Archive for: April, 2011

Read All About It

Apr 26 2011 Published by under campus life

Today I have some questions for you:

  • What do you think of the campus newspaper at your university or college?
  • Do you read it?
  • Do you think it is a useful source of news about your campus and community?

I decided to ask these as general questions rather than doing a poll because if I did a poll, I would have to have lots of sub-polls for professors of various ages, postdocs, grads, undergrads, administrators, other staff etc. in order to understand the results.

I am an occasional glancer at my university's newspaper. I haven't found it to be a particularly good or accurate source of news, as far as I can tell when I happen to know something about a particular topic of an article, although some days there is useful information in it. For example, one of my colleagues learned by reading the campus newspaper that his lab was going to be severely affected by building renovations; no administrators had thought to inform him of this.

Mostly, though, I find that I can't really understand the topic of many articles because major questions are unanswered or data/statistics are presented in an uninterpretable way.

Even so, I am glad there is a campus newspaper, and I admire the efforts of the students who put these newspapers together. That probably sounds patronizing, but it isn't mean to be. I recognize the value of having a campus newspaper, even if it isn't awesome, and I think it's better to have a mediocre paper (in the opinion of a professor) than no campus newspaper at all.

I know that working on the campus newspaper can be an all-consuming job, and perhaps creating a truly excellent newspaper requires more time than student-journalists should spend. My involvement with a campus newspaper as a student was very minor, but I know students who have devoted vast amounts of time to their campus newspaper, sometimes to the detriment of their academic program.

I have been at institutions with impressive campus newspapers, but that was when I was younger. It is entirely possible that my criticisms of student newspapers have increased as I have become significantly older than the students who write the news articles. Perhaps I would have found my current campus newspaper more interesting and entertaining when I was younger.

Therefore, if you leave a comment to say that you like/dislike your campus newspaper, I hope you will also note your current academic position and age, so I can try to detect trends and make a splashy (but potentially obvious) conclusion about them and then write about it in a post with a pie diagram and a random photo of students juggling in front of some scenic academic building.

25 responses so far

Insecurity as Motivator

Apr 18 2011 Published by under advising, postdocs

Today's question for discussion is a bit complex, but has some interesting implications (ethical, practical, cosmic).

Imagine that a PI is supervising a postdoc or research scientist who is quite talented and has great expertise, but who tends to lack motivation when it comes to writing papers and proposals. This researcher would be happy just getting data, but, because he/she is not a technician and is in a position that requires writing papers and proposals, the PI has to find ways to help (motivate) the research scientist to write.

Of course, one option in this situation is to not renew the contract and replace the non-writing postdoc with someone who writes, but let's assume that this research scientist has expertise that the PI values and there isn't a large pool of candidates with similar skills. Also, the research scientist is not eager to move on. It is in the interests of both the PI and the research scientist to continue working together.

The research scientist needs to raise at least 25% of their own salary each year from grants, but to get grants, one typically has to write proposals. To get -- and continue to get -- grants, one has to write papers.

Question #1: What to do? Is this a survival-of-the-fittest situation, and the scientist - however talented at some aspects of research - should be cut loose because s/he is not functioning well in all required aspects of the job? Or, because this person has a high level of expertise in particular research applications, should the PI find a way to work with the research scientist anyway, even if it means writing papers and proposals for them? I guess we have to assume that changing the scientist's job title to "technician" isn't feasible in this case.

Now let's assume that the PI figures out a way to cover the research scientist's entire salary for the near future. Telling the research scientist (RS) that these funds exist would relieve the RS of stress and anxiety about their financial situation and job security for a while.

But: telling the RS that these funds exist would completely obliterate any chance that the RS would write any part of their own proposals and papers, and would make it more difficult for the PI to hire additional postdocs because those funds would likely be committed to the non-writing RS. Although the PI doesn't want the RS to live in unnecessary uncertainty about funding, the PI does want the RS to have some motivation to write papers and proposals: for their own career development, for the good of the research group as a whole, and because it is still a part of the RS's job description.

Question #2: Should the PI tell the research scientist about the stable source of funding? Must the PI tell the research scientist? Or is withholding this information justified by the possible benefit it would have of motivating the RS to write?

Perhaps someone who is not functioning well in an essential aspect of their job (in this case, writing) should seek other employment that better fits their abilities, but is there any other way to solve this problem so that this otherwise beneficial collaboration can continue?

Would you tell the research scientist about the new funding, even if the consequences were no papers and no proposals?

Or would you maintain a certain level of insecurity in the hopes it would act as a motivator?


52 responses so far

To Author or Not To Author?

