Thursday, April 29, 2010

what I'm reading

Poison Pills On Hiring from the Chronicle, an interesting post and interesting discussion.

And very relevant to that, a couple of interesting links from Alternet, both of which left me breathless:

Higher Education Gone Wrong, which lobs many accusations that could also apply to academic scientists.

Drugs causing mental illness, which goes back to an old post where I was saying that many people I worked with were taking anti-depressants, but it didn't seem to be helping any of them.

At the time, I wondered if it was a sign of the toxic atmosphere warping everyone's brains: rather than improve the working conditions, it seemed like everyone wanted the easy denial of taking a pill and pretending like everything was okay.

This article talks about the possibility, laid out in a new book, that long-term administrations of these kinds of drugs are actually making people less functional (although short-term use can be very helpful, they said). That has certainly been my anecdotal observation.

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Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Ethics of anonymous silence

This week in Nature there's an article titled "Under suspicion", discussing how Nature investigates allegations about data or author conduct.

This got me thinking again about one of my favorite topics: how many things have to go wrong before someone gets caught doing something really egregious and is actually forced to retract the paper.

More often I suspect truth dies by a thousand pinpricks, and the paper is published anyway, and even though many grad students and postdocs suspect entire fields are based on contaminated publications, and suspect we know why, those papers are never retracted.

Here are a couple of examples I know about peripherally, which, to my knowledge, have never been investigated or enforced in any way:

1. Author makes outrageous claim, paper gets reviewed by high-impact journal because the result is so "surprising". Turns out the crux of the claim is based on an extremely high sample number and/or vastly overstated statistical power. Reviewer suggests politely that the number in question is either a lie or a typo. Author revises the text to remove the "typo" but keeps the figures and conclusions the same. Paper is accepted.

Scary, part a: Nobody tries to verify that these authors actually tested even the revised, smaller number of samples (which is still way too many to be believable).

Scary, part b: Nobody can publish anything conflicting with the model based on these published claims, without reproducing the original results in at least as many samples, and no one can afford to do that because it's so outrageously expensive. And actually, if you calculate out the cost, it's clear that the original group couldn't possibly have afforded to do that many samples themselves, either. Suggesting that the only rational answer is that they... didn't.

I wonder if requiring some kind of accounting procedure for papers would help catch these kinds of exaggerations? Not that I'm favoring extensive bean-counting, but sometimes all it takes is the blank space on the back of an envelope.

2. Authors submit paper to high-impact journal with data that have clearly been processed incorrectly. Reviewer points this out. Paper is rejected. Authors submit same paper, with no revisions, to different high-impact journal. Paper is accepted.

Scary, part a: Reviewers at second journal apparently didn't notice? Or did the authors actually fix the problem and magically get the same results? Really? Magically?

Scary, part b: No one involved in the original anonymous reviewing process, neither the reviewers themselves nor the editor, is ethically (or, um, legally?) required to come forward and say anything? So they don't? It's like it never happened? Because it's anonymous, even though it's in the first journal's database, presumably, somewhere? Does that information just get deleted? What would people think if that information got out? Would we finally know which reviewers were completely spineless kowtowers?

Sometimes I wonder how often these kinds of things are happening. More often I wonder why everyone puts up with it.

I like to think we'd learn a heckuva lot if somebody would hack into those computers and find out the extent of all this nonsense. It would certainly be a fun data mining project, tracking the reviews and the papers across journals to see where they end up and how many accusations are made, investigated, or just lost in the shuffle from journal to journal.

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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

On little boys and science

One of the commenters took offense by misreading an earlier comment, and said that women in science might be like "stupid little boys".

I think what started this confusion was when Dr. Girlfriend said

I feel like my inner 11 yr old boy is being forced to wear a dress again.

That comment actually really resonated with me. She didn't say anything about little boys being stupid.

Far from it- I think many scientists wanted to do this for a living because in theory you get to be a little boy forever. You get to be curious; you get to make things and make messes; you get to play. And get paid! What could be better?

I think for some girls it is really difficult being socialized into our expected (and dare I say, outdated?) roles - we don't want it, we resist, and maybe we just say FUCK NO.

Dear men of all ages, please try, if you can be so brave, to put yourself in our place. Try to imagine this crazy scenario: through the sex chromosome lottery, the 50-50 flip of a sperm coin, you had the opposite luck.

