University of Tartu

University of Tartu professor to develop an AI for improving business processes

Marlon Dumas, a professor of information systems at the University of Tartu, has received a prestigious grant worth over €2 million to develop an artificial intelligence-based tool called “Pix” to enable companies to improve their business processes automatically.

This article is published in collaboration with Research in Estonia. By Randel Kreitsberg, University of Tartu.

Business processes are the backbone of modern organisations. A properly compiled portfolio of business processes gives a competitive edge and helps organisations be better prepared for innovation. A typical example of a business process is the “order-to-cash” process. This is the process that starts when a company receives a purchase order from a customer and ends when the products or services ordered by the customer have been delivered and the customer has paid.

For contemporary organisations, the speed and efficiency of such processes is vital. Managers and analysts work daily towards making business processes run smoothly. To streamline current processes – instead of creating new ones – we need to process large amounts of data, often only on the basis of the intuition and experience of the analyst.

Artificial intelligence helps

Marlon Dumas, who’s among the 1% of most cited researchers in the field of computer sciences in the world, works on managing business processes with the help of artificial intelligence.

“In this project, we will develop methods to analyse data extracted from enterprise systems in order to automatically discover opportunities for improving the quality and efficiency of business processes. These methods will combine machine learning and optimisation techniques to ensure that all possible improvement opportunities are considered, and that the optimal combination of improvement opportunities is selected,” Dumas said. “The research will result in an open-source tool, called Pix, which will enable its users to automatically generate ideas for improving their business processes.”

Dumas gave an example from an “order-to-cash” process.

“Let’s say we notice that almost every time we send a purchase order to our supplier in Brazil without adding the transport route, the order is late. However, when communicating with the Spanish supplier, the fastest solution is to let the local contact choose their own transport route,” he explained. “The AI-based Pix tool will recognise this difference by analysing the prior history of purchases and deliveries, and will design the business process in such a way that a transport route will always be added to the order for the Brazilian partner but not for the Spanish one.”

A major advance

The main challenge in developing the above-mentioned solutions is the large amount of various parallel possibilities and solutions. The regular “order-to-cash” process in larger companies contains tens of intermediate stages, which all have their own decisions and resulting activities. When we add hundreds of different manufacturers, suppliers and clients into the mix, we get millions of ways to make our processes more efficient.

Pix will be a major advance with respect to existing tools for data-driven process improvement, such as Apromore, created by researchers from the University of Tartu in collaboration with researchers from the University of Melbourne.

Unlike Apromore, Pix will not just help analysts to identify bottlenecks and sources of defects, but it will also help them to come up with new improvement opportunities. Pix is able to analyse almost all potential possibilities to optimise costs, time, system faults and combinations thereof. However, the final choice on how to act is left to the company’s analyst.

The European Research Council encourages researchers to take risks

The European Research Council (ERC) awarded the research project “The Process Improvement Explorer: Automated Discovery and Assessment of Business Process Improvement Opportunities (PIX)” an ERC Advanced Grant worth over €2.3 million for a period of five years. The European Research Council awarded in total €540 million to 222 researchers for boosting cutting-edge research. Only 11% per cent received funding out of more than 2,000 research proposals submitted.

The funded research projects create more than 2,000 jobs, and new daring solutions are hoped for many of the problems ailing modern Europe: from social crises to generating renewable energy. For example, Swiss social scientists will use crowd-sourced data to study the liveability of large cities. Hungarian scientists, on the other hand, are focusing on studying the rights of Eastern European working-class women.

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Cover: Marlon Dumas, professor of information systems at the University of Tartu, is among the 1% of most cited scientists in the field of computer sciences in the world (photo courtesy of UT).

The University of Tartu develops a mobile sensor to sniff out toxic substances

Physicists at the University of Tartu have developed a sensor that can be integrated into mobile phones and will actively monitor toxic substances in the air and alert people about them.

The physicists have been working on the graphene-based sensor for the past five years. According to a statement by the University of Tartu, the sensor is to be integrated into mobile phones and it will actively monitor toxic substances in the ambient air and recommend to the person carrying the phone to choose a safer route.

The prototype was introduced to mobile phone manufacturers at the World Mobile Congress, held from 25-28 February in Barcelona, Spain, the university said.

The need for investment is increasing

“Whereas earlier we were only able to test it in the laboratory, now we have the chance to test the technology in the real environment – outdoors,” Raivo Jaaniso, a senior research fellow at the University of Tartu, said in a statement. “There’s still a long way to go, and since we’re getting closer to our goal, the need for investment is increasing quite a lot.”

“Our next goal is to make a new prototype in which everything’s considerably smaller and from which it’ll be just one more step to the finished product,” Jaaniso added. Among other things, the sensor’s long-term stability still needs to be thoroughly tested. According to Jaaniso, 30-40 people should test the device in daily use during the pilot project.

Part of a pan-European research partnership

The sensor differs from others available on the market in terms of its sensitivity, the university said, adding it also works successfully outside when the concentration of toxic substances is low, warning the person carrying it against, for example, vehicle exhaust emissions. “It works in more or less the same way as the human nose,” Jaaniso claimed.

The project occurs within the framework of the pan-European research partnership project “Graphene Flagship”. With a budget of €1 billion, the project aims to develop graphene-based future technology solutions and brings together researchers from 23 countries. Besides the sensor, the Estonians are working on touch screens, superbatteries, smart clothes and 5G internet hardware are also being developed.

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Cover: The graphene-based sensor, developed by the University of Tartu (photo by Randel Kreitsberg).

