Is it harder, or easier, to publish in your field?


It takes time and effort to publish a paper. After all, if it were really easy, then publications wouldn’t be a workable (albeit flawed) currency in for success in the sciences.

I often have heard about how some labs experience a bigger or smaller MPU (minimum publishable unit) than others, as I’ve worked in biology departments with a lot of academic diversity.

For example, I once knew an immunologist in an undergraduate institution who spent five years of consistently applied effort, to generate a single paper on a smallish-scale project. This wasn’t a problem in the department, as everyone accepted the notion that the amount of work that it took to generate a paper on this topic was greater than what it would take for (say) physiology, vertebrate paleontology, or ecology.

As another example, I knew a physiologist who was one of the more productive professors in his teaching institution. This person was quick to minimize the research, claiming that it’s easier to get publications in physiology than in other disciplines. You run an experiment, you write it up, then boom, you have a paper. It’s not that much work at all, according to that person.

So, is it true that it’s harder to get a paper out in some fields?

I think it appears to be the case, especially when I think of differences among job applicants, and also that h-index values vary substantially among fields.

My lab took a molecular detour recently, and I can attest that the molecular part of the paper was not a mountain of data but required a few months of focused lab work, as well as thousands of bucks in reagents. (That said, the fieldwork for this paper took way more time and was more expensive.) And we had collaborators who smoothed out the rough spots on the molecular end, too.

What running an experiment, you need to do one thing, which takes a lot of stopping, starting, and pauses. Then do something similar again, and again. It takes months of time in the lab, even if it doesn’t take months of work in the lab. Why do scientists drink so much coffee? Because they always are waiting twenty minutes for something. (Meanwhile, genomics seems to have different constraints.)

A lot of the work in ecology can be done in parallel, while molecular work usually has to be done in serial. So if I have a small team working together really hard over a summer, we can be sure to get a paper out of it. A small team in a molecular lab? Probably not.

If you have a couple undergrads working in a molecular lab over the summer, there is a cap on productivity, no matter how hard-working the students are. You probably won’t (and probably shouldn’t) get more than 8-10 hours of benchwork out of a person per day. Moreover, in eight hours of benchwork, you’re not really getting eight hours of work, because at least from my perspective, there seems to a fair bit of waiting around for a PCR, a gel, an incubation, or something.

I manage to get a lot of hours of time – and work – per student over the summertime. I get this to happen by taking students to a distant field station, where they work for the whole summer. (This takes a few weeks of my time, plus being consistently available for email and video chat for the rest of the summer.) At the field station, students have little to do other than work. They sleep and eat right next to work, and they’re working alongside other scientists who are working their butts off. The amount of time and work that my lab might put in over one summer, counted in hours doing science, can be equivalent to several summers of work in a M-F 8-5 lab.

We can design experiments that can maximally benefit from replication and hard work in the field. The more time we put in, the quicker and better we get to a paper. That sounds normal, but I think most molecular papers can’t be cranked out in a short period of time in an undergraduate-powered lab, no matter how hard everybody works.

Here is an idea: Though it is harder to get papers out in some subfields over others, maybe it doesn’t require more work? Let me explain. Perhaps the number of person-hours required to get work done for a paper is equivalent among subfields. However, in different disciplines, it may be more or less difficult to get those person-hours accomplished. When my lab flies down to the rainforest, and we work really hard together for a few weeks, that’s a lot of time and effort. (I don’t think I’ve seen any other PI at the field station for weeks at a time for several years.) Even if one of my former deans once referred to it as “vacation.”

Okay, that idea in the preceding paragraph is probably off. I think it’s possible for a quick paper to be knocked out in evo/eco/behavior if you have an interesting idea or access to certain resources. A lot of amazing papers are now getting published with pre-existing data, by people who don’t make their own measurements and are really good at managing data and doing analyses. A good idea goes a long way.

As another example, I’m writing this post on a lazy Sunday morning in the midst of a two-week trip to the field (in Darwin, Australia). I’m setting some students up with a mentor here for their own long-term projects, but I’m able to take about eight days in the lab to do a short little project on a cool and weird behavior that nobody really understands. It won’t change the world, but it’s fascinating to me and I think it’s a nice bit of experimental natural history. If I am a writing monster, the manuscript from this project could be (should be?) finished before my plane touches down at home. It won’t be a big paper, but it’ll get published in a real journal and will “count” for those who are counting pubs. No one is going to mistake this for a big-time discovery, but I’m not going to say that this is an “easy” project. Nevertheless, my colleagues who are molecular biologists probably don’t have the option of hopping on a plane and coming home two weeks later with a brand new manuscript that could be submitted to a decent discipline-specific journal.

