Citing Creeps

(by Science Professor) Dec 14 2011

As I was working on a manuscript the other day, I encountered the usual decision about which papers to cite for a particular statement. I had a large number of choices in this case, and I just needed to select a few as good examples. I wanted to show that the relevant concept had been studied by many people for a long time, so I picked some old papers and some very recent papers. And of course I picked papers that I thought were exemplary for the point I wanted to make. Mostly I made positive choices -- that is, I selected papers that I thought were good to include. In one case, however, I made a negative choice -- that is, a specific decision to exclude a reference to a paper, not because the paper was bad, but because I loathed the author.

If that paper really had to be cited and it would be inappropriate for me to omit it, I would have included it, despite my feelings about the author. I have, in the past, cited this person's work in my papers. But, in this case, I had lots of choices and it was not essential to cite that particular paper, so I used an unprofessional criterion for one decision. The loathsome individual in question was an abusive person, physically and emotionally, and I'd rather not see his name in one of my papers if there is not a compelling (ethical, scientific) reason to include it.

I thought about this when I got an e-mail from a reader wondering whether s/he should change a plan that involved pursuing/writing about research ideas that had been promoted by someone who was had been arrested for a crime of a truly sickening sort. The crime had nothing to do with the research. It just happened that a person who was doing some interesting research is a criminal and a creep.

Should the research ideas be ignored, not written about, locked up along with the creep?

This is a much more extreme case than the minor one I confronted in my recent citing decision, both because of the nature of the crimes and because this is about pursuing research ideas, not just tossing in a citation in a paper. The general issue is similar, though:

  • How is your research affected if you are sickened by the crimes or other unsavory behavior of another researcher (but not necessarily by the research related to that person)?
  • Does anyone think that citing a creep somehow condones the creepish behavior?

In this particular situation, there is no ethical reason why my correspondent has to follow up on and/or write about the creep's research ideas; it is entirely a choice based on the fact that the ideas are interesting. Even so, the research ideas will inevitably lead to thoughts of this other person who is closely associated with them, and therefore to his crimes. This may therefore affect not only how you feel about the research, but also how others perceive the work, and therefore you.

Context is of course important, but without knowing any specifics of the people, the crime, and the research, what would you do in this general situation? As long as the crime was unrelated to the research, can opinions about the research be considered independently of the researcher?

I just looked up the citation data for the one scientist that I know of in recent years to be arrested for a sickening crime; this person is in a field sort of related to mine, and it was a huge shock when he was arrested and the nature of his crimes revealed. The data show that his citation rate is holding steady at a very high rate, the same as before he went to prison, even though his publication rate dropped to zero while he was incarcerated. I would kill for his h-index (<-- sorry, inappropriate joke!).

I am not surprised by the citation data; he has done excellent, fundamental work in his field over the years, and it would be strange if his major publications were not cited often. I would also not be surprised, however, if anyone who knows of his crimes thinks of them every time they see his name. I certainly do.

So, are there ways in which you are influenced in your research decisions (major or minor) by your feelings about someone's reprehensible behavior outside of the research sphere? Note that I am not talking about ordinary jerks. I am talking about criminals and major creeps whose very name makes you feel sick and angry.


17 responses so far


(by Science Professor) Nov 30 2011

Questions abound about what should and should not go into Letters of Reference. I will not include any particular reader question here, but will try to hit the major points that commonly arise.

Of course the purpose of the letter and the nature/length of the letter will vary depending on the purpose and the personalities involved, but there is a certain sameness to these things as well, whether the letter is for an undergraduate applying for a summer internship or a postdoc applying for a faculty position.

Over the years, I have marveled at some of the weird things that people put in reference letters. I think the weirdest items appear in letters for undergraduates applying for internships or graduate programs because the letter-writers:

(1) may not know the applicant very well and struggle (in some cases, mightily and inappropriately) to find something to say other than "Jane got an A in my class"; and

(2) may know the applicant very well indeed and may somehow lose perspective on whether potential research advisors want to know that Jane was a great babysitter for the letter writer's 7 children (I personally do not want to know this. There are people I would trust with kids but not research, and vice versa.)

Just a few examples from the FSP and SP archives of strange and possibly inappropriate things I have seen in letters of reference for academic positions, awards, tenure, and promotion over the years:

- phrases like "Applicant X is one of the best female graduates of our department";

- or this: "He and his wife have spent many vacations in Bavaria, organizing their walking routes to coincide with the locations of breweries."