Three Estonian universities are in the global top 1,000

According to one of the most important higher education lists, the University of Tartu, TalTech and Tallinn University are among the world’s 1,000 best universities.

The annual list is compiled by the QS World University Rankings. In the process of preparing the ranking list, the QS considers a survey among academic leaders and heads of institutions of higher education; the proportion of students and lecturers; the reputation of the university as the employer; the significance of academic publications; and the percentage of foreign lecturers and students.

According to the QS 2019 ranking, the University of Tartu holds the 321st position in the world – a slight decline from 2018 when the university was 314th; TalTech (formerly Tallinn University of Technology) is in the 601-650 bracket and Tallinn University is ranked among the 801-1,000 best universities.

Founded in 1632 by the Swedish King Gustav II Adolph, the University of Tartu is the oldest and largest university in Estonia both in terms of numbers of staff and students, and the volume of its teaching, research and development activities. The UT alumni make up 40% of Estonian parliament, 87% of attorneys at law, 100% of judges, and 99% of medical doctors in Estonia.

Tallinn University is a new entry

Tallinn University is ranked in the top 1,000 for the first time. The QS said it was a “continuously developing, modern university”, and “the university’s main strengths lie in the fields of humanities and social sciences”. It is the third largest public university in Estonia and currently has more than 7,500 students – with 9.5% of them international – and nearly 400 researchers and lecturers.

The top five ranking universities in the world, according to the QS, are Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University, Harvard University, California Institute of Technology – all based in the US – and the University of Oxford in the UK.

In total, there are almost 26,000 universities in the world.

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Cover: Tallinn University’s Baltic Film and Media School (the image is illustrative).

Thirteen University of Tartu researches among the most influential in the world

The recently released 2018 Highly Cited Researchers Report by Clarivate Analytics includes 17 scientists from Estonia, 13 of whom work at the University of Tartu.

The Highly Cited Researchers Report lists over 6,000 most influential natural and social scientists of the last decade, based on the Web of Science database.

Last year the report listed more than 3,300 scientists, six of whom were affiliated with the University of Tartu.

Among the 6,000 most cited researchers of the world are the following Tartu University scientists: geneticists Andres Metspalu, Tõnu Esko, Reedik Mägi and Markus Perola; natural scientists Urmas Kõljalg, Leho Tedersoo, Martin Zobel (in two fields: plant and animal sciences and environment and ecology), Meelis Pärtel, Mari Moora, Kessy Aberenkov and Mohammad Bahram; physicist Heikki Junninen; and statistician Krista Fischer.

Punching above weight

The number of Estonian researchers on the list, including the University of Tartu researchers, doubled for the second year in a row. Besides the Tartu University researchers, this year’s list also contains Ülo Niinemets of the Estonian University of Life Sciences and three researchers of the National Institute of Chemical Physics and Biophysics: Angela Ivask, Anne Kahru and Kaja Kasemets.

“The fact that our results are better compared with our neighbours’ is an evidence of the success and the high level of Estonian science – there are no Latvian scientists on the list, there is one researcher from Lithuania, seven from Russia, six from Poland and 36 from Finland, two of whom are affiliated with the University of Tartu,” the university said in a statement.

The professor of experimental psychology, Jüri Allik, one of Estonia’s most influential experts in research metrics, said that Estonia looked like a scientific superpower. “Finland has a total of 36 names on the list, three times more than Estonia. However, as the population ratio is bigger, we are also better than Finland here,” Allik noted.

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Cover: University of Tartu’s historical main building.

Estonian and Spanish scientists discover a simple way to improve infertility treatment

Scientists from Estonia and Spain have published a study in Human Reproduction, a top journal in the field, that can benefit the couples who have experienced repeated IVF failure.

In 2017, more than 2,800 in vitro fertilisation (IVF) procedures were carried out in Estonia, resulting in the birth of 430 babies, which accounts for 3% of all births.

However, at 15%, the success rate of IVF is low, caused by problems in several stages of the treatment. One of such stages is embryo implantation, which marks the beginning of the pregnancy. If the embryo is transferred into the uterus on the wrong day, even the best embryos cannot overcome this, resulting in a negative pregnancy test.

The task of the infertility treatment specialist is to recommend the best treatment for each patient. Female infertility can be caused by problems with endometrial (the inner uterine lining) receptivity. While in natural conception the developing embryo can “sit and wait” until the endometrium matures to peak receptivity, in IVF treatment it is of utmost importance to transfer the embryo on the correct day to increase the chances of pregnancy.

Adjusting the time of the embryo transfer

Different methods are used to assess endometrial receptivity, the most accurate of which is a test measuring the expression patterns of different genes in an endometrial biopsy. For this, a minimally invasive endometrial biopsy is taken in the cycle preceding the IVF cycle on the day the endometrium is supposedly the most receptive. Analysis of the expression patterns of specific marker genes provides vital information to decide whether the “right genes are expressed at the right time”. If needed, the time of the embryo transfer is adjusted, providing an example of precision medicine in infertility treatment.

The study by Estonian and Spanish scientists, published in Human Reproduction, a leading journal in the field of reproductive medicine, is based on the fact that the inner uterine lining consists of several different cell types. The novelty of the study lies in the fact that previous studies have not considered the effect of cell type proportions on endometrial gene expression profiles. This novel approach makes gene expression profile analysis more specific, thus also improving the performance of tests based on gene expression patterns.

