of actions so as to maximize synergy and minimize friction in their overall pattern of interaction. It implies that two actions performed simultaneously or subsequently are selected so as to maximally complement and minimally obstruct each other. This requires a minimization of the uncertainty that otherwise would dissipate resources in needless trial-and-error.

self-organization

the spontaneous emergence or evolution of coordination in a complex adaptive system. Self-organization reduces uncertainty. The driving force behind self-organization is co-evolution based on variation and selection: actions and reactions produce a continuously changing configuration of interactions (variation); however, the more synergetic a configuration, the more "satisfied"  the agents will be with the situation, and thus the less they will act to produce further changes (selective retention or preference for synergetic configurations); vice versa, the more friction there is, the more the agents will be pressured to intervene and change course in order to increase their utility (elimination of high friction configurations).

organization

a relatively stable arrangement or structure of agents inside a system that functions to ensure coordination of their actions. This structure specifies the specific roles of and interactions between the system's agents. Its function is to maximize synergy and minimize friction (including transaction costs) in their further interactions. For example, in a human organization the different individuals each have their own responsibilities, and the rules of the organization specify who interacts with whom in what way. This minimizes transaction costs, since it is no longer necessary to search for partners, negotiate with them, or strictly monitor whether they do what they are expected to do.

mediator

a regulatory structure external to the agents that promotes coordination between them. An example is the system of roads, traffic lights, traffic signs, and lanes that coordinates the movement of vehicles so as to minimize mutual obstruction (i.e. friction). Mediation may emerge from self-organization (e.g. vehicles spontaneously moving to the side in order to let others pass), or be imposed by an inside or outside agent (e.g. a policeman regulating traffic).

stigmergy

a form of indirect coordination via the medium, where the trace left by an action in the medium stimulates the performance of a subsequent action that is complementary to the preceding action. Stigmergy is typically the result of the self-organization of a mediator out of the medium. It is probably the simplest way to achieve coordination in a complex system because it does not make any cognitive demands on the agents (such as remembering who is to do what when), and therefore functions even with agents of very low intelligence.

evolution of cooperation

the general tendency for interactions to become more synergetic through variation and selection, thus reducing competition and conflict

Research

On-going ECCO research projects

 

The following is an overview of the main topics currently being investigated in ECCO, including the names of the most directly involved researchers and some representative references. Elswehere you can find a summary of previous research. For more details, check our publications or Working Papers.

 


Mediator Mechanisms in the Evolution of Organization

This project in a sense provides the theoretical framework for all other, more specific ECCO projects. It tries to understand how initially independent or competing agents can form a cooperative system, through the evolution of "mediators". These are concrete or abstract systems that regulate the interactions between the agents, so as to minimize conflict or "friction", and to maximize synergy. The mediator scenario integrates several more specific models of self-organization and the evolution of cooperation. It helps us to understand evolutionary progress towards higher organization, complexity and adaptability. It further suggests concrete applications, e.g. in economic development or the regulation of self-organizing systems.

ResearchersHeylighenGershensonStewartMartens, Loengarov, Göktepe

Selected References:


Evolutionary-Systemic Philosophy

Here we investigate the new philosophy, including ontology, epistemology and ethics, implied by the science of complex, evolving systems. The resulting integrated world-view should allow us to address the age-old questions: What is? Who are we? Where do we come from? Where do we go to? What can we know? What is the meaning of life?...

ResearchersHeylighenVidal, Gershenson Gontier, StewartBernheim

Selected References:


Evolution and Development of the Universe

Here we look at cosmology and the origin and development of the universe from an "evo-devo" perspective, which combines the unpredictable dynamics of variation and natural selection of cosmic laws and constants, with the more predictable "developmental" dynamics of an organism growing towards more mature organization.

ResearchersVidalSmartStewart

Selected References:

 


High Energy Astrobiology

The increase of complexity in our universe might already have appeared outside Earth, and possibly beyond our level of development. Yet, all high energy astrophysics models implicitly suppose that phenomena we observe are "natural" or simple, rather than "artificial" or complex. Here, we investigate if advanced intelligent life exists in the universe, and develop criteria to distinguish between natural and artificial systems. Vidal (2011) has argued that some close binary star systems in accretion might be extraterrestrial civilizations. This hypothesis needs to be further assessed.

Researchers: Vidal

Selected References:


Self-Organization of Intelligent Artefacts

This research applies general principes of self-organization and distributed cognition to design an "ambient intelligence" environment, in which several simple artefacts and/or sensors (e.g. traffic lights) communicate and coordinate to provide an integrated service.

ResearchersGershensonBollen D, Kiemen

Selected References:


Bootstrapping paradox for learning novelties

This research is based on the discovery of similarity in self-organization and distributed cognitive systems to regulate novelty. Novelty is the common entity between discovery, creativity and innovation. The research aims at building a theory for novelty and make it applicable for regulating breakthrough innovation via the Internet

Researchers: KiemenHeylighen

Selected References:


Social Construction of Shared Categories

This  a four-year project funded by the FWO, in collaboration with the Social Cognition Lab (Psychology Department, VUB). It tries to determine how individually learned concepts or categories can become consensual through communication between the individuals, and in what ways the consensual concept is different or "better" than the individual ones. The issue is investigated in parallel through computer simulation and experiments with groups.

ResearchersHeylighenGershensonVan Overwalle, Biebaut

Selected References:


Connectionist Modelling of Social and Distributed Cognition

This collaboration builds on the previous one to examine more generally how cognitive processes can be distributed over different individuals connected by communication media. It assumes that these connections are variable, adapting to the task by reinforcing successful ones and weakening the others. Computer simulations of such processes help us to understand how knowledge and information propagate and self-organize within groups and organizations.

ResearchersVan OverwalleHeylighen

Selected References:


From Information Society to Global Brain

This projects, now performed by the ECCO subgroup "The Global Brain Institute", extends the connectionist perspective to better understand the future evolution of world society. The emerging knowledge-, network- or information society is conceptualized in analogy with the human brain, which is an immensely complex, self-organizing network of neurons and synapses, where information is processed in a distributed way, and where knowledge is developed through connectionist learning mechanisms.

ResearchersHeylighen, Weaver, Veitas, Busseniers, Kiemen, Rodriguez

Selected References:


Support Systems for Collective Intelligence

Collective intelligence is the ability for a group to produce better decisions than the best of its members. This requires various methods for integrating the ideas and experiences of the members into a collective preference. These methods are most easily implemented on the web, leading to tools such as recommendation systems based on collaborative filtering, electronic democracies, prediction markets, wikis, and social networking systems. We are studying these various approaches to find out their benefits and shortcomings, and use these insights to propose more powerful, integrated systems.

ResearchersRodriguezWatkinsHeylighenBollenKiemenCoenen,  Gershenson

Selected References:


 From Knowledge Organizing to the Interversity

The concept of stigmergy explains how collaboration and cognition can self-organize with the support of a medium in which provisional results are recorded, so as to stimulate further improvements. We apply this perspective to the collaborative organization of knowledge, in the form of a shared semantic network of concepts and their relations. A computational medium for such knowledge organizartion would support all the functions of a true university: research, to develop new concepts; education, to help students assimilate existing concepts; and assessment, to test in how far an individual has effectively assimilated concepts. The medium is intended to guide users towards a better grasp of concepts, either by pointing them to the most relevant existing material, or by eliciting new insights from them.

Researchers: NagarjunaHeylighen, KiemenRodriguez,

Selected References:

 


The Extended/Embodied Mind

From a cybernetic perspective, cognition is not limited to what happens inside the brain: it involves interaction with the environment via perception and action, and the use of tools to support thinking and memory. By redrawing the boundaries between mind and world, we hope to better understand fundamental cognitive processes (including consciousness). This will also help us to design external supports to augment individual and collective intelligence.

ResearchersKiemenBollen D., HeylighenNagarjuna

Selected References:


Neural Mechanisms of Intelligence

Here we try to understand and model the fundamental processes underlying intelligence (perception, inference, problem-solving, thinking, creativity, ...) as the spreading of activation through a network of concepts and associations. Major hypotheses are that such propagation is more efficient in more intelligent brains, that the essential function of cognition is anticipation, and that activation cycles "up" and "down" between percepts and concepts in a bootstrapping fashion. The framework is inspired by recurrent connectionist models and by the "memory-prediction" framework proposed by the brain theorist Jeff Hawkins in his book "On Intelligence".

ResearchersHeylighenMartin (Sheehan), Van OverwalleRodriguez

Selected References:


Memetics and Cultural Evolution

This projects further develops and operationalizes the theory of memetics, which studies the propagation of memes, "idea viruses" or units of imitation as a process of variation and natural selection, and its implications for the evolution of culture. Practical applications include "memetic engineering", i.e. the design of effective vehicles to propagate positive ideas, and the creation of of an "immune system" at the socio-cultural level to minimize the spread of harmful memes or "viruses of the mind", such as fundamentalist ideologies, superstitions, and unfounded rumors.

ResearchersMartin (Sheehan), VadaHeylighenChielens

Selected References:


Complex Systems Models of International Governance

Principles of systems, cybernetics, non-linearity and self-organization help us to better understand the interaction between actors in the international community, the emergence of new actors, and the possibility for creating a flexible system of governance that involves all stakeholders, while transcending the rigidities of the traditional legal framework.

ResearchersGöktepeGeeraertsTezcan

Selected References:


Measurement and Promotion of Well-Being

Happiness, quality-of-life, or well-being can be seen as the intrinsic value guiding personal and social development, providing the motivational equivalent of the evolutionary concept of "fitness". This projects tries to develop more accurate measures of this fundamentally subjective property, and to determine which basic factors promote the increase of social and individual well-being. The intention is to formulate guidelines that would most efficiently help us to augment overall well-being, individually, in the workplace, and in society at large. Such guidelines could be used to decide about policy at the global, national or organizational level, establishing a reliable standard for progress.

ResearchersBernheimIlianoHeylighen

Selected References:

 


Facilitating Interpersonal Problem-Solving

When two or more parties have to solve a problem together, their judgment is often clouded by avoidable conficts and emotional tensions. We try to develop methods that help them to reformulate the problem towards a win-win situation, using methods such as emotional management, empathetic understanding of the other's perspective, and systematic analysis of the cognitive preconceptions underlying the problem.

ResearchersSabharwalHolbrouckStewartHeylighen

 


Complexity Thinking for Innovation Management

The general concepts and principles of complexity, evolution and cognition apply in particular to present-day business, which takes place in an ever evolving ecosystem of competitors, suppliers, customers, technologies, rules, etc. A successful business entreprise requires constant innovation to adapt to a rapidly changing environment, and a broad and deep understanding of future opportunities and risks. The concepts and mechanisms underlying complex, adaptive systems need to be developed into a concrete toolbox for the entrepreneur or manager, that would help him or her to see clearly through the web of non-linear interactions and dependencies, and to steer an efficient, goal-directed course through the unpredictable changes that accompany them, ready to exploit any novel idea or opportunity.

ResearchersKiemen, GoldchsteinVadaHolbrouck, IlianoHeylighenGershenson

Selected References:

 


Resilience 

This project is focused on links between resilience, self-organisation, and evolution of agents in complex adaptive systems and pathways through which these agents can enhance their synergy, coordination and fitness. These dimensions are particularly important for the design processes and engineering methods of future urban structures and ecosystems.

Selected References

 

Complexity for Innovation Management

 Complexity Thinking for Entrepreneurs and Innovation Management


 

The general concepts and principles of complexity, evolution and cognition apply in particular to present-day business, which takes place in an ever evolving ecosystem of competitors, suppliers, customers, technologies, rules, etc. Successful business requires constant innovation to adapt to a rapidly changing environment, and a broad and deep understanding of future opportunities and risks. The concepts and mechanisms underlying complex, adaptive systems and evolutionary cybernetics need to be developed into a concrete toolbox for the entrepreneur or manager, that would help him or her to see clearly through the web of non-linear interactions and dependencies, and to steer an efficient, goal-directed course through the unpredictable changes that accompany them, ready to exploit any novel idea or opportunity.

 

Hypotheses

...

Questions

...

 

Methods

...

 

ResearchersKiemen, GoldchsteinVadaHolbrouck, IlianoHeylighenGershenson

Selected References:

 

Gifted Women: an appeal for personal testimonies

 Looking for GIFTED WOMEN to share their STORY with us for an ACADEMIC PAPER. 

 

Giftedness is defined as a complex of traits that includes unusual intelligence, creativity, curiosity, sensitivity, emotional intensity, and a strong drive to learn and to tackle difficult challenges. If as a woman you recognize yourself in the typical profile of a gifted person please read further. If you know women who fit this profile, please forward this message on to them. Thank you

 

We, Dr. Kate Kingsbury (social anthropologist) and Prof. Francis Heylighen (cognitive scientist), are investigating the reasons that keep many gifted women from realizing their full potential. We are exploring the factors inherent to the social system that might cause gifted women to feel inadequate or excluded. Our aim is  to develop an anthropological understanding of the difficulties that gifted women face, and support such women, so that they become aware that they are not alone in dealing with these difficulties.We are collecting personal testimonies from gifted women, which deal in particular with social and psychological factors, such as family expectations, shame, guilt, self-doubt, feeling abnormal, lonely, or excluded, that may have hindered you in fully realizing your potential. We are also interested in how you have surmounted such obstacles .

 

If you are ready to share your story, please send us your testimony as an email or in an attached Word doc (max. 800 words) to: drkatekingsbury@gmail.com and fheyligh@vub.ac.be

 

 If you want to remain anonymous, you can send us your story via an anonymous mail service, such as http://anonymouse.org/anonemail.html or https://anonymousemail.me/ (which allows replies without identifying the receiver)

 

You may also contact us directly if you wish, with any questions or comments.

 

If you are interested, please take the time to reflect upon and write down your personal experiences, especially with respect to the social influences that may have caused you to doubt your capabilities or hindered you in fully realizing them. Feel free to write to us to get some examples of stories we have collected thus far. We may quote some of the stories we receive in the paper we are writing, but always in such a way that the person who wrote it cannot be identified.

 

Everyone who sends us a story will get a copy of the paper we are writing on our research when it is ready, as well as the whole collection of (anonymized) stories we received, so that you can compare your experience with others....

 

Thank you for your interest,

 

Kate & Francis

 

Prof. Dr. Francis Heylighen

Free University of Brussels

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francis_Heylighen

 

Dr. Kate Kingsbury

University of Oxford

https://oxford.academia.edu/KKingsbury

 

 


 

Characteristics often experienced by gifted individuals:

 Are you a good problem solver?

 Can you concentrate for long periods of time?

 Are you perfectionistic?

 Do you persevere with your interests?

 Are you an avid reader?

 Do you have a vivid imagination?

 Often connect seemingly unrelated ideas?

 Do you enjoy paradoxes?

 Do you set high standards for yourself?

 Do you have a good long-term memory?

 Are you deeply compassionate?

 Do you have persistent curiosity?

 Do you have an excellent sense of humor?

 Are you a keen observer?

 Do you have a love of mathematics?

 Do you need periods of contemplation?

 Do you search for meaning in your life?

 Are you aware of things that others are not?

 Are you fascinated by words?

 Are you highly sensitive?

 Do you have strong moral convictions?

 Do you often feel out-of-sync with others?

 Are you perceptive or insightful?

 Do you often question rules or authority?

 Do you thrive on challenge?

 Do you have extraordinary abilities and deficits?

 Do you learn new things rapidly?

 Feel overwhelmed by many interests/abilities?

 Do you have a great deal of energy?

 Often take a stand against injustice?

 Do you feel driven by your creativity?

 Love ideas and ardent discussion?

 Were you advanced developmentally in childhood?

 Have unusual ideas or perceptions?

 Are you a complex person?

 

If 75% of these characteristics fit you, you are probably a gifted adult. [adapted from the Institute for the Study of Advanced Development / Gifted Development Center]

 

Are You a Gifted Adult?

* I have always had an insatiable curiosity

* I set very high standards for myself and can be my own worst critic

* I have a powerful need to know and am a seeker of ultimate truths

* I have been criticized for being 'too much' of just about everything

* I have always felt deeply wounded by injustice and human suffering

* I can see many sides to nearly every issue and love a good debate

* I have a lot of energy and often feel driven by my own creativity

* I am often seen as the 'idea person' in a group

* I love puzzles, mazes, paradoxes, complex ideas, and words

* I often feel responsible for problems that don't actually belong to me

* Many times I have felt 'different,' and sometimes I feel like a minority of one

* I am a dyed-in-the-wool perfectionist

* I have been criticized for not 'sticking with one thing'

* Honesty, integrity, and authenticity are very important to me

* I have a history of questioning rules and challenging authority

* I seem to be bothered by bright lights, aromas, and noises that others ignore

* I have a well-developed sense of humor that is somewhat offbeat

* I have maintained my childlike sense of playfulness and wonder

 

Recognize Yourself or Someone You Know?