- "In my opinion, Applicant X is an excellent scientist. Now let me tell you about my credentials. Attached is my CV."

- "Applicant Z's Christian faith has helped guide her through a rigorous academic program."

- "Molly is such a responsible and mature person that my wife and I have repeatedly trusted her to care for our 5-year old and 2.5-year old when we have a 'date night' or a social function that is not suitable for young children."

- "Dr. X has come from a distinguished academic line. One of his committee member's advisor's advisor's advisor was awarded the Nobel Prize in 19xx."

OK, enough of that (for now). Writing letters is difficult, no matter how little/well you know the applicant. No one is perfect, so a common question by letter writers is how/whether to describe or hint at some of these imperfections.

Arguments in favor of writing a positive letter that has a few minor mentions of reasons why the applicant is mortal, even if you mostly think this person is awesome:

Letters should convey useful and accurate information. If someone's imperfections are relevant to the position for which they are applying, wouldn't the letter readers want to know this? Your credibility is at stake as well, and therefore your ability to advocate for others in the future.

Argument against mentioning these unless they really are major, fatal flows (in which case there is the issue of whether you should have told the person who asked you to write the letter for them that you couldn't write them a good letter):

Many (most?) letter-writers don't write anything negative in letters, so if a particular letter-writer does say something negative, however mild, that may doom the applicant's chances because all other candidates are apparently perfect (even if committees/individuals reading the letters know that the letters are likely to be somewhat incomplete in this way).

I think you've got to do what you think is right in each case, and just be as straightforward and unambiguous as possible. I have spent way too much time in committee meetings listening to people try to divine what is meant by a possibly somewhat ambiguous turn of phrase or choice of words -- is this a Red Flag intended to signal that the candidate is fatally flawed as a human being and a scientist, even though the rest of the letter is entirely positive, because the letter-writer didn't want to commit on paper to writing a major criticism? Or is that phrase just what it seems; a simple statement of something reasonably positive?

But maybe people will try to 'read between the lines' no matter how unambiguous you think you are being in your writing, and therefore it isn't worth anyone's time to try to psych the situation out.

These are some general "rules" that I try to follow for myself when writing letters (please add to the list with your own personal LoR-writing rules):

- I write what I think is fair, relevant, and useful in the context of the letter. I tailor each letter to each applicant and letter destination/purpose. I back up opinions with examples or other information.

- If the letter request contains specific questions or topics that should be addressed, I try to answer/address these as much as possible, unless I think the question/request is unreasonable. I have written before about requests to compare someone with their peers; that can be an extremely challenging request, fraught with potential for unfairness.

- If I don't have much to say about someone [and they are aware of this fact, but don't have other/good options for letter-writers], I keep the letter short. I explain that I had limited interaction with the candidate, so my short letter will be understood in that context, rather than that I was too busy to take the time to write a decent letter. I think some of the stranger letters I have read arose when the letter-writer started fishing around for things to say to bulk up a letter.

- I avoid personal information (hobbies, babies..) and irrelevant information about personality. Studies have shown that unconscious bias creeps into the adjectives we choose to describe the personality of female vs. male candidates, so I fight the urge to describe someone as "nice". If the person in question gets along well with others, there are other ways to explain that, such as with examples of successful collaborative work. I also don't think it is relevant to mention whether someone has a sense of humor; I think this is more common to describe in letters about male candidates than about female candidates, even though I doubt if the men are actually funnier than the women. [Yes, I know there are studies and debate about this.]

My letters are by no means perfectly crafted and compelling vessels of information, but I think it's important to try to write a good, useful, convincing letter. This takes time, of course, but it is time well spent.

What are some other Rules to Live By when writing a Letter of Reference?






14 responses so far

Stay or Go?

(by Science Professor) Nov 22 2011

A reader wonders whether it is a bad idea to do a postdoc in the same department/institution as the PhD (but in a different research group, with a different supervisor). This is an interesting question, and raises some related questions.

There are many possible combinations of staying and going in an academic career, from undergrad to postdoc and/or faculty position. I don't think it's worth making a distinction between those who do an MS and PhD at one or more institutions, as some departments require an MS along the way to the PhD, some don't require an MS at all, etc. Of course some people do get an MS and PhD at different institutions, but staying at one institution for an MS and PhD is not as significant as staying for some or all of the other stages of an academic career.