The study was a natural progression to the earlier work of the research group based in the Estonian town of Tartu, which allows to improve IVF efficiency.

“It is common knowledge that the inner uterine lining includes different cell types; however, all the previous studies have consistently ignored this fact. Our work shows how to account for this variability in cellular composition, and thus considerably improve the accuracy of biomarker discovery,” Marina Suhorutšenko, the first author of the paper and a PhD student at the Institute of Clinical Medicine, University of Tartu, said in a statement.

In the clinical setting, only the whole tissue gene expression profile is usually analysed, as analysing cellular fractions separately is labour-intensive and expensive. “We have developed a pipeline that allows to skip this step, and instead uses a different data analysis approach to improve the accuracy without extra costs,” Suhorutšenko added.

The study results in a new endometrial receptivity test

Dr Triin Laisk, a research fellow at the Estonian Genome Centre, who coordinated the data analysis of the study, said the confounding effect of biopsy cellular composition has been largely ignored in the past, and not only in the field of reproductive medicine. “By taking it into account, we can decrease the amount of random and false positive findings, and eventually improve our knowledge on the biology behind different conditions, as well as facilitate the discovery of novel biomarkers,” she said.

The results of the study have immediate practical value, and the research team is currently working on how to integrate these findings into a genetic test that is used in infertility treatment clinics to select the best day for embryo transfer. The Tartu-based Competence Centre on Health Technologies, where the study was carried out, has developed an endometrial receptivity test called beREADY.

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The images are illustrative (Pexels).

Who owned the right of the first night in Estonia?

The right of the local noble to deflower local peasant brides on their wedding night before their newlywed husbands holds a certain place in the nation’s cultural memory – but where’s the truth?

This article is brought to you in collaboration with the University of Tartu blog.

The right of the first night, or the right of the local noble to deflower local peasant brides on their wedding night before their newlywed husbands, has never been a historic fact in Estonia. However, it holds a certain place in the nation’s cultural memory – and has done so for the last hundred years.

A great tool to agitate people against the Germans

While in Germany last summer, I discussed this topic with the German historian, Jörg Wettlaufer, whose interdisciplinary doctoral thesis, “Das Herrenrecht der ersten Nacht” (“The Right of the First Night”), was published as a book in 1999. He was surprised that the first night’s stereotype reached Estonia as late as in the beginning of the 20th century.

However, considering Estonia’s historic circumstances, it is not surprising that the myth spread so late. When the French had to do some groundwork to overthrow the feudal rule in the 18th century, droit du seigneur (the right of the first night in French) was a perfect tool to discredit the nobility. The same was true for Estonia at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries – spreading the first night’s stereotype was a great tool to agitate people against the Germans.

The French philosopher and historian, Voltaire, wrote in his Philosophical Dictionary in 1764 that in the Middle Ages, the right of the first night was used around Europe. Yet, historical records don’t confirm that. Despite the lack of original sources and the scarceness of other resources, a lot of historians and law historians, political and cultural figures dealt with the topic during the 19th century. At the end of the 19th century, when the German historian, Karl Schmidt, strongly doubted the former existence of the right of the first night in Europe, the scientific discussion around this topic started to die out.

Thus, during the 20th century, the topic was of no interest to Western European historians or law historians (with a few exceptions, eg Bruno Schmidt-Bleibtreu) and the notion of the right of the first night was not included in credible encyclopaedias.

Myth spreading

While in the rest of Europe the topic had become an object of study for the literature scholars and folklorists in the last decades of the 20th century, the Estonian Soviet encyclopaedia still considered the right of the first night, aka jus primae noctis in Latin, a historic fact: “…the landlord’s right (incl. in the Baltics) to spend the wedding night with the newlywed peasant’s bride during the feudal era…” (ENE, 1989, page 135).

The first one to introduce the myth in Estonia was Adam Peterson, an influential person of the national revival period, albeit underrepresented in the former historiography. In his memoirs, Peterson writes that he used the notion already in the first half of 1860-ies when talking about the time of serfdom during the secret meetings of “awakening” the peasants, as well as in his poetry.

Peterson also succeeded in placing the notion and its meaning among the remarks of the translation of the first part of Christoph Petri’s “Ehstland und die Ehsten”, published in 1901. The place where he added this was arbitrarily selected. Moreover, the book does not deal with the right of the first night at all. After Peterson’s translation of Petri was published, the belief in the first night started to spread widely in Estonia.

Film and theatre also play a role

Film and theatre also had a large impact. When the first Estonian original operetta, “The Midsummer Night”, premiered in 1911, it created a lot of discussion. The libretto’s author, Paul Pinna, was even invited to the “Valvaja” communal house to provide explanations to the public on why a merry theatrical piece contains the topic of the right of the first night, which inevitably hurts each Estonian’s feelings. The media and discussions increased the piece’s popularity, and the operetta was performed many times in different theatres, often to a full house.

In 1925 the film, “The Right of the First Night (Jus Primae Noctis)”, premiered in Tartu and Tallinn cinemas. This silent film was popular among the public and helped spread the belief. Gossip and real stories about the landlords’ and peasant girls’ bastard offspring were plentiful previously as well; however, now that the notion of the right of the first night had spread, they became even more abundant. The right of the first night had become a part of the Estonian national narrative.

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Cover: A group of rural Estonian women in the late 19th century (the image is illustrative/Wikimedia Commons).

An Estonian collaboration develops a smart barn

In cooperation with scientists from the University of Tartu, the southern Estonian organic farm, Koivakonnu, has developed an innovative livestock farm that is characterised by energy efficiency, thought-out thermal regulation and the maximum use of passive energy.