Try to imagine that you woke up one day and realized you were a girl.

For me, it started when I was about 4 years old.

There were huge fights about what I was supposed to be wearing.

At that age, maybe some kids have a very clear sense of what gender roles mean, maybe some boys like trucks and some girls like dolls already, but I wasn't one of them. I liked both; I liked neither. Toys of all kinds were equally fun or boring; I didn't care. I played with whatever was around me.

So here's an example. I remember one fight before a special event and I was supposed to wear a dress. The conversation with my mother went something like this.

YFS: What do you mean I can't just wear what I usually wear?

Mom: Because you're a little girl. This is what little girls wear.

YFS: Why? I don't want to! It's not comfortable! The lace is itchy!

Mom: I know sweetie, but it's what people do. Besides, you look so cute.

YFS: But I don't want to! I don't care if I'm cute! I hate being itchy!

And so on and so forth.

But the shit really hits the fan when you're about 11 years old. All of a sudden, you're bleeding, you're supposed to wear a bra, and for some of us, it's like

What is this shit? What did I do to deserve this? This is NOT FUN! I didn't sign up for this! Nobody warned me this was happening! Oh god my life will never be the same! This is so not fair!

It's not that we want to be boys, necessarily, it's just that it all seems so... extraneous. Bodies seem overly complicated; bodily functions just seem messy and pointless and it all seems to be so disproportionate and unfair.
Boys do seem to have it easier.

But up until about age 11, we could be more or less just like the boys, so far as we can tell. We could wear jeans every day, or we put shorts on under our skirts and climbed trees.

Now we have to worry, at least some days, about what we're wearing. About making sure we have supplies. It's messy, and it's distracting, and it's immediately apparent that we don't really have control over our bodies, much less our lives. What else have our parents been hiding? Is everything just a big lie?

Age 11 is also when, for many of us, the gender roles about careers start to become insistent. We start hearing:

Girls don't do that. It becomes a catchphrase, from our teachers, our classmates, and our relatives of all ages. And it applies to everything, from wanting to grow up to be President of our country to whether you're allowed to have your elbows on the table at dinner. Or the reminder that when you're wearing a dress, that you have to make sure to cross your legs.

My sister, for example, embraced all of what girls were supposed to do, and was forever trying to force me to "behave".

Little did I know, some aspects of my life would always be this way. That even if women like my sister would never be my first choice for friends, they would be my peers, my colleagues, and my supervisors. They would enforce conformity in all things, starting with all the outward feminine appearances.

And sure, it's easy to learn how to look like you care. You can wear a skirt, and cross your legs, and keep your head down. But it doesn't mean it makes any more sense than it ever did. It's still not fair.

So yeah, some of us pine for the 11-year-old boy days. We didn't understand that having to grow up and wear a dress meant people would be constantly ogling our breasts. That we would be assumed to not only want children, but that we would be accused of making our careers secondary, as if that were a weakness (!), and therefore falling behind in our careers, if we did.

And we had no idea how much information we wouldn't be getting. That not just little boys, but also old boys have a club. And that we wouldn't be allowed in it. Just because we got the girl card in the sex chromosome lottery game. I mean, seriously. What???

I guess my point in having this blog, and in criticizing the post by Greenspun from 2006, is that it's fine and good to talk about how fucked up science is, but for women it's especially heinous.

It's as much about our misguided expectations being even farther off the mark than for other careers.

The chasm between "inner little boy" playing with science for a living and the reality of being sexually harassed and discriminated against makes it that much harder to take.

I really did think that scientists, of both genders, would be more aware, more educated, more observant, more rational, more willing to embrace new ideas and change, than most other people in other careers.

But my inner little boy could be really naive like that.

He says hi, by the way.

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Monday, April 26, 2010

May Scientiae: Humps and Bumps

For better or worse, this topic makes me think of a book called The Dip.

I was talking to a friend about this book recently, because she said she favors listening to motivational tapes to keep herself going. She said she especially likes advice for getting past failure, that tell you "yeah, things suck now but you'll get through it". Or something to that effect.

The Dip isn't like that. The Dip is about knowing when to quit.

The main point I got from this book is that if you quit when you're down, you'll always have some regrets. He suggests you should only quit when you're at the top of your game, because then you know you're quitting for the right reasons: because you want to do something else, not because you're just discouraged. Because everyone knows it's hard to make the right choices for the right reasons when you're upset.

