When scientists are dishonest


A case of scientific dishonesty has hit close to home and got me thinking. This isn’t a post of the details of the case (you can read more here if you’re interested) or the players involved (I don’t know them more than to say hi in the hallway) or to comment this particular case since I don’t have any more information than what is publically available. So if you’re looking for insider gossip, the following is bound to disappoint. Instead this example has got me reflecting in general about scientific dishonesty and what I can do about it. Continue reading

Natural history, synthesis papers and the academic caste system


It’s been argued that in ecology, like politics, everything is local.

You can’t really understand ecological relationships in nature, unless you’re familiar with the organisms in their natural environment. Or maybe not. That’s probably not a constructive argument. My disposition is that good ecological questions are generated from being familiar with the life that organisms out of doors. But that’s not the only way to do ecology. Continue reading

Who you know really matters


People say that it can be important to go to conferences once in a while because “networking” is important.

I wouldn’t put it that way. I would say that, for junior scientists, attending a conference regularly is critical because knowing people in your field is necessary for academic success. This is particularly true if you don’t have prestigious connections.

It’s not what you know, it’s who you know. It’s a cliché, but it’s one I’ve seen affirmed time and again. Continue reading

The dangers of twitter


When I first joined twitter, I was nervous I might mess up somehow. I wanted to use my professional identity but because no one around me* was using twitter, I didn’t know how it would be perceived. Also, we’ve all heard about disastrous mistakes on social media that have lead to personal and professional fallout. Although I didn’t think I would do anything that extreme I was worried about job applications and such. So in short, I was cautious and worried about the dangers of putting myself out there on twitter. Now over two years and some 6000+ tweets later, I am less so**. Continue reading

Public scientists, the twitterverse, thought police, feminism, and the fanatical mob


I’m on vacation. But while I was posting a few photos on social media (amazing National Parks and a wooden carving of bigfoot drinking a beer) I stumbled on some extended silliness among fellow scientists that I want to discuss. Luckily, I woke up early, my family is sleeping in, so here goes.

A very-routine event has somehow caused some a great worry: A famous person said something rather hideous. This hideous opinion was put in quotes and got circulated on twitter. A storm-of-righteous-indignation built on twitter, and spilled over onto facebook and other media outlets. Within a few days, this famous person got “in trouble,” insofar as a famous and powerful person can genuinely get in trouble for voicing a contemptuous opinion.

This is a very common story. It’s a little different because of the specifics: Continue reading

We’re number 33!


We’re number 33!

According to the latest rankings by Time Magazine, my current university — California State University Dominguez Hills — is ranked #33 in the nation. Among more than 2,500 colleges and universities.

As people on campus have been quick to point out, Harvard is several spots below us. (If you’re curious, UC Riverside comes out as #1. California public universities are featured quite well on this list.).

How the heck could this be? This survey used new variables that the current US federal government is using to classify universities on how well they serve their students. It takes into account cost, graduation rate, and rates of student aid. If you remove graduation rate from the equation, we come in at #4. Here’s the take on it from the CSUDH campus.

What does this mean, and what does this change?

I think the only thing it means is something we’ve already known: College rankings reflect the values that you put into the equations. Colleges with massive endowments and extraordinarily high rates of alumni giving have done well in the rankings that have been the common currency, used by the US News and World Report. If you measure affordability and accessibility, then you get entirely different results, reflecting entirely different values.

If you look at the differences that we make in the lives of our students, we deliver. Moreover in many cases, the differences that we make would not have been made unless we made them. As we prepare for graduation this upcoming weekend, this is something that’ll be on the forefront of my mind.

What does this change? As far as I know (and this is not too extensive in this regard) this could be one of the first national quantitative rankings that doesn’t place our campus in the bottom quarter. Some — though not that many — of my colleagues on campus have a severe inferiority complex about our place of work. It is true that we are under-resourced, which manifests in many limitations. We have always said, “We serve our students well!” and now it’s nice to have this form of external validation.

This also is more than just window dressing, because to some extent these rankings can drive federal policies. I think they were just invented so that the predatory for-profit “universities” can’t use public money for private profit. But at least on our campus, this is a win, and we’ll take it.

Did you hear about this ranking? How did your campus fare? What do you think these Time rankings mean and don’t mean?

I own my data, until I don’t.


Science is in the middle of a range war, or perhaps a skirmish.

Ten years ago, I saw a mighty good western called Open Range. Based on the ads, I thought it was just another Kevin Costner vehicle. But Duncan Shepherd, the notoriously stingy movie critic, gave it three stars. I not only went, but also talked my spouse into joining me. (Though she needs to take my word for it, because she doesn’t recall the event whatsoever.)

The central conflict in Open Range is between fatcat establishment cattle ranchers and a band of noble itinerant free grazers. The free grazers roam the countryside with their cows in tow, chewing up the prairie wherever they choose to meander. In the time the movie was set, the free grazers were approaching extirpation as the western US was becoming more and more subdivided into fenced parcels. (That’s why they filmed it in Alberta.) To learn more about this, you could swing by the Barbed Wire Museum.

The ranchers didn’t take kindly to the free grazers using their land. The free grazers thought, well, that free grazing has been a well-established practice and that grass out in the open should be free.

If you’ve ever passed through the middle of the United States, you’d quickly realize that the free grazers lost the range wars.

On the prairie, what constitutes community property? If you’re on loosely regulated public land administered by the Bureau of Land Management, then you can use that land as you wish, but for certain uses (such as grazing), you need to lease it from the government. You can’t feed your cow for free, nowadays. That community property argument was settled long ago.

Now to the contemporary range wars in science: What constitutes community property in the scientific endeavor?

In recent years, technological tools have evolved such that scientists can readily share raw datasets with anybody who has an internet connection. There are some who argue that all raw data used to construct a scientific paper should become community property. Some have the extreme position that as soon as a datum is collected, regardless of the circumstances, it should become public knowledge as promptly as it is recorded. At the other extreme, some others think that data are the property of the scientists who created them, and that the publication of a scientific paper doesn’t necessarily require dissemination of raw data.

Like in most matters, the opinions of most scientists probably lie somewhere between the two poles.

The status quo, for the moment, is that most scientists do not openly disseminate their raw data. In my field, most new papers that I encounter are not accompanied with fully downloadable raw datasets. However, some funding agencies are requiring the availability of raw data. There are a few journals of which I am aware that require all authors to archive data upon publication, and there are many that support but do not require archiving.

The access to other people’s data, without the need to interact with the creators of the data, is increasing in prevalence. As the situation evolves, folks on both sides are getting upset at the rate of change – either it’s too slow, or too quick, or in the wrong direction.

Regardless of the trajectory of “open science,” the fact remains that, at the moment, we are conducing research in a culture of data ownership. With some notable exceptions, the default expectation is that when data are collected, the scientist is not necessarily obligated to make these data available to others.