With that in mind, I would classify the extreme cases as:

case 1: different institution for every stage from undergraduate to faculty position (probably the most common, especially since those who go to undergrad institutions without grad programs have to move, by definition); and

case 2: two or more institutions the same for consecutive stages of undergrad, grad, postdoc, and/or faculty stages (most extreme case = all stages at one place).

I included the word consecutive in the second case because I think it is important to distinguish between those who return, perhaps many years later, to a former academic home and those who just stay.

I have seen diverging views of those who stayed in one place for undergrad-grad or grad-postdoc, from "S/he stayed at the same place because no one else wanted them" to "S/he is so awesome, University X didn't want them to leave".

I have also commonly seen in reference letters for undergrads applying to grad school, "I would gladly have accepted Z to stay on as my graduate student, but I know it is in his/her best interest to move on to another department." (implying that it is conventional wisdom that moving = better?).

As usual, I have lots of questions, and as usual, the most likely answer to most of them is "It depends..", but I think we can be a bit more specific than that, if only to make things more interesting. As usual, I hope that there will be many different points of view represented in the comments; e.g., from those who stayed, those who went, and those who are in a position to make decisions (e.g., hiring) about those who stayed vs. those who went.

Questions for discussion:

  • Is case 1 always better than case 2?  (my opinion: I think it is good to move if you have that flexibility, but case 2 is not by definition bad.)
  • And if you think so, is case 2 necessarily bad, or just not as good? (my opinion: case 2 is not necessarily bad; in some cases it might even be a better career opportunity to stay, although probably in most cases it's not better. I guess we could debate what are good vs. bad reasons to stay in one place, and whether we think this has positive or negative consequences.)
  • Does it matter which stages are involved? For example, undergrad and grad at the same institution is good (or bad), but grad to postdoc is bad (or good)? (my opinion: Above, I wrote about how many people think that it isn't in a student's best interest to stay from undergrad to grad, and I guess I have to agree with this. I have never wanted my best undergrads to stay on and work with me as grad students; I think they should move on. However, 'should' does not mean that I would be critical of someone who did this. I also think that the grad to postdoc situation is different, maybe even indicating something good about research momentum, ideas, independence, excellence etc.)
  • If someone does stay at one institution -- for example, from PhD to postdoc, as in the case of the person who wrote to me with this question -- does your opinion about staying vs. going change if there is an internal change from one research group to another? (my opinion: I don't think it is a strike against someone to stay in their grad department as a postdoc, especially if it's a short-term postdoc and certainly not if the project and/or advisor changes. Perhaps the grad/postdoc-to-be got their own funding? It's good if you can move and want to move, but it's not dire if you don't.)

I think these are the situations of most interest. Postdoc-to-faculty at one institution is going to vary a lot in goodness or badness depending on whether the postdoc is largely an independent scientist who clearly deserves to be hired in a faculty position (= good), or whether that person is someone's favorite minion and they are hired in an inside-job political move (= bad).

I have moved around a lot in my career, and I'm glad I did that (and had the flexibility and opportunities to do so), but academia is not one-size-fits-all, and there is room for all sorts of career paths followed by many different people with many different priorities, preferences, and experiences.

For me, it was important to move on from time to time. I met many interesting people, gained new collaborators, and developed new research directions in each place. Perhaps you can do this as well in a very large and dynamic institution, and therefore perhaps the key to whether staying vs. going is good vs. bad depends on what you do with your opportunities in each place.

27 responses so far

Independence Day

(by Science Professor) Nov 17 2011

Instead of including a specific e-mail question from a reader, the topic of today's post is a synopsis/synthesis of some related issues that I have seen in e-mails from students and advisors, not to mention my own semi-real life.

The question has to do with the independence of an advisee in research. I have seen issues related to independence raised by:

students who think they have too much independence; that is, too little advising or structure and little to no input on how they are doing in terms of progress and their advisor's opinion;

students who think they have too little independence; that is, they are told what to do and when to do it, and then they have to do what they are told. If they do what they are told for long enough, they may get their degree.

advisors who wish their students were more independent; that is, they wish their students wouldn't keep asking for instructions for every single stage of every project, even if the student could figure out some of these steps without asking, or have done this type of work before. I think we all understand that some students just want to make sure they are doing things right so they don't waste time or do something wrong, but some of these situations seem to involve extreme lack of independence to the point of not having any ideas and not developing any critical thinking skills.

advisors who wish their students were less independent; that is, they wish their students would keep them better informed of their work and progress instead of preferring to work alone, checking in only when necessary and not wanting any input or advice.