Do you think it’s easier to get a paper out in some fields rather than others? More importantly, what is the prevailing attitude in your department? Are these things taken into account when making hiring decisions, and in tenure criteria?

The academic cold contact


A lot of science that gets done these days results from collaboration. Collaborations can come about it a multitude of ways. Of course there is the classic networking approach. You know someone they know, or you meet at a conference or a departmentally hosted seminar. But what do you do when you’d like to collaborate with a person/group that you haven’t met? As my research expands, I am finding myself making contact with people I don’t know more frequently. Hence the academic cold contact. Continue reading

Why I’m a little sour on crowdfunding


Here’s an idea for a new way to fund science: We can just create websites about our projects, and then ask taxpayers to vote for competing research proposals, based on which ones they see on social media.

I didn’t say it was a good idea. This is, essentially, what crowdfunding is. Continue reading

Recommended reads #44


If you haven’t read it yet, Terry Wheeler’s post, “20 Years in the Professor Game: things I did right and things I did wrong.” is just so great. (I’ve been playing the game for just fifteen, but found that this really spoke to me and reflected the same things I’ve screwed up and the same things I’ve done right.) This post got a lot of attention after it came out, and rightfully so.

Piotr Naskrecki made a top-notch super-duper high quality video about the biology of human bot flies, filming the critters that he was reared out. This is the link to share with someone when you need to explain bot flies. (Of course, just because you tell students what to do with a bot fly when they get one, doesn’t mean that the’ll follow your advice.)

In public colleges, student tuition now contributes more than state funding.

Who are scientists? When we try to differentiate ourselves from those who aren’t scientists, we need to be honest and inclusive about all the different places, organizations and people that are doing good science. This is a great piece by Alex Bond.

The Royal Society drafted up a document to tell universities and PIs about how PhD students need to hear about career options while they are in grad school.

Here is a delicious and spot-on rant by Auriel Fournier: “‘At least they don’t seal the fire exits,’ Or why unpaid internships are BS.”

There was a nice article in Nature about the history of how R has evolved to become a standard statistical platform in some fields. It’s really an interesting story.

First day of class activities that promote a climate of learning.

American Naturalist has just gone double-blind! Now reviewers have to pretend that they don’t know which lab group produced the article that they’re reviewing.

Speaking while female. It’s important that men read this piece. Especially those who don’t typically care about these issues. If it helps, one of the two authors is named Adam.

California condors that have been introduced into the wild don’t get much privacy from the researchers constantly keeping tabs on them. Except, apparently, for this pair of birds that had a baby and raised it for nine months without any notice.

The Royal British Columbia Museum might not be hiring a new curator for their mighty nice and important entomology collection. Let’s hope they maintain this position, and give them some encouragement.

Buy some nice, and quite reasonably priced, paintings that were made by ants. And this is how they were made.

Are Black Colleges Boosting Minority Representation in the Sciences? This article in The Atlantic explains how under-resourced and under appreciated campuses are pulling the heavy weight in training the next generation of scientists. And they’re doing it by being collaborative.

This article in The Economist explains how World War II changed the field of statistics, and how statistics changed the war. Fascinating.

Here is a blog post that claims to have a list of the best research articles about the science of teaching and learning. I’m not in a position to decide whether that’s true.

A fun post by Meg Duffy about teaching ecology with Pablo Escobar’s hippos. And a nice illustration about how our lessons are taste the best when seasoned with current events.

Andrew Hendry wrote a great How To Do Statistics post. It’s full of all of the good opinions, at least in my book.

Maya Lin — who is famous for designing the breathstopping memorial to the Vietnam War in Washington, DC — has designed a memorial for all of the organisms that we have lost. What is missing.

Here’s an informative and example-laden post about how Undergraduate Journals Are a Good Thing. I’m not sure I agree, but this is still interesting reading. (I have a long list of posts that I haven’t yet written, and one of those is about how I think undergraduate journals might not be doing much good at all, or that the not-good outweighs the good.)

You know bar charts. You know box plots. Do you know violin plots?

What are the new frontiers in Animal Behavior? Here’s what an NSF-supported workshop thinks.

What it’s like to be an adult college student with ADHD.

Buzzfeed Science goes entomophobic. Having serious journalists at the masthead clearly doesn’t keep them from publishing muck.

Take a stand against abusive advising.

Academia has too many frickin’ mixers.

What’s the new low price of gasoline in the US? About 25 fatalities per day.