Even after a paper is published, there is no broadly accepted community standard that the data that resulted in the paper become public information. On what grounds do I assert this? Well, last year I had three papers come out, all of which are in reputable journals (Biotropica, Naturwissenschaften, and Oikos, if you’re curious). In the process of publishing these papers, nobody ever even hinted that I could or should share the data that I used to write these papers. This is pretty good evidence that publishing data is not yet standard practice, though things are slowly moving in that direction. As evidence, I just got an email from Oikos as a recent author asking me to fill out a survey to let them know how I feel about data archiving policies for the journal.

As far as the world is concerned, I still own the data from those three papers published last year. If you ask me for the data, I’d be glad to share them with you after a bit of conversation, but for the moment, for most journals it seems to be my choice. I don’t think any of those three journals have a policy indicating that I need to share my dataset with the public. I imagine this could change in the near future.

I was chatting with a collaborator a couple weeks ago (working on “paper i”) and we were trying to decide where we should send the paper. We talked about PLOS ONE. I’ve sent one paper to this journal, actually one of best papers. Then I heard about a new policy of the journal to require public archiving of datasets from all papers published in the journal.

All of sudden, I’m less excited about submitting to this journal. I’m not the only one to feel this way, you know.

Why am I sour on required data archiving? Well, for starters, it is more work for me. We did the field and lab work for this paper during 2007-2009. This is a side project for everybody involved and it’s taken a long time to get the activation energy to get this paper written, even if the results are super-cool.

Is that my fault that it’ll take more work to share the data? Sure, it’s my fault. I could have put more effort into data management from out outset. But I didn’t, as it would have been more effort, and kept me from doing as much science as I have done. It comes with temporal overhead. Much of the data were generated by an undergraduate researcher, a solid scientist with decent data management practices. But I was working with multiple undergraduates in the field in that period of time, and we were getting a lot done. I have no doubts in the validity of the science we are writing up, but I am entirely unthrilled about cleaning up the dataset and adding the details into the metadata for the uninitiated. And, our data are a combination of behavioral bioassays, GC-MS results from a collaborator, all kinds of ecological field measurements, weather over a period of months, and so on. To get these numbers into a downloadable and understandable condition would be, frankly, an annoying pain in the ass. And anybody working on these questions wouldn’t want the raw data anyway, and there’s no way these particular data would be useful in anybody’s meta analysis. It’d be a huge waste of my time.

Considering the time it takes me to get papers written, I think it’s cute that some people promoting data archiving have suggested a 1-year embargo after publication. (I realize that this is a standard timeframe for GenBank embargoes.) The implication is that within that one year, I should be able to use that dataset for all it’s worth before I share it with others. We may very well want to use these data to build a new project, and if I do, then it probably would be at least a year before we head back to the rainforest again to get that project done. At least with the pace of work in my lab, an embargo for less than five years would be useless to me.

Sometimes, I have more than one paper in mind when I am running a particular experiment. More often, when writing a paper, I discover the need to write different one involving the same dataset (Shhh. Don’t tell Jeremy Fox that I do this.) I research in a teaching institution, and things often happen at a slower pace than at the research institutions which are home to most “open science” advocates. Believe it or not, there are some key results from a 15-year old dataset that I am planning to write up in the next few years, whenever I have the chance to take a sabbatical. This dataset has already been featured in some other papers.

One of the standard arguments for publishing raw datasets is that the lack of full data sharing slows down the progress of science. It is true that, in the short term, more and better papers might be published if all datasets were freely downloadable. However, in the long term, would everybody be generating as much data as they are now? Speaking only for myself, if I realized that publishing a paper would require the sharing of all of the raw data that went into that paper, then I would be reluctant to collect large and high-risk datasets, because I wouldn’t be sure to get as large a payoff from that dataset once the data are accessible.

Science is hard. Doing science inside a teaching institution is even harder. I am prone isolation from the research community because of where I work. By making my data available to others online without any communication, what would be the effect of sharing all of my raw data? I could either become more integrated with my peers, or more isolated from them. If I knew that making my data freely downloadable would increase interactions with others, I’d do it in a heartbeat. But when my papers get downloaded and cited I’m usually oblivious to this fact until the paper comes out. I can only imagine that the same thing could happen with raw data, though the rates of download would be lower.

In the prevailing culture, when data are shared, along with some other substantial contributions, that’s standard grounds for authorship. While most guidelines indicate that providing data to a collaborator is not supposed to be grounds for authorship, the current practice is that it is grounds for authorship. One can argue that it isn’t fair nor is it right, but that is what happens. Plenty of journals require specification of individual author contributions and require that all authors had a substantial role beyond data contribution. However, this does not preclude that the people who provide data do not become authors.

In the culture of data ownership, the people who want to write papers using data in the hands of other scientists need to come to an agreement to gain access to these data. That agreement usually involves authorship. Researchers who create interesting and useful data – and data that are difficult to collect – can use those data as a bargaining chip for authorship. This might not be proper or right, and this might not fit the guidelines that are published by journals, but this is actually what happens.

This system is the one that  “open science” advocates want to change. There are some databases with massive amounts of ecological and genomic data that other people can use, and some people can go a long time without collecting their own data and just use the data of others. I’m fine with that. I’m also fine with not throwing my data in to the mix.

My data are hard-won, and the manuscripts are harder-won. I want to be sure that I have the fullest opportunity to use my data before anybody else has the opportunity. In today’s marketplace of science, having a dataset cited in a publication isn’t much credit at all. Not in the eyes of search committees, or my Dean, or the bulk of the research community. The discussion about the publication of raw data often avoids tacit facts about authorship and the culture of data ownership.

To be able to collect data and do science, I need grant money.

To get grant money, I need to give the appearance of scientific productivity.

To show scientific productivity, I need to publish a bunch of papers.

To publish a bunch of papers, I need to leverage my expertise to build collaborations.

To leverage my expertise to build collaborations, I need to have something of quality to offer.

To have something of quality to offer, I need to control access to the data that I have collected. I don’t want that to stop after publication.

The above model of scientific productivity is part of the culture of data ownership, in which I have developed my career at a teaching institution. I’m used to working amicably and collaboratively, and the level of territoriality in my subfields is quite low. I’ve read the arguments, but I don’t see how providing my data with no strings attached would somehow build more collaborations for me, and I don’t see how it would give me any assistance in the currency that matters. I am sure that “open science” advocates are wholly convinced that putting my data online would increase, rather than constrict opportunities for me. I am not convinced, yet, though I’m open to being convinced. I think what will convince me is seeing a change in the prevailing culture.

There is one absurdity to these concerns of mine, that I’m sure critics will have fun highlighting. I doubt many people would be downloading my data en masse. But, it’s not that outlandish, and people have done papers following up on my own work after communicating with me. I work at a field site where many other people work; a new paper comes out from this place every few days. I already am pooling data with others for collaborations. I’d like to think that people want to work with me because of what I can bring to the table other than my data, but I’m not keen on testing that working hypothesis.