The Koivakonnu organic farm has been raising Hereford beef cattle for about twenty years. The new innovative barn helps it make its cattle farming more effective.

The new generation, energy-saving conception barn creates value to the farmer throughout the year. Solar energy can be used to the maximum, the barn is filled with light, and energy is created using solar panels. In the summer, the building catches up to 80 per cent of the solar radiation or 850 watts per square metre, enabling farmers to create a profitable extra source of income for themselves.

Thanks to the thought-out thermal regulation, the 500 square-metre building stays above zero degrees Celsius (32°F) during the winter. It takes only 700 kWh of network energy to maintain the right thermal conditions and for feeding, watering and lighting – at current prices, this makes about €70 per month.

“The novel barn conception was developed because of a simple wish to provide better care for our animals. We want to give them the best possible growing conditions, even during the dark and bleak Estonian autumn and winter months. This is especially important for young animals,” Tõnno Olonen from the Koivakonnu farm said.

Producing more beef

During the summer, the barn dries 100,000 kilograms (220,500 lbs) of hay in 48 hours taking 200 kWh of network energy or about €20 per day. By improving the production processes, the entire electric and thermal energy needed can be created autonomously.

“Generally, the unheated barns used in cattle farming mostly stand empty during the summer. With the new solution, the barn can make profit as a hay dryer or a well-ventilated greenhouse even during the months the animals are out on pastures,” Olonen said.

In a microclimate with optimal air circulation and temperature, the production of beef is higher. In the future, cost-effective special solutions for ventilation can be integrated into the airtight building; these solution would reduce the greenhouse gases emitted from the building.

It is also possible to raise the temperature above 60°C (140°F). This enables to handle manure in a novel way and, after emptying the barn, to sterilise the building with the combined effect of high temperature and UV radiation that kills dangerous pathogens.

A greenhouse full of light

According to Tauri Tätte, an engineer at the Tartu University Institute of Technology, the novel barn looks like a greenhouse full of light. The metal structure has been fitted with the most modern polycarbonate, and the technical content is complex and quite singular.

“Analysing technology and systems together with researchers and engineers from the university can often bring new and forward-looking solutions. The main prerequisite of every solution is to predict whether it can be used in view of future needs,” Tätte said. “In the development of the innovative barn, one of the significant directors was the fact that an energy system can be created that can produce electricity as well as heat economically.”

The constructional solution for the novel barn was created by the Koivakonnu organic farm and the sustainable agriculture solution was developed at the lab of the Intelligent Materials and Systems scientists from the Institute of Technology at the University of Tartu.

The model of the innovative barn can be seen currently at the SPARK demo hall in the Tartu town centre.

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This is an edited version of the article originally published on the Research in Estonia website. Cover: A computer image of the smart barn.

Jüri Allik: Four recipes for becoming a top researcher

Jüri Allik, Professor of Experimental Psychology at the University of Tartu, belongs to the top one per cent of the world’s most cited scientists in his field. Here, Professor Allik unveils a few secrets to a researcher’s success.*

This article is brought to you in collaboration with the University of Tartu blog.

One might think there’s no need to write any more cookbooks. There’s a vast amount of these available for all tastes. Still, new cookbooks are written all the time, because the buyers are there. It’s the same with advice about practising science without leaving behind a trail of works no one has ever read.

Some time ago I wrote down some simple suggestions about becoming a good researcher. Most of these insights had something to do with time, with understanding that next to intelligence, time is the most limited resource. One has to learn to use it successfully. Surprisingly, the small story, published by University World News, became quite popular. Thus, violating the experimenter’s main mantra – there’s no need for repeating a successful experiment – I’ll try to share a few more suggestions about what could be of help in accomplishing something in the field of science.

Recipe no. 1: Listen carefully to those smarter than you

We didn’t pay too much attention when mother told us to wear warm socks or to avoid a bad habit such as biting our nails. Unfortunately, once independent, we tend to act in similarly unruly ways, especially when we have taken an academic course. There’s so much great advice that we just systematically ignore. Take, for example, “Avoid Boring People“, a book by James Watson that I’m really fond of.

Regrettably, the book was published around the time when Watson – the discoverer of DNA – made a misunderstood remark about African countries needing more brain and less financial help. As a result, the lessons of the man’s life received less attention than deserved. It is true, however, that many of the lessons in the book might be not so helpful, such as the piece of advice that one should rather buy a tailcoat than borrow it, which is useful strictly if no one in the family has gained a lot of weight over time.

On the other hand, the most useful tidbit – for me, at least – can be found right in the title: do avoid boring persons. Watson also suggests not giving dull speeches which someone else could deliver just as well. In life, and especially in science, there’s a really simple principle of reciprocity at work: if you don’t want people to bore you (with a story, a job, a meeting, an article or anything else), watch out and don’t be the one getting on others’ nerves. To be precise: you can leave the subpar articles for others to write. Although it might sometimes sound Utopian, it’s always wise to do things you are most interested in.

“If you don’t want people to bore you, watch out and don’t be the one getting on others’ nerves.”

It is surely impossible to always outright eschew boring people and things, but in all situations where you actually have a chance to do so, you should give a greater priority to options that help you avoid especially tedious people and activities. I’ve noticed that many scientists who got bored of research or whose work has not received due appreciation (or at least they feel that way), have turned into professional administrators.