.. and everything in between those most extreme cases.

Of course some of this variation is related to personality type and perhaps also the sort of research involved, not to mention research group size and dynamics. But what, if anything, can be done about a mismatch in advisor-student preferences about independence in research?

As a long-time advisor, I can speak most directly about the second two scenarios listed above. If the advisor variable is relatively constant (not necessarily a good assumption), and the student variable changes (i.e., some students are too dependent, some too independent), the question is whether and how the advisor can explain what needs to change, why it needs to change, and perhaps how to change.

For example, a student who asks too many (unnecessary) questions about every single small thing could be told to try to do X alone next time, and then discuss how it went; and then the next time, they could do X and Y alone.. etc. You can figure out what is an appropriate level of help for the problem, technique, and people involved. Some students just need to be given the go-ahead to work independently and they will; others need the step-by-step approach to gain skills and confidence. And of course there is always the classic sink-or-swim approach: don't talk to me until you get to Z and we'll see how you did.

Similarly, a student who doesn't check in enough may simply need more specific communication about expectations. I have written before about students who submitted conference abstracts with me as a co-author but without showing me the abstracts prior to submission. In at least 2 cases that I can remember, the abstracts were bad in writing and content. Clearly these students should have checked these with me first and not been so independent as to skip that step. I would be very happy to give a quick read to a final or near-final version of something a student has written (especially if it has my name on it) -- the student is still being quite independent by writing something that only needs final, minor (or no) editing. Being independent does not mean that you have to go off and do everything yourself without any input from your advisors (although in some cases, with some, advisors, I suppose it does mean exactly that).

Readers, here are my questions for you on this topic:

- If you are a student, are you happy with the amount of independence you have? If not, is there anything you can do about it? If you are, is this just a happy coincidence, or did you (and your advisor) have to work this out?

- If you are an advisor, do you have any particularly effective methods that you use to develop what you consider to be the appropriate level of independence (or the type of research you do, for your research philosophy, etc.)? How common is it for you and your advisees to work out a mutually acceptable level of independence vs. having this be a continual source of frustration for one or both of you?

18 responses so far

Going in for the Kill

(by Science Professor) Nov 09 2011

A reader wonders (original e-mail shortened/edited):

I am interested on your take on the etiquette of Q&A sessions during talks: who, if anyone, should ask critical questions? By critical I mean any question with a clear orientation of "I don't buy your results much, if at all, and I'm going to ask about a deficiency in your work to see if you will give in and agree with me."

I've seen undergrads ask these types of questions (direct quote: "I don't understand the overall point of your research") and it be considered a major gaffe, in part because the critique was unsophisticated; I've seen post docs hone in on a methodological weakness and be perceived as too aggressive and outspoken for doing so in a direct manner; and I've seen senior, tenured faculty really go in for the jugular and everyone just thinks they are being mean like always but no one really tries to call them on it or rein them in.

At a talk yesterday, there was a potentially major flaw to the results presented. The speaker did not come across as credible, and at the end of the talk a senior faculty member went right in for the kill.

The thing is, I agreed with him, but as a 2nd year Ph.D. student I don't feel like I could phrase a question so directly. This made me wonder how I COULD phrase it if I wanted to politely but directly inquire. My question is, how would you phrase this type of pointed, critical question and do you think it's appropriate for a graduate student to do so (considering they have more on the line than tenured faculty).

As a spectator at a talk, I enjoy a well-posed killer question, no matter who delivers it, but I think that everyone, from first-year students to ancient professors, can be most effective at asking these questions if the questions are simple and polite. These questions are most satisfying if delivered to a worthy recipient -- that is, someone who enjoys questions, who isn't vulnerable (e.g., an interviewee), and who might be able to provide an interesting response.

It's not so great seeing someone destroyed in an aggressive way by piranhas in the audience.

I want to mention here that I think it is great when students and postdocs ask questions after a talk (or during, if that is the culture of a department), so the question is not whether early-career academic people should ask questions, it's specifically about how to ask killer questions.