Apr 12 2011 Published by under publishing

When a paper is published with a particular list of co-authors, the assumption is that all co-authors participated in the work represented by the paper, that all have read and approved the submitted version of the paper, and therefore that all agree with the content of the paper. That last assumption, however, may have a substantial gray zone in which various authors have different opinions about how the work is presented.

A mild version of this would be if a co-author would have written the paper in a different way. This may well be the case for most papers, as we all have different styles of writing and preferences about how to construct an argument.

A more complicated version of co-authorial disagreement occurs when co-authors disagree about major aspects of the substance of the research that will be presented in a paper. For example:

Let's say that you provided some important data for a colleague's research project, and the colleague is now writing a paper using these results. The plan all along has been that you will be a co-author on the paper, but you find that you disagree with the colleague's interpretation of the data. It is not possible for you to reach an agreement on the interpretation, but it's also not possible for the colleague to use the data without somehow mentioning you or your lab. The colleague needs to finish and submit a manuscript using these data. Do you:

1. Let the colleague include your name as a co-author anyway but perhaps include some sort of indication that not all authors agree with all aspects of the paper.

2. Ask that your name be removed from the author list, and have your contribution indicated only in the acknowledgments section of the paper.

3. Refuse to let your colleague use the data.

4. Let your colleague use the data however s/he wants, but write your own paper with an alternative interpretation.

5. Other.

In many cases, I don't think options #3-4 are feasible, and these can be particularly problematic if students and/or postdocs are involved.

I think I would go for option #2, perhaps also asking that the authors include a statement that the interpretations are theirs alone. I have seen examples of this in the literature, and it can be done in a non-weird, professional way.

A long time ago, I was a co-author on a modified version of option #1 and it worked pretty well. In that situation, option #1 was acceptable to me because other authors agreed with me about our preferred interpretation, and the group as a whole worked together to find a way to represent all of our different points of view. In that paper, we presented the data "objectively" and then included two possible interpretations in the discussion. I don't think I would have gone for a version of #1 that was too far away from my preferred interpretation; in that case, option #2 would have been more reasonable.

Have any of you been in a situation in which you were an important-but not-primary-participant in a paper, and you disagreed with the interpretations of the lead authors? What did you do?

28 responses so far

Token Help?

Apr 08 2011 Published by under colleagues, women in science

This week in the FSP blog, I described a couple of incidents involving Women As Tokens in science: something I overheard, and something I experienced. In the latter post, a male commenter wondered what he and like-minded colleagues could do to help in situations such as the one I described (in short: during a meeting of a small working group in which I am the only woman, a senior professor mentioned twice, apropos of nothing, that the only reason I had been invited to join the group ~6 years ago was because I am female).

When I find myself in these situations, I may or may not confront the person making the offensive statement, depending on the situation and my mood. If I decide to speak up, I typically employ gentle but not subtle sarcasm. In the situation I described recently, I did not say anything.

None of the men in this particular meeting said anything either. Did I want them to? In this case, it didn't matter to me. I am a senior professor, I don't need allies in this particular working group, I have just as much "power" in this group as the person who explicitly noted that I am a token, and I have confidence that my work in this group is useful. In fact, I do have an ally in the group, but he wasn't at this meeting.

Would I have minded if one of the men had stepped in and told Professor Not-A-Token that his comments were inappropriate? No, I would not have minded. In fact, there are many situations in which it is very helpful for men to speak up in these situations. It can turn the tide of a discussion from being an unconstructive one in which women are isolated and insulted into a more inclusive one. And it can show the apparently biased person that their views are not widely held, perhaps inspiring them to refrain from making obnoxious comments in the future.

Perhaps some sympathetic men stay silent because they don't know what to say. Even if they have no fear of angering the person making the obnoxious comments, these other men may not want to sound patronizing to the woman being insulted, or make it appear that a woman needs a man to rescue her.

Every situation is different, but just to take the example of my recent experience, I would not have minded if one of my senior colleagues had said something to Professor Not-A-Token, such as "That's irrelevant. I'm not sure why you are even bringing that up." Or this hypothetical ally could have alluded to the fact that our working group strives for geographic diversity by noting which group member is the token person from a particular continent.

During an incident such as this, I certainly wouldn't want us all to dwell on the issue, unless it was clearly a major problem interfering with the functioning of the group. Just a brief "You are alone in your obnoxious opinions" kind of comment or two from the rest of the group would be sufficient to get us all back on track and perhaps convince the jerk that further comments about token women were not welcome by anyone.

But that's just one example. Perhaps readers can contribute other examples of when allies stepped in with an appreciated comment or could explain what they wish someone had said during a situation of this general type.


31 responses so far