Monday, August 28, 2006

Sexism and peer review: impact factor matters.

Thanks to alert reader Jill, who sent along this article:

Christine Wennerås and Agnes Wold: "Nepotism and sexism in peer-review", Nature, Vol 387, 22 May 1997, pp 341-343.
link .

I did a search on pubmed and found a few more relevant articles, some in response to this earlier one:




Out of about 65 hits when I searched for 'peer review gender bias'. I encourage you to go do your own search. In some ways it was gratifying to see that other people had been angry enough to write letters to Nature- and elsewhere- to address this issue.

But they don't all agree, of course. Some are very defensive about analyzing their own best practices and claiming there's no bias whatsoever.

After reading these, the one area where they all seem to agree is that men generally publish in 'higher-impact' journals than woman do.

We all know why that might be:

1. Nepotism in publishing. It's an old boys network, therefore the boys are more likely to know each other.

2. Uh, women read more than men. Come on, you know it's generally true. We read faster and we read more.
So we're likely to think it doesn't matter so much where our papers go, because people will read them anyway.
And the truth is- they will. At least, other women will!

What I found most compelling was the direct comparison in the 1997 study where they looked at number of citations vs. supposed impact factor of the journal.

Hint: Impact factor doesn't actually correlate with 'scientific productivity.'

But hey, it's always good to be reminded that I have to be, what was it, 65-131 points better than my male counterpart.

This goes under category of 'bing cherry on top of the icing on top of a bad day.'

A.k.a why my best friend quit science: why continue to seek approval from people we're pretty sure aren't very smart (the men in charge), when you can leave science and do something else where you'll be appreciated?


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Sunday, August 27, 2006

Working Sunday Night.

Ugh. 'nuff said.

.... Actually, it's really peaceful here, apparently no one else is working tonight-!

I wish it were more like this sometimes during the week. Not all the time, but every once in a while, a little peace and quiet would be most welcome.

So actually, I got a lot done. In a way, I'm almost tempted to stay and continue to be uber-productive (plus virtuosity points). It's not like there's anything great on tv, anyway.

But I have cramps. Calgon, take me away!

(Calgon would, in this scenario, have to drive to work to pick me up, in addition to creating a bubble-bath paradise...)

I like the image of a bottle of bubble-bath driving a car... something about that makes me laugh.

Yes, folks, I need some better painkillers. Pamprin doesn't kick in fast enough, and it's too hot for a ThermaCare.

And I left my magical cramp-curing tea at home. Waaaah.

Crap, and I just realized that the Pamprin I just took might very well keep me up tonight (there's caffeine in it).

Crap! No wonder I've been uber-productive! (must fight caffeine addiction)

And I already have wayyyy too much to do tomorrow. If I were feeling tip-top, I would be able to do 3 experiments at once and get everything done. As it stands right now, I'm doubting that's gonna happen if I'm doubled over with cramps all day.

I'm standing on the edge of a Sunday night, looking out at a vast minefield of the week ahead.

Kind of like with the job search, I guess you just have to plug your nose and watch where you step.

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Saturday, August 26, 2006

Warm fuzzy.

Thank you to the anonymous person who said they found this whole firsthand account so helpful, and read all the archives, even though they didn't really want to leave a comment.

Thanks for leaving one. That's the nicest thing anyone has given me in a long time: positive feedback.

I've been posting less because I've been trying hard to get my research life on track.

I've been on a treadmill lately, just kind of marking time and not really going anywhere.

I finally made a few samples this week and hope to analyze them next week. Unfortunately I just don't enjoy benchwork like I used to. It's almost too easy to be interesting. I'm not saying all my experiments work, but the day-to-day of making samples is just so tedious. At this point, there's not much new for me to do. It's just a lot of the same kinds of things, or variations on a theme.

I used to enjoy working with my hands more, and now I'm just interested in the result and not so much in the process. So I spend my time at the bench trying to marshall my patience and not rush through things (because then nothing works, and I end up having to do it all over again). I'm so ready to have a team of students!

Oh, the Tao of work. I should really try harder to be more Zen about it.

In the meantime, I'm trying to beef up my CV, even though the idea of doing more faculty applications this year is just plain nauseating.

Plain yogurt flavor nausea. You know what I'm talking about. It makes me want to gag, just thinking about it.