Simply put, in today’s scientific rewards system, data are a currency. Advocates of sharing raw data may argue that public archiving is like an investment with this currency that will yield greater interest than a private investment. The factors that shape whether the yield is greater in a public or private investment of the currency of data are complicated. It would be overly simplistic to assert that I have nothing to lose and everything to gain by sharing my raw data without any strings attached.

While good things come to those who are generous, I also have relatively little to give, and I might not be doing myself or science a service if I go bankrupt. Anybody who has worked with me will report (I hope) that am inclusive and giving with what I have to offer. I’ve often emailed datasets without people even asking for them, without any restrictions or provisions. I want my data to be used widely. But even more, I want to be involved when that happens.

Because I run a small operation in a teaching institution, my research program experiences a set of structural disadvantages compared to colleagues at an R1 institution. The requirement to share data levies the disadvantage disproportionately against researchers like myself, and others with little funding to rapidly capitalize on the creation of quality data.

To grow a scientific paper, many ingredients are required. As grass grows the cow, data grows a scientific paper.

In Open Range, the resource in dispute is not the grass, but the cows. The bad guy ranchers aren’t upset about losing the grass, they just don’t want these interlopers on their land. It’s a matter of control and territoriality. At the moment, the status quo is that we run our own labs, and the data growing in these labs are also our property.

When people don’t want to release their data, they don’t care about the data itself. They care about the papers that could result from these data. I don’t care if people have numbers that I collect. What I care about is the notion that these numbers are scientifically useful, and that I wish to get scientific credit for the usefulness of these numbers. Once the data are public, there is scant credit for that work.

It takes plenty of time and effort to generate data. In my case, lots of sweat, and occasionally some venom and blood, is required to generate data. I also spend several weeks per year away from my family, which any parent should relate with. Many of the students who work with me also have made tremendous personal investments into the work as well. Generating data in my lab often comes at great personal expense. Right now, if we publicly archived data that were used in the creation of a new paper, we would not get appropriate credit in a currency of value in the academic marketplace.

When a pharmaceutical company develops a new drug, the structure of the drug is published. But the company has a twenty year patent and five years of exclusivity. It’s widely claimed – and believed – that without the potential for recouping the costs of work in developing medicines that pharmaceutical companies wouldn’t jump through all the regulatory hoops to get new drugs on the market. The patent provides incentive for drug production. Some organizations might make drugs out of the goodness of their hearts, but the free market is driven by dollars. An equivalent argument could be wagered for scientists wishing for a very long time window to reap the rewards of producing their own data.

In the United States, most meat that people consume doesn’t come from grass on the prairie, but from corn grown in an industrial agricultural setting. Likewise, most scientific papers that get published come from corn-fed data produced by a laboratory machine designed to crank out a high output of papers. Ranchers stay in business by producing a lot of corn, and maximizing the amount of cow tissue that can be grown with that corn. Scientists stay in business by cranking out lots of data and maximizing how many papers can be generated from those data.

Doing research in a small pond, my laboratory is ill equipped to compete with the massive corn-fed laboratories producing many heads of cattle. Last year was a good year for me, and I had three papers. That’s never going to be able to compete with labs at research institutions — including the ones advocating for strings-free access to everybody’s data.

The movement towards public data archiving is essentially pushing for the deprivatization of information. It’s the conversion of a private resource into a community resource. I’m not saying this is bad, but I am pointing out this is a big change. The change is biggest for small labs, in which each datum takes a relatively greater effort to produce, and even more effort to bring to publication.

So far, what I’ve written is predicated on the notion that researchers (or their employers) actually have ownership of the data that they create. So, who actually owns data? The answer to that question isn’t simple. It depends on who collected it, who funded the collection of the data, and where the data were published.

If I collect data on my own dime, then I own these data. If my data were collected under the funding support of an agency (or a branch of an agency) that doesn’t require the public sharing of the raw data, then I still own these data. If my data are published in a journal that doesn’t require the publication of raw data, I still own these data.

It’s fully within the charge of NIH, NSF, DOE, USDA, EPA and everyone else to require the open sharing of data collected under their support. However, federal funding doesn’t necessarily necessitate public ownership (see this comment in Erin McKiernan’s blog for more on that.) If my funding agency, or some federal regulation, requires that my raw data be available for free downloads, then I no longer own these data. The same is true if a journal has a similar requirement. Also, if I choose to give away my data, then I no longer own them.

So, who is in a position to tell me when I need to make my data public? My program officer, or my editor.

If you wish, you can make it your business by lobbying the editors of journals to change their practices, and you can lobby your lawmakers and federal agencies for them to require and enforce the publication of raw datasets.

I think it’s great when people choose to share data. I won’t argue with the community-level benefits, though the magnitude of these benefits to the community vary with the type of data. In my particular situation, when I weigh the scant benefit to the community relative to the greater cost (and potential losses) to my research program, the decision to stay the course is mighty sensible.

There are some well-reasoned folks, who want to increase the publication of raw datasets, who understand my concerns. If you don’t think you understand my concerns, you really need to read this paper. In this paper, they had four recommendations for the scientific community at large, all of which I love:

  1. Facilitate more flexible embargoes on archived data
  2. Encourage communication between data generators and re-users
  3. Disclose data re-use ethics
  4. Encourage increased recognition of publicly archived data.

(It’s funny, in this paper they refer to the publication of raw data as “PDA” (public data archiving), but at least here in the States, that acronym means something else.)

And they’re right, those things will need to happen before I consider publishing raw data voluntarily. Those are the exact items that I brought up as my own concerns in this post. The embargo period would need to be far longer, and I’d want some reassurance that the people using my data will actually contact me about it, and if it gets re-used, that I have a genuine opportunity for collaboration as long as my data are a big enough piece. And, of course, if I don’t collaborate, then the form of credit in the scientific community will need to be greater than what happens now, which is getting just cited.

The Open Data Institute says that “If you are publishing open data, you are usually doing so because you want people to reuse it.” And I’d love for that to happen. But I wouldn’t want it to happen without me, because in my particular niche in the research community, the chance to work with other scientists is particularly valuable. I’d prefer that my data to be reused less often than more often, as long as that restriction enabled me more chances to work directly with others.

Scientists at teaching institutions have a hard time earning respect as researchers (see this post and read the comments for more on that topic). By sharing my data, I realize that I can engender more respect. But I also open myself up to being used. When my data are important to others, then my colleagues contact me. If anybody feels that contacting me isn’t necessary, then my data are not apparently necessary.

Is public data archiving here to stay, or is it a passing fad? That is not entirely clear.