The vast majority of gifted adults are never identified in childhood and don't know they are gifted. If you see yourself in more than half of these traits you are probably one of them.

 

[excerpt from  Jacobsen, Mary-Elaine: The Gifted Adult]

  

For more about gifted people and their problems, see:

Heylighen, F. (2006). Characteristics and Problems of the Gifted: neural propagation depth and flow motivation as a model of intelligence and creativity (ECCO Working papers No. 2006-05). (research paper proposing a broad theory)
Heylighen, F. (2004). Gifted people and their problems. Retrieved September, 12. (summary and excerpts from the literature)

-- 

Interpersonal Problem-Solving

 


When two or more parties have to solve a problem together, their judgment is often clouded by avoidable conficts and emotional tensions. We try to develop methods that help them to reformulate the problem towards a win-win situation, using methods such as emotional management, empathetic understanding of the other's perspective, and systematic analysis of the preconceptions underlying the problem.

Researchers: Sabharwal, Holbrouck, Stewart, Heylighen

 


Improving interpersonal problem-solving through emotional management and empathy

 

The typical approach to problem-solving until now has been to focus either on the individual level (one person needs to solve a problem) or on the collective level (a large group of people need to solve a shared problem). In both cases, conflicts can be simply avoided: individually, because we assume that an individual is not in conflict with himself (although that is not always obvious); collectively, because we can aggregate the divergent opinions though voting or some other "collective intelligence" procedure. When there are 2, 3, 4, or 5 people, however, voting may either lead to no decision (when the votes are evenly divided), or to a decision where a single vote can push the decision in one way or another, thus suppressing the will of the majority minus 1, leaving the losing party with strong resentment.
 
In such cases, rather than simply aggregating different opinions, and hoping that the law of large numbers will suppress the effect of meaningless fluctuations, we need a more active or constructive method of synthesizing opposing visions. The ideal is to arrive at a win-win result, i.e. an outcome where all parties benefit. This typically requires a redefinition of the problem, because in the cases of conflict the problem is an outcome that one party sees as a gain, another party sees as a loss, and therefore the parties cannot reach agreement about which option to choose. The reformulation of the problem should turn a zero-sum game into a positive-sum one.
 
Such reformulation is often very difficult to achieve because of emotional arousal: since the solution proposed by one party is viewed as a loss by the other party, any push for this solution is experienced as a threat to that party's position. Our natural instinct is to respond to threat by arousal, i.e. a preparation for the fight or flight response mediated by the stress hormone adrenalin (or epinephrin).
 
 As evidenced by a number of psychological experiments, arousal leads to a narrowing of perception, because  attention becomes more focused on the perceived causes and effects of the threat, while becoming less sensitive to the wider context. Moreover arousal will lead to a more agressive or assertive stance, where one's own position is defended more vehemently. Such assertive action will be experienced as more threatening by the other party, who will get more aroused, and therefore react more aggressively in turn.
 
This positive feedback leads to a spiral of escalating conflict, where the parties become ever more aroused, more narrow in their focus, and less ready to compromise or to consider an alternative viewpoint. As a result, the problem appears ever more unsolvable. As an example, we may think about marital conflicts ending in divorce, or the on-going conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
 
This analysis of the vicious cycle suggests the following strategies to improve problem-solving:
  • reducing arousal by emotional management or regulation
  • increasing empathy, i.e. the ability to see the problem from the other party's perspective
  • reformulating the problem so that the new goal would be seen as beneficial by all parties

 

Emotional management may be achieved via different strategies, such as:
making people more aware of the effects of emotional arousal, so that they are less taken by surprise when they become aroused
  • suppression: simply repressing the emotion when it arises
  • relaxation: focusing the mind on something calming so as to let the arousal diminish
  • mindfulness: i.e. teaching people to detach themselves more from their emotions, in the sense of really experiencing them, but not going along with them, i.e. feeling them but not being controlled by them
 
Empathy is a more cognitive approach, where people need to try to conceive how the situation looks from the other's party point of view, and reason from that position in order to better understand the arguments and actions of the other party. The ability for empathy is probably to some degree inborn: several theorists have postulated that humans, as uniquely social animals, have a brain ready to develop a  theory of mind. Frank's latest research, which he presented in an ECCO seminar a couple of months ago, aims to uncover the particular areas of the brain used for inferring other people's goals, intentions and beliefs, and thus the neurophysiological basis of empathy.
 
But some people are clearly more empathetic than others, even though they probably have the same brain structure. One plausible factor is the security of attachment to the mother in childhood: individuals who experienced secure attachment are intrinsically more self-confident, less anxious, and  more open to experience. Therefore, they will be less prone to undergo the mechanism of feeling threatened -> arousal -> narrowing of perception -> reduced capacity for empathy -> more aggressive stance
 
Such "talent for empathy" seems a pretty stable personality attribute that is hard to change. However, it is likely that people can to some degree be taught to become more empathetic, by explaining what empathy is, and how the same problem can be perceived differentlty  by different people. Researching the best way to teach empathy seems a very promising approach to conflict management, but it requires first a better unnderstanding of how empathy really functions.
 
The last strategy, reformulating the problem into a positive-sum game, is as yet the least clear one. But this is the domain that is most directly connected to our on-going ECCO research into synergy, stigmergy, problem-formulation, mind-mapping, etc. 

 

Social Construction of Concepts

 Social Construction of Shared Categories

 

This is a four-year project funded by the FWO, in collaboration with the Social Cognition Lab (Psychology Department, VUB). It tries to determine how individually learned concepts or categories can become consensual through communication between the individuals, and in what ways the consensual concept is different or "better" than the individual ones. The issue is investigated in parallel through computer simulation and experiments with groups.

Researchers: Heylighen, Gershenson, Van Overwalle, Biebaut

Selected References:

 

 

Conferences

Upcoming Conferences organized in collaboration with ECCO

 


Session on Complex Networks

at

ALife XII: 12th International Conference on the Synthesis and Simulation of Living Systems

(Odense, Denmark, 19-23 August 2010)

Coordinators: Mikhail Prokopenko and Carlos Gershenson

 

 


Past Conferences


Photo: discussion at the 1st Principia Cybernetica Workshop (Brussels, June 1991); left to right: Harry Bronitz, Gordon Pask (background), J.L. Elohim (foreground), Robert Glueck, Ranulph Glanville, Annemie Van Kerkhoven, Don McNeil, Elan Moritz, Cliff Joslyn, A. Comhaire, Valentin Turchin.

The following meetings have been (co-)organized by ECCO people:

 

Photo: participants at the first International Conference on the Evolution and Development of the Universe


 

Other interesting conferences

Conferences addressing ECCO-related themes but without ECCO being involved in the organization may be found at the GIACS events page

Teaching & Consultancy

ECCO Courses and Consultancy

Teaching

Several ECCO members teach courses at university level, related to our domain of research. These include teaching and training in the use of basic and advanced information technologies (website development, multi-agent simulations, collaborative environments, programming...), and more general concepts and principles in the domains of evolution, complexity and cognition. On demand, (parts of) this material can be presented elsewhere, in English or in Dutch, e.g. in the form of guest lectures, or seminars for business organizations. For example, an introduction to complexity science was presented at the recent "Simplicity of Complexity" seminar near Utrecht, Netherlands.

Of particular interest for the general ECCO subject are the following two courses.

 

Consultancy

ECCO also makes its expertise available in the form of consultancy, for business, government or non-governmental organizations. We have been consulted among others by:

 

Costs

As a general rule, we provide consultancy and teaching for free to educational institutions, but ask about 600 euro for a day's work (preparation + presentation for one person) to others. The precise sum will depend on the type of activity and needs to be negotiated. This money is deposited on an internal university account of the WDOO type, used for income from so-called "Dienstbetoon" activities (services performed outside the academic community). We use this account to help pay for our general costs (infrastructure, travel, personnnel, etc.), thus supporting our research activities.

Joining ECCO

We regularly get inquiries from all over the world from people who would like to join the ECCO research group, most often in order to make a PhD here, or do a PostDoc stay. However, since our group is growing quickly while our funding and infrastructure is limited, we need to be very selective in the people we accept.

There are different possibilities for joining or collaborating with us, from more to less involved. As a general rule, the more support you expect from us (e.g. supervision and funding to make a PhD), the more we will demand from you before accepting your application. If you don't need much, e.g. because you already work in a research group or are autonomously funded, you may be able to join as an "affiliate". The conditions are that your research fits in clearly with our overall philosophy, is of high quality, and you are motivated to collaborate with us on various projects.

The following frequently asked questions summarize the different options for collaborating with ECCO.

 

 

Who can join?

Which kind of people are welcome to make a PhD in ECCO?

First and foremost, people are attracted to ECCO because of their enthusiasm for our research philosophy, i.e. the very broad and deep, transdisciplinary perspective on how complex, intelligent systems emerge and evolve. Most present ECCO researchers have joined because they found an open-mindedness and depth of thinking here that is rare in other academic institutions, and because they didn't quite see where else their own ideas might fit in. However, enthusiasm and motivation, while definitely helpful, is not sufficient to engage in international-level research.

Since it was announced on the Principia Cybernetica Webpage, our program offering interdisciplinary PhDs has to some degree become the victim of its own success, attracting more candidates than we can comfortably handle. (in 2004 alone not less than 5 new PhD students joined ECCO, and many more applied). Our research center is not yet large enough to provide much supervision, infrastructure or financial support. This means that we have to be very selective in accepting further PhD candidates.

We give preference to the people that best satisfy the following general criteria:

  • show unusual intellectual capabilities, in particular creativity, capability for abstraction, analytical and synthetic thinking
  • have a solid education in at least one academic discipline, whether in technology, natural sciences, social sciences, or humanities
  • are very open-minded, willing to explore ideas and approaches very different from their original background (e.g. art for a physicist, mathematics for a philosopher, or biology for a sociologist)
  • wish to focus on a research subject that fits in with on-going research at ECCO
  • are able to work largely autonomously, with little direct supervision
  • have enough maturity, self-discipline and emotional stability to successfully carry through the long and uncertain process of preparing a PhD
  • can find their own financial support (possibly with our assistance)
  • are willing to collaborate with, and give/receive mutual support to/from, other PhD students at our center

These criteria are fuzzy and to some degree subjective. It is unlikely that any one candidate would perfectly fit all requirements. However, a high score on some criteria (e.g. exceptional intellectual capacities) may to some degree compensate for failing to fulfil another criterion (e.g. lack of independent financial support). Therefore, these criteria should not be seen as strict admission requirements, but rather as guidelines that will help candidates estimate how well they fit the profile.

 

Applying for membership

If you think you recognize yourself in this profile, and moreover seem to fulfil the formal requirements for admission as a PhD student at the VUB, you can apply in the following way:

  • send an email application to the ECCO director, Francis Heylighen, explaining in some detail why you would like to do research in ECCO, and what your initial research ideas or interests are
  • indicate whether you think you can get financial support on your own
  • attach your full curriculum vitae, with your educational (and possibly professional) experience
  • attach if at all possible any representative texts you have written (e.g. papers, bachelor's or master's thesis, essays, even short stories...) that can give us an impression of how you develop and explain your ideas (even if only a review of existing literature). These need not be about the subject on which you would like to do research, but are very helpful for us to estimate your writing and thinking capabilities.

If your application appears to fit with the general profile, you will be invited for a personal meeting at the center, so that we can talk in more depth about your and our research ideas, and get to know you in the flesh. If here too our impression is positive, we will immediately start discussing the practical issues that need to be tackled for you to start working in ECCO.

 

 

PhD requirements

What are the formal requirements to make a PhD at the VUB/ECCO?

To get a PhD (Doctorate) at the VUB, you need to fulfill the following basic requirements:

  • have a university degree that is considered equivalent to a Belgian Master's degree. If you only have the equivalent of a Bachelor's, it is possible to get a Master's here. There are some Master's programs at the VUB in English, e.g. a MSc in computer science that may include courses on adaptive systems, AI and other topics related to the ECCO domain.
  • find a professor who is willing to be the "promotor" (supervisor, thesis advisor) of your research. For a PhD at ECCO this most likely will be the ECCO director Francis Heylighen, who officially is affiliated with the philosophy department. However, for administrative reasons, for people without a philosophy background, it will in general be necessary to find a second, "co-promoter" in the department of their specialization, although that is usually a formality. For a promoter to decide whether he would be willing to supervise your work, he should at least receive a clear statement of your interests, your curriculum vitae, and, if possible, some samples of work (papers) that you have done before. These are preferably discussed by email. If these seem acceptable, a meeting can be arranged in Brussels for in-depth discussion.
  • once a promoter is found, submit a number of documents and forms depending on the specific faculty (speciality) which need to be processed by the administration before you can be formally registered. This is a minor formality for people with a Belgian degree, but demands some extra effort for people with a non-European degree.
  • pay a yearly registration fee (about 250 Euro or $400 for the first year, 60 Euro for the following years), at least in the year when you plan to defend your thesis, or during the whole period of your study work if you want to profit from having a "student" status. However, formal registration as a student is not strictly required in the first years of the research, although it would be necessary to get a student visa for non-EU residents desiring to live in Brussels.
  • when the PhD work is finished, submit and defend the thesis for a committee of VUB professors and invited international experts from other institutions. If the committee accepts the thesis, you get your degree. However, your promotor will see to it that poor PhD work is unlikely to make it to the stage where it is defended before a committee.

There are no other official requirements, except that while you are registered, you are supposed to write short yearly reports on the work your have done, so as to allow the faculty to check on your progress. PhD students do not have to do coursework or take examinations, but are encouraged to participate in the PhD support program that organizes research seminars, and practical training in research-related skils such as academic writing, making presentations, applying for funding, etc.

For more information on all aspects of becoming and working as a PhD student at the VUB, see the website of the Central PhD support programme.

Every PhD student is further encouraged to go to conferences (for which some funding is normally available), give lectures and publish papers, thus exchanging ideas with other researchers, locally and globally. In the end, whether you succeed or not will depend wholly on the dissertation itself, but any paper written or seminar given will be a significant step forward towards this end. See further which activities are expected from a PhD student in ECCO.

Making a PhD usually takes between 3 and 7 years, with a legal minimum of 1 year (which only makes sense for people who already have done most of the work before they register as a student). The official language at the VUB is Dutch, but practically everybody is fluent in English and French, and the work can be done wholly in English. It is in principle possible to work part of the time outside of Belgium, as long as there is sufficient contact with the promoter to allow supervision of the on-going work. This will depend on the promoter and the topic.

 

Affilliates

I already work in a research group. How can I become an affilliate ECCO member?

Being a member of an existing research department does not exclude becoming a member of ECCO as well.

Belonging to different research groups

The VUB rules do not limit the number of research groups to which an individual can belong, though in practice few people will belong to more than three. These rules also do not distinguish between degrees of membership: you can be an official member of a group even though you have hardly any contact with the other group members. This is understandable, given that research groups are very flexible entities, and that someone's domain of research can touch on many domains, without any one of them being predominant.

However, this can create an "inflation" in group membership, where a group seems much bigger when you look at its official membership list than when you see the people who actively take part in its activities. To avoid that, ECCO distinguishes "full" or "core" members who spend most of their research activities in ECCO, from "affiliate" members whose main academic activity lies elsewhere. This distinction is by necessity fuzzy, and people's activities may shift so that they become either closer involved or farther removed. So, we leave it up to the people themselves to decide whether they want to be listed as "full" or "affiliate".

Becoming an affiliate

Joining ECCO as an affiliate member is easier than becoming a full member. The fact that you already belong to another research group means that most of the requirements are already fulfilled: you will mostl ikely already have some research experience, a focus of interest, a source of funding, a promotor, an official status as student or researcher, ... The main issue then is whether your research focus is sufficiently close to the one of ECCO. That is best discussed by exchanging some papers, or you presenting a seminar to ECCO.

If it turns out that our interests are parallel and that your work may contribute to some on-going ECCO projects, we will gladly welcome you as an affiliate member. If the collaboration intensifies, you may want to change your status and become a full member, while remaining affiliated with your first research group.

Where does my work get listed?