Recipe no. 2: It makes sense to do the paperwork before others

There must be no other field of human activity more meticulously documented than science. Every visible sign of it, whether it be an article, a book or just a report at a conference, will, virtually at the time of its publication, find its way into databases that then track its subsequent fate – who has read it and found something important worth citing.

Most studies have a really short shelf-life, as no one reads them, or if someone does, he or she doesn’t find anything interesting enough to refer to. It’s just fine when a published work is being noticed and cited a few times in the next couple of years. Only a very small number of scientific publications leaves a big, lasting trail of citations. Compared to writers and poets, the scientist has so much more fun. A writer can be lucky if there are some charitable reviews in some newspaper or journal, but scientific databases track each and every time when someone has done something with a study.

“Compared to writers and poets, the scientist has so much more fun.”

Naturally, no one is interested in publishing studies that are dead on arrival. But science is complicated enough to make it surprisingly hard to predict the eventual fate of a published work. A prediction can go wrong in both ways. I know many studies, both by myself and others, that I consider brilliant and still, for some reason, the citations just won’t add up.

Then again, some pretty lightweight research works have resonated with invisible undercurrents that have turned them, quite undeservedly, into citation classics. Still, there’s one thing that can be relatively easily predicted. If a study is lacking in originality, then it takes a miracle and a large amount of good luck to make it visible enough for other researchers to refer to it excessively.

“If a study is lacking in originality, then it takes a miracle and a large amount of good luck to make it visible enough for other researchers to refer to it excessively.”

But how can you prove that no one has already used the same idea before? If there is a person with encyclopaedic knowledge nearby, you should ask him or her. But such smarty pants are a rare breed and, to make things worse, their knowledge never encompasses everything. Just like in real life, young scientific-minded people tend to fall in love with the first idea they discover.

Still, science can be different from real life. Here, those who are able constantly to abandon the first tempting ideas, and go on with the search for something even more perfect, often end up being the luckiest. But the young ones are really impatient and full of desire to do something practical right away, although it might not be the sharpest idea they could muster.

My second recipe declares that it would be wise to hold your horses and, before getting at it, spend enough time grasping the paperwork of science. Just like a professional musician practices his or her chosen instrument every day, a scientist should check through at least a couple articles published in the four or five most important journals of his or her field every day.

“A scientist should check through at least a couple articles published in the four or five most important journals of his or her field every day.”

But this recipe comes with a warning. It can be dangerous for your health. Every time somebody publicly talks about the citability of scientific works in Estonia, a small group of people has something akin to screaming meemies. From seemingly disturbed minds quite toxic comebacks are brought to light and certain things are said, such as: “No serious scientist knows how much his or her studies are cited”;  ”Serious science and citations are separated, as referrals are mostly made because of popularity” or – especially – when the study has major flaws; “Citations have no relevance in natural sciences as they are essentially random in the humanities and social sciences”.

It can get really absurd with claims that the ‘real’ scientist is known only to a small band of specialists and his or her almost nonexistent body of work is never cited by anyone. A certain screwball who hasn’t yet produced a study of real worth, wrote in the Estonian cultural newspaper “Sirp” that I must be spending all my days in databases, searching for citations of my works.

I can truly confess that I do spend much of my days scanning databases, especially the Web of Science (WoS) (One of the most inane accusations thrown out by haters of bibliometry is that the WoS must not be trusted, because it is owned by Thomson Reuters, a private company. Millions of euros from European taxpayers were wasted on fighting WoS, resulting in a dead-born list of journal headlines, collectively called the European Reference Index for the Humanities (ERIH). Almost immediately most of the list got referenced in WoS).

It’s also true that I regularly review published quotations of my studies, so I can find out if there are any important developments in the fields in which I take part. Sometimes these studies can offer useful hints about which direction to go with my own research, but there are two cases in which databases are extremely helpful.

First, when an editor has to find a reviewer for a new study – somebody who is occupied with the same problem. Second, databases are really useful when I’m writing an article myself. With a database, one can easily get rid of the most bothersome part of this endeavour – compiling the list of referenced works. A really smart computer programme picks out all the necessary citations from the database and automatically creates the list of cited works, precisely following the format required by the journal. Also, databases really are the best way to make sure that no important study has accidentally gone unreferenced.

To cut it short, in reviewing the citation patterns one can get quite a lot of information about the thing that’s being studied. With a little practice, it soon takes just a glimpse to find out if the quotation in hand is about a significant first-time discovery, an important theory, a useful overview – or if we have a case of ritualistic citation, a sign that the author hasn’t even bothered to open the cited study.

Database usage has become much more democratic, too. For example, access to Google Scholar (GS) is, in contrast to the WoS, completely free. Everyone can freely download the Publish or Perish search engine that makes finding information in this environment even easier. Also, it was recently made possible for just about everyone to create a personal citations profile in the GS and make it visible there. It’s worth mentioning that there’s no cost – you can just check in the morning how much and where your work was cited during the night. I was surprised to find out that during the final days of the last year, the number of times my work was cited had exceeded 6,000 – not bad a result for a psychologist.

This recipe means that exploring a problem in a database saves time that otherwise would have been spent on collecting data or conducting experiments that could have actually been omitted or performed differently. Before acting out, it is smart to make certain that somebody else hasn’t already done the same thing better or proven your chosen method wrong.

Recipe no. 3: Think big

A lot of things that researchers have to do might seem terribly boring to an outside observer. Long hours drag on with what at first sight seems quite a meaningless work. For example, just tuning an instrument needed in an experiment or developing a protocol for some analysis may take weeks. Endless hours can be wasted looking for mistakes in the master or processing program for an experiment.

