Evaluating science in retrospect vs. prospect

It’s often said that nobody dies wishing they’d spent more time at the office. The saying encourages you not to spend your time in a way you’ll come to regret in future.

Except that lots of people do die wishing they’d spent more time at the office. That’s the trouble with trying to live so that you won’t look back with regret in the future: you’re trying to anticipate the preferences of a stranger who you’ll never meet: you, in the future. Future-you may want to look back on different things than Now-you wants right now. Future-you might even want to look back on different things than Now-you thinks Future-you will want to look back on. Youth may be wasted on the young–but only in the eyes of the old.

This isn’t an argument that you should just live for the moment or not make long-term plans. It’s just that evaluating your life in retrospect is different than evaluating it in prospect.

Lately I’ve been wondering about this in the context of science. Do scientists ever look back wishing they’d done different science? Not because of 20-20 hindsight. But just because they’ve changed.

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Serial bullies: an academic failing and the need for crowd-sourced truthtelling

I define a serial bully as somebody who repeatedly bullies new victims and never gets caught or stopped*. I don’t have exact statistics at my fingertips, but it is a definite 90/10 scenario (90% of the bullying is done by 10% of the people) – and it is that small fraction that are the serial bullies. Every campus has a PhD adviser (or three) who repeatedly abuses and victimizes his/her students. And you might have a senior colleague in your department who bullies everybody junior to her/him just because they can. Or you may have met a researcher who will do anything, ethical or not, to “win” at research, leaving behind a trail of people feeling used or abused. And although there are many unique aspects to sexual harassment, it most certainly involves bullying-like abuse of power against someone and it most certainly shares the trait that most offenders repeat over and over without getting called on it (as recent shameful cases to make the news show – just e.g. the Marcy case).You may or may not apply the word bully to all of these cases. But what all these have in common is somebody who is harming other people over and over again with little regard for the consequences, because, well, there usually are no consequences. And that is what I want to talk about.
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Axios Review is working. And now it’s a non-profit. You should try it.

As regular readers will know, I’m on the board of Axios Review, an independent editorial board in ecology and evolution (see old posts here and here). It’s a service that authors can use to get their papers rigorously pre-reviewed by expert reviewers chosen an independent editor, before being referred to a journal of the author’s choice. Quoting from an old post of mine:

Authors get back peer reviews, just like with a journal, along with an editorial decision as to which journals (from an author-supplied list of “targets”) the editor would recommend the ms to (following appropriate revision, if needed). Axios then forwards the ms, reviews, and recommendation to the target journal, asking them if they’d like the paper to be revised and submitted…

Axios Review has benefits for both authors and journals. For authors, the reviews improve the ms, and the referral process prevents you from wasting time by targeting a journal that’s too selective or a bad fit, saving you from unnecessary rejection and resubmission. It also prevents you from losing audience and impact by aiming too low. Journals get pre-reviewed mss that are very likely to meet their standards.

I’m posting on Axios Review again for two reasons. First, Axios Review founder Tim Vines recently updated the board on how the service is working, and on some important changes to the service. I think that information will be of interest to many of you as potential users of Axios Review, so I wanted to pass it along. Second, I used the service myself recently and wanted to share my experience.

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Friday links: the Sixth Extinction (or not), and more

Also this week: philosophers vs. science, today’s reviewers vs. G. E. Hutchinson, and more.

From Jeremy:

Explaining the long-standing male bias of the Canada Research Chair program, especially at the senior (tier 2) level. An insider’s view from Frances Woolley, an economist who once was asked to evaluate the CRC hiring process. In her view, the main problem isn’t subtle biases in CRC reference letters or insufficient effort put into identifying potential women CRC candidates (which isn’t to say that subtle biases don’t exist, of course). Instead, the main problem is that it remains too hard for women to move up the “middle rungs” of the academic career ladder (as opposed to getting on and moving up the lowest rungs–undergrad, grad school, postdoc). Too few women end up becoming the “world-renowned researchers” the CRC program aims to recruit, and those women typically have more attractive opportunities available to them than CRCs. Woolley suggests that if Canada wants to promote both gender balance and excellence in research, it would be better off reallocating CRC money to research grants for junior and mid-career researchers.