What's interesting to me about dealing with setbacks is how much I've learned and yet, I still don't know anything. Sometimes I think that, the more I think about it, the worse my decisions get.

Sure, I've surprised myself over and over. The first time I had a major setback, I was fatalistic and depressed. Then I rationalized, found other things I loved to do, and rationalized some more.

I was surprised to find I could love to do so many different kinds of things.

Looking back now, I never really gave up, but I didn't really keep going, either. I just kind of held onto the dream and put it in my jewelry box. Sometimes I take it out and look at it, but mostly it's just nostalgia for something old and tarnished.

That was before I started doing science.


My first major setback in science wasn't about science so much as it was about politics. I went with my gut reaction; I put my nose to the grindstone; I got mad and used my anger.

And that more or less worked out just fine.

Not exactly ideal or a fun time, but I had a clear goal in mind, I set my sights on it, ate my power bars and worked around the clock to show that no matter what anybody said about me, they couldn't sneeze at my science.

I was surprised at how angry I could get, and how I could use that as fuel.


The next setback was harder because I felt that my life as a scientist was being shortchanged; I was being treated badly. I said Oh no, Not Again, and I left. I rationalized it as being equal parts about me and the science I was doing. I was very invested in it. I've always found it's easier to stand up for something or someone other than myself. So that helped get me out of an abusive situation, but really I was able to do it because I rationalized that I was shepherding what I thought was an important finding. I rationalized it as not really being just about me, but in reality, I was watching myself get beaten down, and I needed an excuse to get out.

Then I had really serious scientific setbacks in the sense that I had gone out on a limb with a telescope and I was trying to point and wave and say Hey, you've gotta come look at this! but everyone was too busy looking at the tree and they didn't want to see where I was pointing. They weren't mean about it, they just ignored me or said I seemed a little bit crazy.

But still, I kept on fighting. I started blogging and I was very philosophical about all of it. I focused on people I admired, both scientists and non-scientists, and how they had all gotten through setbacks and succeeded anyway.

The idea being to view every hump, no matter how tall, as just a bump in a very long road.

So I got past that bump and then there was another bump and it looked exactly the same and I felt like I had taken a wrong turn somewhere. I thought whoa, am I trapped in some kind of loop here? Didn't I just do this bump?

And then I started to realize that you can keep powering through, up and over, and you can get people to help you, etc. but it does make you tired. And it's actually kind of boring.

Persevering seems glamourous at first (Cue the Montage!). But then, it's really not. It's actually just really tedious. And unlike a montage getting ready for the big fight or the dance recital or the romantic speech in the rain, persevering is infinite. Nobody can tell you when it will be over.

Then I learned that some people will think you're lazy or pessimistic if you say "Hey, I need a rest".

But if you don't take a break when you need one, it's basically impossible to climb up anything for a while. You start looking for a way to go around the hump, and maybe it takes longer but it will eventually get you to the other side.

So now I'm on the other side of the latest big hump, but I don't really feel any better because there's no celebration ticker-tape parade. And I know there's more where humps where that came from.


What's sad to me is how our culture views setbacks: it's all about the end.

We seem to see everything through a movie lens: if it has a happy ending, then you made the right choice. But, if the ending is just "okay", then, my friend, you can expect to be second-guessed. It couldn't have been that big of a deal, they say, because you're still here! You must be exaggerating.

So here you are, panting on other side of the biggest hump in your life, and the important thing is that you're still in one piece.

But nobody cares about that. Or maybe they just can't identify? Your friends will pat you on the back and then get on with their lives.

What our culture really cares about is the photo-finish: you're supposed to die trying, or at least be wiling to die. But mostly you're supposed to grasp that trophy and hold it high! Smile pretty!

Except there's no trophy besides being able to say you survived.

What I still don't understand is that while science is all about the journey, getting a job is not about the journey. Getting a job is about the end. The end of being a postdoc. The long-awaited, much-coveted, highly unlikely victory. And if your work isn't published, if you don't get the tenure-track faculty position, it's like you never did anything. You might as well be dead.

I don't know of a way to point and wave and say, Hey! Look at what I did! See how I came, that route there? See all the cool things I learned? ... And shouldn't the journey itself count for something? Wouldn't you rather have ideas and experience than the perfect pedigree?

But everyone is too busy looking at the trees.