There is a vocal minority that has done a lot to promote the free flow of raw data, but most practicing scientists are not on board this train. I would guess that the movement will grow into an establishment practice, but science is an odd mix of the revolutionary and the conservative. Since public data archiving is a practice that takes extra time and effort, and publishing already takes a lot work, the only way will catch on is if it is required. If a particular journal or agency wants me to share my data, then I will do so. But I’m not, yet, convinced that it is in my interest.

I hope that, in the future, I’ll be able to write a post in which I’m explaining why it’s in my interest to publish my raw data.

The day may come when I provide all of my data for free downloads, but that day is not today.

I am not picking up a gun in this range war. I’ll just keep grazing my little herd of cows in a large fragment of rainforest in Sarapiquí, Costa Rica until this war gets settled. In the meantime, if you have a project in mind involving some work I’ve done, please drop me a line. I’m always looking for engaged collaborators.

Why I write with my own name


This post was written in concert with four others on the same topic, which can be found at this link on Hope Jahren’s site.

When you click on “about,” you see my unveiled face and my real name. Some of my credibility – and the lack thereof – comes from who I am and what I have done. It’s self-evident that the identity of the messenger affects how the message is received.

It is my hope that my identity gives more credence to my words. If I talk the talk, then I’d like to show that I walk the walk. If I write about research productivity, then I need to show that I actually, you know, publish. If I write about mentorship, then a cranky person can track down my students. Of course, any writer should be judged by one’s words and not by one’s credentials. So, the credence that I might get from my identity would only be temporarily bought, from the population that is unfamiliar with the mores of the pseudonymous science “blogosphere.” That turns out to be most people.

Before I started blogging, I did a little bit of amateur sociological fieldwork. I learned that most people don’t read blogs on a regular basis. I learned that a visit to a blog can be like arriving at an intimate party where you don’t know anybody. In contrast, I want my blog to be approachable to everybody. I want to be the guy who walks over to the front door, says “Hi, I’m Terry. Come on in. Can I get you something to drink? Let me introduce you to these folks.” I want every single blog post to be able to stand on its own, and to not make any references to other people or other blogs that aren’t fully understandable to a novice.

And I want people to know who is addressing them. It’s more approachable to guests who just put their foot through the front door. I’ve written more here about my approach to running my site so that it is transparent, professional, and inclusive. I’m not claiming that my approach is better than others, but I try to be different in a way that, I hope, broadens the audience.

Compared to most other bloggers, it’s easy for me to be public: I represent the trifecta of privilege as a tenured white man. And I’m straight. I don’t have to worry about the job market anymore, and I won’t be attacked because of my gender or ethnicity, like some of my colleagues.

It’s my duty to use this relative comfort to agitate for change. It’s the best and most important part of my job.

I am the great grandchild of wops and micks who immigrated into a low-income ethnic enclave of New York City. I fight a similar battle as my great grandparents, not for myself but on behalf of my students. My lab is mostly composed of students from traditionally underrepresented groups, from low-income backgrounds, who are often the first in their families to attend college. Every day, I work to ameliorate the mountain of prejudice and disadvantage facing my students.

I can stick my neck out on occasion. I can press for student rights, call out bias, and encourage practices that make sure that the future generation of scientists looks like the American populace. My privilege doesn’t come without minor challenges. I need to be clear about my awareness of power differentials and where privilege lies. While I have been working very hard to declare myself as an ally and advocate, I’ve heard far too often that I’m not the right person to advocate for my students. But I won’t shut up, and it’s a challenge that I’m up to, because these things matter.

It’s rare that people accuse me of being out of touch because of my tenured-white-dudeness, but it happens. The last time I touched on the topic of my pseudonymity, I got burned. A formerly-pseudonymous colleague posted my name and picture, right next to a picture of herself with a black eye from a vicious assault, suggesting that attitudes like mine were partly to blame. One commenter remarked that I am a danger to children. My crime was ignorance of the fact that some people have good reasons to use pseudonyms. Like I didn’t know that or something. I was also guilty of not doing a literature search on the history of writing about pseudonymity in the “blogosphere.” You know you’re been shamed when the author has to write a caveat that you’re not actually being shamed.

I’m okay with the occasional potshot because risks are necessary to make change. The real risk is that I am a highly flawed model for the change I wish to see. I write about being an effective professor, but I was denied tenure. I push for more and better mentorship of minority students and women, but I’m a white guy. I write a regular set of posts on efficient teaching but I’m not winning any teaching awards. I write about time management and how to do research with a heavy teaching load, but lately I’ve been in the classroom much less than my departmentmates.

I’d like to help change the environment so that more people find it possible and worthwhile to write with their own names. For some, that environment already, tenuously, exists. This post by tressiemc about her choice to use her own identity is powerful and inspirational. I applaud her courage, and I believe we all stand to gain from it.

Based on the volume of what I’ve written, there is no shortage of people who consider me to be a rube, buffoon, blowhard, or a narcissist. That’s a chance I’ve taken. But these challenges and worries are infinitesimal compared to the truckloads of bunk that my students, and many of my junior colleagues, have to face every day. Because I am capable of using my own name while writing on their behalf, I am.

Journal prestige and publishing from a teaching institution


Finally. There are journals publishing quality peer-reviewed research, but leave it to the reader to decide whether a paper is sexy or important. Shouldn’t this be better than letting a few editors and reviewers reject work based on whether they personally think that a paper is important or significant?

This newish type of journal uses editors and reviewers to assure quality and accuracy. The biggie is PLoS ONE. A newer one on the block is PeerJ. Another one asked me to shill for them on this site.

The last few years have seen a relatively quick shift in scientific publishing models, and there has been a great upheaval in journals in which some new ones have become relatively prestigious (e.g., Ecology Letters) and some well-established journals have experienced a decline in relative rank (e.g., American Journal of Botany). These hierarchies have a great effect on researchers publishing from small ponds.

Publishing in selective journals is required to establish legitimacy. This is true for everybody. Because researchers in small teaching institutions are inherently legitimacy-challenged, then this is the population that most heavily relies on this mechanism of legitimacy.

Researchers in teaching institutions don’t have a mountain of time for research. Just think about all of the time that could be spent on genuine research, instead of time wasted in the mill of salesmanship that is required to publish in selective journals. (I also find that pitching research as a theory-of-the-moment to be one of the most annoying parts of the business.)

With new journals that verify quality but not the sexiness, we can hop off the salesmanship game and just get stuff published. Sounds great, right?

After all, the research that takes place at teaching institutions can be of high quality and significant within our fields. But, on average, we just don’t publish as much. That makes sense because our employers expect us to focus on teaching above all else.

Since we’re less productive, then every paper counts. We want to get our research out there, but we also need to make sure that every paper represents us well. What we lack for in quantity, we need to make up for in (perceived) quality.