VUB research groups are evaluated on the basis of the scientific output (publications, presentations, conferences, theses, ...) of all their members, full or affiliate, as entered in the R&D database. For affiliate members, it remains ambiguous which part of their output should be listed under ECCO and which under the other groups of which they are members. There is no a priori restriction on listing the same output under different research groups. But we should also avoid an "inflation" scenario where groups apparently produce huge outputs simply because the same works are counted several times. We leave it up to the members to decide which of their work they want to list under ECCO. As a rule of thumb, it seems that work on ECCO themes, or inspired by discussions with other ECCO members, should be listed under ECCO, though it can be simultaneously listed under another research group.

 

Voluntary researchers

Can I be an ECCO researcher even without a research contract?

Yes, you can!

It could happen that you have been accepted as a member of ECCO, and are eager to start doing research, but haven't yet managed to secure funding (scholarship, or research contract) for it. Or perhaps, you don't need funding because you already have a (part-time) job outside of the university, or simply have large savings.

In that case, it is understandable that you would like to get some kind of official recognition for the research work you do, and get access to the same facilities as your paid colleagues. A solution specifically for those situations exists.

Voluntary researcher status

The VUB legally recognizes the status of voluntary researcher ("vrijwilllig wetenschappelijk medewerker"), i.e. someone participating in the activities of a VUB research group, but without being paid for it. This status basically provides the same rights and privileges as the one of a researcher employed by the VUB. For example, it entitles you to an insurance for accidents that might occur while working at the VUB, a VUB email address, access to the network and machines, the use of software for which the VUB has a licence, or of books and papers in the VUB library.

To get such a status, you should submit a form to the VUB personnel department, stating that you do research work at one of the recognized departments, and have it signed by your promotor or head of department.

Student status

An alternative for registration as a voluntary researcher is registration as a PhD student. The student status gives you largely the same rights and privileges, though there are some subtle differences. E.g. students are entitled to reduced fees for public transport, unlike voluntary researchers, but have to pay a (small) yearly registration fee. The student status also makes less sense for people who already have a PhD.

ECCO membership without special status

Finally, you don't need any legally recognized status with the university to become an official member of ECCO, whether full or affiliated. This means that your name would be listed on the ECCO members page, and that you would be entitled to mention ECCO as your academic affiliation on any publications or conferences that you participate in.

If needed, you can moreover get a VUB network account, that gives you access to email, electronic library holdings, etc. For that, you need to fill out a registration as visiting researcher, and have it signed by your head of department (F. Heylighen). This does not entitle you to an insurance, though. Therefore, this option is interesting mostly for people who work outside the VUB.

 

Moving to Brussels

What can I expect when moving to Brussels?

If you are a foreign researcher considering to move to work or study at the VUB in Brussels, Belgium, you will find the following information useful.

For more detailed info, you may check the brochure "Before you take off" for foreign students coming to the VUB. You can ask any further questions at the International Relations and Mobility department:

  • phone: +32-2-6291279
  • fax:+32-2-6291501
  • email: international. relations @ vub. ac. be (remove spaces).

Visa and other formalities

If you come from a non-EU country you will normally have to apply for a residence visa as student or employee before you can settle in Belgium. You normally need to apply from your own country, though in exceptional circumstance you can try to have a tourist visa (valid for short stays, up to 3 months) converted to a long term visa while already in Belgium. The simplest way to get a visa is to apply as a PhD student at the VUB. The university's letter of acceptance is normally all you need to get the visa, though this may take some time, as Belgian visa services can be slow.

For more details see:

Accommodation

Compared to other European capitals, costs for living in Brussels are still relatively low, both for renting apartments and for food. You should be able to find a comfortable apartment starting from about 500 euro/month, i.e. less than a third of a normal PhD scholarship. Good places to start looking are:

  • http://www.vlanimmo.be, and the journal called "Vlan" (free) or "Vlan+". This journal has the largest offer. That's the journal Belgians use to find an accomodation.
  • Quartier Latin, this site is extremely well done, but search mainly for "kots" (specifically for students).
  • http://www.immoweb.be, other announcements, from agencies.

Some good (not too expensive, easy to reach from the university) areas to check are:

  • center of Brussels close to the Grand Place and to the Antoine Dansaert street. The cheapest place are at the end of the Dansaert street near the Canal;
  • Saint-Gilles is close to everything with many places to rent.
  • area arond the place Flagey in Ixelles
  • Etterbeek : all the area of La Chasse
  • area around the ULB campus Solbosch in Ixelles is also nice but more expensive

You can search these areas by entering in the websites:
location appartement
1 chambre
budget : 500 EUR
Bruxelles 1000; Etterbeek 1040; Saint-Gilles 1060; Ixelles 1050

If you plan to rent a van, to help you to estimate the volume of your belongings, go to http://www.centraledesdevis.com (in french).

Public Transport

In Brussels, there are three methods of public transportation: bus, tram and underground (metro). It's possible to buy daily tickest for one or ten travels, weekly tickets and montly or yearly based season tickets. To find ticket prices and the shortest trajectories connecting any two places in the city, go to the website of the Brussels public transport company, http://www.stib.be.

Work opportunities

Students for Bachelor's and Master's degree have the right to work for 20 hours per week apart from their weekly school programs. PhD students, if they do not take any courses, have the right to work full-time. Jobs for students are announced via the university job service, (job @ vub. ac. be). The salary is paid on an hourly base, and varies between 5 euros up to 11 or 12 euros per hour. On the other hand, newcomers should not be very hopeful about finding a job, because, as Belgium has two official languages, French and Dutch, most candidates are asked to be bilingual. This means that in practice Belgian citizens have priority in most of the job interviews.

See further: financing your studies

Foreign student support services

The university provides extensive medical, social and other services for registered students and researchers, for little or no fee. Particularly helpful is the Foreign Students Integration Service), where you can go for all kinds of assistance and support to the very amiable and experienced Patrick Boekstijns, and the service for foreign researchers at the R&D-International Relations department. These can help you with the different legal and other issues, such as visa, health insurance, etc.

Food

The VUB restaurant provides inexpensive, healthy meals.

Registration formalities

 

Steps to take

In summary, which steps should I take before coming to work in ECCO?

Let's assume that you have become interested in ECCO research, e.g. through this website, publications or lectures, and that you consider joining the group. What do you do?

After receiving several dozen applications to join ECCO over the past few years, from which about a dozen were successful, we have gathered quite some practical experience with the process and its likely pitfalls. This allows us to summarize the full procedure in the form of an "algorithm" or decision tree, with the following steps (note that some of these steps may not be necessary for you, e.g. because you have the Belgian nationality, already live in Belgium, or don't need a PhD registration).

  1.  Get to know us better: simply read different documents available on our website, study some of our research, perhaps have conversations with some of our members. If you still think that this is where you fit, go to the next step,
  2. Present yourself: send us all the material that may help us to get to know you, indicating why you would like to join. If we like what we see, we will invite you to the next step.
  3. if you plan to register as a PhD student, you can already try to collect the necessary documents to fulfill the formal university requirements, or look for financial support
  4. Come to visit us: if you come from abroad we can help you with some practical things such as providing temporary accommodation or writing invitation letters, but we normally cannot pay your travel costs. If your and our impression is still positive, you have been accepted to join ECCO, and you can use the occasion of your visit to Brussels to submit the necessary documents to the university. However, these documents can also be submitted by mail later.
  5. Wait for the admission letter that allows you to register as a PhD student. This can take a couple of months, depending on the period (slower in summer) and the faculty to which you apply.
  6. if you are not an EU citizen, apply for a student visa at the Belgian consulate in your country, submitting the admission letter and some further required documents.
  7. once you are allowed to reside in the country, move to Brussels, where we will try to arrange temporary accommodation for you, while you look for an apartment.
  8. register in person as a PhD student at the VUB, and visit the different student support services that will help you with health insurance, residence papers, etc.
  9. start working in ECCO

 

 

Working in ECCO

Doing research in ECCO: FAQ

 

For beginning (and more experienced) researchers, here are our answers to the most frequently asked questions about doing (PhD) research, in ECCO, at the VUB, and in general.

Academic activities

Getting academic support

Developing research and thinking skills

Communicating results

 

Academic Activities

What does a researcher in academia do?

For people considering an academic career, but without experience in this domain as yet, it may be good to summarize what researchers in universities and research institutes actually are busy with. Research means in essence developing new knowledge on the basis of data, ideas and reflection. For academic research, this knowledge is intended to become public, so that everyone can freely use it. Therefore, the end product of research consists of publications, typically in scientific journals, conference proceedings, or books. While most publications still end up in journals for which you need an expensive subscription, the general trend is to make all publications open acces, that is, put them on a website from where they can be freely downloaded by everybody.

Contrast this with non-academic research performed in companies, the military, or certain government centers. Here the knowledge produced is intended to support the activities of a particular group, be it a corporation, army or public administration. That group typically wants to keep control of the knowledge, so that it cannot be used by rival groups. This is achieved first of all by secrecy: only a restricted number of people have access to the knowledge. In a second stage, the knowledge may be protected by a patent: now the knowledge can be consulted by others, but not used without express license from the patent holder. In this case, the knowledge may still be published in the scientific literature, but this is an exception rather than the rule.

In academia, on the other hand, publication is the only thing that really matters. No matter how good your theories, if they have not been published, it is as if they do not exist, because no one can use them, test them, criticize them, or build further on them. The essence of the scientific enterprise is that a scientist builds further on the results of the research of those that came before, and hopes that others will build further on her/his results. Publication, information exchange, discussion and collaboration are therefore basic activities.

Another defining characteristic of academia is academic freedom. Once you have developed a certain level of autonomy and experience, as a researcher you are free to choose what you investigate, in what way, and how you interpret your results. You are not dependent on a boss, regulation or hierarchy that tells you what to do and what not to do. Any subject is in principle worth researching, as long as it catches your interest. The only condition is that you stick to a true scientific approach, that is, collect as much as possible evidence for your hypotheses, but remain critical and ready to abandon hypotheses if the evidence is not sufficiently supportive.

Research is an interplay of data gathering, data processing, and the formulation of hypotheses to explain the data. Depending on the topic of your research, data can appear in many different forms. In the simplest case, your data are simply the results, ideas and theories of other researchers. These you find by searching the existing literature. In the more complex cases, you may need a complex and expensive infrastructure, such as radio telescopes, particle accelerators, test tubes with cell cultures, cages with laboratory animals, large-scale surveys or computer simulations, to get your data from. There exist many different methods to acquire and process these data, depending on the specific discipline in which you work. As a researcher you are expected to become an expert in these methods, because it is easy to make mistakes when looking for patterns in data, and thus to come up with spurious results that cannot be reproduced.

Such data acquisition methods tend to be very specialized, and therefore it is difficult to make general observations. However, all researchers in all disciplines need to be able to formulate clear concepts, theories or hypotheses that to some degree can explain the patterns in their data. Data without explanation are just that: meaningless pieces of information. To turn them into knowledge, you should be able to postulate some classification, rule or mechanism that connects the bits and pieces and situates them in a coherent pattern.

That pattern can then be used to make a prediction: if some further data would come in that fit into the pattern, then they should exhibit certain non-trivial properties. In the simplest case, such a prediction can be stated in the following form: if some piece of data has property A, then it will also have property B. For example, if some animal is a bird, then it will lay eggs, be warm-blooded and have feathers. Once you have formulated a good hypothesis, the hypothesis can be tested by gathering additional data, and if necessary rejected if is does not hold up.

Finding general patterns in more specific data is the essence of science. While there exist a number of methods that can assist in this process (such as statistics and data mining), this is still a highly creative process that is based mostly on hunches and intuition, deep reflection, long-term incubation, and serendipitous discovery. This is the most important and fascinating part of research. It takes place as well during solitary thinking as during discussions with colleagues.

 

What does this amount to in practice? What do academic researchers mostly spend their time on?

Data gathering tends to take most time, especially in empirical fields like medicine or experimental psychology. The disadvantage is that not much time is left for theoretical reflection, at least for junior researchers. In more theoretical fields, data gathering is limited to reading (mostly), performing Internet searches, and attending lectures. Data processing can also take a lot of time, especially if it requires complicated statistical analysis or the writing of computer programs.

The next major use of time for a researcher is writing down results, initially in the form of personal notes, eventually in the form of papers and dissertations intended for publication. It is during this stage that ideas and hunches take a clearer shape, so this is an often difficult, but creative and rewarding, process. The formatting, copy-editing, submitting to the right journal and correcting in order to take into account referee comments can also take quite some time, but tends to be more tedious. A more pleasant use of time is the participation in conferences, meetings and discussions with colleagues, where you typically get a lot of inspiration, advice, feedback and stimulation.

Probably the most frustrating part of the job is administration and the application for funding, where you typically need to fill in multiple arcane forms to register what you have been busy with or want to do, and try to formulate your research in such a way that it is likely to fit in with the requirements of some funding program or agency. The most stressful part here is that there are typically many more applications for a particular source of funding than money that can be allocated. Therefore, the probability of failure is much larger than the probability of success, even if your proposal is excellent. Not getting the money you applied for means basically that you have wasted days and days of hard, tedious work developing a proposal that is afterwards relegated to the wastebasket. If this happens repeatedly, you moreover run the risk of having to stop your line of research, or even become unemployed.

While the successful application for funding tends to be a major criterion for evaluating the success of a researcher, the most important criterion is still the quantity and quality of that researcher’s publications. Here, you have more control over the direction your research goes, since you are free to choose what you publish on or where you publish it, without having to take into account the vagaries of funding schemes. Quality of publications is typically measured by the number of citations a publication gets and by the “impact factor” of the journal in which it is published. For an experienced researcher, a useful overall measure of success is the “h-index”, which combines the number of publications with their number of citations.

All of these measures are of course merely rough approximations of the true value of someone’s research contributions. However, if your research is truly novel and important and you publish it in the right places, then you should be able to score well on these and other indicators. This will show to the world that your contributions to science are really worthwhile, and that you deserve to build up a long and fruitful academic career, hopefully in order to deepen our understanding of the universe and to make the world a better place to live in!

Duties of a PhD student

Which activities are expected from a PhD student/beginning researcher?

Official requirements

Officially, the only activities required from a registered PhD student at the VUB are yearly submissions of a 1-2 page activity report in spring, covering the past academic year. The report written by the student must be confirmed by a report from the promotor. In practice, in ECCO we let the student prepare both reports, but the promotor checks the accuracy of the second report, makes corrections if necessary, and then submits the approved version.

The report is used by the faculty committee to check whether the student is advancing well. If for a year or more no significant progress is apparent, student and promotor may be questioned to find a remedy for the problem. In the worst case, if the student really seems unable to produce any significant activities, the student's scholarship may be stopped. (If the problem lies in a conflict or misunderstanding between student and promotor, both are referred to the ombudsperson for PhD students, who will try to mediate between the parties.)

The only other obligation is the final submission of the finished dissertation, and its defense, first at a private meeting of the PhD committee, and if that went well, publically. The student is not officially required to follow courses, take examinations, take part in seminars, etc.

Concrete expectations

While apart from the thesis defense, no specific activities are officially required, in practice a number of academic activities are strongly recommended to help develop your academic skills, ideas and self-confidence. As a rule-of-thumb, in ECCO we expect a PhD student to every year perform at least the following activities:

The actual frequency will depend on the stage of your PhD work. In the first year, students will typically explore the literature and go to conferences or lectures, but have little concrete ideas of their own to present or write down yet. By the third year, they should be up to speed, producing several papers/lectures a year, in order to slow down again by the last year, when all their energy is channelled into the dissertation itself. As a very rough estimate, a typical full-time PhD researcher, working for 5 years, will have produced some 8-10 papers, of which 4-5 effectively published, participated in a dozen conferences, and given half a dozen lectures.

General background activities

In addition to this concrete output, researchers will be busy with various, less easily quantifiable activities: exploring the literature, discussing with experts or colleagues, gathering and processing data, reflecting and organizing their thoughts, taking notes, etc. To deepen their knowledge, they may take specialized courses, follow summer schools, or go for study visits to other institutions.

Depending on their research topic, they may be writing computer programs, performing experiments, analysing data, or observing cases. They may also get useful experience by organizing seminars or conferences, or editing collections of papers by others. They are also likely to get involved in the overall management of the ECCO group, e.g. by looking into funding opportunities, preparing proposals, supporting visitors or other ECCO researchers, setting-up infrastructure, making publicity for ECCO activities, initiating collaborations, etc.

All of these and others may find their way in the yearly activity reports that will build their academic curriculum vitae.

A recommended strategy

Given the complexity, changefulness and ill-defined nature of research activities, it is easy for a beginning researcher to lose sight of the forest for the trees. Many PhD students spend their energy in unending side-activities, such as reading books, following courses, progamming simulations, or organizing conferences, while postponing the essential stage of writing down their results, first as papers, eventually as a dissertation.