So am I on top of the hump, quitting for the right reasons? A month ago, I would have said yes, definitely.

But some days I wonder if I'm still in a Dip.

Then again, I read a statistic the other day that the odds of becoming tenure-track faculty in the biosciences now are pretty much on par with the odds of becoming a successful rock star. Seriously, if someone had told me it was that much of a long shot, I would never have made it this far.

There was an episode of Grey's Anatomy recently that has been haunting me. It's a cancer patient who explains how, past a certain point, hope is scary. It's so true. And ironic, because I've been accused of everything: being too pessimistic, being too naive, being too stubborn, quitting too easily.

Hope is the scariest thing, because it's very hard to learn how to let it go.

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Saturday, April 24, 2010

A link from a comment I received today

A commenter wrote to ask why I don't discuss this old post, instead of all these ridiculous sexism theories.

So, I (re-)read the post in question. I think the author is an asshole, though a deceptively thoughtful one. I think in many ways his commentary on science in general is exactly right (nobody ever said all assholes are idiots).

However, regarding why there are fewer women, and why sexism is still a major problem, he is missing the point.

Is sexism just another facet of the abuse heaped on junior scientists? Is it just another way of abusing idealists, and if we are minorities they insult our race, and if we are women they call us bitches, and if we speak up for ourselves we are pessimists? Are they just pushing our buttons?

Or is it a larger cultural problem we unfairly have to shoulder ON TOP OF all the existing problems in the academic science hierarchical mess?

Didn't we choose science in part because it was supposed to be different from all the other career trajectories where you're taught to expect sexual harassment, where you're expected to sleep your way to the top?

Don't we have as much right as stupid little boys do, to pursue research if that's what we want?

Or are we supposed to know better, the way little girls are not allowed to play in the dirt but boys are? Because we're supposed to be in training to wear frilly dresses and soon enough we'll have to be somebody's responsible mommy? Women are supposed to care only about money and security, is that it?

Would we be stupid masochists for saying but we wanted to do science anyway, despite all the bullshit?

Well, yes.

But do we have any less right to it than men? Really? Since when does being a woman take away my right to choose?

Oh, well, yeah, there's that whole crazy thing about it being my body. But I really did think my choice of career would be my own.

Have at it, Dr. (and soon-to-be-Dr.) Chickadees!

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Sunday, April 18, 2010

More NIH anti-postdoc shenanigans: WTF is this?

While struggling to find bridge funding to "finish" my postdoc and get a faculty position, several people suggested I look into career re-entry funding sources.

There are several options for these, mostly tiny grants geared toward women who took very extended maternity leave, aka several years off to take care of her husband's career and raise children.

But, there is almost always exclusionary language that makes it impossible for a postdoc to apply if she hasn't had children or doesn't meet the extremely specific requirements.

Take for example this funding mechanism, which is much less restrictive in that it's not limited to women or for having children, and it also sounds like it would cover your entire salary (!). This grant claims to support individuals with high potential to reenter an active research career after taking time off to care for children or parents or to attend to other family responsibilities.

Does attending to sexism count?

No, of course not, I'm just kidding!

Seriously though, what about divorce? Extended international custody battle? What are "other family responsibilities"? Sounds fishy to me. What would count, short of taking care of a sibling or spouse or uncle or aunt with a fatal disease?

Point being, I think there should be grants like this. I'm sure there are people who really have had to deal with these kinds of things (I have a couple of very close friends who have had to).

Still, they wouldn't qualify. Because it looks like NIGMS figured out a ridiculous way to make it virtually impossible for almost anyone to be eligible.

To me, it sounds like they want this grant to be for a minuscule number of people who interviewed for a tenure-track position, got an offer, and signed on the dotted line:

must have qualified for a faculty appointment at the assistant professor or equivalent level at the time of leaving active research.

What's "qualified"? How do you prove that? An offer letter? And what's equivalent to assistant professor level? Research track? Give me a break.

And then you would have had to suddenly leave with a major emergency - for a while?

The duration of the career interruption should be for at least 2 and no more than 8 years

I mean really. How many of these are they going to fund? This grant reads like something created by a program director for his now-dead brother's wife.

A teeny bit too specific to make much of a dent in the hordes of women who have "chosen" to leave sometime during the postdoc, or who have been openly forced out.