How do people assess research quality? The standard measure is the selectivity of the journal that publishes the paper. It’s natural to think that a paper in American Naturalist (impact factor 4.7) is going to be higher quality than American Midland Naturalist (impact factor 0.6).

People make these judgments all the time. It might not be fair, but it’s normal.

And no matter how dumb people say it might be, no matter how many examples are brought up, assessments of ‘journal quality’ aren’t going away. No matter how much altmetrics picks up as another highly flawed measure of research quality, the name of the journal that publishes a paper really matters. That isn’t changing anytime soon.

The effect of paper on the research community is tied to the prestige of the venue, as well as the prestige of the authors. Fame matters. If any researcher – including those of us at teaching institutions – wants to build an influential research program, we’ve got to build up a personal reputation for high quality research.

Building a reputation for high quality research is not easy at all, but it’s even harder while based at a teaching institution. Just like having a paper in a prestigious journal is supposed to be an indicator of quality research, a faculty position at a well-known research institution is supposed to be an indicator of a quality researcher. Since our institutional affiliations aren’t contributing to our research prestige, we need to make the most of the circumstances to establish the credibility and status of the work that comes out of our labs.

If journal hierarchies didn’t exist, it would be really hard for researchers in lesser-known institutions, who may not publish frequently, to readily convince others that their work is of high quality. Good work doesn’t get cited just because it’s good. It needs to be read first. And work in non-prestigious journals may simply go unread if the author isn’t already well known.

If journal hierarchies somehow faded, it’s not as if the perception of research quality would evolve into some perfect meritocracy. There are lots of conscious and unconscious biases, aside from quality, that affect whether or not work gets into a fancy-pants journal, but it is true that people without a fancy-pants background still can publish in elite venues based on the quality of their work. This means that people without an elite background can gain a high profile based on merit, though they do need to persevere though the biases working against them.

If journals themselves merely published work but without any prestige associated with them, then it would be even more difficult for people without well-connected networks to have their work read and cited. It wouldn’t democratize access to science; it would inherently favor the scientists with great connections. At least now, the decisions of a small number of editors and reviewers can put science from an obscure venue into a position where a large audience will see it. On the other hand, publishing in a journal without any prestige, like PLoS ONE, will allow work to be available to a global audience, but actually read by very few.

If I want my work to be read by ecologists, then publishing it in a perfectly good journal like Oikos will garner me more readers than if I publish it in PLoS ONE. Moreover, people will look at the Oikos paper and realize that at some point in its life, there was a set of reviewers and an editor who agreed that the paper was not only of high quality but also interesting or sexy enough to be accepted. It wasn’t just done well, but it’s also useful or important to the field. That can’t necessarily be said of all PLoS ONE papers.

Not that long ago, I thought that these journals lacking the exclusivity factor were a great thing because it allowed everybody equal access to research. What changed my mind? The paper that I chose to place in PLoS ONEI chose to put a paper that I was really excited about in this journal. It was a really neat discovery, and should lead to a whole new line of inquiry. (Also, the editorial experience was great, the reviewers were very exacting but even-handed, and the handling editor was top notch.)

Since that paper has come out just over a year ago, there have been a number of new papers on this or a closely related topic. But my paper has not been cited yet, even though it really should have been cited. Meanwhile they’re citing my older, far less interesting and useful, paper on the same topic from 2002.

Why has nobody cited the more recent paper? Either people think that it’s not relevant, not high enough quality, or they never found it. (Heck, the blog post about it has been seen more times than the paper itself.) Maybe people found it and then didn’t read it because of the journal. It’s really a goddamn great paper. And it’s getting ignored because I put in PLoS ONE. I have very little doubt that if I chose to put it in a specialized venue like Insectes Sociaux or Myrmecological News, both good journals that are read by social insect biologists, that it would be read more heavily and have been cited at least a few times. This paper could have been in an even higher profile journal, because it’s so frickin’ awesome, but I chose to put it in PLoS ONE. Oh well, I’ve learned my lesson. There are some papers in that venue that get very highly cited, but I think most things in there just get lost.

I would love for people to judge a paper based on the quality of its content rather than the name of the journal. But most people don’t do this. And I’m not going to choose to publish in a venue that may lead people to think that the work isn’t interesting or groundbreaking even before they have chosen to (not) read it. I’ll admit to not placing myself on the front of reform in scientific publishing, even if I make all of my papers immediately and universally available. I have to admit that I’m apt to select a moderately selective venue when possible, because I am concerned that people see my research as not only legitimate but also worthwhile. I’m not worried that my stuff isn’t quite good, but I want to make sure it’s not done in vain. Science is a social enterprise, and as a working scientist I need to put my work into the conversation.

Why host a speaker?


I recently went over why seminar speakers might give a talk.  Now, the flipside:

What is to be gained by inviting and hosting a seminar speaker?

There are institutional advantages to running a seminar series: to promote an intellectual atmosphere in a department, build a diversity of viewpoints, train students and keep everybody current. However, when an individual person or laboratory decides to host a particular guest speaker, there are other primary motives at work.

Here is a non-exclusive list of goals of hosts, that could explain why certain speakers are picked for a seminar series.

Schmoozing for a postdoc.  I think this is the main reason that speakers are invited. Grad students want to be able to land a postdoc, and PIs want their students to land postdocs. Bringing in potential postdoc mentors to build relationships with graduate students is an old tradition.

Hang out with your intellectual hero.  There’s something special about academically famous people in your field. The chance to visit just have a coffee with, say, Bert Hölldobler or Dan Janzen would be mighty darn cool. When I was in grad school, one person I invited was Ivette Perfecto. My main motivation was because because her science is just so darn awesome, and the chance to hang out with her was tremendous.

Quality time with a friend. Wouldn’t it good to see an old pal you haven’t seen for a while, and catch up on what work they’ve been doing?

Being an alpha. Hosts could invite junior speakers in their same field which are sure to be flattering of their more esteemed hosts whom they are visiting.

Be a beta. Hosts could invite senior researchers in their field, upon whose feet they may grovel. How is this different from hanging out with your hero? Betas are looking for status and opportunity, while it’s also possible to invite someone for less careerist motives.

Develop the career of another scientist. It could be that you just want to give an a good experience to a junior scientist who does good work, who could stand to benefit from giving an invited seminar.

Work with a collaborator. Some work is a lot easier, or more effective, when you’re in the same room, rather than using various methods of remote communication. Why not bring your collaborator out on the department’s dime?

Build a culture of inclusiveness. It’s no accident that most visiting speakers that I invite to my university’s lecture series are early career women, often with an international background or from underrepresented groups. This helps promote the careers of these scientists who are at a structural disadvantage because of biases in the system. An even stronger motivation, from my standpoint, is that these speakers are inspirational role models for our students, most of whom are minority women. I can talk about a commitment to diversity until my white face turns blue, but the fact of who I am speaks more than my words. Regular exposure to the experiences of senior doctoral students, postdocs, and junior faculty who have backgrounds not so different from my own students are critical. This isn’t the only factor involved in extending an invitation, but it’s a big one for myself and others at my institution.