Posting a preprint before a paper is in press puts you at risk for being scooped.

The Myth of Learning Styles.

PLOS apparently is asking authors to provide personal bank statements in order to get consideration for a fee waiver. Since this blog post came out, PLOS said on twitter that they don’t ask for personal bank statements. But here’s the thing: they did. So who are we to believe, PLOS’s twitter account or the quotes in the blog post? I’ll take the latter. They didn’t seem to offer any subsequent explanation or apology. The lesson is: don’t submit to PLOS if you can’t afford the pricey page charges, unless you don’t mind sharing your bank statements with them.

Siobhan O’Dwyer explains how our academic work is treated like a mass-produced trinket, but it’s really a hand-crafted artisanal product.

Academic assholes and the circle of niceness.

Jeff Ollerton asks and answers, “What do academics do once the research is published?” He points out that a third of all biology papers are never cited, and explains what we should be doing to fix that.

The American Museum of Natural History has started a video series called Shelf Life that takes us into their collections. It looks promising.

“Although scientists of all ethnicities reported losing interest in faculty careers as their doctoral studies continued, women’s loss of interest was more pronounced, particularly for underrepresented minorities.”

For some links, thanks to Marielle Anzelone, Kate Clancy, and Matt MacManes.

Authorship when the first author is the senior author


Authorship conventions are based around assumptions that research was done under the umbrella of a research institution.

It’s often just fine to assume that the first author did the most work, and the last author is the senior author who is the PI of the lab that enabled the project.

That’s a fair assumption, so long as the senior author and the first author are different people. In my circumstance, when a paper comes out of my lab, I’m typically the first author and the senior author. Continue reading

Experiments can sell your science, even if they’re not going to work


We typically need manipulative experiments to truly know how a biological system works.

Nevertheless, on most days, I feel that the subculture of ecology suffers from a fetish for manipulative experiments. In some cases, people design experiments that don’t entirely make sense because they know that the reviewers and the community will value that experiment more than observational research. Even if the experiment isn’t really that informative. Continue reading

Standards-based grading


As we start up the new semester, this is an apt time to evaluate, and update or change, our grading schemes.

I don’t like giving grades. I wouldn’t assign grades if I didn’t have to, because grades typically are not a good measure of actual learning.

Over the least year, I’ve heard more about a new approach to assigning grades, that has a lot of appeal: “standards based grading,” in which students get grades based on how well they meet a detailed set of very clearly defined expectations. This is apparently a thing in K-12 education and now some university instructors are following suit. Continue reading

Recommended reads #43


In an intentional experiment in peer review, the organizers in a computer science conference discover that half of the papers accepted to the conference would have been rejected if the review process were rerun. (Note: in computer science, conference presentations are the meaningful currency of academic productivity, not journal pubs.)

The University of Alaska is suspending its chemistry degree, because it can’t find faculty to work there.

Two weeks ago, very few people clicked through on the really good Veritasium link to a short video about effective teaching. Maybe if I explain how great it is, more people will click through?

The two cultures of mathematics and biology. If you read this piece all the way through, then you’ll learn a lot about the deep and unfortunate division between biology and math as academic fields, and how much we are missing out on as a result of this divide.

Are black colleges boosting minority representation in the sciences?

9 major takeaways from a MOOC called “An introduction to evidence-based undergraduate STEM teaching.”

How does segregation happen and what are two possible routes to promoting integration? The Parable of the Polygons is an interactive simulation that answers this question, which I wager will be interesting informative, even for those who feel like they have a conceptual handle on these issues.

Here’s a strong-emotioned take on the pitfalls and inequity in the pass/fail system. It raises some important points about how pass/fail courses give an additional disadvantage to students who are already disadvantaged.

“Because you will always have low observed power when you report non-significant effects, you should never perform an observed or post-hoc power analysis, even if an editor requests it. Instead, you should explain how likely it was to observe a significant effect, given your sample, and given an expected or small effect size.”

This study of hype in press releases will change journalism.

In the New York Times, a story about how “colleges reinvent classes to keep more students in science.” It’s nice that news about not lecturing during lesson time in class is getting more press. (By the way, if you’ve exceeded your free reads in the NYT, you can just circumvent that by going into your browser’s private mode.)

Just as a reminder for prepping your syllabus and lessons for the upcoming semester, Meg Duffy maintains an annotated list of videos that are great for teaching, which just got a number of new additions. (And no, this is not a “curated” list, not that she called it one.)

Best wishes for a wonderful 2015. For links, thanks to Chemjobber, Richard Lenski, and Corrie Moreau.