To overcome this tendency towards procrastination, which typically results from lack of confidence in one's own researching/writing abilities, we suggest the following simple series of steps, offering a smooth transition from the easy to the difficult:

  • gather inspiration by reading, following lectures, talking to colleagues, thinking...
  • write down your ideas immediately as you get them, creating a collection of notes
  • organize your notes by using the method of outlining or idea processing
  • develop your outline into a (PowerPoint) presentation
  • present this outline as a seminar to the ECCO group (or at a conference), so as to get feedback from your colleagues
  • taking into account the feedback, develop your outline into an ECCO working paper
  • announce your working paper to colleagues/promotor, requesting more detailed feedback
  • taking into account the feedback, improve your paper and submit it for publication

Once you have become more experienced, you will be able to skip some of these stages, e.g. jumping directly from idea via outline to publication.

If you manage to produce 3-5 peer-refereed, published papers in this way, you have in principle enough material to write a PhD dissertation. If the papers are well-structured and investigating different aspects of the same broad subject, it should cost you little effort to elaborate them into a coherent dissertation. You are then ready to defend and get your doctoral degree.

Moreover, you can look forward to a further academic career, safe in the knowledge that in addition to your title you have already gathered an impressive curriculum vitae with several publications, lectures, ...

 

Conference Participation

How and why should I best participate in conferences?

The main reasons for researchers to participate in scientific conferences are the following:

  • to get informed about the state-of-the-art
  • to present their own research, and get reactions from peers
  • to have their paper published in the conference proceedings
  • to meet others working in the same domain

While the first two reasons may seem most obvious, in practice the last two are more important. The reason is that there are other methods to get informed or to present your research, e.g. using preprints on the web, that demand less time and money than travelling to conferences. Moreover, the typical time slot in a conference for presenting a paper (about 20 minutes) is too short to effectively convey complex, technical and novel ideas. At best, the presentation will create sufficient interest so that listeners get motivated to investigate the work further, by contacting the speakers, or reading their papers.

On the other hand, publication typically happens more quickly and easily via proceedings, where there is a tight deadline, than via journals. Moreover, acceptance of papers for publication is the most common demand of funding agencies, both to sponsor conference participation and to fund research in general. Finally, nothing can as yet replace face-to-face conversation in a pleasant, informal setting, such as a conference dinner or coffee break, as a way to quickly exchange a variety of experiences, establish personal relationships and thus perhaps lay the foundation for future collaboration.

This implies some tips for effective conference-participation that will not be obvious to beginning researchers:

  • the best conferences are not the biggest or those with the most famous speakers, but those with the best opportunities for informal contact. Small, intimate workshops are usually more effective than huge conferences with hundreds or thousands of participants
  • almost no researchers travel to conferences abroad without presenting a paper, since otherwise they would not get any travel allowance or publication
  • conference presentations should not aim at completeness or thoroughness, but at raising interest; details can always be given in reply to questions later or in the paper for the proceedings
  • don't feel obliged to participate in all the sessions of what is typically a gruelling breakfast-to-dinner schedule; rather use the occasion to start talking to others, who may also be hanging out around the coffee place or dinner hall

Typical Conference Organization

For the prospective participant, a scientific conference starts with a First announcement and Call for Papers (CFP). The CFP is a text, typically circulated via electronic mailing lists, and stored on the conference's website, that announces the general objectives of the planned conferences and lists basic information such as time, place, organizers and scientific committee. Its most important function is to invite scientists world-wide to submit papers for possible presentation at the conference. Therefore, it lists general requirements for submissions such as length (from a half page abstract to a 20 page full paper), address and deadline for submission.

Selection of papers

If you are interested to participate in the conference, you will submit a paper/abstract to the organizers. They will pass it on the members of the scientific/progam committee for refereeing. On the basis of the referee report and the number of available slots in the program, the conference chair will decide whether your paper can be accepted or not. You should get an acceptance/rejection message before a fixed deadline, typically not later than a month or two after the submission deadline and 3-4 months before the start of the conference. With your letter of acceptance, you can ask for funding for travel, accommodation, and conference registration, all of which can be pretty expensive.

Sometimes papers can be accepted either for oral presentation, or as posters. In the latter case, you are expected to turn the paper into a large format text with illustrations, good for visual inspection, that will be hung on walls or panels in the conference center. At a designated time, you will be expected to stand near your poster in order to be able to answer eventual questions about it. Posters are typically used to give less good contributions still the chance to be presented, without taking time in the conference schedule.

If your paper/poster is accepted, you may be asked to prepare a final document version of it, before or after the conference, for publication in the conference proceedings. Proceedings are typically published as stand-alone volumes, though sometimes they are turned into special issues of journals, or published only electronically on the web. Final versions are typically more polished, extended and corrected compared to initial submissions, and may need to fulfill detailed formatting requirements.

The conference program

Once all contributions have been selected, the conference organizers will be able to produce a detailed conference program. This will typically include the following sections:

  • registration: where you pay or confirm payment of the registration fee, and in return receive a badge identifying you as participant, plus documentation such as the latest program, invitations to social events, etc.
  • plenary sessions: general opening and closing of the conference, panel discussions, and talks by "invited" speakers, i.e. renowned experts in the domain, whose costs are paid by the organizers, presenting the "state-of-the-art"
  • parallel sessions: more specialized sessions with "contributing" speakers (selected on the basis of submissions, and having to pay to participate), that take place simultaneously in different rooms. Often such sessions or "symposia" are organized by their chairperson independently of the main conference committee, who is responsible for the focus and the selection of contributors. Smaller conferences (workshops) may not have parallel sessions.
  • social events: coffee breaks, lunches, receptions, conference dinner, excursions, etc.

Typical international conferences last 3-5 days, starting around noon on the first day to give participants the time to register, and ending on the afternoon of the last day, with sometimes a half-day break in the middle for a touristic excursion.

In spite of this seemingly short duration, conferences are typically exhausting, not only because of all of the stress accompanying travel and presentation, but because participants tend to be engaged in listening to/participating in highly intellectual conversation from morning till evening. Participants generally return home tired but stimulated and exhilarated by all the new ideas, informations, contacts, and plans they got. Unfortunately, most of those never get realized, as the participants comes back home to everyday routine with all its more pressing and practical problems...

 

Scientific activity report

What should I include in my scientific activity report or curriculum vitae?

Your academic curriculum vitae or scientific "record", listing all your research-related activities and achievements, is the most important document for your further career in science. As a beginning PhD student, it will be used to check whether you are advancing well, and whether you are (still) entitled to a scholarship. As an experienced researcher, it will determine whether and where you are offered a PostDoc, professorship, tenured position, or project funding.

Therefore, it is worth investing a lot of effort into making your record as complete and convincing as possible. The most important part of your file are the publications, and particularly those that are peer-refereed and in high-impact journals. But most resesarchers have few or none of those. Therefore, it is worth listing all the other kinds of research-related achievements that are typically considered when establishing a scientist's credentials.

A good checklist is offered by the VUB when they specify the information that needs to accompany applications for academic promotion. I include the relevant section of the regulations (freely translated from Dutch):

<!--StartFragment-->

1. The teaching file, which includes:

  • courses taught
  • supervision of PhD. or Master’s dissertations
  • specific tasks related to teaching (development of textbooks and teaching materials, ...)
  • participation in exchange programs (as supervisor, or co-contractor)
  • assessment of your teaching by students and peers, complemented with personal observations

2. The research file, which includes:

  • publications (with full bibliographic references), including the following categories:
    • publications in scientific journals with referee system;
    • publications in scientific journals without referee system;
    • publications in conference proceedings with referee system;
    • publications in conference proceedings without referee system;
    • publications in book form (including parts of books);
    • reviews;
    • communications, i.e. verbal reports at conferences;
    • reports and all other forms of publications;
  • study visits of extended duration at home and abroad;
  • organization of, and active participation in, scientific activities: conferences, seminars, symposia (including relevant information such as location, number of attendees, precise role or activity, ...);
  • scientific awards and distinctions;
  • inventions and discoveries;
  • obtained patents;
  • research management: number and amount of acquired research funding, size of the managed team (number of researchers, PhDs supervised, etc.);
  • indicators of scientific recognition (citations, impact factors, etc.)
  • membership of scientific associations
  • functions in the editorial board of scientific journals
  • invitations as guest lecturer or for cooperation with foreign research groups;

3. Contributions to the social impact of the university, which include:

  • authoring of popularizing articles
  • participation in debates, lectures and conferences
  • contribution to other media activities
  • participation and representation in external committees.

4. Partipation in the university organization:

  • positions in the various university and faculty councils and committees. 

<!--EndFragment-->

 

Support & Funding

Support for PhD students

What academic support is available for PhD students?

At the VUB, PhD students do not have to follow courses or take examinations, as they are evaluated purely on the quality of their research output. However, having a solid education in one or more academic fields does not yet make you into an effective researcher, and many otherwise intelligent and knowledgeable people struggle with the many uncertainties and responsibilities that go with the position of a PhD student. As a result, only some 40% of registered VUB PhD students eventually succeed in getting their degree (which is anyway better than 33% success rate for all Flemish universities).



Therefore, the VUB organizes a variety of support activities including optional courses that teach practical skills for researchers/PhD students, such as writing scientific papers in English, preparing presentations, or searching for bibliographic information. Since many of these courses are very popular you need to register ASAP or put yourself on the waiting list...



Another important way to learn scientific skills is to participate in research seminars, where you can listen to other researchers' ideas, ask questions, or present your own work, so as to get feedback from the others present. This also allows you to meet peers who are struggling with similar problems like you, so that you can support each other. Both the VUB PhD assistance program and ECCO regularly organize such seminars, in which PhD students are normally supposed to participate. Also, it is recommended for PhD students to regularly participate in international conferences on the subjects that interest them, so as to make contacts with colleagues working on the same topic, learn about the latest work in the field, and get international scientific experience.



Finally, ECCO intends to provide concrete guidelines on its website on how to tackle the most common problems that researchers are confronted with, such as how to gather information, organize your ideas, write and publish papers and theses, or submit proposals for funding.


Link to this Page

Loneliness of PhD Students

The loneliness of the PhD student

(by Francis Heylighen)

The creeping self-doubt

A universal complaint among people preparing a thesis is that it is a lonely job, and that they lack the stimulation and feedback that you can only get from interacting with others about your work. Writing a PhD thesis is not only a very demanding task on the intellectual and physical level, but also emotionally. After you have been digging deeper and deeper into all these complex and abstract issues, there invariably comes a time where you start wondering whether what you are doing is really worthwhile, whether you are getting anywhere, and whether anybody cares at all about what you have done so far.

At that point it is easy to get depressed, and simply give up completely. Another common reaction is to evade and procrastinate, and constantly invent new tasks (reading more books and papers, going to conferences, gathering further data, talking with other experts, taking additional courses, ...) that you first need to do before you can proceed with the really difficult work of writing down your ideas so far in the form of a paper or thesis.

I have gone through such a period when I was writing my thesis (happily it didn't last too long), and I know at least a dozen people who have gone through something similar. Several of those have effectively given up their PhD, thus wasting years of hard work. Others have merely postponed and postponed, finishing their PhD in double or triple the time they initially foresaw.

PhD duration

A general rule is that making a thesis always takes longer than you plan. That is not grave if the delay is a few months, but it can become dramatic if it runs into years and years. This happened with a well-known assistant here at the VUB, who after many years of research had become such an expert in his domain that he was teaching the courses on it, instead of his supervisor, in anticipation of the time when, armed with his doctor's title, he himself would be made a professor. Unfortunately after 20 years of this regime, his thesis was still not ready. As the arrangement that was intended to be temporary could not be prolonged anymore, he lost his job, and had to start teaching at a much lower level, in a non-university institute, where he is now approaching his pensioning age.

To give you a concrete idea: if everything goes well, a normal duration for making a PhD is 4-5 years if you work on it full-time (for those lucky enough to have a full-time job as researcher), and 6-8 if you work half time (typical for university assistants, who also must teach classes). In the very best case, if you have all the time you need, good guidance, a clear a and well-defined topic, and a reliable methodology to tackle it, 3 years seems a minimum for making a really good thesis.

Another general rule-of-thumb is that older, more experienced or more mature, people are able to work faster and more efficiently than people who just come out of university. On the other hand, older people generally are involved in all kinds of other things (jobs, family, friends...) that take up time, have their years as university students farther behind them, and therefore find it more difficult to single-mindedly focus on their goal of making a PhD. In practice, therefore, it's usually the younger ones that get their PhD first.

The need for feedback

By definition, a PhD is something you make on your own. Others may give you some help or guidance, but you will be fully responsible for the final product. Moreover, a PhD is supposed to propose original research. This means that in the end, you will be the only true expert on the topic of your research (if others would know as much about it as you, it wouldn't be novel). This leads to a situation where you have to get into issues that no one else is really involved in, or even cares about. This often produces a feeling of social and intellectual isolation, which makes you start to doubt about your goals, your capacity to carry this through, and even yourself.

What you need most in this situation is feedback: reactions from others that show you that you aren't alone in this enterprise, that others have gone through it or are going through it as well, that others are interested in what you are doing, that they either like or dislike particular steps you have taken, and that provide advise or tips on how to do things better or what to avoid.

Typically, you expect to get such feedback from your supervisor. Unfortunately, good PhD advisors must also be good scientists, which implies that they tend to be quite busy with their own research, management of research projects, collaboration with colleagues, teaching, and advising other thesis students. Therefore, a promotor typically doesn't have the time to give you all the feedback and guidance you would like to get.

The ECCO approach

It is in part for that reason that ECCO has started with seminars, a mailing list and and the collaborative website your are now reading. First, instead of having to give advice to several people individually, this can now be done to all of them collectively. Second, since ECCO PhD students are to a large degree in a similar situation, they can give feedback to each other, thus starting to function as part of a group, instead of just being on their own.

For a humorous view of the situation: Dave Pritchard: The Lord of the Rings: an allegory of the PhD?


Links to this Page

 

Role of the supervisor

What can I expect from my promotor?

The "promotor" (also called "supervisor" or "thesis advisor") is the professor who has taken the responsibility to supervise your research towards the preparation of a PhD dissertation.

The "good" promotor:

  • provides the necessary infrastructure (office, computer, Internet connection...) you need to do your research
  • helps you to find the necessary funding
  • guides and supervises your research, making sure that your plans are realistic
  • evaluates and gives feedback on what you have done
  • puts your ideas in a broader context, pointing out links with other research
  • suggests methods and approaches to tackle the questions you raise
  • brings you in contact with other people, organizations or publications that are relevant for your work
  • stimulates you to present, write down and publish your work
  • if satisfied with your work, will promote and support it towards the rest of the academic community (e.g. during the thesis defense)

However, in general the promotor:

  • cannot guarantee funding
  • does not always have time to see you or help you
  • expects you to study and work largely on your own
  • cannot do the research or write a paper for you (though s/he will in general contribute)
  • has many other responsibilities, including teaching, administration, organization, application for funding, and supervision of other students
  • expects you to share the burden by assisting in some of these non-research tasks (though most of your time should remain devoted to research)
  • may have the responsibility towards the agency that funds your research to deliver specific results and therefore can request you to concentrate on these, even though you (and him/her) may prefer to tackle different issues

For more details, see the official VUB document "Profile of the good supervisor".

Research Funding

What kind of financial support exists for researchers?

Grants or scholarships (basically wages for research assistants) for financial support during the research in Brussels may or may not be available, depending on the funding ECCOreceives for its different research projects, but this may imply that you have to adapt the topic of your research to the theme of the project, or that you may have to work part-time as a teaching assistant. A PhD scholarship typically pays 1500 euro (about $1800) net per month. It is generally more difficult to find money for PostDoc research on such projects, though. Bright students (basically, with excellent marks, and, in the case of PostDocs, a number of peer-reviewed publications) from countries of the European Union can personally apply to the Belgian Fund for Scientific Research for a 4 year scholarschip (to make a PhD) or 3 year, renewable PostDoc, without constraint on the topic. Students from Eastern Europe may be able to get grants from the European Union.



The following is a list of the most traditional funding opportunities for research at the VUB, though there exist many more specific programs.