Trade favors.  Bringing a speaker out might be to make someone owe you a favor or a way to repay a favor. This could be to help out someone’s postdoc, or help out someone with a shaky tenure case who could use a bit of external validation. This might sound like a silly motive, but not without precedent. Once, when I was organizing a symposium, someone asked me for a speaking slot, and if I did this favor, this person said that I would be invited for the seminar series.

Show grad students a variety of career options. The flawed default mode in many universities is that moving onto an R1 faculty position is the natural and expected progression after grad school. However, the majority of Ph.D. recipients don’t go this route. Inviting people who work in industry, NGOs, and governmental agencies can help broaden perspectives.  Also, of course, you could invite a researchers based out of a teaching institution. This will definitely widen the job horizons of grad students.

Entertainment value. Some people are invited because they’re known for giving a really great talk, will fill the house, and will bring not only reflected praise on the hosts but also a good time.

Learning science. Some people actually invite seminar speakers because they want to learn about the science that’s being done by the guest.

And that’s it for the list. Feel free to add the ones that I’m forgetting in the comments. Or to tell a funny story, for that matter. We could use more funny stories in the comments, right?

Hittin’ the lecture circuit


Over the next couple weeks, my show is going on the road!

Tour dates:

  • 18 Oct 2013 – Boulder
  • 28 Oct 2013 – Miami

No tickets required. I am likely to entertain, and there’s a good chance of some enlightenment. There’ll be fun natural history, big questions, medium-sized answers, and a refutation of dogma.

It’s not frequent that a person from a teaching-focused university, like myself, ends up getting invited to give a talk at an R1 institution. It’s not a freak of nature or anything like that either. But if you look at the roster of speakers in most seminar series, it’s usually a roll call of other research universities. So, when you see the roster of the departments hosting me, it tends to look something like this:

Moab sticker

If you think that’s self-deprecating humor or some kind of dig at myself, please look in the mirror. Because Moab rocks. I love being from (the metaphorical) Moab. Clearly, Moab is the outlier, just like California State University Dominguez Hills is an outlier among Stanford, UMass, and the University of Vermont. That’s not a bad thing; I think it’s wonderful.

I just read something written by a professor who just left her job at an R1 university for a job at a Liberal Arts College, in order to solve a 2-body problem, and she is still settling into the new job:

I am learning that folks still define themselves as researchers here.

This shows that there is still plenty of work to be done, when a researcher shows up on campus and doesn’t even realize that her own colleagues are also researchers, and perceive of themselves that way!

One of these days, perhaps, it won’t be so surprising that tenure-track faculty at colleges and universities see themselves as researchers, and that the broader community will recognize the same. The more they invite me, and other research-oriented faculty from teaching institutions, to seminars at R1 universities, this fact should become self-evident to grad students before they leave grad school.

If universities aren’t inviting research-active faculty from teaching institutions as a part of their seminar series, then they are only perpetuating the misrepresentation of the status quo in higher education.

But for the moment, these invites are uncommon, and it provides an extraordinary opportunity to show folks what kind of research happens at my university. I’m excited for the trip because it’s going to blow some folks away how badass my stuff is, and how many of them won’t even see it coming.

I’ve got my work cut out for me, because whether I like it or not, I’m representing a whole class of researchers who do great work in teaching institutions. Even after I give a kickass talk, it’s inevitable that at least a few people will think that I’m punching above my weight. But if I go in with that kind of attitude, then that would only reinforce the false notion that I might have a chip on my shoulder about not coming from a research institution. Am I conscious of the issues face by researchers in teaching institutions and how we are perceived? Of course I am – I started a whole blog about it!

So, I’m just visiting to have fun, hang out with fellow biologists, share what I can, and learn what I can. And if you’re on the front range or on the toenail of the Florida panhandle, then maybe we can chat about your stuff, frontiers in the community ecology of rainforests, and, of course, ants.

More on seminar series tomorrow.

A little literature on how pseudonymity may alter reach or impact


Recently, I wondered in a post whether the vagueness of the identity of an author affects the dissemination and acceptance of the author’s ideas.

It doesn’t matter to me whether someone chooses to write under a pseudonym. Nevertheless, is true that some audiences receive messages with greater skepticism — or more credulity — if the creators don’t reveal their identity. This fact was rapidly confirmed, by responses from those with pseudonymous blogging experience. There were comments and posts, reporting that some people are fed up with people in power (tenured white men) claiming that pseudonymous blogs are lame.

Meanwhile, the specific idea that I was addressing in the post was mostly overlooked. While some people rebutted an argument I never made (about the choice to use a pseudonym), only a couple comments addressed my question with substance, and I’m still interested in the topic. What are the consequences of pseudonymity for the impact of a message, and what factors shape that relationship? I found that the answer isn’t readily available, but here is some of what I’ve found.

For starters, here are some examples that I didn’t bring up in my post, because I was mostly focused on Banksy. I was surprised that nobody in the comments pointed out that the first t-test was published by an initially pseudonymous author, “Student.” Clearly, that was a success.

In the realm of politics, I’ve always been curious how the authors of the Federalist Papers thought about how their (then) anonymity affected the influence of their writing, and apparently it’s debatable about whether they actually had an influence on how ratification happened. And, I wonder how sales of Primary Colors would have been different (higher or lower?) if Joe Klein’s identity was never concealed, instead of being revealed six months after publication.

Clearly, whether or not a message connects to a serious cause of a disenfranchised group matters. I would have thought that there would be more scholarship on this, but then again I probably have lost my touch at searching the literature outside the sciences. I found an interesting article (“How I Look”: Fanny Fern and the Strategy of Pseudonymity) about Fanny Fern, whose use of a pseudonym was tied to gender-based discrimination. (Note that the guy who wrote this article is a white dude.) It remains unclear whether her popularity would have been different if she had used her own name, and grounds for speculation.

What about what happens on online communities? They do function better when members are pseudonymous. This wasn’t a surprise to me, but might be to those who have claimed say that pseudonyms are used to bully others. Here are two articles on the topic:

Anonymously productive and socially engaged while learning at work: Quickie summary: Having a pseudonym results in more collaboration, and more chattiness.

Impact of Anonymity (Unlinkability, Pseudonymity, Unobservability) on Information Sharing Quickie summary: Having a pseudonym results in more and better sharing of information online. Does this mean that they have a bigger effect offline? Unclear, and grounds for speculation.

Let’s take a look at when speaking out on an issue really matters: whistleblowing. One commenter on my earlier post explained how protecting oneself from reprisals was important in her line of work. I wanted to find out whether whistleblowing was more likely to lead to action, based on whether or not the whistleblower was anonymous. I couldn’t find that much on this, based on a moderately cursory search, but the one thing I did find clearly indicated that when one’s identity is hidden then a whistleblowing alert is far less likely to result in any action than when the whistleblowers put themselves on the line by including their identity.