But I don't see how I'm going to avoid having next June/July be the same as this year's was, with all the panicking about what's going to happen because my funding is running out and I still don't have a job.

I'm tempted to write grants just because it would give me an excuse not to do any benchwork for a month, and might make me feel a little better about having covered all my bases. If I got one, it would be the ultimate safety net (and CV booster). I just don't know what's the best way to spend my time.

I had a funny experience last week, where I was helping a younger grad student friend with writing his first CV. He asked for a copy of mine to use as a template, so I said sure. But when he saw it, he was visibly upset.

"I don't have ANY of that stuff!" he wailed.

I told him having lots of stuff on your CV doesn't guarantee anyone a job anyway.

It was all I could do not to laugh at the black humor of the situation. It was especially ironic because helping grad students is by far one of my favorite unofficial parts of my current job- and one of the things I most look forward to about a faculty position.

It's just that lately I have no faith that I'm going to have one. I just don't see it actually happening.

Recently I was talking to a couple of search committee chairs who said they had seen my application last year. They had all kinds of the usual cliche comments stored up:

Your project is novel, but it's too risky
You don't have enough pubs

As if those two things were compatible. Everybody knows you don't get tons of papers from risky projects!
But when I told them I thought I'd wait another year or two before applying again, they said:

If you've been a postdoc for five years or more, something must be wrong.

I said, damn right something's been wrong. And gave them an earful of some of the crap I've been through and said "where do I put THAT on my CV?"

They just looked surprised, like they had no idea anyone in science had repeatedly dealt with multiple advisors' personal issues (divorce, mental illness, family deaths, suicides) interfering with their work to the point of preventing them from publishing to their full abilities.

Most people I meet, when they hear these stories, are amazed I'm still doing science at all. You'd think that would get me a little credit, just for sticking it out this long.

Here's hoping I enlightened them a little.

And thanks again, warm fuzzy person. At least something I'm doing is helping somebody somewhere.

And now back to the Tao meditation. Om.

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Sunday, August 20, 2006

Fact-checking and Freedom of Speech

Had an interesting chat yesterday with a friend who heard a recent NPR report on how- i.e. the mechanism of - journalism has degraded to the point of widespread inaccuracy.

This is third-hand, but apparently many media sources are now requiring 'story quotas' from journalists, which creates pressure to 'produce'. I'm not sure if there's any metric for quality of these stories- it would appear not.

This got me thinking about how public media is not that different from scientific media, and how some of the changes proposed recently would make scientific publishing more like public media sources.

We've discussed here on many occasions how arbitrary scientific peer-review can be. If you happen to get 3 reviewers who know your senior author, for example, and they all think he's a great guy, your paper- however stellar or crappy- is much more likely to get into Top Tier Journal than if your co-authors are all nobodies.

Similarly, it's much more difficult to get a High Impact paper if you're a nobody, or if everybody hates your boss, because the bias among all scientists seems to favor prior reputation over the current data at hand. Why reward someone you hate for a job well done?

It's probably a weakness inherently human and psychological that even scientists can't rise above in our supposed Supreme Objectiveness.

Having said that, what if we let everyone publish everything in One Big Journal, and then let everyone comment on everything, and posted all the comments for everyone to see? Kind of like One Big Science Blog (with the obligate filter for obscenities, a.k.a me, for this site).

If we assume that scientific discourse will follow a similar path to public media sources (and I'm including both mainstream and 'alternative' sources in that group), we can assume a few things will happen:

1. The amount of information available will skyrocket.
2. The amount of crappy information will also skyrocket.

Anybody want to come up with an equation to determine whether those two things are at all interdependent? That would make for an interesting math problem.

Anyway, the question on everyone's mind is, how are we going to sort through all of the crap to get to the good stuff?

I've seen the following three behavioral responses from scientists at all levels:

1. Scientist reads Almost Everything.
2. Scientist reads Almost Nothing.
3. Scientist reads only what's absolutely required- i.e. only what's directly related to their own area of research.

We've all been all three of these at various times, but I'm most concerned about #2. We really don't want very many - or any- scientists like that getting advanced degrees. Or, god help us all, their own labs.

But isn't that what the average American is doing these days? Most of us have stopped watching the news because it either

a) has no worthwhile content
b) is totally inaccurate
c) is too depressing.

And doesn't that also apply to most of the science publishing out there?