Although I don't think I have an inflated view of the awesome brilliance and cosmic knowledge of professors relative to students, I think the person who wrote the letter is right to wonder whether it is somehow different for students than for others to ask these questions.

I admit that I am bothered if a student asks an apparently rude or aggressive question that seems to be based on the assumption that the student has the necessary knowledge to tell someone their work is pointless or flawed. Maybe they do (in which case, I am less bothered), but if they clearly don't, they come off as jerks.

Of course, faculty can be jerks as well, particularly if the faculty member doesn't know much (or anything) about the research they are attacking. I am not so bothered if someone (professor, student, postdoc, anyone) with relevant expertise is a bit aggressive and asks a really good, probing question. The best questions of this sort, though, are politely and simply expressed.

You don't have to bend over backwards to be polite. I also find it annoying when someone has a really long, self-deprecating preface to try to soften the blow of what might be a killer question. You can briefly say "Maybe I missed your explanation of this, but..", but then go for it. Or just ask your question, but focus on the material, not your opinion of it.

I understand that, even though some visitors to departments are told that they will be speaking to a general audience that includes students and people from a variety of sub-fields, some speakers make no effort to provide the necessary information for most people in the audience to understand the talk. It's fine to call them on this, and students should ask what questions they want to ask (politely).

If, however, a student's intent is to be aggressive and tear down someone's work, rather than their presentation style, they should be quite sure that they know what they are talking about.

Is there a polite way for anyone to say "I don't understand the overall point of your research"? Perhaps. First of all, it might be better to phrase it as a question (but not "What is the point of your research?"). What did the student mean by that statement? That they were confused or that they thought the research was pointless? It's not clear.

For example, if the student was trying to say that the speaker did a lousy job of explaining the context of the research and wants to know why the research was done, it's perfectly reasonable to ask "Could you take a step back and explain the overall motivation for this work?" (or ask for specific questions being addressed, or ask if this work has anything to do with [something you think is relevant and more interesting, without saying that]).

If, however, the purpose of the question was to say "I think your research is not worth doing", then, as I said, the asker of that question should be quite sure that they know what they are talking about.

If one of my advisees asked what I thought was a rude question, I would talk to them to see if they knew how their question sounded. Some apparently rude questions are asked without any intention of being rude, and it's just a matter of some friendly, constructive advice to fix the problem.

Does this post have a point? Maybe, maybe not, but I hope others will leave comments and weigh in on the topic.

25 responses so far

Should She Do It?

(by Science Professor) Nov 04 2011

A request from a reader for advice (original e-mail excerpted and slightly altered to preserve the anonymity of the writer):

I'm a tenure-track scientist, nearing the time of tenure evaluation (a year or two to go). Recently, a senior male colleague and I have developed mutal feelings for each other (we are both single), and are considering whether to pursue a relationship.  He is not much older than I am (about 10 years), but is a full professor and the chair of the department P&T committee.   Given our university's policies, romantic relationships are permissable but he'd have to be removed from any supervisory role (i.e., not allowed to vote on my tenure case or annual evaluations).  He has substantial concerns about what our potential dating might do to my career; I feel like we could manage these issues, but worry that I am perhaps being naive.

I'm curious whether dating a colleague ever works (particularly in the junior woman-senior man configuration), whether it always casts shadows over a young FSP's career to be involved with an older man in the field, whether there are things that can be done to mitigate the possibility of damage (e.g., not disclosing it at work beyond our department chair, as mandated by policy-- though obviously, if things work out, at SOME point we'd have to do so, and "we've been dating for 3 years and are getting married!!" may not be the way to do it; not publishing together; something else I'm not thinking about?)  Precisely how bad of an idea is this, exactly?

Other information: He has dated in our field before, so has a bit of a reputation (and met his ex-wife when she was a graduate student in a closely related discipline; she moved to another instution when they divorced.)

So far my pretenure evaluations have been positive but not home runs (my teaching and service are great, I should try to publish more than I do, though [description of recent improvements in publication record].

In general, I don't think it is a good idea to give relationship advice to someone you don't know. Yes, we out here in the blogosphere are, in theory, more 'objective' than this woman's friends in real life, but maybe in such cases objectivity is not a good thing -- we don't know these people and can only evaluate the situation from incomplete information.

But let's do it anyway.

Actually, I think that all we can really do that might be helpful is to say how we might view such a situation if we were in this woman's department or in her field.