Clearly, whistleblowers have great reasons for protecting themselves by hiding their identities. However, this concealment of their identity unfortunately also limits the effectiveness of their own whistleblowing actions. This is the kind of phenomenon I had in mind while writing my original post. I don’t want to generalize from it, but I wanted to share it with readers because this is the kind of information I was interested in when I posted about it earlier.

On pseudonymity and making a difference in the world (updated)

New York City

New York City

My favorite pseudonymous person out there, without a doubt, is Banksy.

If you aren’t familiar with Banksy, check out some of his work. It’s spectacular. I’m not a professional art critic so I won’t say more about why this body of work rocks. Banksy’s work can speak for itself.

Because of his primary medium – public structures – people who own these structures are making huge profits by selling his work to private individuals though he designed it to be seen in public.

I don’t think he imagined several years ago, that a public wall would be removed from a structure so that his stencil graffiti would be sold at auction as fine art. I think it’s kind of awesome – a work of art highlighting the profiteering nature of humanity – that graffiti can become so valuable so quickly. The irony is delicious, that graffiti is undesirable by a property owner, unless it can be sold.

Banksy’s work is, arguably, a victim of its success, in that it is taken from the public after it is made.

The art of Banksy features a set of criticisms that are best seen broadly by the public. It is successful as social commentary, and the whole point of it, I would guess, is that they get seen by people.

If Banksy were not pseudonymous, he could create all kinds of public art, that would be far more likely to stay intact. But that’s not the way he rolls. In my opinion, part of the beauty of the work is the the lack of clarity in its origin, and that Banksy creates wealth out of a patch of wall that otherwise would be overlooked.

Since we don’t know who Banksy is, it’s easier for me to imagine that he is speaking for many of us. On the other hand, because we don’t know who Banksy is, it’s been said that he lacks credibility. I don’t think that’s true, but to many, without an identity his work is always going to have the same credibility of all other graffiti artists who are, technically, tagging illegally. I think his credibility comes from the great art itself, but that’s not a universally held notion.

I think there is a ceiling to how much difference Banksy can make in the world, because of his pseudonymity. I don’t think the social impact of something like Picasso’s Guernica could be matched by any single work by Banksy because the origin of the message matters along with the artist itself. We all might like to say that a novel, a painting, or a scientific paper can and should be seen on its own without looking at the creator. But, really, who the creator is matters, a lot. We know Banksy by his work, that’s not quite the same. The veil matters. People will think that he doesn’t have any skin in the game. In Banksy’s case, the veil is part of the art itself.

Closer to my own realm, some of the louder voices on the internet about life in science come from a cadre of pseudonymous science bloggers.

They don’t blog about their own science, because, well, then the veil would be lifted from the pseudonym. There are many real concerns that the pseudonymous science bloggers have, about life balance, gender equity, federal funding policies, research transparency, academic misconduct, and other stuff, including shoes.

This might be obvious, it wasn’t initially to me: a pseudonym makes a blog more personal.

This week, one topic that’s come up among pseudonymous bloggers is the fact that things are a lot harder for women in science compared to men, especially for those who have kids. These pseudonymous people seem to want change in culture and policies, in the direction of equity. There are some interesting discussions, and a lot of great ideas. But, even though the pseudonymous blogs are aimed at the public, it’s all very much a private endeavor. Because the pseudonymous people are not known, at least formally, then there is a low ceiling on impact. (Of course, I bet that these pseudonymous blogs are far more widely read than this site, so I’m not arguing that I’m having more of an impact.) For example, the impact of the well-known blog Pharyngula is much greater (and mostly negative, I think) because its creator is not pseudonymous. Putting a face and name — and a public home address to boot — for the author of that blog makes both him and his words more credible.

So, what really is the point of all of discussions on pseudonymous science blogs? I honestly don’t know. I imagine it’s for the entertainment of those running the sites, to form an internal community, and to influence the lives of those who follow these sites and are interested in the experiences of these pseudonymous individuals. But I could be wrong. I suspect the veil of pseudonymity really limits what a blog can do more than the identity of the author limits the reach of a blog.

Anybody can have a site, and write whatever they want in it, and communicate with others however they want. I’m just trying to make sense of both motivations and outcomes, and I’m still confused. In the meantime, there is a clear asymmetry between what can and does happen between pseudonymous sites and those with unveiled faces.

When I started this site, I thought the distinction between the two was minor, but over time the risks and opportunities from being overtly public are more known. I’m still in the not-making-much-difference-in-the-world phase, but, well, there’s lots of time.

UPDATE: While it wasn’t intended in any way, some pseudonymous bloggers — whose work I respect — are reading this post as a dig against pseudonymous blogs. I don’t know how broad this perception is, but since I’m a regular reader — and fan — of some pseudonymous blogs I’d like to clarify that I don’t have any negative thoughts about pseudonymous blogs, and I don’t question the validity of pseudonymous blogs.

As to the specific questions I asked, there is now some good discussion about them. These questions are, apparently, old hat to pseudonymous bloggers but not yet to myself. Considering that a pseudonymous blog is what got me started in the first place, I am familiar with the genre, but not the specific motivations of the authors. What I didn’t know is — in addition to those who have quite legitimate concerns about physical safety — the relationship between a concealed identity and the ability to affect the cause that is the reason for the identity to be concealed. Folks have made some strong arguments that a pseudonymous author can affect their cause in the non-blogging world just as as well as one who uses their real identity. There are lots of great viewpoints.

When I write “I honestly don’t know” or “I’m confused,” about a topic, then that is the truth. It isn’t concern trolling, These words represent my ability to profess not understanding something. To their credit, experienced bloggers have rolled in and helped create understanding, in the comments (which are worth reading) and other posts (which can be found in the comments).

Pseudonymous bloggers have been writing for years under their assumed identities, and think about their reasons and the consequences every day, I would think. Those issues are not something I think about every day. So if I write a blog post, open to comments, about something which I’m wondering, I do appreciate it when I have constructive and informative comments, which I have received. Thanks to all of you for those.

Holding my own with the big boys and girls


Coming from a teaching institution, I consistently push against the stereotype that I can’t be as good as someone from a big research institution.

Last week I had the pleasure of speaking in a symposium along with a couple of the most prominent people in tropical biology. There were other good, non-famous, people there too. It was great fun, and I gave a damn good talk, even though the topic was slightly outside my normal line of research. After the conference, a periodic collaborator of mine told me that I was able to “hold my own” with the high-powered crowd. This was clearly a form of congratulations. Keep in mind that this is a person who I’ve known for over fifteen years.

What I thought, and didn’t choose to say, is: “That’s a funny thing to mention. Of course I did. Why would you think otherwise? Would somebody think that I might not be able to?”