When there’s a lot of data, even routine processing can last day upon day upon day. Many experience almost panicked fear when it’s time to start writing an article, and are willing to exchange the activity for something safer, such as cataloguing stuff or cleaning the instruments. If these distinct stages of research are not constantly translated into the language of the final goal, the meaning of it all can easily become lost in translation.

The most typical mistake is getting bogged down in technical details and ignoring the cooperative principle of communication as formulated by the philosopher and linguist Paul Grice. Nobody expects that a scientist would speak obliviously about details that are interesting or even comprehensible to himself or herself only. The message sent out to the world must be true but it must not contain too much information. It has to be clear and relevant.

“The message sent out to the world must be true but it must not contain too much information. It has to be clear and relevant.”

It’s not friendly to the listener to talk about details that are exciting and essential only to the speaker. The cooperativity of communication also shows when something is discussed in such a way that the conversation partner can understand it and is interested, because it is enunciated in terms that are just specific and reasonable enough.

When a researcher describes the things happening in his or her laboratory solely in the terms of protocol, it might be precise but not very inviting and cooperative for the receiver who wants to hear the answer mainly in the form of principles, rules, and theories. The gist of it all can always be expressed in a couple of simple sentences, also understandable to a layperson.

It might be different with physics, but in the fields of psychology and other social sciences it often seems that the researchers just don’t have big problems to solve. When asked what is being studied, the scientists may name a field of knowledge or some intriguing phenomena or effect. Apparently, it is important to reach the most precise possible description of the given phenomena. For example, a sociologist might know the exact per cent of the global population that during the last ten years has answered the question: “Considering everything, I am content with my life” with “totally agree”, as well as the per cent who has answered: “Not at all”. But the sociologist might have nothing to say about what these answers actually reflect.

“Nothing mobilises you better than the knowledge that the problem being solved is important and the solution will be useful for everyone.”

My experience says that if young researchers fall too deep into the maze of numbers and per cents, soon the shine starts to leave their eyes and their souls become filled with tedium. Because of that, my third recipe is quite simple: You always have to keep your eyes on some big and important problem that you are trying to solve. Nothing mobilises you better than the knowledge that the problem being solved is important and the solution will be useful for everyone. Simply put, although science mostly involves operating locally and settling really specific and practical problems, you have to think big.

Recipe no. 4: Never give up

In 1982 – the same year the coffin with the body of Leonid Brezhnev was dropped into its grave next to the Kremlin – one of my first articles was published in the Vision Research journal. Henk Spekreijse, the chief editor, accepted my manuscript with practically no corrections, although one of the reviewers wrote that the purpose of such an article could not be understood. Still, Spekreijse wrote in his verdict that we should ignore this opinion and just make some minor adjustments to the text.

For a short while, I had the illusion that all journals were staffed with similarly wonderful editors who were all for new talents showing up. Now, almost 30 years later and about 150 articles smarter, I can safely say that it has remained virtually the only time that my manuscript was published without major corrections.

Every researcher could write a heavy novel about his or her adventures with editors. I had one of my first unpleasant experiences with the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology – the most cited journal in the field of psychology. I had sent my manuscript well over half a year ago but the editor hadn’t answered. When I asked about it, an apologetic letter arrived wherein the editor explained that his back had suddenly become pained, so he wasn’t able to bend down and reach the shelf where he had put our study when it had arrived. Being an outgoing person, he had forwarded the manuscript to a couple of friends with a predictable outcome. Of course, the friends advised him to reject it, without paying much attention.

This was many years before the electronic editing system was applied. I wrote a protest letter to the American Psychological Association, the publisher of the journal. Its chairman sent me an answer stating that he knew the editor personally and had no reason to think that we’d been treated unjustly. We just didn’t have enough luck.

Still, I have got the impression that the more important and better the article (at least for its author), the harder it is to publish it. Around 1976 I had a great idea, but for many reasons I could only realize it 25 years letter. Although it was a very simple model describing how a programme of eye movements was being prepared, the manuscript was rejected by seven journals!

A really influential journal offered a review in which the author mostly praised the study but suggested getting rid of a supposedly ugly graph and replacing it with something more aesthetically pleasing. Unfortunately, he never reached the place in the text where it was stated that this “ugly graph” was in fact a prediction of the model, passing through all the points indicating the results of the experiment with no major deviations.

Later, our manuscript was rejected again because the editor couldn’t accept the statement that our explanation had less degrees of freedom than the former, traditional one. After a heated written exchange with the editor it was finally understood that he had no idea about degrees of freedom, as well as the number of their different values needed to explain a phenomenon. Although all the protesting didn’t save the study, I felt somehow satisfied because I hadn’t tolerated injustice.

This fourth recipe is important because young people don’t imagine that with hard work you can write the study even in a week, but publishing it make take literally years. Even the rise of open-access journals where the author must pay for the publication of articles hasn’t decreased the percentage of rejected manuscripts. It depends on the field, but is often about 80–90 percent; the “softer” the field, the higher the percentage. A lot of studies won’t even be reviewed because they have already been rejected before by the editors as unsuitable in some way.

It is not rare for a manuscript that has been changed twice, following the reviewers’ instructions, to get rejected still because of differing opinions between the author and the reviewers. A significant portion of a scientist’s life is spent reading reviews, rewriting manuscripts, writing explanations for editors and reviewers, and sending the articles that have been rejected from somewhere to the next journal in the top list.