FWO (Fonds voor Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek-Vlaanderen)

FWO/OZR projects

The FWO is the main fund sponsoring basic research in Flanders. FWO projects normally allow you to get funding for roughly one and a half PhD scholarship + working costs over a four-year period. The scholarship can be given by the promotor to any candidate acceptable by the VUB to make a PhD. Proposals must be submitted by January 20 (internal VUB deadline) to the VUB, who then passes it on to the FWO. More info on all applications (not just projects): http://www.fwo-vlaanderen.be/subsidiewijzer/index.jsp



Proposals submitted to the FWO are normally also submitted ( http://rd-ir.vub.ac.be/regl-formulieren/OZRform.doc) to the VUB (OZR=OnderzoeksRaad, deadline = Feb 28), who may decide to fund a project that didn't make it for the FWO but had generally good evaluations. While the VUB has less money available for projects, they are more open to interdisciplinary approaches. The VUB also only funds a single scholarship (not 1.5).


Here is an overview of the most important material you need to prepare and enter into the FWO application form:

  • Promotor(s): must be professors or possibly PostDocs of a preferably Flemish unversity who have good publications in the domain of the proposal
  • Research domain in 2 to 3 keywords
  • Proposal (3 pages, small print)
  • Context (1 page)
  • Motivation of the requested personnel (scholarship): why do you need a full-time person to carry out this research?
  • Other expenses scheduled per year and broken down into categories (travel, hardware, software, conference parrticipation, etc.)
  • Max. 5 scientific publications for each of the promotors that are most representative for their career (include impactfactor of journals)
  • All publications of the promotors over the last 5 years
  • names and addresses of two suggested referees: eminent foreign professors who don't have common publications with the promotors over the last 3 years
  • 3 most important, relevant publications for each referee
  • translation of the three page proposal in English (for the referees)
  • choice of disciplinary committee to which you submit the proposal (e.g. computer science, law, psychology, social and political science...)


FWO "aspirant" scholarships

Unlike the "projects" above, these scholarships are granted directly to the student applying, not to the promotor (though you still need a promotor to apply). As such, they are more comfortable for the candidate, and require less bureaucracy and a shorter application form. The disadvantage is that they do not include additional money for equipment, travel, etc.. Moreover, you only stand a chance of success if you have excellent marks ("Grote" or preferably "Grootste onderscheiding", at least in the last year of your studies). The applicant must also belong to the European Union, and not be older than 30 when the scholarship starts. (These restrictions do not apply to scholarships on FWO "projects").

Deadline: Feb. 1, for a contract starting on Oct. 1.


FWO PostDoc Fellowships

Similar to the "Aspirant" above, but for people with a PhD and a substantial number of publications. 3 year contract, that can be renewed 2 times. The applicant must belong to the European Union, and not be older than 36 when the scholarship starts.

Deadline: Feb. 1, for a contract starting on Oct. 1.


FWO Visiting Postdoctoral Fellowships

For foreign researchers to participate in an on-going FWO project. Duration 3 months to 1 year.

Deadline: 3 months before the start of the requested contract.



VUB: funding via the university administration

VUB-OZR projects

Normally submitted together with the FWO projects (see above). Deadline Feb. 28.


VUB-Teaching assistants

The VUB regularly have vacancies for teaching assistants (pre- or postdoc) in different disciplines. Since assistants in principle should be able to spend more than 50% of their time on working towards a PhD, this is also a possible avenue for ECCO researchers. In practice, though, teaching tends to take up at least 50% of time, and therefore assistants typically progress less well towards their PhD than people with a full-time scholarship. An advantage of an assistant contract, though, is that it normally lasts 6 years, rather than the 4 years of a PhD scholarship.


Francqui Foundation: Foreign PostDoc contracts

As " foreign" is considered a person who was not connected in the last three years to a Belgian university or institution.

Application: Concise curriculum vitae; date of PhD and the university where it was obtained, with title of the dissertation.

Deadline: 12 September 2005.


Vesalius College (VECO)

VECO is an international college in Brussels associated with the VUB, who from time to time have openings for teaching positions (in English) in domains such as computer science, management or international law. See their vacancies.



This is particularly interesting for ECCO members since it is possible for ECCO to enter into a contract with VECO so that ECCO is paid for the teaching, and ECCO uses that money to provide a (tax-free) scholarship for the one who teaches. This allows us to pay a full-time wage to a PhD student who teaches less than half-time, thus leaving plenty of time for research...




Others

IWT (Flemish institute for science and technology)

People from the European Union can apply here for PhD scholarships ("Specializatiebeurzen) or PostDocs that are application-oriented (i.e. useful for industry or business). Another restriction is that your basic degree must be in medicine, sciences or engineering: no social sciences or humanities! The advantage is that application can be done relatively quickly (August 1 to Sept. 15, for a contract starting in October), that you don't need excellent marks (like for an FWO "aspirant" scholarship), and that you can defend your proposal in person (not just submit an application form).


European Union: Marie Curie Fellowships

Marie Curie Fellowships provide European placements for pre and post-doctoral researchers, usually up to the age of 35, and for experienced researchers. Fellowships are available in any scientific discipline that contributes to the objectives of the Fifth Framework Programme (FP5). Applicants to this activity are young and experienced researchers and host organisations in academia and industry.



For more details on the different Marie Curie actions, see the collection of FAQs. (check particularly the Early Stage Training for beginning researchers, and the Intra-European and Incoming International Fellowships for researchers with 4 years or more experience, including PostDocs, respectively from European and non-European origin).



For other European Union sponsored-possibilities for individuals, check the mobility portal for researchers.




NSF Europe

NSF's Western Europe Program (WE) provides proposal-based, competitive grant funding to U.S. researchers for scientific, engineering and educational cooperation with institutions and researchers in the region (Austria, Belgium, Denmark, European Commission, European Science Foundation, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, the Nordic Council, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom).







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Conference funding

How can I get funding for congresses?

The general rule at the VUB is that researchers are entitled to get financial support for presenting a paper at one conference abroad per year.

  • for travel (only within Europe for PhD students, also outside Europe for researchers with a Phd), you can apply for funding at the FWO, at least 3 months before the start of the conference (more info and application forms).
  • for accommodation and registration, you can apply in parallel for funding at the VUB-OZR (download application form, more info at R&D department: tel. 02 629 21 08)).

For both applications, you need to include proof that your conference paper has been accepted for presentation by the conference committee. For the FWO, you moreover need to have at least one international publication prior to the conference.



If you want to go to more than one conference abroad in a given year, you should look for other financial support. The same applies if you want to participate in a conference without presenting a paper. Extra support may be available on one of the projects for which ECCO receives funding, but since our funding is limited this is far from obvious.



For conferences within Belgium (e.g. at the VUB), you normally won't have significant travel or accommodation expenses, and it is often possible to avoid registration fees if you know the organizers. Otherwise, ECCO funding may be available for that.


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Research Skills

Tools for Information Gathering

Which tools do you recommend for collecting scientific information?

An important part of research is gathering existing information from papers and books. Thanks to the Internet, most of that information is now within easy reach. However, the number of information services on the web is overwhelming, and therefore it is worthwhile selecting only the best.

A good information collection tool is as exhaustive as possible in its covering of sources, but provides a good ordering so that you immediately see which results are the most important. Moreover a good tool is maximally simple and transparent in its use, avoiding any cluttering with irrelevant options, pictures, advertisements, etc. A strict adherence to this philosophy explains the phenomenal success of Google and Wikipedia—probably the two most important web services overall.

The following is a selection of tools based on the extensive (but of course still limited) experience of ECCO researchers. Using such tools may save you days if not months in the preparation of your projects, papers and dissertations. 

 


Web Search

Google is the best tool to quickly search the web as a whole, thanks to its very extensive coverage, clean, user-friendly interface, and smart algorithms to order the results so that the top entries indeed tend to be the most important ones.

Dogpile is a meta-search engine: it combines the results from several existing search engines, including Google, Yahoo and MSN. Because these search engines together cover a larger number of pages, this is useful when you are looking for something very specific that is hard to find. Otherwise, Google will give you a better ordering and presentation of results.

 


Scientific Papers

There are three large search engines for the scientific literature, with databases that only partially overlap. This means that if you are looking either for a comprehensive picture, or for something difficult to find, it may be necessary to use all three. Unfortunately, there is no clear method to find out what is included in each database, as these commercial services don't provide full information about their sources.

  1. Google Scholar is the first choice, as it covers a very wide range of material, and orders the result according to the number of citations and other relevant indicators of quality. Most usefully, it provides immediate access to the papers it finds, either freely for self-archived papers or preprints, with restricted access via your university library for the journals that the library subscribes to, or for payment to the publisher. Another useful feature is that each paper is linked to the papers that cite it, so that it is easy to find related material.
  2. Web of Science (including the Science Citation Index) is the most authoritative database in the scientific world, especially for its citation count for papers and authors. Compared to Scholar, however, its coverage is much more limited; it does not give direct access to the papers; and it only searches titles and keywords, while ignoring the content. You must access it via an institution that subscribes to the service, which is the case for the VUB.
  3. Scirus was set up by Elsevier publishers as a competitor to the two previous databases. While it claims to be the most comprehensive scientific search engine, it seems to find much few papers than Scholar, though it is more comprehensive and userfriendly than Web of Science. Its subscription counterpart, Scopus, also includes citation data, but the VUB does not offer access to this database.

The VUB library allows you to search for papers in its holdings and has links to a number of more specialized databases. However, in general papers in journals held by the VUB can be found and accessed more quickly via Google Scholar.

Authormapper.com is a very useful database of articles published by Springer. It allows you to finds all papers that contain certain words. Moreover, it classifies those papers according to geographic location (on a world map), country, year, journal, author, institution, etc. Like that you can immediately see in which countries, journals or years terms like "cybernetics" or "memes"  are used most frequently.


Books

Google Books searches inside books, and allows you to read a few relevant pages of most books. It also provides links to libraries or booksellers (such as Amazon) where you can order the book.

Amazon.com, the largest bookseller in the world, has a very extensive catalog, and now also allows search of book content (not just titles and authors like other booksellers). 


The VUB library lets you search title words or authors for books available at the VUB, or within the network of libraries in Belgium and the neighboring countries with which it has established agreements for "interlibrary lending". This means that if the book is not available at the VUB, you can order it via the database and collect it at the VUB after a short waiting period, provided you pay a small fee.


Journals

The following databases allow the rapid identification of scientific journals to publish your research in, or to browse relevant articles from.

Journal Info is an extensive database collected by Lund University, including open-access journals and journals listed in the Journal Citation Reports below. It lists (or provides links to) basic characteristics of the journal: home page, self-archiving policy, impact factor and other quality indicators, price, number of issues, etc. You can search for (combinations of) title words, including parts of words using "*"as wildcard operator (e.g. "complex* systems" will find both "Systems and Complexity" and "Journal of Complex Systems"), but not for more general keywords.

JournalSeek claims to be the largest database of freely available journal information, including description (aims and scope),  home page, and subject category. The advantage compared to Journal Info is that it also searches for keywords within the "aims and scope" and thus finds more relevant journals. The disadvantage is that you get less characteristics at a glance.

Journal Citation Reports is the database used by the Web of Science, which means that the journals it includes are more authoritative (so-called "A1" publications), but much more restricted. It is most famous for its calculation of the "Impact Factor", which is traditionally seen as THE measure of the importance of the journal, in terms of the average number of citations it gets.


Bibliographies

Zotero is an extremely useful "plug-in" for the free web browser Firefox. It can extract bibiographical data from practically all the important publication sites, such as Amazon, Web of Science and Google Scholar. The data are kept in its own database, which you can export in all the traditional bibliographical formats. Especially when combined with a Zotero plug-in for your word processor, this is extremely useful for creating bibliographies for papers and dissertations:

  1. using Firefox/Zotero search various websites for relevant publications
  2. mark the publications you want and have them imported automatically to your Zotero database
  3. when you need to make a list of references, select the right entries from the database, and paste them straight into your text in the required format!

CiteULike is a website where you can collaboratively create, store, search and publish bibiographies. It uses similar methods like Zotero to extract bibliographical data from common website formats.


Dictionaries

OneLook searches hundreds of general and specialized dictionaries (such as our own Web Dictionary of Cybernetics and Systems) at once, and provides links to their results. This is particularly useful for rare, technical terms, such as "stigmergy", that may not appear in common dictionaries.

  Find definitions  

Dictionary.com similarly checks a (much smaller) number of dictionaries, but immediately shows you the most important results. This is  useful for more common words where you want to compare the subtleties of the different meanings.

 

Encyclopedias

Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia to which everyone can contribute, is the best and most comprehensive way to get a good introduction to about any subject you can think of, including advanced scientific topics such as stigmergy, self-organization, or the Theory of Constraints.

Encyclopaedia Brittannica (freely searchable from the VUB) is the most comprehensive of the traditional, commercially published encyclopedias. It is smaller and less up-to-date than Wikipedia (e.g. it does not find "stigmergy"), but its results are more authoritative.


Translation

Google Translate is the best of several translation engines we tried out. It provides translation of webpages or inserted text between the main languages you are likely to encounter, such as English, Dutch, French, Spanish, etc. The main competitors are Babelfish and Systran. Anyway, you will still have quite some work to manually "clean up" the translations if you want to use them, but the work is least with Google Translate.

 

 

Idea Processing

How can use I an outline to better organize my ideas?

What is an outline?

The most important advice I give to all my students who have to write down their ideas for a project, paper or thesis, is: make an outline! A finished outline looks like a hierarchical "table of contents" of the text you are going to write with all the main headings and subheadings in the most logical order. E.g.


Subject

  • 1. Introduction
    • 1.1 motivation
    • 1.2 the problem
    • 1.3 previous work
  • 2. My approach
    • 2.1conceptual framework
    • 2.2 methodology
      • 2.2.1 data gathering
      • 2.2.2 data processing
      • ...
  • ...
  • 6. Conclusion

It could also look like a simple checklist or "to do" list, e.g.


Travel to Italy

  • prepare luggage
    • clothes
    • documents
    • ...
  • get plane ticket
  • go to airport
    • check bus schedule
  • ....

In practice a developing outline is a very loose and flexible structure which constantly evolves as your ideas become clearer and more detalied. Thanks to outlining software (built into most word processors), outlines are very easy to manipulate and change, so that they can always reflect your most recent thoughts on the subject.

In my experience, when writing a paper, it's always much better to start with an outline than with a draft. An outline is easier to make because you start by first putting in various, as yet unstructured, ideas, in the order that you remember them, without real constraints. At this stage you are merely playing with ideas, using them as building blocks that can be arranged in various combinations to see what structures they produce. That is why the original outlining applications on the computer, such as "ThinkTank", were called idea processors.

Overcoming hurdles

This complete freedom of writing anything at any place in any style makes it psychologically much easier for you to start the difficult undertaking of writing a paper. They help you to overcome any "fear for the empty page" or "writer's block" you may have. You don't have to worry about writing things that are incoherent, undeveloped, poorly formulated, or insufficiently supported: these shortcomings are easily corrected later.

As your view of the issue become clearer, you will nicely order, add, edit and reorganize the outline, until it looks like a more or less complete and coherent plan of action. Once you have an outline that looks satisfactory, writing the actual text becomes much easier, because you now know what to write when and where.

This helps you to avoid one of the most common hurdles when writing scientific texts: after having spent several pages building up your argument, you suddenly discover that an essential step in the reasoning is still missing and you don't know how to continue. This may get you entangled into various tricky situations:

  • you get blocked and postpone finishing the paper;
  • you continue writing about related issues hoping that inspiration will come, making the paper ever longer and more convoluted;
  • you decide to skip or side-step the issue, making you vulnerable to serious criticism from the later readers/referees;
  • you conclude that you started out on the wrong track, and will have to completely rewrite the pages that came before

Of course, using an outline will not make you immune to these problems: what looks like a coherent line of reasoning in short, outline form, may still turn out to have an essential gap when filling in the details. But the probability of this happening is much smaller and the consequences are less severe, as your writing until then will be more structured and to the point, and therefore easier to reorganize.

Using outline software

Even while writing, you can still decide to change the order of ideas, add things or leave out things. An outline is not a rigid structure that you have to adhere to, but a checklist or guide helping to remind you of the most important things you have to cover, without losing a view of the whole. Flexibility is the core principle!

I personally work best best with a dedicated outline software (the no longer updated More for the Mac), but all word processing programs, such as MS Word, have built-in outlining facilities. The important thing is that the program should make it easy to drag and drop text lines with ideas, so as to change their order and their hierarchical level: promoting or demoting headers, e.g from the style "heading 2" to "heading 3". Demoting typically is represented visually by a right indentation (an additional tab or space in front of the line). For example:

  • topic a
  • topic b
  • topic c

If you feel that the order is not quite right, this can be transformed to:

  • topic a
  • topic c
  • topic b

On the other hand, you may feel that topic c should be seen as a part of topic b, and then you "demote" it:

  • topic a
  • topic b
    • topic c

If your program offers a good visual representation of such an ordered hierarchy, you don't need all the fancy numbering conventions (like IV.3. a. or 1.3.4.1) that are used in printed section headings. If necessary, such hierarchical numbering can always be automatically added when you prepare the actual paper/thesis.
A recent new online outliner, LooseStitch is a very nice collaborative tool, with OPML import/export features.

