Tuesday, October 26, 2010


Last night I dreamt that my advisor was furious with me for missing a really important finding (in my dream, this manifested as a glowing egg). He was really excited about it and had based his entire grant on it and at least five papers.

I had to tell him that

a) I knew about the observation, because I had seen the same thing years earlier

b) I never mentioned it to him because I knew it was an artifact, which would have been obvious if he had done the control experiment.

Note that, in this dream, he was working in the lab himself, and the lab looked sort of like a classroom I had in high school.

I think the setting means that at some level, I believe he's to blame for a lot of the stuff that his trainees have done, even if it was never entirely clear to me whether he came up with it himself, or if he encouraged it without knowing any better, or just chose to be in denial.

I think my fear in this dream was multi-layered:

1. It scared me that my advisor was too optimistic and not thinking clearly
2. No one else seemed aware of the major caveats, so I felt like I was alone and going out on a limb
3. I was afraid I wouldn't be able to get him to believe me that it was an artifact, and he would continue to publish on it and get grants and no one would be the wiser

Sort of reminds me of a real event a while back, when one of his postdocs got mad at me when I pointed out that her result was not above background. I said she hadn't run one of the essential controls I had suggested.

It was crazy-making because I had been trying to tell her for a while, and she kept saying she didn't need to do it.

Except then she accused me (in front of our advisor) of not having told her to do it.

Nice, huh? Why would I do that? I don't like watching people throw good money after stupid, poorly designed experiments.

On some level, I know this is also my fear of actually being a supervisor. I've had students and peers who ignored my suggestions, and I think it's really scary that we have so many scientists who come up with excuses not to do controls. The excuses include things like:

1. You're not my advisor
2. You're just a postdoc
3. You're just a girl
4. It's too much work
5. I'm not going to do the whole experiment over again
6. It would take too long
7. Someone else said I don't have to do it

And I know, we've all said #4-7 at some point in our lives (usually as grad students). Because we were tired. Or afraid of getting scooped. Or just unaware that the reviewers might ask for you to do it anyway so you might as well do it now.

What's really baffling to me is, there is only a small percentage of scientists who will take a suggestion, no matter who it comes from, and really think it over.

And they will say, "Hmm, well, I don't know, but I haven't tried that. I should look it up and see what she is getting at, or maybe just ask her to explain more because I'm not sure I understand why she thinks this is important. And then maybe I will try that, because even if she is just a girl-postdoc, I haven't tried that before."

I guess it's because everyone is too tired and stressed out from racing around the rat-maze all day.

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Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Grab bag of atrocities & wonderment

Lots of stuff I've been meaning to write about. Yesterday I was overjoyed to see this fantastic post over at FSP about the concept of "selective sexism". This is when a guy seems to be okay with some women but when threatened by others, resorts to harassment tactics.

I was thrilled to see the FSP finally gets it, that a seemingly respectful young male postdoc (to her) could actually be a complete asshat to his peers (female postdocs). Of course, it's not clear that anyone is prepared to do the right thing in this situation, but I was glad to see FSP noticing the disparity and blogging about it.

This week I've mostly been catching up on some classic pieces in science journalism. One is this wonderful piece by Kendall Powell in Nature News.

The article points out, though understates, how much worse funding is now than it was 10 years ago (when I was in grad school). Funding back then was at the 32% level, which didn't seem so bad, if you really believed that about one-third of applications got funded back when I was struggling to get my PhD. It's now down to 21%.

To most non-scientists, that may sound like a 10% difference. But you could think of it as a 35% decrease, in the sense that those who would previously have been funded now won't be.

But it's a bit more complicated than that anyway, since the percentage points don't mean 32 out of 100 grants will be funded. It's not clear, but I think they're really citing the percentiles, which is a weighted ranking number based on past years and the distribution of all the grants this year.

Isn't that clever, how they hide the degree to which funding has become increasingly more competitive? It was never 1 in 3 to begin with, but they don't like you to know that when you're choosing your undergraduate science major!

Here is the paragraph everyone should read. If you're considering becoming a cancer researcher, if you're donating a dollar at your grocery store (as mine has been harassing me to do multiple times per unavoidable visit to buy food), this is how scientifically your money gets distributed [comments in brackets are my snide remarks]:

All of this puts immense pressure on the grant-review panels. [poor grant review panels!] Senior reviewers say that when the top one-third of proposals can be funded, the review process works well at identifying the best science. But when the success rate drops, they see the process start to fall apart. [BECAUSE IT'S NOT A VERY ROBUST SYSTEM TO BEGIN WITH.]

Let me pause here and emphasize this point before going on. How is this a great system when it works at 32% but FALLS APART at 21%? If this were a building, it would fall down.

But next comes my favorite part of the entire article:

Conversations turn nit-picky and negative, with reviewers looking for any excuse not to fund a project, rather than focusing on its merits. Reviewers say that they feel forced into making impossible choices between equally worthy proposals, especially when success rates are less than 20%. "That's in a range where you have lost discrimination," says Dick McIntosh, professor emeritus of cell biology at the University of Colorado in Boulder. "That's a situation where you are grading exam papers by throwing them down the stairs." The chairman of the ACS panel agrees. "Deciding between the top grants, I don't want to say it's arbitrary, but it's not really based on strong criteria," he says. "It's subtle things." [emphasis mine]

There are tons of other gems in this article, so you should absolutely read the whole thing. I applaud Kendall Powell for giving a fly-on-the-wall view of the grant review process. Although I have to admit, many of the subtleties would have been lost on me when I was in college or even grad school, because she mostly just reports observations without really spelling out what it all means.

The next to last paragraph includes advice from the ACS vice-chair(wo)man [I guess it's a Britishism to call everyone chairman regardless of gender?]:

She also says applicants should use their contacts to sniff out the personality of the panel and the nature of the competition.