I don't think I would really care one way or the other, or, at least, not in any way that would affect this woman's career. If I were in her department, I wouldn't vote against her for tenure, for example, just because she decided to date a senior colleague, even one with "a bit of a reputation".

That's not to say that there wouldn't be some consequences, especially within the department if the relationship doesn't go well, but I will leave it to others to go negative with their advice on this issue.

Beyond this specific situation, though, I was thinking about whether (and how much) it matters how successful the woman is in terms of how much freedom she has to pursue whatever relationships she wants, with no/fewer consequences.

For example, does it matter in this case that the woman in question, although apparently doing OK, wasn't hitting "home runs" in the early years of her tenure-track position? Does that change how we view people (in general, or women in particular) in terms of their professional and personal lives, or can we separate these? I think I view them separately, but am not sure that is true in general.

41 responses so far


(by Science Professor) Oct 27 2011

A reader who is working on some reviews for a high-impact Journal of the One-Word Name wants to know how to avoid being the kind of horror-story reviewer that writers of, and commenters on, blogs like to describe in scathing, gory detail.


Do you or your readers have any advice on what to do to not become one of those anecdotes, beyond the obvious stuff like don't steal ideas?  What is reasonable, as far as requests for additional data, when reviewing for a journal with essentially unlimited space for supplemental materials and very high standards?

Also, this journal asked me to review multiple papers by different groups working on similar problems.  They often publish multiple papers on the same topic in a single issue, with some accompanying commentary, to make it a theme issue.  I have been explicitly asked to compare the papers to each other, to ensure that similar work is reviewed at a similar standard.  This is not something that I've done before. Any thoughts?  To me it seems straightforward, and maybe even fairer than most processes, because it's more likely that similar work will meet similar standards, but I've heard horror stories about weird things happening when these journals want a theme issue.  Maybe there are some fairness issues that I'm overlooking.

I suppose that the simplest way to avoid becoming anybody's horror story is to recommend publication, because then the authors will have no reason to complain, but that approach has some rather obvious problems.

Indeed.. Let's assume that this person is semi-joking about the last comment. Clearly you have to give the best and most honest judgment you can, based on what is in the paper(s) under review.

And that's the key to the whole thing: Give your best judgment. Be critical, but polite and constructive. No matter what the journal.

As to the issue of proposing a lot of new research: Editors are ultimately the ones to blame for this, not (just) the reviewers. I could propose that the authors of a manuscript I am reviewing do 2 more years of intense data collection on the most expensive and inaccessible machines in the universe before the paper would meet my  standards, but the editor doesn't have to take that seriously.

Editors can ask authors to explain why such requests are unrealistic/unnecessary, or can use their own judgment and say "I know that Reviewer 2 proposed that you do a series of expensive and time-consuming new experiments/analysis (or whatever), but you can ignore that comment."

Or editors can concur with these recommendations by reviewers, in which case, you can try to argue with them (politely and briefly) or you can just take your awesome paper to another journal.

But back to what a reviewer can do:

When I review a manuscript that does seem to have a gap that could/should be filled, I think very carefully about how strongly I word my recommendation about new work. Options are:

Unambiguous/strong statement: This work is unpublishable without the following ....

More ambiguous but still quite strong: This work would be greatly improved and the conclusions much more believable if you did the following...

Passive-aggressive in a mild way: Although it would have been useful/better if you had [done this and that], I think that your interpretation/conclusion is quite/mostly reasonable given the data/analysis presented.

Nicest: I am not suggesting at all that you do this because I think the manuscript is publishable with the existing dataset, but I wondered if in future research on this topic if you would be able to do [this other interesting thing that would help answer some additional important questions].

The issue of supplying supplemental material is also a major concern for authors. You need to provide sufficient documentation of your work, but at some point it becomes absurd if most of the content of the paper is in the supplement, other than some cryptic text (that can't be understood without the supplementary info) published in the main body of the article. Reviewers should only request essential supplementary material that is not already provided, following the norms of their field for archival material.

In the end, it's the editor's call on whether to use or ignore the reviewers' comments about adding more material to the paper and/or doing more research to include in the paper. All you can do as a reviewer, if you want any hope that your time and effort will be worthwhile, is to write a thorough, constructive, interesting review that helps improve the paper and helps the editor weigh the various review comments and make a good decision. [I have not reviewed a series of papers on a theme before, but perhaps others can chime in on that topic.] This is true whether you are reviewing for Journal of the One-Word Name or Journal of the Most Obscure Topic in the World.