Keeping it short

The essence of an outline is that it is much shorter than a paper. Thus, outline paragraphs or "headings" are normally less than one line long. They do not form full sentences, but list key ideas in "telegraph style". For example, don't write in your outline:

Complexity is a subtle and difficult to define concept, that has been used differently in different domains

but:

Complexity

  • difficult to define
  • different uses in different domains

Therefore, when preparing a paper you can save a lot of typing by first organizing your ideas as an outline. Only when you are satisfied that everything you need to say, but nothing more, is there, in a direct and logical order, you should start writing the actual sentences of the paper.

In my experience, a paper that was first outlined tends to be much shorter than one where the ideas where developed while writing the full text. That is because you can avoid most repetitions, vague formulations, cross-references, material that is of little relevance, and other forms of "literary procrastination". This is particularly important for papers submitted to journals and proceedings, where there are typically strict limits on the length, and shorter papers have higher chances of being accepted for publication.

Outline as a thinking aid

I start an outline typically as a checklist of ideas that seem relevant, in abbreviated form. I then spend a lot of time reading and rereading the things that are there, moving some up or down, or putting things that belong together under a new header, and now and then adding what seems to be missing. I regularly look again at the same outline with intervals of days, weeks or sometimes even months and years. Each time I look at the same ideas with a fresh mind, new ideas are triggered, and things I learned or understood in the meantime find their place in what I noted down before.

The outline can be seen as an extended memory, keeping track of your ideas on a particular subject over the weeks and years, so that you are unlikely to forget the fruit of earlier study and thinking. By examining the outline you make your extended memory interact with your internal memory, thus triggering your mind to fill the gaps, notice the incoherences, elicit new ideas, etc.

The precise words or sentences used are less important for outlines than for papers, where the emphasis is more on the visual structure produced by the arrangement of headings. That is why an outline should not contain too much text: when you cannot see everything on the screen, you lose the advantages of visual juxtaposition of the core elements. You may remember that there is a "magical number" (7 plus or minus 2) that denotes the maximal number of items you can hold at once in your working memory. With an outline you can significantly increase that number, by having all items close together on the screen, and move them around to try out different combinations. So an outline is not only a tool that helps you to write, but one that actually helps you to think and remember what you thought...

More useful advice on making outlines:

An example outline

Below you'll find an example outline for a paper on cybernetics I wrote (note that the final paper has a different outline, since things always change while you are writing):

Cybernetics and second order-cybernetics

  • Historical Development
    • Wiener & Rosenblueth
    • Macy meetings
    • self-organization, autonomy
    • second-order cybernetics
    • modelling
    • relations with sciences of complexity
    • robotics, cyberspace
  • Relational Concepts
    • Isomorphisms between domains
      • biology
      • technology
      • society
      • psychology
    • substrate independent modelling
    • systems, organization
    • networks
    • variety
    • information and entropy
  • Circular Processes
    • self-application, recursion
    • closure
    • fixpoints, eigenvalues, attractors
    • self-organization
    • autopoiesis
    • reproduction
    • circular causality
    • negative feedback
    • positive feedback
    • self-reference, reflexivity
      • the liar's paradox
  • Control systems
    • the control relation
    • goal or reference level
    • perception
    • action
    • amplification
    • the law of requisite variety
  • Control hierarchies
    • control of the goal
    • the law of requisite hierarchy
    • multilevel systems
    • metasystem transitions
  • Models
    • feedforward
    • prediction
    • homomorphisms
    • the law of regulatory models
  • Model-building and the role of the observer
    • constructivism
    • distinctions
    • observer-observed interaction
    • Epistemological issues
  • References

 


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Improving mental skills

How can I improve my mental skills?

Research and writing is an activity that demands the utmost of your brain, so it is worth investing in anything that will increase your intellectual capabilities. Happily, scientists have discovered a whole range of factors that affect IQ, concentration, memory, etc., and that you can to some degree control.

The most general observation is that the brain is a part of your body, requiring the same supply of blood, oxygen, nutrients, minerals, etc. as other organs. Therefore, anything that improves the functioning of your body will in general also improve the functioning of your brain. Moreover, brain activity is very energy intensive, using up to 25% of the calories, while making up only about 5% of the body. This is confirmed by fMRI, EEG and infrared scanning methods to observe brain activity, which show how whole sections of the brain "light up" with activation while you are performing various cognitive tasks, such as speaking, perceiving or problem-solving. Thus, the brain is in particular need of a constant energy supply, and anything that supports this can improve your intellectual capacity.

Here are some of the best methods to improve brain functioning:

  • physical exercise: increases blood circulation, not only to muscles but also to the brain. Experiments with rats have moreover shown that in the longer term exercise stimulates the growth of neurons, and the rats' ability to solve problems. Particularly recommended are not too intensive, aerobic exercises that do not demand specific concentration, such as walking, cycling or swimming. During these activities you often get your best ideas... 
     
  • healthy eating: provides a regular supply of calories (fuel to burn), antioxidants (to neutralize the free radicals produced by the "burning"), and essential fatty acids (to build the insulation of the neurons in the brain), with a special emphasis on Omega 3 (fish oil), which has been proven to combat a whole range of mental problem, such as ADHD, dyslexia, depression, ...
    Avoid foods with a high glycemic index (mostly sweets, bread and potatoes), which make the glucose and insulin levels in the blood increase and then decrease too quickly: they provide energy in the very short term, but produce fatigue in the middle term, and serious health problems in the long term. Better eat foods that digest more slowly (e.g. meat, fish, vegetables, nuts) and thus provide energy over an extended period. This is the simplest method to avoid the post-lunch dip.
     
  • nutritional supplements: can provide additional antioxidant protection, and facilitate bloodflow and energy production. Particularly recommended are: B-vitamins, Ginkgo, OPC (Pycnogenol), Acetyl-L-Carnitine, Alpha Lipoic acid, and Co-factor Q10. For a short-term boost, the caffeine found in coffee, tea or Guarana supplements is still most reliable; moderate use does not seem to be harmful.
     
  • minimizing stress: get regular, sufficiently long sleep, and avoid disturbances and interruptions, such as constantly incoming phone calls or email messages. Poor sleep, interruptions, and being busy with several things at the same time strongly reduce your ability to concentrate, and thus your ability to tackle difficult problems. A good method to reduce distractions and worries during your work is GTD
     
  • mental exercise: like the muscles, the brain becomes fitter by being used. Particularly useful are "flow" producing activities, such as certain types of computer games, where you get continuous feedback about how well you are doing, and where the level of difficulty gradually increases with your increasing skills. However, rather than spending your time with cross-word puzzles or games, you can exercise your brain more productively by engaging in intellectual discussions with colleagues. This is one of the best flow-producing ways to stimulate your thinking. 

 

More details: New Scientist article: 11 steps to a better brain

 

 

The GTD Method

"Getting Things Done" - a summary of the method

The personal productivity consultant David Allen (2001) has proposed a simple and effective approach for managing  your day-to-day tasks or activities. Based on years of experience in teaching knowledge workers how to deal with their backlog of unprocessed issues, the method is known as “Getting Things Done”, or GTD for short. GTD is intended to minimize stress and anxiety while maximizing productivity—in the sense of maximizing the number of useful tasks performed, not in the sense of maximally achieving a given objective.

The intended result of applying GTD is being able to keep up with a high workflow in a relaxed manner. The main principle is to get everything that is nagging you out of your mind and into a trusted external memory (file system), so that you can stay focused on what you actually have to do now, rather than on various ideas, plans and commitments for later. GTD uses the following stages:

 

Collect (1)

The first phase is to collect everything that catches your attention as potentially relevant to your activities, whatever its subject, importance or degree of urgency. This includes incoming letters, emails, phone calls, reports, articles from magazines, agenda items, suggestions and requests from other people, and personal ideas and memories. For the collecting process, you need one or more collection tools, which can be physical (trays, folders, notebook, etc.), or electronic (email application, outliner, or word processor, on a computer or a PDA). These together define your “in-basket”.

Collection is just the first step: to gain control over the collected materials, you need to empty the in-basket regularly. Emptying means deciding what to do with—not actually doing—the items in the collection. This happens by processing and organizing the items one by one.

 

Process (2) & Organize (3)

 The first question to ask is: “What is this stuff?” Note that “stuff” is a catchall word, which can refer to an email, something at the back of your mind, a note, a voice-mail, a scrap from a newspaper, etc., i.e. any item that has been collected. More precisely, the crucial question is: “Is it actionable?”, i.e. does it require you to perform an action?

  if it is not actionable, there are three possibilities:

o      eliminate the item if you really will not use it (i.e. throw it in the trash bin);

o      incubate the item for possible implementation later (i.e. store it in a Someday/maybe file that you will review at a later time);

o      reference the item if it does not require action but may need to be consulted later (i.e. store it in a Reference file, which is organized so that items are easy to classify and retrieve).

if it is actionable, then you have to decide, “What is the next physical action?”

o      if there is more than one action required, store it in your Projects list.

o      if the action requires less than two minutes, it is not worth the effort of entering it into the system: better perform it immediately.

o      if you are not the best person to do it, delegate the action to a more qualified person/organization, and keep track of whether you get back the desired result by entering a note in the Waiting for file.

o      if the action is to be done on a particular day and time, defer it to this moment, and note it on your Calendar.

o      if the only time constraint is that you should do it as soon as you can, put it in your Next actions file.

When you review your Projects list, for each project you should start developing a Project plan. This in general does not mean a formal scheme with milestones, deadlines and objectives, but a formulation of the overall goal or desired outcome, with a focus on the list of next actions required to move towards this goal. Once these actions are defined, they need to be reviewed, which means that they should follow the part of the flowchart that describes the decision tree for actionable items. There is in general no need to plan actions far ahead: once the first “next action” is done, the next “next action” will probably become obvious. 

 

Review (4)

The reviewing phase is crucial to remind you of what you still have to do. The daily review includes reviewing first your Calendar (which are the things that you have to do imperatively on this day?), and then your Next actions list (which are the things that you should do as soon as practicable?). The weekly review is a more in-depth review of all your (potentially) actionable files (In-basket, Calendar, Next actions, Projects, Project plans, Waiting for, Calendar and Someday/maybe). It is essential to get an overview of what has to be done in the coming period, and thus get the feeling of being in control. Concretely, it means that you make sure that the different files in your external memory are kept up-to-date. This will include a complete cleaning of your desk, email, and other collection places, and thus some further processing and organizing according to the flowchart.

 A regular review is important in order to develop and maintain genuine trust in your system. Most people who are not applying GTD do this kind of review a few times a year, for example at the beginning of a new year. This gives them a great feeling of clarity, control, and purpose. These good intentions, however, quickly dissipate when new, unprocessed things start to accumulate, and previous plans become outdated because of changing circumstances or lack of follow-up. If they would do such a review systematically every week, this feeling of control and goal-directedness could become permanent.

 

Do (5)

Having all your lists of to-dos up-to-date, what should you do right now? Allen proposes three models for deciding which action to perform. The first is the “four-criteria model for choosing actions in the moment”, which advises that you consider the following factors in the listed order:

1. Context: What can you do here and now? You cannot do the same actions when you are at your desk as when you are walking in the street. The context limits your choices to the tasks you can (practically) perform. If you have a large number of “next actions”, it is recommended to classify them by context (“office”, “home”, “errant”, etc.), so that actions requiring the same context can easily be performed together.

2. Time available: How much time do you have now? Fit the duration of the next action you choose to the amount of time available: if the time is limited, do only short actions.

3. Energy available: How much energy do you have at this moment? Adapt your choice of action to your level of physical and mental energy: when you are tired do only routine actions, and keep difficult actions for when you feel more energetic.

4. Priority: What are your priorities? Given the context, the time and energy available, what action should be done first? The two following models help you to answer that question.


The “threefold model for evaluating daily work” proposes the following possible strategies:

(1)       Do work as it shows up

(2)       Do predefined work

(3)       Define your work

Is the work that shows up (1) the most urgent thing you have to do? When you accomplish tasks as they appear (answering a phone call, chatting with a colleague passing by, replying to an email that just arrived, etc.) by default it means that you are deciding that these tasks are the most important ones at this moment. Alternatively, you can decide, if possible, to postpone the work that shows up, in order to focus on your predefined work (2). This means that you systematically go through your Next actions list. If you do not have any next actions listed, or if you do not feel confident that the listed “next action” is the best thing to do, you have to define your work (3). This is similar to the reviewing phase, where you clear your mind by updating your system of to-dos.

Still, to be confident that what you are doing is truly important, you need a deeper insight in your general goals and values. The “six-level model for reviewing your own work” can support such clarification. Allen uses an airplane analogy to define the levels (Allen, 2001, p. 51):

-                50, 000+ feet: Life

-                40, 000 feet: Three- to five-year vision

-                30, 000 feet: One- or two-year goals

-                20, 000 feet: Areas of responsibility

-                10, 000 feet: Current projects

-                Runway: Current actions

You can define goals for different terms or time-spans, from tasks to undertake immediately (Runway) to missions that extend over the rest of your life span (Life). The latter require you to answer almost philosophical questions, like “What is my purpose in life?” It is important to engage from time to time in this “vertical thinking” (Allen, 2001, p.  20-21), and write down and review those lists of goals, so as not to be constantly chasing priorities at the runway level. 

 

References

Allen, D. (2001) Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, (Penguin).

Heylighen F. & Vidal C. (2008) Getting Things Done: the science behind stress-free productivity (ECCO working paper 2007-08), to appear in Long Range Planning

Wikipedia contributors. (2007) Getting Things Done. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 

Communicating Results

How to write a paper

How should I write a paper or thesis?

 

Typical structure of a scientific paper

Here is a suggestion of the components and sections that commonly go into a scientific paper. Note that none of the sections in between Introduction and References is strictly necessary: here you should adapt the scheme to your own subject and approach, and choose different headings for your sections. For example, theoretical papers will normally not have a "methodology"  or "results" section, but are likely to have a more extensive review of the literature, and development of the arguments.  

Title

  • should as much possible make clear what the paper is about, and what its main thesis is
  • imagine yourself seeing this title somewhere in a bibliography or table of contents, without further information: would you do the effort to get hold of the paper just on the basis of the title?
  • it is better to avoid vague or possibly misleading (teasers) titles that just use fashionable terms to create interest
  • only well-known authors can afford vague titles, such as "Investigations" (Stuart Kauffman), or "Considerations on ...": would you look up a paper by an unknown author entitled "Some notes on the theory of ..."?
  • if you still like the idea of a short, sexy, albeit vague, title to attract the attention, you can complement it with a more precise subtitle: e.g "The essence of evolution: an analysis of the different components of natural selection".

Author(s)

  • these are normally the people who substantially contributed to the content of the paper, not just to the grammar and style, or to securing the funding and infrastructure that made the research possible; such other contributors can be mentioned in the Acknowledgments section
  • not all authors need to have actually written sections of the text, as long as they contributed to the ideas written down;
  • however, all authors are supposed to agree with everything written down in the paper, which implies that they should at least have read the final version
  • authors are listed either in alphabetical order or according to the importance of their contribution
  • authors' names are normally accompanied by their affiliation: department and university, sometimes also their email or full address

Abstract

  • A short, 1 paragraph summary of the whole of the paper and its different sections, with an emphasis on the new ideas proposed
  • the abstract should not just be a short introduction: take into account that some people will only read the abstract, and decide on the basis of that whether the paper contains some results they are looking for; if they know the domain, they won't need an introduction, but will want to know which novel results the paper proposes
  • Should be written only after the full paper is finished, so that you have a complete overview of everything that is in there
  • should include all the core keywords or concepts, so that people interested in the topic can find the paper on the basis of the abstract alone, as often happens in paper databases
  • Sometimes followed on a separate line by a list of keywords

Introduction

  • sketch the core problem to be addressed
  • Why is it important to tackle this problem?
    • What benefits, applications, clarifications ... might be achieved by investigating this topic?
  • Background: what is already known about this problem/its solution? (This may constitute one or more separate sections of the paper instead of just being part of the introduction)
    • review of the literature
    • comparing different schools of thought towards this issue
    • Why are these existing approaches insufficient?
      • What has been overlooked?
  • How is this paper going to approach the problem?
    • In what way is it different from earlier approaches?
    • Why can we expect this approach to produce novel or better results?
  • The introduction typically concludes with a short outline of how the rest of the paper is organized. This should not be another abstract or detailed table of contents, but just quickly sketch the order of the subsequent steps

Conceptual framework

  • Definition of core concepts
    • resolving possible confusions/ambiguities
    • presenting clear examples or illustrations of the concepts
  • Specification of their relationships

Objectives/research questions

  • Which hypotheses does our approach suggest?
  • How do we operationalize our concepts?
  • How can we test these hypotheses?
  • What additional questions are worth investigating?