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On the ups and downs

In preparing this month's Scientiae on the theme of "bumps and humps", I wrote a whole long post about the ups and downs of research (you'll see it in a few more days).

But today I've been feeling out-of-sorts in other ways. Felt okay when I woke up. Suffered through exercise, hated every freaking minute of it, but felt better afterwards. On a graph that would probably look like flat - down - up.

Got some work-related email that made me happy and angry at the same time, a combination I never would have imagined I would experience so frequently that I'm starting to need a word for it. Kind of like "frienemy", what could I call it?

Hangry sounds like I need something to eat.

Happry sounds like my hubby came home and I'm no longer ronery.

Anppy sounds like bad hair.

I'm sure there's some better combination of synonyms that would work, like happy + furious? I'm accepting submissions for how to describe this emotion.

Anyway. I digress, but at least I find it amusing!

Did some relaxing things during the day, but I couldn't get as much work done as I wanted to, and then this evening I found myself getting increasingly furious about things over which I don't have much control.

I can't help wondering what I could do and whether I should try it. That's just the kind of person I am. I always want to get in there and break things, make a mess. It's what I do best.

But mostly I think I'm mad because this particular infuriating thing is a symptom of other, bigger problems (as most infuriating things usually are).

I'm mad because I know that if I can make it through another day, tomorrow will be better, and the day after that will be even more of an improvement.

But I'm impatient. And I'm so neurotic that I'm even impatient about trying to learn to be more patient! Aagh!

And I know that for every small step forward, there's every reason to expect all the same shit to happen again.

So then I go back to wondering how I can avoid having all the same shit happening over and over and over. What am I supposed to learn here? Am I being punished for something I did (probably)? Is this something I can fix, or am I just supposed to suffer through it?

Whenever things are looking up, I know that eventually I will trip and fall on my face.

And that, my blog-friends, is why I'm the kind of person who thinks that if the glass is half full, somebody is bound to spill it. And the glass will probably get stuck in my bare feet just because I'm nearby when it shatters.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

How to fix your advisor

I would suggest the solution proposed in this post and/or let them eat oxytocin.

Eventually, we will have a protocol.

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Monday, April 12, 2010

"we are career trainees"

The title of this post comes from a comment because I think it should be our new battle cry.

I also think that if things are going to continue as they are, in the meantime, NIH-funded postdoc fellowships should be adjusted upwards.

For once, the NPA is trying to put the collective postdoc mouth where the money needs to be. Click on the link above and follow the instructions to send a message arguing that this is important! It's really easy and only takes a few minutes, but it might be the most useful thing we can do this week.

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well that explains a lot.

So can we use the converse of this to literally reset everyone's moral compass? I so wanna go around zapping scientists in the head.

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Sunday, April 11, 2010

Nuke the system: response to Hope

If you've been reading this blog for a while, then you know I think that science is currently trapped in a system that assumes mentoring is the best of all possible worlds, which tells us that doing a long postdoc is a privilege, where even while data fraud goes unreported and unpunished, we keep having to reinvent the wheel because what we used to know is quickly forgotten, where publishing is governed by unspoken rules and and fraught with corruption not to mention sexism and hiring is dependent on funding which is also completely misguided and broken not to mention publishing requirements that have never been shown to correlate with future success. There also seems to be a general trend of preference for hiring foreign men over American women.

There are some potential things that could force change. These include crazy things like a nationwide postdoc strike .

And I have made numerous suggestions for how we could reform science, if universities and funding agencies actually wanted to get together and do it.

I have also proposed repeatedly that it's bad for science that we have too much turnover among young scientists who are forced to leave or shut down their labs. We waste money training scientists who can't put the training to work.

incentives to regulate turnover of senior scientists because some of us as senior postdocs already have as much experience as the old guys had when they got tenure.

And yeah, the whole dual-career couple hiring thing is a problem, both for those searching and for those doing the searches. But do I think it's the most important problem? Not even close. Would I feel differently if I were in a dual-career job search? Maybe.

I think you're kidding yourselves. It's like saying sexism is the only thing wrong with science. It's not the only thing, and it's not the worst thing. Do I write about it a lot? Yes. Because I think it's important and under-discussed. Should it be our top priority? No.

I think we have much bigger fish to fry first.

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Thursday, April 08, 2010

Response to comments on last post

Kea -

I hoped this problem of "who really did what" would be solved by some journals' new policies offering some kind of statement of "author contributions", but it turns out that most of them don't allow for realistic categories.