Just read that sentence over a few more times.

Yeah, you idealistic types out there. I'm talking to you. It's not about the quality of your work.


Speaking of quality of work, I know some of you saw this story about the postdoc who sabotaged a labmate's cell cultures with alcohol.


I hate to say it, but this article actually made me feel better.

I had a couple of situations myself where people threw out my samples or reagents that I think might qualify.

Despite all this, there is little to prevent perpetrators re-entering science. In the United States, federal bodies that provide research funding have limited ability and inclination to take action in sabotage cases because they aren't interpreted as fitting the federal definition of research misconduct, which is limited to plagiarism, fabrication and falsification of research data.

I was deeply impressed, both by the grad student for pursuing the complaint, and the PI for listening to her and starting an investigation without first confronting the postdoc, which would have made the hidden camera approach impossible to pursue.

When it happened to me, I approached my PI (two different PIs, actually), and in both cases the PI confronted the person in question, alerting them and giving them a chance to defend themselves (and/or switch tactics).

The PI in this article did everything right, or this wouldn't have been resolved.

Here again, the entire article is worth reading, although many subtleties would have been lost on me when I was younger and less experienced, it includes some useful tidbits, especially if you might have missed earlier posts on these topics.

Daniele Fanelli at the University of Edinburgh, UK, who studies research misconduct, says that overtly malicious offences such as Bhrigu's are probably infrequent, but other forms of indecency and sabotage are likely to be more common. "A lot more would be the kind of thing you couldn't capture on camera," he says. Vindictive peer review, dishonest reference letters and withholding key aspects of protocols from colleagues or competitors can do just as much to derail a career or a research project as vandalizing experiments. These are just a few of the questionable practices that seem quite widespread in science, but are not technically considered misconduct. In a meta-analysis of misconduct surveys, published last year (D. Fanelli PLoS ONE 4, e5738; 2009), Fanelli found that up to one-third of scientists admit to offences that fall into this grey area, and up to 70% say that they have observed them.

[emphasis mine]

Now that Bhrigu is in India, there is little to prevent him from getting back into science. And even if he were in the United States, there wouldn't be much to stop him. The National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, through its Office of Research Integrity, will sometimes bar an individual from receiving federal research funds for a time if they are found guilty of misconduct. But Bhigru probably won't face that prospect because his actions don't fit the federal definition of misconduct, a situation Ross finds strange. "All scientists will tell you that it's scientific misconduct because it's tampering with data," she says.

Still, more immediate concerns are keeping Ross busy. Bhrigu was in her lab for about a year, and everything he did will have to be repeated.

Perhaps the best part of the article is written in such a way as to not really stand on its own. Here's the actual text:

After Bhrigu pleaded guilty in June, Ross called Trempe at the University of Toledo. He was shocked, of course, and for more than one reason. His department at Toledo had actually re-hired Bhrigu. Bhrigu says that he lied about the reason he left Michigan, blaming it on disagreements with Ross.

Allow me to translate. The cheating postdoc went back to his former lab, lied about why he needed a job, and the former PI had no idea about the sabotage investigation. The only way anyone knew was because the PI who caught him actually called the former advisor and related the story.

There was nothing posted to Google or twitter, nothing circulated by NIH Feedback Loop email. NOBODY KNEW.

Oh and another funny thing happened on the way to my reading this article. It was forwarded to me by two people, both of whom said they witnessed or heard rumors about similar things happening in their former labs. Neither of those cases were investigated.

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Friday, October 08, 2010

Ethics in publishing: the recurring case of the dishonest collaborator

So this is one of those quandaries, it came up twice this week and I thought I would just ask the blogosphere because I'm not sure how best to advise.

I have more than one friend in the same situation: powerful collaborator has repeatedly finagled scoopings by other collaborators.

So here's the scenario:

Junior prof or postdoc working with Big Famous D00d on somewhat controversial project.

Big Famous D00d is also working with other people on competing projects (other side of the controversy, or tangential with some overlap).

Junior person has to get approval from D00d to send the manuscript out, or at least let him know that it's being submitted.

D00d pulls some kind of shenanigans, either suggesting back-to-back publications, or otherwise delaying, or pulling strings behind the scenes (like notifying the other team). Regardless of the method, in the end he is going out of his way to make sure the other team's paper gets submitted ASAP.

What do you do, as the junior person in this scenario?

Do you:

a) Suck it up and get scooped one last time, then cut off the collaboration (inevitably wrecking all chances of getting any funding ever again, inevitably leading to the end of your career)?

b) Suck it up and pretend like you don't care, inevitably leading to a serious drinking problem?

c) Pick a fight with Dood, with a lawyer, and quit science because you'll be spending the rest of your life in court?

d) Quit science and then publish whatever you have left on your own in Questionable Journal(s), sit quietly and wait to see what happens?

e) Any other possible scenarios you can think of?

Keep in mind, most people I know of who have been in similar situations went with (a) or (b). While (a) might seem noble, it sounds a bit like shooting yourself in the foot, to me. This is how we lose a lot of great people.

The only other way to go, I'm thinking, is to try to persuade Big D00d to put you on top, and let the other guy get scooped instead. This may require enormous amounts of money spent on alcohol, sexual favors, etc. and my friends are not the kind of people who want to do that. They're just frustrated and appalled, even though we all know this goes on regularly in business and science.

Maybe the business types can advise? I feel like this is the kind of situation a Michael J. Fox or Will Smith or Melanie Griffith might be able to charm their way out of.

I'm more of a Meg Ryan myself, as regular blog readers already know. Except that the D00d in science is never the one who writes great emails and brings you flowers when you're sick.

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