13 responses so far


(by Science Professor) Sep 27 2011

Below are excerpts from an e-mail I received from a reader. After much thought, I decided to "hide" part of the e-mail, even though doing so may make the resulting comments less useful to the person who e-mailed me. Before presenting the e-mail, let me explain why I am not including certain adjectives.

The e-mail is about graduate students/postdocs from a certain part of the world; in fact, I don't think it will be difficult to figure out which part of the world is in question. I can relate to the scenarios described, but have not found these problems to be quite so confined to students and researchers from one particular part of the world. Unfortunately, these problems can be universal (and I am including Americans in that universe), although the person who e-mailed me presents a convincing case for success advising a diverse, international group with the notable exception of students from a particular part of the world.

With that introduction, here is the e-mail and a respectful request for advice:

I seem to have the same fundamental problem in all cases: I ask the {deleted} researcher to do a task. He/she nods. The task doesn't get done. I follow up. He/she slightly evades the question, gives some information about something else he/she has done, or even flat out tells me that he/she has in fact performed the task. I end the conversation, and check again more carefully and see again that the task is definitely not done. I realize that the scholar either (a) decided that I was making a dumb request, and thought it would be more polite to verbally accept the task but not do it, than to object outright, or (b) didn't know how to do the task but thought it was culturally unacceptable to ask the appropriate questions to learn. But I don't know whether it was (a) or (b) and I don't know how to find out. I've tried explicitly laying out options (a) and (b) and asking the scholar in question, but all I get is more evasive but generally polite and affirmative answers. I've tried conducting these interactions verbally and in writing. I've tried being nice, I've tried being firm, I've tried threatening. I've tried explaining very explicitly that I have read about their culture, that I know they feel it is rude to say no or to object, but that here, in American culture, it is much worse to say something that is untrue, and that I welcome well-considered objections or questions. But I just can't figure out how to get honest (by American standards) answers.

.. I don't know how to handle this: how can I trust a researcher with $1M equipment, if every single question I ask is answered with "yes", and if I can't trust the researcher to tell me truthfully whether they have actually performed X task?

How can I break this cycle? I guess the obvious answer is that I'm an idiot to keep hiring {deleted}. But I can't bring myself to believe that.There are many brilliant and extremely hard working scientists in {that part of the world}, and I feel that there has to be some way to enable them to function productively in America. After all, the labs work smoothly enough there in {deleted}, and fantastic science is performed, and fantastic papers are written. How can this happen, if the researchers there aren't honest with each other? They must be honest with each other, but somehow I am failing to ask the right questions to get the honest answers here in my own lab.

Do you have any suggestions? Do you think any {deleted} readers of your blog {from that part of the world} would have any useful insight?

Readers? No matter where you are from or where you are now, if you have any positive or negative experiences with advising or collaborating with students and researchers from very different cultures, do you have any advice?

For reasons related to my incomplete anonymity, I prefer not to address this question directly from personal experience, although I will say that I have had a not-too-long-ago experience with a student -- not from the same part of the world as the one my correspondent describes -- who was unable or unwilling to give (apparently) honest answers to even simple questions and requests. I never did solve this problem, so it makes more sense for me to ask for advice than to give it.

This is not an invitation to bash people from a particular part of the world. The general question is how to deal with advisees who don't give you straight answers, including when it is critical for them to do so.

I didn't include the entire e-mail, but my impression of the person who wrote it is of a caring, thoughtful person who really wants to be a good mentor and who has tried many different approaches to improve the advisor-advisee relationship. I therefore hope that, despite my deletion of {a part of the world}, there will be some constructive advice from other readers about breaking through the cultural communication barrier in the advisor-advisee relationship.

28 responses so far

Author Credit Check

(by Science Professor) Sep 12 2011

A graduate student wrote and asked for advice; the e-mail is excerpted here:

I was hoping for some advice on dealing with another student in my research group, particularly in regard to author credit on a paper we submitted (where I was first author). We typically put the names from members of our group on our papers, because every member of the group helps out in some way.. This PhD student (who is senior to me) was supposed to help me with the paper, but came to meetings and did little else, avoiding meeting with me separately. Towards the deadline, this student sent out emails saying he was going to work on particular sections, and do an entire review of the paper, but he never completed either and silently let the deadline pass without any contact (without even an apology).