For example, my advisor insisted on being listed as having helped in all areas, despite having actually FOUGHT ME EVERY STEP OF THE WAY and really only contributed to one aspect (editing the manuscript). But the reading audience won't know that. That includes the funding committees who award grants to my advisor based on my ideas and my persistence in making sure it got published.

Anon -

Personally, I think that kind of behavior would have to be really extreme before it would hurt you. Presumably you were being asked about this DURING INTERVIEWS? (in other words - CRY ME A RIVER?!)

We're all penalized by our advisor's bad publishing habits.

That was exactly my point.

SamanthaScientist -

This is the biggest trap with holding out for "kitchen sink" publications. MOST science has ambiguities that seem to occur in waves. The trick is publishing at the peak of the curve before you fall down into another confusion well, and the you climb back out and publish another paper with the next piece of the puzzle. There's a rhythm to it, if you know what you're doing and you can figure out how to break off story-sized pieces. That's how we make progress. The problem I see all the time is that you really need both sides: the person on the ground has one perspective on where the project is, and in the ideal situation, the person in the office (the PI) has a bird's-eye view of where the project begins and ends.

In practice, though, there are two major problems that I can see.

1. Conflict of interest

You want to publish and GTFO.
Your PI wants high-impact papers.

2. Poor Vision and Distrust

You don't have (much) experience with publishing, so you lack the vision and confidence to know how that's going to go. On the other hand, you probably read a lot, so you have some ideas about formats and journals based on what you've seen other people doing in your field. Still, you're supposed to trust your PI - even when your PI lets you down.

Your PI, on the other hand, probably can't stay on top of all the literature anymore, and probably doesn't even try. However, your PI also doesn't really feel comfortable trusting your opinion, either. After all, you are a junior trainee and WTF could you possibly know. Nothing, right?

This tends to lead to delays and, in the worst cases, stalemates that result in zero publications.

Meanwhile, you're waiting or trying to prove your point so you do more experiments. Or your PI doesn't trust you so you're told to do more experiments, presumably with the hope of clarifying some things (but as we all know, more experiments does not always mean immediate clarity!).

This just ends up muddying the waters.

Personally, what I've learned to do is go a little farther than I think I need to, and test the waters. If it's muddier down there, I pull my toe out and publish, knowing I will come back and wade through the mud later when I have my hip-boots on.

If it's getting clearer and I can see lots of pretty fishies, I keep going and catch as many fish as I think I can fit in the paper. (assuming I have the resources I need, etc. which I don't anyway but that's a different rant!)

There are all kinds of tricks to writing good manuscripts, too, and I can't say I've learned how to do this. But the most successful scientists seem to know how to lead their reviewers in the direction of the pretty fishies so that the reviewers will say, "Hey! Fishies!" which is exactly what you want them to do.

Those of us who are less adept at leading the reviewer (and our advisors) tend to try to point at the fishies and end up with reviewers and advisors who love pointing at the muddy snake-pit and saying:

"Why don't you take off all your clothes and flail around in there for a while?"

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Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Ethics of publishing

Sigh. Just read this post and the related comments over at FSP.

Poor FSP. Again, she is so naive.

So let me give you a little bit of my perspective on this.

FSP is writing about having to take ethics courses and how stupid it is to be forced to take something related to human subjects when you don't even work in the biosciences.

Fair enough. Human subjects are hardly the major issue of ethics in science these days, because studies involving human subjects are governed by rules and reviewed by committees.

And, they can sue.

I would argue instead that the ethics of publishing and the pressure of citation indices, as FSP mentions, are much more dangerous for science as a whole.

I didn't really appreciate the extent of this problem when I started out. I knew it was bad, I heard horror stories. But like FSP, initially I thought they were "bizarre" - as in, outliers. Exceptions. Unlikely. Uncommon.

Now I think otherwise.

1. MPU: minimal publishable unit

Definition: Breaking scientific studies down maximize the number of publications

Pro: More publications in less time

Obvious Con: Usually lower-impact papers

Less Obvious Con: You already have data that contradicts your pet hypothesis, but you leave this out of the first paper and plan instead to publish it in the second paper. It won't fit anyway! Besides, it's okay if you're wrong so long as you're the one who reports it, right?

Advantage: One paper becomes two, potentially both high-impact, and soon!