If I worked at a big research university, nobody would have ever congratulated me on “holding my own” in the presence of more esteemed scientists. I would just be expected to fit in. If anything, my presence in the symposium should indicate my enhanced stature, not a temporary ability to be acceptable in the presence of the great ones.

Why didn’t I tell my buddy that this compliment wasn’t a compliment? Why didn’t I say that he revealed his own bias, or his own low expectations?

I didn’t say anything because it wouldn’t do any good. I’d sound petulant. Some might say that I’d be looking for an insult where one was not intended. (Perhaps that what readers are thinking now.) Perhaps it would give the false impression that I’m unhappy.

I don’t see the remark about “holding my own” as a personal insult because I understand that it originated from a bias against my employer rather than against my work. This is especially the case because this colleague is in an entirely different subfield and I doubt he’s read many, if any, of my papers.

In that symposium, there were many people in my sub-subfield in attendance, who are quite familiar with my work. I don’t know what they were thinking, and I’m not going to ask. All I can do is continue to show again, and again, and continually, that I belong. Maybe one day, my colleagues won’t have to compliment me on holding my own with the big boys and girls.

The relationships among fame, impact and research quality


I just read a particularly interesting post by Dr. Becca about life about halfway through the tenure track that got me thinking, particularly one section:

I feel like most of my job right now is to be famous… What I mean by this is that I’m pretty sure a lot of my future success is going to depend on whether people remember my name when they review my grant applications and manuscripts…

What determines your success? How famous you are.

Most famous scientists have a history of excellent research with high impact. And most researchers with a history of excellent research with high impact are famous. (Fame, that is, among scientists.) However, the r2 on this relationship is well below 1. What explains the variance?

What are the factors that makes you more famous, or less famous, than would be merited by your research quality?

Is the impact of your research — how much it influences the work others — closely tied to your fame or are there people who have a high impact but not well recognized – or people who are quite famous but don’t have much impact?

Fame path diagram

A working hypothesis for the relationships among aspects of a scientist’s research program

I posit the figure above only as a suggestion, a working hypothesis that I’m not wholly wedded to. It’s a good template for discussion.

The ceiling of the impact of your research is dictated by how famous you are. Your impact could be (very) crudely measured using impact factor, or by an h-score or some other measure of citations. How much of a difference you make. You might get cited a few times if nobody has heard of you, but essentially you need to be known for your work to make a splash. You can only make a difference if people know who you are, which is exactly the point that Dr. Becca made. Your job, if it is to make scientific progress, is to become famous. Because you can only make a difference if you’re famous.

If asked to name two huge advances in biology from mid-1800s, most of us would pick the same things. One came from a person working in obscurity and another by one who was, among scientists of the day, mighty famous and was in regular communication with other famous scientists. Darwin’s scientific impact was immediate. Mendel’s finding required the fame of Hugo de Vries to create a scientific impact more than thirty years later.

There are many things that contribute to fame. One of these is research quality, but also the institution you came from, your academic pedigree, attractiveness, personality, and also your ethnicity and gender can have an effect.

What’s another thing plays a key role in facilitating, or limiting, your fame? The institution where you work. If you’re not based out of a research institution, there is a hard cap on how famous that you’re allowed to become as a research scientist. However, if you’re at a teaching institution, the school doesn’t really want you to be a research scientist of any fame, anyway. Fame isn’t part of the evaluation process for tenure, and you could be entirely unknown off campus and this shouldn’t (necessarily) negatively reflect your tenure bid. This would be fatal at a research institution, where you’re expected to establish a visible profile in the research community.

Our jobs at teaching campuses do not expect us to be famous and do not require it. This might be a defining contrast between a teaching campus and a research campus. However, there are lots of us in teaching institutions that not only are doing consequential research, but also want this research to have as much impact as it possibly can. However, based on the name of the institution found on our nametag when we present at conferences, this becomes very difficult.

There’s a positive feedback loop connecting one’s pedigree, social network, publication history, favorable reviews of grants and proposals, funding, talent of collaborators and fame. They’re all connected to one another. And if you’re at a teaching campus, you’re at a strategic disadvantage because those positive feedback loops don’t work as tightly.

Leveraging your pedigree, papers, and collaborations is harder to do, because of unacknowledged biases against teaching campuses in the research community. You can’t be famous above a certain level, because those at research institutions assume that you aren’t working at one because you can’t get a job at one. If you’re doing research from a teaching institution, that means that you haven’t had enough success to work at a teaching institution. So the thinking goes. Even in the incredibly tight job market, that line of thinking still prevails. You’re skeptical? Pull up a few journals and look at the mastheads, to find the institutions of the editorial board members and the subject editors.

So, unlike Dr. Becca and those at research institutions, my job isn’t to become famous. Even if I was famous, nobody on campus would even be aware of it anyway. However, if I have ambitions for my research to make a difference, then I need to become famous. This fame is required to activate the positive feedbacks among friendly reviews, funding, invitations, collaborations, and so on.

What happens off campus stays off campus


I suspect that one’s research profile on campus has no relationship to what happens off campus in the research community. (Keep in mind that this pertains to teaching campuses.)

These kinds of perceptions might matter, to some extent, if they govern how resources are allocated.

A person might be considered to be mighty fine on campus in their small pond (get it?!), but among their research peers could be unknown. Likewise, I’ve known a couple people who have been tremendous scholars in their own fields but this fact was either unknown, unappreciated, or willfully ignored on their own campus.

There might even be a negative relationship between the two parameters. Some people who have scant standing in their scholarly communities can easily puff up every little thing and can readily deceive professors outside their disciplines. In some fields, conferences are more prestigious than journal articles, and in others, only books count for much. In one’s own department, the sham might be transparent, but throughout campus the big scholarly charades can be successful. Promoting yourself on campus takes time, and that’s time that could be spent getting real work done.

Serious and productive scholars may have no time or incentive for promoting or discussing their research on campus. In departments or colleges where major research is more cause for suspicion than praise (which I’ve seen multiple times), wise researchers should keep their heads down.

(As a corollary, most administrators are smart people and can see through the bunk pretty easily, and they also have access to information that others don’t have. So, a widespread perception among faculty on campus doesn’t mean that the the Dean and the Provost don’t know the time of day. This is, as far as I’m concerned, the only place where perceptions matter, because this is where resources get allocated. I don’t really know how to influence this, though, other than by keeping my head down and working. If I use my words sparingly, each one will have more weight. So, I avoid interacting with administrators as much as possible, so that if I really do need something, there’s a greater chance they’ll be there for me. That’s the most sophisticated I’ve gotten at image management, which I think is rudimentary.)

In short, my anecdotal observations suggest that, the more someone talks about research on a teaching campus, the less it happens. I’m not sure how universal this observation might apply, though.