How would you deal with such a situation?  In particular, this bothers me because I helped this student with his [recent] submission .. by contributing ideas, writing and editing, and he did not reciprocate. I'm a new graduate student, and this is my first paper where I'm first author. I'm not really even sure of my role here. Who really has control over author lists on papers? Should I bring it up with our supervisor, and in what way? Does it really matter if he's credited as 5th (or so) author if he didn't contribute anything? I don't want to rat out a fellow student (who may be having problems), but I also don't like the idea of this student capitalizing on the rest of the group's work without contributing to it.
I don't know the dynamics of this research group, but it would be good if there were a way to have a general discussion about this topic with the advisor. Maybe, without ratting out the delinquent student, there is a way to ask questions about how authorship is decided.
If everyone-is-included-no-matter-what is just the way it is, it's not in this student's interests to single out a fellow student as a malingerer. If the slacker student has a systematic problem, the advisor likely knows and will have to deal with it in other contexts.
But other readers may disagree, perhaps reasoning that authorship is not an automatic right but one that should be earned in some way. I agree with this, but I am thinking about what is reasonable for a new graduate student to do in this situation.
The question of who gets to decide authorship order is an interesting one. Of course, different fields have different norms for authorship order, but in cases (such as the one in question here) in which inclusion and ordering relate to contribution (first = primary), some decisions have to be made.
In theory, the primary author should decide, and should be fair about this decision. Also in theory, the resulting decision shouldn't matter if the primary author is a student or a much-published professor, although in the case of a student who doesn't know the "authorship culture" of their fields -- e.g., who is a co-author, who gets a nice acknowledgment, and who is not included -- it's good to have a discussion about this with more senior people, perhaps getting more than one opinion. In some cases, authorship decisions about inclusion/exclusion and order may not be straightforward.
Different research groups, however, may have different philosophies about this, including possibly the one in question, in which all publications are group publications. In that case, it seems prudent to explore how hard-and-fast the everyone-as-coauthor custom is. Are there ever exceptions?
Does anyone have additional/different advice for this student?

26 responses so far

Like A Business

(by Science Professor) Aug 23 2011

In recent posts over at FSP, we have been discussing to what extent a professor should intervene if a student exhibits signs of possibly maybe (but probably not) needing to see a doctor. In the specific case described, an undergraduate student fell asleep during a meeting with a professor about the student's research project. Some commenters said that, despite the student's claim to be fine (not ill, not feeling faint etc.), the professor should have done more to insist that the student seek medical attention.

I don't want to talk about that specific case in more detail here, but one commenter's argument for more assertive intervention by the professor hinged on the opinion that we professors are supervisors and are therefore responsible for the physical and mental well-being of our "team members"; in this case, an undergraduate student.

Agree or disagree?

There is no doubt that we professors are managers in many ways. We supervise the work of our researchers, whether these are postdocs, graduate students, undergraduates, technicians, or others. Grants that we obtain pay the salary, benefits, and -- in some cases -- tuition of those we supervise. We fill out lots of forms.

And yet, there are differences. We are advisors, not employers. The employer is the university. If I have a problem with one of my graduate advisees (for example), I can't "fire" them in the way that employers can. I can remove myself as advisor, but if this occurs within the time-frame of their guaranteed support, my department has the responsibility of helping that student find another advisor, or facilitating the student's transfer to another department or institution. Similarly, if a student decides to change advisors, they can. In this way, they are treated more as students than as employees.

Perhaps the argument that professors aren't really employers or managers in a business or industry sense is analogous to the argument that students who are research and teaching assistants may (or may not, depending on your opinion) be "workers" in the same sense as employees who are not also students.

So, the question for discussion is whether (and/or in what ways) a professor has the same type and level of responsibility for the physical and emotional/mental well-being of their advisees as those in business or industry.

Certainly we professors are responsible for providing a safe, healthy, and fair working environment for our advisees, but what can/should we do beyond that? I know little of the non-academic world of work, and therefore have no idea how (or whether) an employer in industry would intervene in the personal life of an employee who showed signs of possibly/maybe having a health problem; for example, an employee who fell asleep during a meeting.

What, beyond asking the employee if they are OK, would/could a non-academic employer do? Is it really the same for a professor to ask probing questions about a student's health, as it is for an employer to ask an employee, or is it different?



33 responses so far

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