• Knowingly misleading the field during the time between the first and second publications.

• Temptation to never publish the second paper. Especially if the student defends or the postdoc gets a job based on the first paper.

• The next grad student or postdoc in your lab, or another lab, can't publish their work because it contradicts your paper and you never published the second.

2. Kitchen sink publication

Definition: Cramming tons of data into one big paper, in order to increase chances of overwhelming the reviewer


• This often works, especially at high-impact journals

• Makes use of data that would otherwise never be published

• Makes a non-story look like a really big deal

Obvious Con:

• Often much of the data that is crammed into the paper does not contribute to the story

• Many middle-authors

• Can only be done with projects that are relatively mature, and/or in larger labs where multiple people contribute parts of figures

Less Obvious Con: Can be used as a way of burying data in supplemental figures that actually contradict the main claim of the paper, while still garnering the credibility of being able to say that all the appropriate experiments and techniques were done

Advantage: High impact paper!


• Misleads the field. It's in a high-impact journal, so it must be true, right?

• Supplemental figures are often not reviewed at all, and generally not held to the same standard as figures in the main text.

• Contradictory data that should have been, at a minimum, an MPU for a student or postdoc, and important for the field, gets eaten by the career (and ego) of the first and last author.

I could go on, but I'll stop there for now. Might write more another time if these don't seem sufficiently scary already.

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Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Response to an important question for women in science

At 12:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have something to ask the feminists.

What do they think about those female PIs that are married to bigshot PIs ? I have seen many, many times where a professor was signed up be faculty only on the condition that his wife is given a professorship as well. I have also seen politics at Harvard, where a big shot professor, upon learning that his wife would not get tenure, threatened to move to another university. Then the wifey got tenure, and he stayed.

Is that merit? I have seen this happen 10+ times already.

Dear Anonymous,

This is a very timely question. There are two sides to the answer.

A Side: We need women role models, and we just want them to get a foot in the door. Then these women can make the most of the opportunity to move up and help bring other women through the pipeline.

There are three important aspects to this first interpretation.

Assumption 1: Women are just as smart and hard-working as men, but we unfairly face a lot of prejudice, both overt and covert, that ultimately adds up to our looking worse on paper than we really are.

True! It has been well documented in many biological, physical and mathematical systems that even minor discrepancies will add up to huge differences over time, especially where there are positive feedback loops. In this case, even slight and unconscious bias against women adds up to huge advantages for men in terms of publishing and ultimately interviews and job offers.

Assumption 2: So really, women deserve more credit than we get, and it's perfectly okay for women to take advantage of whatever chances we might have - whether it is leveraging our husband's support of our careers, or affirmative action, how is that any different from membership in the Old Boys' Club? Anything that gets us ahead should be fair game. Because after all, men will step on anyone to get where they're going, why shouldn't we take whatever we can get?

Questionable! Is this ever okay for anyone? Should we do what the bad guys have done, even if we don't respect it? Where does anyone get off complaining about hiring spouses while continuing with practices that are totally unethical, reward back-room deals and discourage integrity?

Assumption 3: Having women as role models will, by the mere fact of their success, help remove prejudice. Once these women get a foot in the door, they will excel in their new positions, proving to the doubters that women are just as smart and hard-working as men. This will help reduce prejudice over time.

Questionable! In some sense, just working around women and learning that we're not all idiots can be educational. I have witnessed this myself.

I have also seen women succeed, and seeing that has helped me see it as possible for me. So in that sense, yes, I believe it helps to have role models.

This can help reduce prejudice, but no, it's not enough. The Superwoman Exception phenomenon can be misleading in this regard. Essentially it supports continuing sexist stereotypes by implying that only a handful of women could ever be good enough.

B Side: Women who are hired as spouses may not deserve it. Even if they did, they will face even more prejudice than women who are hired on their own merits. They lack the understanding of how to get hired, so they are unable and often unwilling to effectively mentor younger women who are trying to follow along in the tenure-track. Ultimately, hiring women as spouses actually undermines women's efforts at being seen as equally qualified and does nothing to further the cause of women in science.

Assumption 1: Women who are hired as spouses never could have gotten a job on their own merits.

True and false. Sometimes in dual-career couples, each partner has an offer in one place but not in the another. I don't know if anyone has done a statistical analysis of how often women follow their spouse vs. the other way around. Anecdotally, I know of several examples where the husband turned down an offer at a place that deemed his wife under-qualified, and went somewhere that seemed to value her abilities as much as his own.