Methodology and Design

  • How do we gather the necessary data to test our hypotheses?
    • E.g. Psychological experiments, computer simulation, collection of data on the web, survey, literature review, thought experiments, case studies...
    • Refer to similar experiments, simulations ... used by other authors
  • How are the data processed?
    • E.g. Statistical analysis, visualization, scoring by readers, conceptual analysis...
  • Specify strengths and shortcomings of this methodology
    • what possible confounding factors/errors/noise/ambiguities should we try to avoid?
    • Why didn't we use larger sets of data, more complex processing methods, more sensitive measurements etc.?
      • Point out intrinsic limitations because of time, space, resources, ...

Results

  • Description of the collected data
    • number of respondents, survey questions, simulation runs, etc.
  • Description of the processed data
    • correlation coefficients, trends, graphs, tables, ...
  • Basic conclusions for each of the experiments/simulations/surveys....

Discussion

  • In how far do the results confirm/disconfirm the hypotheses?
  • What does this mean for the overal problem?
  • How do they answer the initial questions?
  • What do the processed data reveal about the phenomenon under investigation?
  • What do they still lack to be fully convincing/complete?
  • What new questions do they suggest?
  • What additional tests do they suggest?

Conclusion

  • Summary of what has been achieved, why this is important, and what needs to be done next
  • Sometimes combined with the previous discussion section, especially in terms of listing issues for further research
  • A concluding section is not strictly necessary and can be left out in a short paper. For longer papers, however, it is strongly advised to end with a conclusion, so as to remind the reader of the key achievements, and to impose a clear structure on what by now may have become a very extensive discussion. 

Acknowledgments

  • Mention of official sponsors of the research, and possibly of the people who contributed in a significant way to the ideas/research/paper but are not listed as co-authors

References / Bibliography

  • Full bibliographical data for all other research/publications referred to in the text
  • Depending on the conventions of the publisher these can be in alphabetical order, or in order of first occurrence in the text
  • if you have the choice of the convention, I would advise alphabetical order and the use of (Smith, 1998) type references rather than numerical references [13] to a numbered entry in the bibliography. The reason is that it is easier for the reader to remember a name than to remember a number when looking up references, and easier to judge whether the reference is worth checking (if the name sounds familiar, you already have an idea what kind of reference it may be).
  • I would also advise that you include the full title of paper and journal in the bibliography. The only advantage of the numerical system (which is usually accompanied by abbreviations) is that it saves a little bit of space. But now that most papers are available electronically, you are hardly going to save any trees by leaving out names or titles of papers, or by abbreviating the "Journal of Memetics" to "J Memet". By including them, on the other hand, you will make life much easier for your readers who are wondering whether a particular reference is worth getting hold of...

 


Common mistakes in the organization of a paper/thesis

After having given a lot of advice to students in the role of their supervisor and to peers in the role of referee, I have developed extensive experience with weaknesses in the presentation of a paper. While such papers may formally contain all the information that needs to be there, it is presented in such a way that the reader fails to fully understand, to become interested in the subject, to be convinced of the author's thesis, or simply to remember what the paper really had to say. The above outline for the organization of a paper will already provide some hints on how to avoid these problems, as will subsequent advice on how to make ideas stick. Still, it is worth pointing out the most common mistakes that inexperienced writers make in their papers or dissertations.

Assuming that the reader knows what you are talking about

A scientific paper is by definition highly technical and abstract, discussing complex and esoteric concepts and theories. If you are writing about a well-delineated subject for an audience of domain specialists, you mayassume that your readers will know the main concepts and theories of the domain. However, as soon as your research is in the slightest interdisciplinary, meaning that it uses concepts from more than one domain, this assumption has to be abandoned. While your readers may be experts in one of the domains, they may have little more than superficial knowledge of the other domain.

Therefore, you should always start by defining and situating the main elements of your approach, preferably with references to publications in which these elements are developed in detail. Failing that, your readers will encounter terms and concepts that they do not understand or, worse, that they misinterpret, because the term reminds them of a similar term in their domain that has a different meaning. So, always start with a clear definition of the core concepts of your approach. Whenever you use another, perhaps less central, concept, provide at least a short circumscription in brackets and a reference if you are not sure that all your readers will know this concept.

Assuming that the reader cares about your subject

While the subject you are writing about will appear very interesting to you (otherwise, you would not have done research on it), you should not assume the same about your readers. While they may have a general interest in the domain, there are so many papers on any subject that are potentially relevant to their interests that they need a good reason to read your paper rather than one of the others. So, in your introduction you should start by convincing the reader that the issue you are discussing is really worth investigating, e.g. because it has many practical applications, is particularly relevant to contemporary problems, or is part of a long lasting controversy in the field. 

Needlessly repeating yourself

When discussing complex and abstract ideas, it is useful to repeat the core message, so as to make sure that the reader has understood and remembered it. However, such repetition should not bore the reader or make the paper too long. The best way to drive a message home is to repeat it with different words, different examples or different applications. Each new formulation of the message will increase the understanding, because the reader will now see the same idea in a different context, getting the occasion to create some additional associations between the new concept and knowledge the reader already has.

However, repeating the message with (virtually) the same words and the same contexts is merely redundant. For the reader it appears like a waste of time having to read the same thing again and again. It also contributes to the next mistake: making the paper too long. A good way to avoid such needless repetition is outlining or Idea Processing: creating an efficient structure for your ideas and arguments before you actually start writing the text. A good outline will ensure that you say precisely what you need to say, and nothing more.

Making the paper too long

Readers, and especially publishers, prefer shorter papers, since these require less investment of time, attention, paper, and other resources. By avoiding repetition or redundancy, your paper will already become shorter. However, the temptation can still be great to include a lot of additional ideas that further support or extend your main thesis, or simply to list every single result of your research that seems interesting. In order to maximize your chances of publication, you should actively combat this tendency towards accumulation.

If you have a lot of material, it is better to split it up into several papers. Assuming that this material concerns the same broad issue, the papers will necessarily overlap to some degree, as you will need to repeat common assumptions, or summarize results published in earlier papers. This is not grave. The readers who are interested in the whole of your results will not mind rereading the core ideas of earlier papers if these are formulated in a new context so that they contribute to a better understanding. Even if the formulation is essentially the same, readers can simply skip these parts and jump straight to the new results.

Remember that in the present system of evaluating research (see Scientific impact), only the number of publications counts, not the length! So, it is strategically better to spread the same results over several papers. On the other hand, you should not exaggerate with this "dilution" of material: papers that contain too few new results may not get published, and are unlikely to get many citations.

Not stating what is new here

In many papers, it is not clear which ideas are the author's own contribution is, and which are merely a review of the literature. This is a common problem during PhD defenses, where the jury would like to know exactly which are the original "theses" put forward. The PhD student, on the other hand, is often inclined  to refer frequently to the literature in order to give more authority to the presented ideas, while being too shy to put his or her personal ideas in the spotlight. As a result, the student's contribution to the literature remains unclear.

In scientific publications too it is expected that you make clear what is new in your paper. Even if there are no original results, the paper may still be novel because it summarizes, clarifies or reviews an extensive, but scattered literature. But this too should be pointed out clearly! Spelling out the novel contribution is best done in the introduction, by contrasting your approach with the work done previously on this subject. It is worth repeating the core contributions in the conclusion and abstract.

Being too categorical

Researchers should not forget that scientific knowledge is always provisional: open to scrutiny, criticism, and eventual replacement by a better theory. This means that you should be careful with statements of the form "A is B" without further qualification, which imply that the statement is an absolute truth that should be obvious for everyone. The only statements that can be put in this way are either a matter of definition, such as 1 + 1 = 2, or generally accepted "laws" or properties, such as "a dog is a mammal", "gravitation is an attractive force". In complex domains such as psychology, sociology, or even biology and medicine, there are very few such straightforward truths.

Here it is better to add qualifiers or hedges to your statements, like "it is commonly accepted that A is B", or, better, "according to theory X (Smith, 1999), A is considered to be B". Other common hedges in scientific style are "A may be viewed as...", "it is likely that...", "it is possible that...", "relative to ...". While you should of course not exaggerate with such phrases, in order to keep your sentences readable, it is good policy to regularly include them, in order to remind the reader that your are not dogmatically positing a truth, but making an assumption that others may like to question.

Being categorical is even worse when you are not describing, but prescribing, i.e. when you are using propositions of the form "A ought to be...", or "you must do ...". Such lecturing or finger-pointing can appear quite offensive to the reader, who may have very different opinions on the matter. Here a better approach is "given our understanding of ..., it seems advisable to do...", i.e. to motivate on the basis of a detailed argumentation why you think a certain approach is better than another one.

Formalizing too much

This is a mistake often made by authors with a background in the "hard" sciences, such as physics, mathematics or computing. These authors tend to assume that the only way to make a description truly scientific is to include a lot of symbols and formulas. Mathematical symbols are of course immensely useful, and necessary in cases where concepts need to be strictly defined or the rules to be expressed are used to calculate, compute, simulate, or make complex logical deductions.

In other cases, however, symbols merely make reading and understanding more difficult. The reason is that our memory is not made to remember lists of meaningless symbols: we remember most easily when terms are used that have already a lot of associations with concepts we know.

Therefore, symbols should not be used just for their own sake: if they merely attach a formal label to a word that is perfectly clear on its own, they will only increase the burden on the reader. An example of such an (ab)use could be the following: "define a city C as a tuple C={P,L,S}, where P is the collection of people that live in C, L is the geographical location of C, and S is the size of P, i.e. the number of people living in C". Unless you are planning to write a program that will teach a computer to reason about cities, you can do perfectly well without this formalization of common notions: your readers will understand you much better if you later mention "the people of the city" than if you write "P(C)".

Formalizing too little

This complementary error is often made by authors with a background in the humanities: they will develop grand theories and conceptual systems in a narrative style, but without clearly defining the essential elements of their system or the relations between them. For the theory to be in the least testable or refutable, there should be an unambiguous understanding of what the theory states or implies, and what it does not. This implies a more formal definition of the concepts and relationships, e.g. in the form "if A, then B", or "the category A is subdivided in the categories A1, A2 and A3".

It is not necessary to use abstract symbols to express these relationships. They could simply take the form of clearly stated propositions, such as "intelligent people on average live longer than less intelligent people", assuming that you have defined intelligence previously in the paper. Another good method to make distinctions and relations more explicit is the use of tables, diagrams, and flow charts, that allow you to graphically distinguish different types of entities, and perhaps represent their relationships by arrows pointing from the one to the other. 

 

Further advice

 There are several guidelines available for writing on the web, e.g.

 

Writing english

How can I write better English?

A good starting point is Strunk's classic text on the "Elements of Style". The first edition is available online:

Strunk, William. Elements of Style. Ithaca, N.Y.: Priv. print. [Geneva, N.Y.: Press of W.P. Humphrey], 1918;  1999. www.bartleby.com/141/.

 

For a very clear, easy-to-use and comprehensive  survey of all the common grammatical errors and how to avoid them, we recommend:

Swan, Michael. Practical English Usage (Oxford University Press)

Scientific impact

How can I increase the scientific impact of my work?

Publish or perish

Science is a collective, collaborative enterprise, which means that researchers build on the results of other researchers (cf. "standing on the shoulders of giants", the slogan adopted by Google Scholar). That means that you would like any research you do to inform others, so that they may refer to it, use it, and hopefully develop and improve it. This will depend of course on the quality of your work: incorrect or vague ideas or unreliable data are unlikely to inspire anyone to make something good out of it.

However, it is not sufficient to produce good quality research, you must also ensure that others are informed about your results, i.e. you should "publish" it in the broadest sense of the term. This explains the "publish or perish" motto that characterizes present-day research: an unpublished document could as well not exist since nobody but you can use it. And scientists who do not produce useable results, are considered to be non-existent within the academic community. Therefore, they are very unlikely to get or keep an academic position ("perish"), or collect additional funding. Publication has become the primary criterion by which research activitity is evaluated.

Still, publishing in the sense of making publically available is far from sufficient: we are presently drowned in an ocean of available information, and it is very difficult for any particular publication to stand out sufficiently so as to be guaranteed that it will be noticed by the people that matter, i.e. your peers: the scientific colleagues working in the same domain as you.

Before the advent of the net, publication was a slow, difficult and expensive process, and therefore only few documents would reach that stage. This provided some kind of indication that these documents were really worthwhile. Therefore being published, especially being published internationally, was already enough of a indication of quality or impact for a scientific work.

Peer review

Nowadays, with publication technologies becoming ever easier and cheaper to use, another "gold standard" of research quality has emerged: being peer-reviewed, i.e. having passed a strict selection procedure where anonymous experts in the domain have judged that your document is good enough to be published in the particular journal, book or website to which you have submitted it.

The principle of using "peers", i.e. people with a similar expertise as you, is motivated by the fact that in science there are no ultimate authorities who can judge what is right and what is wrong. The only people who have enough expertise to judge are the people who are doing research in the same domain as you. This means that one time researcher A may evaluate the work of B, but another time B may be invited to judge the work of A. The anonymity of the referees (and more rarely of the authors being refereed) allows them to express themselves more honestly, without fearing to offend a colleague, friend, or even potential employer.

Peer review, while being the best existing method for research evaluation, does have problems of its own.

  • One difficulty is to find competent experts: working in the same domain does not necessarily mean being skilled in the same methodologies or theories.
  • Another one is that even for a good expert, novel research is by definition difficult to evaluate, as there are no accepted standards to judge the worth of an idea or approach, and as scientific work by its nature tends to be very complex and abstract.

Therefore, it is unavoidable that referee reports are to some degree subjective, and that different experts often disagree about the value of the same work. To counter this, journal editors normally consult at least three referees, so that there can be a clear majority for or against publication of a submitted paper.

But even then, good papers can be rejected, because they do not match the referees' or editor's view of how problems in that domains should be approached. Resubmitting to another journal is often sufficient to turn a rejected paper into an accepted one. But usually referees provide detailed arguments why they reject a paper, and you are strongly advised to take them into account when resubmitting. Even if you disagree with the criticisms made, it is worth addressing them in a revised version, so as to avoid similar misunderstandings.

Journal impact factors

With the proliferation of publication media, the standards of acceptability can vary widely from journal to journal, depending on the number of referees they use, the critical attitude of the referees, and the fact that journals with many submission only can publish a fraction of submitted papers. This leads to great variation, with some accepting more than 50% of all submissions, others less than 5%.This created the need for some kind of "quality score" to rank journals.

The most used standard is the impact factor which measures how often on average papers in that journal have been referred to in other journals. This gives an indication of the "impact" of the journal on the scientific community, i.e. the visibility and authority that typicals papers in that journal have. As could be expected, more people submit papers to high impact journals and therefore by necessity their acceptance rate is much lower. This means they are more selective in the papers they publish, and therefore can be expected to offer higher quality on average.

The impact factor, which is computed each year by the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI) for those journals which it tracks, has become about the most used indicator of the quality of a scientist's publications. Therefore, all researchers should be motivated to publish their work in journals with the highest impact factor possible. About the highest scoring journals overall are Nature and Science. Within the cognitive sciences, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, and Trends in Cognitive Sciences, have the highest impact, so it is worth submitting a paper there. Impact factors for journals can be found in the Journal Citation Reports

However, the impact factor has a number of intrinsic shortcomings:

  • only a fraction of all journals are tracked by the ISI, and therefore many journals don't have an impact factor.
  • moreover, citations in journals not tracked by the ISI are not counted. Therefore even an ISI journal's impact factor may be underestimated
  • an impact factor is only a snapshot over a particular time period (typically 2 years)
  • depending on the discipline, there are large differences in the average amount of citations (e.g. medical researchers cite much more than mathematicians), and in the number of journals that have a high impact factor–or any impact factor at all. New domains, such as complexity science or memetics, will typically have few or no journals with a high impact. Therefore, impact factors can in general not be used to compare work across disciplines.
  • an impact factor only measures the average citation rate for all papers in a journal. Some papers may score much better, becoming "citation classics" that everyone in the field knows, while others don't get any citation at all.