Dead grandmothers no more: the equal accommodation classroom


Let me tell two anecdotes to put the Dead Grandmother Syndrome in perspective.

I remember when I was a student in Evolutionary Biology in my junior year of college. Right before the midterm, I got really sick with the flu. I felt like hell and doing normal things seemed like a physical impossibility. If I took the miderm, I would have gotten a horrible score, only because I was so darn sick. Continue reading

Recommended reads #42


I’ve mentioned this before, but it bears re-mentioning. NSF’s Division of Environmental Biology has a superb and informative blog, DEBrief. The latest post is called: How to win over panels and influence program officers: advice for effective written reviews. If you’ve ever wondered what NSF wants to know when you’re writing a review and the best way to write one, this is what to read.

There is a useful and detailed “mentoring” section on the lab page of Anna Dornhaus, of the University of Arizona. These pages include a lot of links to other resources, separated for undergrads, grad students, and postdocs.

An open letter to parents of college students, from Hope Jahren.

Preparing students for class: How to get 80% of students reading the textbook before class. This is a peer-reviewed paper in a physics journal. But the abstract says it works just as well for biology courses. So there.

From Veritasium, so frickin’ good, a 7-minute video: This Will Revolutionize Education. It explains the history of dumb technological fads in education. The best line, of many, in this video: “The fundamental role of a teachers is to guide the social process of learning.” Totally worth your while, and worth even more the time of your administrators. If you can dupe your adminfolk to watch this, even better.

The invasive hippos of Colombia are getting fixed. Fixed, as in, “take Rover to the vet to get fixed.” This is not a small task. You knew about the invasive hippos, right? It turns out that druglord Pablo Escobar had two hippos in his private zoo. A boy and a girl. And then in the aftermath of the Escobar empire, they just sort of made their way beyond the Escobar estate. So far, these hippos have only suffocated one cow, to our knowledge.

Jeremy Fox had a post at Dynamic Ecology reviewing the various tools that we can use to detect plagiarism, in addition to the widely used Turnitin service. The comments on the post are also useful. (On my campus we use Turnitin, which is integrated with our online course management system. And it gets lots of exercise in our department.)

Scientists are not that smart. Science is about effort and creativity.

This is hilarious. A pair of annoying pundits were doing their annoying punditry on C-SPAN, and their mom called into the show. To scold them for being so annoying. The first thirty seconds are hilarious, just to see the looks on their faces.

How far do you go with collaborative coding? Simon Goring makes the point that when you’re the collaborator dude on a project, it matters that other people in the project can understand what you’re doing. On the other hand, the reason people collaborate with coders is because they provide specialized skills, but working to avoid being needlessly inaccessible is still important.

I apparently missed this great piece in TREE two years ago by Fischer, Ritchie & Hanspach: about the important of Quality of science over Quantity of science in publishing. Box 1 in the paper has a very specific “roadmap” to get academia beyond quantity. The road looks as navigable as the road to Mordor or the route in the Phantom Tollbooth, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth the trip. Euan Ritchie puts this paper in perspective on his site.

What do obscenely inexpensive oil prices mean for the future of oil exploitation? To keep this place from becoming a furnace, massive amounts of oil reserves must stay in the ground, resulting in lost profit for people making money off of greenhouse gas emissions. It’s a dilemma that as we become more fuel efficient and ramp up use of alternative energy sources, the demand for oil will drop relative to supply, resulting in cheap oil prices. Which’ll in turn make people want to use oil. Here’s a piece where we hear what Al Gore has to say about it.

There’s a new tree for birds, with a lot of interesting finds.The Avian Phylogenomics Project site, which manages to be both slick and useful. Among the key results are that what we’ve called raptors are, for sure, not a monophyletic group. And a lot, lot more.

This new field station built by the University of Chicago is a gorgeous structure. So purty that it was written up with a bunch of photos in the New York Times Home and Garden section.

One year ago (back when people would leave comments with additional recommended reads, boy that was great, hint hint), Wendy recommended the book The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate. Well, I finally read it. It was really good. If there’s an aspiring naturalist in your life, especially though not necessarily a tweenish girl, this could be a nice present. And I just saw while preparing this link that next year a followup is due! That will be a nice read, I bet.

I recently put in my preorder for Rob Dunn’s next book, The Man Who Touched His Own HeartI imagine it’ll be at least as half good as his last two, which makes it a must-read.

Please list comments with other great reads over the last couple weeks! For links, thanks to Kelle Cruz and Emilio Bruna. Note that posts will more sporadic over the holidays and beyond, in part because I’m away on fieldwork for half of January.