“It is not rare for a manuscript that has been changed twice, following the reviewers’ instructions, to get rejected still because of differing opinions between the author and the reviewers.”

It is also not a rare thing for a manuscript to pass as many as 10 journals before it is published somewhere. It is possible that this is the struggle for survival, beneficial to science, that weeds out more vital articles. Recently, a study was published in Science Journal, claiming that articles rejected in other journals receive more citations than those that are accepted right away.

So, today’s final recipe asserts that one has to be ready for a sturdy and long-lasting fight with journal editors and reviewers. I know people who have abandoned writing articles for good or given up trying to publish them in proper international journals after their first one was rejected. In no way must you let this happen. On 29 October, 1941, Winston Churchill talked to the students of Harrow School and laid out the recipe to his success: “Never give in – never, never, never, never in nothing great or small, large or pretty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense”.

If the editor wants to revise the article, you must take the chance. You should put all other urgent things on hold and get going with corrections of the study and putting together an explanatory letter for the editor. If the manuscript has been rejected from some journal without the right of presenting it again, you should send it to some other journal the same day.

All this applies, of course, when you haven’t already become disappointed with your study and decided that there’s no use in publishing it. If you feel that the editor and reviewers have treated you unjustly, then you can’t just tolerate the injustice. Never!

There is very little chance of the editor admitting his or her mistake. As a rule, editors don’t want to do this. But if you peacefully and steadily point out all that you perceive to be unjust, it can be of great benefit to other authors following after you. Editors mostly can’t allow rumours about their academic reputation to erode and spread too far, and it’s much easier to continue living when you know that you haven’t remained ignorant of an obvious injustice.

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* This article was first published in April 2013. Cover: Prospective students at the Tallinn University (the image is illustrative).

How dreams come true: a living example of an Estonian scientist

Marika Mikelsaar and Mihkel Zilmer led the University of Tartu workgroup that discovered the ME-3 probiotic bacteria that protects human health by attacking harmful microbes and contributing to physical well-being; ME-3 is now added to the food or sold as capsules in the UK, France, Italy, Australia and other countries.

In 1995, the University of Tartu research teams, led by professors Marika Mikelsaar and Mihkel Zilmer, discovered the lactobacillus fermentum ME-3 bacteria, which can rightfully be called the first Estonian probiotic lactic acid bacteria. Moreover, they are unique in the whole world because of their combination of antimicrobial and antioxidative effects. They protect human health by attacking harmful microbes and contribute to our physical well-being in several ways as well.

ME-3 now sold in pharmacies

The ME-3 bacteria made its wider public appearance in 2003, when a product line bearing the trademark Hellus was brought into the Estonian market by the dairy producer, Tere. The product line included yoghurts, sweet cottage cheese blends and kefir (buttermilk) enriched with the beneficial bacteria.

Subsequently, the ME-3 bacteria caught the interest of manufacturers of leaven, food and food supplements in Estonia, Finland, Denmark, France, Italy, United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, India, Taiwan and China. The European patent permits the bacteria to be used in the food industry in 15 European countries.

Because of more than 20 years of research by the scientists at the University of Tartu, the ME-3 bacteria has now also reached Estonia’s pharmacies. ME-3 capsules were already sold in pharmacies all around Australia, the United Kingdom and Italy before reaching the shelves of the country where the discovery was made.

Dreams come true

The capsules now being sold in Estonia contain the strain in a pure and concentrated form; every capsule contains eight billion of lactobacillus fermentum ME-3, which was discovered in 1995 from the intestine of a child from Tartu. Marika Mikelsaar, a professor emeritus at the University of Tartu, together with Mihkel Zilmer, professor of medical biochemistry at the university, led the workgroup behind the discovery.

“At every conference, the most fascinating presenters are asked about their dreams. A scientist always spontaneously answers that their dream is to have their discovery put into use,” Mikelsaar said. She pointed out that, like with all basic research, in 1995, no one knew what the implications of the ME-3 strain would be. “If your goals in science were very targeted, then maybe it wouldn’t be real science.”

According to her, ME-3 was something completely new compared with other probiotics known at the time. Mikelsaar recalled that, in 2002, the World Health Organisation still defined probiotics as food supplements which influence and improve human microbiota. “In 2010, a new definition was applied, according to which there are also probiotics that have targeted properties, the same way as ME 3 lowers cholesterol levels and improves cellular respiration. This is a class of its own,” she explained.

Health benefits

The lactic bacterium ME-3 is a strain of human origin with well-described and scientifically-proved properties. It is the only strain in the world that has been patented for two useful effects – antimicrobial and antioxidant. Furthermore, research conducted in Estonia and abroad has shown that the ME-3 strain has health benefits, specifically it:

• reproduces in the special conditions of the gastrointestinal tract;
• maintains and enriches the intestine’s microbiota by increasing the number of useful bacteria;
• enhances digestion;
• destroys harmful bacteria in the digestive tract;
• protects against the causes of intestinal infections;
• normalises the microbial balance of the digestive tract during and after treatment with antibiotics;
• reduces oxidative stress in the entire organism;
• lowers blood cholesterol levels and protects against vascular calcification; and
• supports treatment of atopic dermatitis by suppressing inflammation.

The ME-3 bacteria is also added to the food supplement, which normalises cholesterol levels – the Reg´Activ Essential ME-3 capsules, produced in France, are currently sold in 11 countries.