Personal citation scores

For these reason, in the long term it seems better to aim at high "personal citation scores" rather than high journal citation scores, i.e. make sure that your paper/book/document is referred to by many people, independently of the place where it has been published. For example, books are typically cited more often than papers, but don't have impact factors. Below, we'll discuss some methods to achieve that. For the short-term, though, for young researchers who cannot afford to wait several years before their works becomes widely known because they need to renew their funding, the best strategy is to submit first to high impact journals, and if this doesn't work, gradually go down in the "pecking order" until you find a journal willing to accept your paper.

Personal citation scores are also tracked by the ISI, in their Web of Science, including the Science Citation Index, Social Science Citation Index and Arts and Humanities Citation Index. However, since the ISI database dates from long before the explosion in cheap computers and networks, they tend to keep minimal data: merely author's last name and initials, abbreviated title, journal name or abbreviation, and volume, issue and page number.

This makes it very difficult to find all your citations, especially if you have a common name shared with many other authors: you'll have to go one by one through the list of cited papers to eliminate all those written by someone with the same family name and initials, and keep track manually of all the times papers of yours have been cited. Also, the same name can sometimes be spelled differently, e.g. a paper by "Van Overwalle, Frank" can be listed under VANOVERWALLE F, VAN OVERWALLE F, VAN OVERWALLE F P or sometimes even OVERWALLE F V. It is worth checking all possible alternative spellings, or your citation rate can be strongly underestimated. Still, it may be worth to go through the exercise to convince potential sponsors of your research that your work is well-recognized internationally.

An advantage of this database is that it also includes citation of books or documents that were not published in one of the journals that ISI tracks, so you are not limited to traditional publication outlets to collect citation scores. However, the citations themselves come exclusively from tracked journals, and thus may underestimate non-traditional domains for which there are no established journals in the database.

PageRank: impact on the web

The newest generation of publication outlets makes fully use of the ease and computability of the web, providing "impact" scores that more flexibly reflect the true influence of your work on others. The most popular and probably most effective method is the PageRank algorithm that the Google search engine uses to calculate the importance of a web page. This algorithm does not calculate importance or impact only by the number of links (equivalent to citations or references), but by importance of the pages that link to you. Thus, importance is calculated recursively, and a document cited only once, but by a very well known other webpage may still get a high PageRank score, while a paper cited by many other papers that are themselves hardly referred to by others may have a quite low PageRank.

This alleviates the problem of the time it takes for novel work to become widely known: it can be sufficient to convince one respected authority in the field to link to you in order to immediately become much more visible (i.e. easy to find through the Google Search engine).

With the recent advent of Google Scholar, a search engine only for the scientific literature, Google seems to move towards an integation of (web-based) PageRanks, and (journal-based) citation scores, though it is not clear how the algorithm weighs the different contributions when finding the most "important" scientific paper on a given topic. An advantage of Google Scholar is that it is not limited to ISI-tracked journals as it also counts citations in working papers published only on the web. But it remains unclear which journal/papers are in Scholar's database, and which are not...

In the longer term, it seems likely that such recursive, web-based methods will become increasingly important, as more literature becomes available on the web, and the algorithms are further refined. Therefore, it seems like a pretty safe bet that having a high (Scholar) PageRank will be the most effective way to get your scientific work recognized. Moreover, you don't lose anything by focusing on increasing this web visibility, as people publishing papers in ISI journals also increasingly use the web to find relevant literature. Therefore they are more likely to cite a paper that is visible on the web, even if it was never published in a journal, or even underwent peer review. But is it not clear when funding authorities will start using web-based methods to directly evaluate the worth/impact of your research...

Improving your impact

As has become clear, there are two major methods to make your research more authoritative:

  • publishing in high-impact journals
  • persuading other scientists to refer to your work

The first is the most traditional, but has the disadvantage that for novel, interdisciplinary research it will be difficuld to find a journal willing to accept a paper that does not fulfil its standard criteria of subject, methodology, reliability, etc. Still, improving the quality of your research and writing will definitely increase your chances of success.

For the second too, quality is primary, but here you have more leeway in getting recognition for unusual approaches. The most straighforward method is to look around in order to spot who is interested in similar approaches. You can then introduce your ideas to these peers, e.g. by:

  • presenting your work at conferences and seminars on the subject
  • participating in email lists that discuss related topics, and referring to your papers when relevant for the on-going discussion
  • directly contacting peers, and pointing them to your papers, e.g. as available on a website, preprint archive, or journal, or sending them a copy of your paper.
  • having your work linked to by websites that attract a large number of like-minded people. If the website is really well-known (e.g. Principia Cybernetica Web for ECCO people) it will have a high PageRank, which will in part "propagate" to your webpage, and thus increase your visibility in Google.
  • making sure that your paper is well-structured, containing all the appropriate keywords, title, abstract, etc., so that people looking for such papers are likely to effectively find them
  • submitting your papers to "preprint archives" on related subjects (e.g ArXiv or CogPrints), which are typically scanned by many researchers looking for something that falls in their domain of interest
  • making sure your paper is listed in the publications or working papers page of your research group or university: usually the visibility of the institution is much larger than that of a single member
  • making your work known outside the academic community, e.g. by contacting science journalists, who typically reach a much wider, albeit less specialized audience. This will only work for non-technical work with broad implications.

None of these methods implies that you should broadcast your work as far and wide as possible ("spamming"). People are more likely to get irritated by "off-topic" announcements with little relevance to their work, and are more likely to ignore your announcements later, even if now they are relevant. The point is to be selective, and find the best academic environments, where your ideas have most chance to take root... For that, you'll need a keen eye for what's going in your field, and frequently investigate who is using similar keywords, or referrring to the same authors as you.

Making ideas stick

How can I make my ideas more memorable and convincing?

In the present time of information explosion, any text you write to expose your scientific ideas will have to compete with thousands of other texts that present related, and potentially just as interesting ideas. If you want your idea to make a lasting impact, you will have to convince your readers that it is really worth reading, understanding and remembering. This means that you will have to pay special attention to the presentation, formulation and organization of the ideas you write down.

Ideally, this presentation should be such that the reader immediately grasps the underlying concepts, becomes persuaded that these concepts are worth using, and still remembers these concepts long after reading about them. Very few documents satisfy these conditions. Yet, with a little effort you can make your texts come significantly closer to this ideal. This will not only help your work to get the recognition it deserves, but make life easier for your peers that have to read it. It will more generally reduce the problem of “data smog”, i.e. the present overload of vague, confusing, low-quality information that makes our work more stressful.

Cognitive science, psychology and memetics have studied the properties that make ideas easy-to-grasp and memorable. Their lessons can be summarized in a few simple principles. These principles were elegantly reviewed by Heath & Heath in their book “Made to Stick: why some ideas survive and others die”. I will use their SUCCES acronym as an easy to remember checklist, but add a few qualifications based on my own work in memetics (Heylighen, 1997, 1998), while adapting the criteria specifically to the presentation of scientific ideas.

SUCCES stands for: Simple, Unexpected, Credible, Concrete, and Emotional Stories. These are the main attributes that a good presentation of an idea should possess. Let us review them one by one:

 


Simple

To make sure your idea is understood and remembered, it should first of all be formulated in an as simple way as possible, by leaving out details and elaborations of limited relevance. Of course, simplifying does not imply leaving out important aspects. On the contrary, the simplicity criterion means focusing on the core message, and formulating that as clearly and explicitly as possible, so that the essential idea stands out against the background of less important observations.

People often make their texts complicated and convoluted to camouflage the fact that they do not understand themselves very well what they are writing about. The better you understand your subject matter, the easier it becomes to formulate it simply!

Unexpected

To attract the attention, you should make sure that your ideas are sufficiently novel or unexpected. Our mind is constantly anticipating what is coming next based on its knowledge and experience. It will only truly pay attention when that anticipation fails. Failure of anticipation implies a surprise or mystery, i.e. a gap in the knowledge. This creates interest or curiosity, which is a desire to fill in that gap.

This implies that your ideas and the way they are formulated should not be conventional, well-known or predictable. Originality of ideas is one of the key requirements for a scientific paper to be taken seriously. But originality of presentation, language or examples may also help to get the reader interested. The effect can be further enhanced with a presentation that starts by formulating a question or problem to arouse the interest, followed by a resolution of that mystery.

Credible

Credibility is a shorthand for a number of more specific attributes that help to make your thesis convincing:

  • evidence: what you propose should be backed up as much as possible by concrete, detailed observations or data;
  • coherence or consistency: your ideas should be logically consistent, and consonant with other, already accepted or plausible theories, principles or assumptions;
  • authority: your theses become more credible if you can refer to trusted experts, publications, or sources that arrive at similar conclusions.
  • consensus or conformity: if readers think that a large group of people believe something, they are more inclined to take it seriously. So, it may help if you point out that a particular theory is well-accepted or has a lot of supporters.

Concrete

The mind has difficulty understanding and remembering abstract concepts, because it lacks “handles” to grasp them, i.e. links with other concepts that it already knows and understands. The more links or associations a concept has, the more easily the mind can position and anchor it within its existing knowledge network. Therefore, abstract concepts should as much as possible be illustrated by concrete examples, i.e. situations that the reader knows well and can grasp intuitively.

Like with complex expressions, authors often use abstract terminology to hide the fact that they themselves lack a clear idea of what they are talking about. If you truly grasp your subject, concrete examples should readily come to mind.

Emotional

According to Heath & Heath, if you want your audience to remember and apply your ideas, you should make them care about these ideas. This may happen by eliciting basic emotions, such as fear, anger, or laughter. You could for example point out how shocking it is that millions of people still die from easily preventable diseases, create a sense of awe and wonder for the grandness of the cosmos, or make your readers laugh with a humorous anecdote.

However, in a scientific context, it is better to make people care in a more objective, rational way, by showing how important or useful your ideas are. This is what I have called the utility criterion. It means that you should provide a clear motivation for why your ideas are worth studying, e.g. by pointing out which important problems they may help to solve.

Stories

Heath & Heath note that stories are typically remembered much better than formal arguments or descriptions because people empathize with a story. This means that they imagine being in the position of the main characters, thus mentally simulating the characters’ reasoning and actions. This internal simulation leads to a better understanding and remembering of the story elements.

In a scientific context, traditional stories, such as anecdotes, biographical elements or historical developments, can help to convey your message. However, they are not always available and may detract the attention from the more abstract ideas.

More generally, the essence of a story is a challenge or problem that must be overcome via a sequence of actions—some of which may turn out to be wrong, so that they need to be corrected in a later stage. Scientific problems too can be presented in this way. You could for example summarize your and other authors' search for the solution of some abstract problem, or the concrete issues encountered by the biological or social agents that are the subject of your study, and recount the consecutive attempts, failures and eventual successes.

 

Literature

Heath C. & Heath D. (2007) “Made to Stick: why some ideas survive and others die”  (Random House)

Heylighen F. (1997): "Objective, subjective and intersubjective selectors of knowledge", Evolution and Cognition 3:1, p. 63-67. (PDF)

Heylighen F. (1998): "What makes a meme successful?", in: Proc. 16th Int. Congress on Cybernetics (Association Internat. de Cybernétique, Namur), p. 423-418

When should I use articles in English?

One of the most common grammatical mistakes made by non-native speakers in English is to use articles ("a", "the") inappropriately. This is particularly a problem for those whose mother tongue does not have articles, such as Russian, Polish, Lithuanian, or Farsi. 

The book "Practical English Usage" by Michael Swan is an excellent guide for avoiding the typical grammatical mistakes that non-native speakers make. It in particular includes a thorough discussion of several pages of when to use or not to use articles, including various special cases. I highly recommend reading the appropriate sections by those who are not sure about how to use articles (or any other type of word or expression).

 

However, since this is a big book, I will here summarize at least the basic rules for articles.

 

Articles are used to qualify nouns, but in order to know when to use them, you first need to understand two fundamental distinctions between how these nouns are used. 

 

1) a noun can refer to something that is countable or uncountable

 

"Countable" means that it refers to something of which there can be several, so that you can count them: one, two, three... For example, there can be more than one system, person, night, idea, or feeling. But there cannot be more than one gravity, water, weather or capitalism: these are nouns denoting entities without clear boundaries so that you cannot say where one "weather" ends and another one begins. Therefore, uncountable nouns do not have a plural: there are  no weathers, gravities, or capitalisms.

 

Note that the same word can sometimes refer to two different concepts, one of which is countable, the other one not. For example, "snow" as a weather phenomenon is  uncountable, but "the snows of Kilimanjaro" refers to countable patches of snow. "Iron" as a substance is uncountable, but "an iron" refers to a countable object made from iron

 

2) a noun can refer to some definite instance, i.e. something specific of which the listener or hearer is supposed to know which one you refer to, or to something indefinite, i.e. any instance that happens to belong to the category. 

 

"The system" (definite) refers to a particular system that either you have spoken about before, that is generally known, or that is specified in the rest of the sentence: "The system used by linguists". "A system" (indefinite) refers to an unspecified system that could be any of many possible systems. 

 

Now we are ready to formulate the basic rules about articles. Nouns in English can be preceded by a definite article ("the"), an indefinite article ("a", "an") or no article. We can distinguish three situations for a noun:

 

(a) it is countable and singular: in this case it always needs an article!

 

If it is definite, you use "the", for indefinite you use "a". Note that "a" essentially means "one" (in French, the indefinite article and the number one use actually the same word: "un"). That is what you would expect for a singular, countable noun: there is exactly one. 

 

The only case in which the article is skipped is when you replace it with another word with an equivalent function (a determiner). For example, "any cat" or "some cat" is equivalent to "a cat", "this cat" or "that cat" is equivalent to "the cat".

 

(b) it is countable and plural

 

Here you still need to use the article "the" for the definite case: "the cats in the alley make a lot of noise". For the indefinite case, however, you can no longer say "a cats" since "a" means one, so you just drop the indefinite article, e.g. "Cats are cuddly animals" (all or any cats).

 

(c) it is uncountable (which means by definition that there is no plural):

 

Here the rule is similar to rule (b): you use "the" in the definite case: "the snow is falling fast" (the snow falling at this moment), and no article in the indefinite case "snow is white" (any snow). 

 

In a sense, uncountable nouns are like plurals, since they designate something that extends beyond a single instance. Some nouns even are kind of in between uncountable and plural, like "mathematics" or "mechanics", which we treat as uncountables, but which are spelled like plurals.

 

The most common mistakes are violations of rule (a): not putting an article in front of a singular, countable noun. Here are some examples from ECCO papers:

 

".... and highlighted fundamental weakness" should be -> "a fundamental weakness" (there can be more than one weakness)

 

"... illustrates a prolonged exposure to stressful condition" -> "a stressful condition" (or perhaps "stressful conditions")

 

"Processed challenge is reinterpreted " -> "A processed challenge" or "The processed challenge"

 

 ".... using Petri net formalism" -> "using the Petri net formalism" 

 

This is a little more subtle as there can be more than one formalism, but there is only one Petri net formalism. But "Petri net" functions here like an adjective, and that does not change the countability of the noun "formalism". On the other hand, in the case of "According to Relativity Theory, the speed of light is finite" we are considering the expression "Relativity Theory" as one noun, because everyone understands this as a single concept of which there is only one. Therefore, the expression is uncountable, even though "theory" is countable. If "Petri net formalism" would become a standard expression, like "Relativity Theory", it may lose its requirement for an article...

 

"... are top contributors to waste of human intelligence" -> "to the waste"

 

This is also more subtle because "waste" can be countable or uncountable, depending on the context. The Oxford dictionary provides the following definition with examples:

 

  •  an act or instance of using or expending something carelessly, extravagantly, or to no purpose : it's a waste of time trying to argue with him [countable] | they had learned to avoid waste. [uncountable]

 

In the second example, we are speaking about the process of waste in general, so it is uncountable. In the first example we are speaking about a specific instance of waste, of which there could be several. "Waste of human intelligence" is a specific form of waste, since we could also waste other things, such as energy or human effort, so it needs to be "the waste". 

 

Here is a different type of mistake, this time transgressing the rule (c):

 

"The mechanism is responsible for production of both kinds of social boundaries" -> "for the production"

 

Production is an uncountable noun, therefore it does not need an indefinite article ("a"), but in this case we are not speaking about some indefinite type of production but about the production specifically of social boundaries. Therefore, it needs the definite article, "the".

 

 

These examples show that as you get into more advanced usage of English, the rules may become less obvious. That is why the Michael Swan book spends 8 pages discussing different examples and  cases, and why I recommend reading these pages. But the simple rules (a), (b), (c) above cover the great majority of cases, and I think it will be helpful for everyone to keep them in mind...

 

Reference:

 

Swan, Michael: Practical English Usage (Oxford University Press)