I've taken to watching Face the Nation and Meet the Press on Sundays, and listening to the occasional short burst of NPR or CNN when I'm lucky enough to flip by the station when they're actually reporting news. It's not enough, and if it were my job to be aware of wordly goings-ons I would be in big trouble.

But I'm also way behind on my reading for work. I'm too busy during the week and can't face doing it at night or on the weekend, the way I did in former years.

There are a variety of highly biased resources for keeping up with literature, like Faculty of 1000. Less biased tools have what I call a high 'clutter-factor' or CF, such as having journals email you the new table of contents (TOCs) every week or month when the new issue comes out. Another method with a high CF that hasn't worked well for me is having journals sent to my house ("I"ll read them on the toilet!") instead of to my lab.

The point of all this musing is the alarming conversations I've been having with people at all levels lately, wherein it becomes frighteningly obvious that most scientists don't read outside their immediate area at all. PIs are gifted at appearing to know all the latest research- because they go to meetings, but they don't know it in any depth.

The interesting side-effect of this is that most PIs don't know whether the correct controls have been done unless they're threatened enough to wait for the paper and examine it in detail. So PIs go around dropping names and results left and right, without ever bothering to verify the verity of their claims.

This feeds back into the media frenzy style of news communication- where word spreads like gossip, without any supporting evidence, and without any fact-checking.

So my question is, are we as scientists lacking the right to express our freedom to speechify? Shouldn't we be allowed to run off at the mouth like everyone else does?

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Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Playing dress-up.

Lately I'm back to that old familiar feeling of doing my job and at least two or three others (that's right, at least one of them is filling in for my PI). I know exactly how I would do things, if it were up to me, but it's not. So I'm left cleaning up other people's messes most of the day, and working late to get my own stuff done at night.

Sometimes I feel like the janitor who works in the theatre, watches the rehearsals, and gets to try on costumes at night after everyone's gone home.

I used to play dress-up with my friend Mary who lived around the block. Didn't everyone have a friend like that? Her aunt had a huge collection of old clothing, and her family left us alone in the basement to entertain ourselves.

The clothes were all too big for me, not to mention the shoes, which were ridiculous. There was no way to actually walk in them, so we'd kind of stick our feet in and drag them around. It makes me laugh just to think about it.

We used to play things like School and Restaurant.

Which is funny, since those are the two places I've actually spent most of my adult life.

Playing dress-up didn't prepare me at all, whatsoever, for actually dressing up, going to school, or going to restaurants (much less working in one).

One might argue that it prepared me psychologically for the experience, or some such nonsense, but Mary apparently didn't reap any great confidence from envisioning herself in school- she's struggled with agoraphobia her entire life.

So it's kind of fun in a bittersweet way to think:

"Wow, here's more evidence that there's no question that I could do this job"- the bitter part being the caveats:

a) maybe, as Playing Restaurant is to Actual Restaurant, I don't really know what it would actually be like?

b) if someone would even interview me for one.

It's like rehearsing for a callback audition, before you actually get the call:

You're trying to tell yourself it's good practice no matter what, that you should think positive, that you'll be sorry if you waste the time you have now to really give it your all. Part of you thinks this could be your best work ever, and it's too bad nobody's here to see it. Maybe by the time you get to the audition, you think, you'll have used up all your spark.

But it's hard to keep your mind on the rehearsal. You keep staring at the phone, wondering if you're wasting your time.

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Monday, August 07, 2006


Really enjoyed this editorial at Nature Structural and Molecular Biology, about a female professor and her struggles, which she described in a talk she gave recently upon receiving a lifetime achievement award.

I've never met this woman- actually I'm not sure if I'd ever heard of her before I read this article- but she had a pretty miserable time along the way to getting someplace good.

I want to get this book about the Group, a support network that met to discuss the 'unique challenges in academic science.' I had never heard of that.

And in some ways, I gotta say, some of Christine's misery could have been prevented. Sure, she experienced alienating sexism. Who hasn't?

But she was given a faculty position and it sounds like she was a bit unprepared for it. So it's hard for me, at this point in my career, to think anyone is doing anybody any favors by putting an underqualified person into a position they're not ready for. And I'm pretty sure she had the same thought at least a few times along the way.

Nevertheless, kudos for being honest about the good, the bad, and the depressing.

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