Innovation

Jane Luht, the head of technology transfer at the University of Tartu Centre for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, said that preparations were also being made for bringing the ME-3 capsules to the markets of Japan and South Africa.

“The use of ME-3 in dairy products and dietary supplements is not the only solution, we are also looking for possible applications in other areas,” she said. According to Luht, ME-3 can be used, for example, in salad oil, chocolate, plant-based milks, as well as in cosmetics – all this requires further research with potential cooperation partners. “Initial information, however, is promising,” she added.

In Estonia, the capsules are currently being sold in four pharmacies: the pharmacies of Mustamäe Health Centre, Arsenal Centre and Baltic Station Market in Tallinn and the Uus Apteek at the Tartu University Hospital.

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This story is based on the article written by Mari-Liis Pintson and first published in the University of Tartu blog. Cover: Marika Mikelsaar at an Estonian pharmacy (images courtesy of the University of Tartu). Read also: Top 10 inventions developed in the Estonian universities.

Four suggestions to improve your memory

A memory could stay with a person for a lifetime, but its content might change, but one should not worry about forgetting the most beautiful moments of his/her life; the most vivid memories stay in memory for decades and there are many strategies to keep them fresh.

By Jaan-Juhan Oidermaa.

“People usually remember the most important events, such as graduation, wedding day or birth of a child, for their whole life. Of course, somewhere around being 60-70 years old, the episodic memory will slowly start deteriorating,” Dheeraj Roy, a brain scientist at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, said. His speciality involves studying memory loss. Usually, it’s not the critical connections between various memories that are being forgotten, but their content. On the other hand, one should not be surprised as some less important memories can be forgotten in just a couple of years.

Recall often and in detail

So why do some memories stay with us longer? “One of the main factors is repetition – if we want to remember something, it’s a good idea to think about it later,” Jaan Aru, an Estonian brain scientist, and researcher at the University of Tartu, said. Memories deemed worthy of remembering should be recalled scrupulously and often.

According to Roy, it would not hurt to flick through the photo album occasionally, for example. The “Mind Palace”, popularised in the TV show “Sherlock”, has some actual scientific ground to it as well. One could visualise driving to the childhood home, using different routes, and “leave” specific memories in various places. Structuring memories in such a manner helps recall them more elaborately.

“When it comes to remembering, the associations linked to circumstances being memorised are really important. Our brain is not like a card index, with every file separate, but rather like a game of dominoes, where all memory contents are somehow attached to each other,” Aru added.

Don’t drink alcohol

The condition of a person’s brain while contracting new experiences or information is important as well. While alcohol, for one, could increase the potential of having pleasant memories, it is also detrimental for the durability of memory imprints.

Among other things, alcohol disturbs the work of proteins that detect glutamate on the surface of brain cells located in the hippocampus. The chemical messenger carries signals from one brain cell to another. With alcohol, some receptors become active, while others do not. It produces steroids that further disturb the communication between brain cells, as well as their ability of long-time stimulation, the last being crucially important in respect of memory and learning.

Concentrate on a single thing

“The other important aspect is the condition of our attention at the moment we try to memorise something. We could better take note of things that we turn our attention to,” Jaan Aru noted. That’s the reason why a student twiddling away with a smart device forgets the teachers’ talk, even while hearing it.

All memories are subject to change

Jüri Allik, a professor of experimental psychology at the University of Tartu, emphasised that no memory is an exact copy of things experienced. “Memory psychology can tell one thing for sure – there’s no memory imprint that would stay unchanged. Every act of recall changes the previous imprint a little. In time, even especially vivid memory pictures do change,” Allik said. It’s natural, then, when people cannot come to an agreement about events that happened, say, a year ago.

Although the reconsolidation theory is relatively young compared with another, more wide-reaching memory theory, it already produces passable predictions about the results of experiments with both people and animals. “When something important happens in the present while we’re recalling an old memory, it can lead to changes in the contents of the memory or our attitudes towards it. Still, according to the scientific view we have now, the memory doesn’t change completely because of reconsolidation,” Dheeraj Roy said.

False memories feel as real as the real memories

Still, experiments have shown that by masterfully combining true and false information or giving small hints, false memories that feel real can be brought about in the human brain. For example, in 1994, the reclaimed American cognitive psychologist, Elizabeth Loftus, whose speciality is false memories, was able to make a quarter of tested people to believe they had lost their parents in a shopping mall as children. In a similar experiment, conducted in 2002, a fake picture led half of the participants to believe they had had a hot air balloon ride at some time in their childhood.

“Our senses haven’t evolved in such a way that we could spot just everything in the environment surrounding us. We receive information through all of our senses, but the process has blanks in it. Because of that, our memory fills these blanks according to things we think we know about the world,” Loftus said. Amazingly, whether we recall memories based on a lie or the real memories, the level of brain activity is the same.

All might not be lost

On the other hand, the research work of Dheeraj Roy and his colleagues has shown that inability to remember something does not necessarily mean permanent forgetting of the memories. Somewhere in the brain, they still exist. “It might be caused by the mechanism of recalling memories not working properly, as well. This is the main reason with some types of retroactive amnesia,” the brain scientist expanded. Thus, further down the future, it’s not unthinkable that some revolutionary technology might make it possible to bring back long-forgotten memories.

“If you want to remember something, concentrate on it, try to link the thing being learned to the knowledge you already have – and repeat it the next day and the next week,” Jaan Aru concluded.

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The Estonian version of this post was first published in ERR Novaator. The English version was originally published by the University of Tartu blog. Cover: A happy woman (the image is illustrative).

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