Depending on your point of view, you could say that

a) The place that only wanted the husband had "higher standards"


b) The place that offered both partners positions was more open to the possibility that I mentioned above, that women are often much more accomplished and talented than we look on paper. They may have even been grateful to have found such a wonderful candidate, whom they might have otherwise overlooked without even offering her an interview.


c) The place that offered both partners positions just really wanted the husband and figured it was no big deal to hire the wife and let her sink or swim either way if that's what the husband demanded, because he was a big shot and he was worth it.

Now personally, among these I find option (c) to be the least plausible, at least in the current economic climate. But that's not to say it hasn't ever happened. I'm sure it probably has. But how recently? I can't answer that.

Assumption 2: Women who get hired as the "trailing spouse" will be treated badly and regret it, so they might as well not take the job.

Who knows? I think being a trailing spouse probably exacerbates the common phenomenon among junior faculty known as Impostor Syndrome. Are trailing spouses really treated worse than other junior women faculty? I don't know that anyone has statistics on this, either. Do many trailing spouses still manage to succeed in their own right? Hell yes.

Assumption 3: Women who are hired as the "trailing spouse" don't know how to mentor women who are trying to get hired on our own merits.

Probably true?. Based on my own, again, anecdotal investigations, I'd say yes. Having said that, though, I'd argue that MOST PIs don't know how to mentor women who are trying to get hired on our own merits.

What works for men does not always work for women, and often backfires on us. We have to be assertive while being careful to be nice and not come across as too aggressive. We have to be enthusiastic without coming across as lacking sufficient independence. We have to be independent without coming across as too ambitious. While many of these pitfalls also apply to men, I would argue that for women the margins are even more narrow. We have to walk a very fine line of fulfilling cultural gender expectations as well as conforming to academic and discipline-specific expectations, which is even more difficult if your research is, god forbid, interdisciplinary or very novel.

In fact, I would wager that most PIs who aren't trailing spouses don't know how they got their jobs. If they are really being honest with themselves and with you, they will say it was luck, and politics.

Assumption 4: Women hired as "trailing spouses" really don't help the cause of trying to get women hired as equals on our own merits.

Maybe so! But does that mean it should stop? I don't know if I can answer that. I've been advocating for a long time that science hiring needs to be made centralized and should be done by something more like the medical residency match system. Current academic hiring is way too haphazard, and, well, for lack of a better way of saying it, it's just really unscientific.

The way it is now, decisions can be made behind closed doors and based on rapidly changing variables that no one can predict ahead of time, and no one has to explain or defend afterwards. It's completely subject to all kinds of personal biases and politics. For a really vivid view of what that means, watch these videos.

Monday, April 05, 2010

The bloggysphere

I just tried to leave a comment on a blog, and couldn't figure out why it wouldn't let me. I thought I was typing the word recognition thing wrong. Again.

Then I looked more carefully. Turns out that blog's comments are restricted to "team members". What the-?

Maybe if you want to have a blog and comments, but restrict who can write comments, and you're too lazy to moderate them, you shouldn't bother making your posts open to the public at all. Amirite?

In other words, Fuck me? No, Fuck you!

Or I could just write my little comments over here on my blog, with lots of links to their blog, in the hopes that they might let me join their little club if my insights are insightful enough?


In other news, I had a good laugh reading a quote from a guy who trains suicide bombers. Either there's a lot of turnover in that job, or the people doing the training have, by definition, no experience in the vocation.

Most hypocritical job on the planet? I think we have a contender.


Saturday, April 03, 2010

I like this.

post from Dr.Freeride on peer review

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Thursday, April 01, 2010

Scienciae carnival post: Sustainability in science

When I think of sustainability, I think of fairness, cost, burnout and all the potential wasted.

We can't sustain science if we keep treating women like this.

To wit:

private college tuition ~$100,000 and 4 years

grad school salary ~$100,000 and 4 years

postdoc fellowships ~$100,000 and 4 years (give or take)

publications >10

number of extra papers women postdoc candidates need to be seen as equal to men ~ 3 more high impact or 20 more in lesser-known journals

job offers = zero

unemployment benefits = zero

Taxpayers' investment in my "training"?



Other Recommended reading:

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