If Hutchinson’s “Homage to Santa Rosalia” were reviewed today. See also. Oh, and this as well. And this.

Philosopher of science Adrian Currie on the challenges of getting philosophy of science students to engage with actual science, which is formidably technical. I’m now thinking how to flip this around: how do you most effectively get science majors to engage with philosophy of science? At least at the graduate level and perhaps at the undergraduate level too. Because I do think it’s helpful for them to know and think about some philosophy of science. Related.

Sticking with philosophy of science: Here’s a nice accessible little example of the sorts of questions a philosopher of science asks when reading a typical scientific paper (here, a paleobiological study asking whether a simple computer model can explain key features of the development of both ancient and modern sea urchins). I like reading this sort of thing because it keeps me on my toes. Helps me read science with fresh eyes.

Stewart Brand of Whole Earth Catalog fame argues that we are not in the midst of a 6th mass extinction, and that saying we are is unhelpful at best and counterproductive at worst. Wide-ranging, covers a lot of ground. Good fodder for a discussion/debate in an ecology or conservation course.

Mathematical constraints in ecology and evolution, part 3: why selection is risk-averse

This is the third post in my series on the importance of mathematical constraints in ecology and evolution. See also parts 1 and 2.

Today’s example of an important mathematical constraint is from evolutionary biology, though it has implications for community ecology as well. Community ecology, like evolutionary biology, is centrally concerned with the relative abundances and relative fitnesses of different types of organism (Vellend 2016). “Relative” is the key word here. As a matter of mathematical necessity, the relative abundances of all species you’re considering have to sum to 1. And the mean relative fitness (relative per-capita growth rate) of all species you’re considering has to equal 1. This ain’t Lake Wobegon; not everybody can be above average. These constraints on the values of relative abundances and relative fitnesses are purely mathematical, not biological. They’re as true of the relative abundances of rocks, and the relative “fitnesses” of linguistic variants, as they are of the relative abundances and fitnesses of species. But these mathematical constraints aren’t merely mathematical. They turn out to have important biological consequences, as Allen Orr (2007) showed in a wonderful little paper. From which I will now shamelessly steal (nothing below is original to me).

Keep reading even if you’re not an evolutionary biologist. This post is short, non-technical, and it’s about something really deep and cool.

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Mathematical constraints in ecology and evolution, part 2: local species richness can’t exceed regional richness

This post is the second in my series on mathematical constraints in ecology. In part 1 we saw an example of a non-obvious mathematical constraint that can’t be removed from one’s data. Today, an example of a mathematical constraint that’s totally obvious, but that has non-obvious consequences. And that fortunately can be removed from one’s data (well, worked around). Today’s topic is one I’ve posted on before, but I’m revisiting it for my ongoing comparative study of mathematical constraints in ecology and what to do about them.

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New postdoctoral program at #UMich

The University of Michigan College of Literature, Science, and the Arts (which is the college that includes my department, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology) has just announced a new postdoctoral fellowship program. To quote from the announcement:

The College of Literature, Science, and the Arts (LSA) at the University of Michigan is excited to announce the LSA Collegiate Postdoctoral Fellowship Program, a major initiative aimed to promote a diverse scholarly environment, encourage outstanding individuals to enter academia, and support scholars committed to diversity.


The purpose of the LSA Collegiate Postdoctoral Fellowship Program is to support promising scholars who are committed to diversity in the academy and to prepare those scholars for possible tenure-track appointments in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts at U-M.

More information can be found here. Note that the application deadline is November 7th. (That’s not far off!)

Friday links: nominations open for the ASN Young Investigator Award, Tinder for preprints, and more

Also this week: Planet Earth II (!), NASA vs. astrology, data on gender and peer review outcomes in geology (the results might surprise you), the ecology of falconry, the cultural references in your lectures suck, and more. Also, we wish we could take ecology from Josh Drew, and you will too after you click this week’s links.

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Redacted ecology faculty search (UPDATED)

Duke is hiring an ecologist. And in an attempt to avoid bias, the initial stage of the search will be conducted on redacted applications. Applicants are asked to provide two copies of their cv’s, research statements, and teaching statements: a normal copy, and a copy from which the following information is redacted:

  • All mentions of the applicant’s name, date of birth, birthplace, citizenship, ethnicity, and gender.
  • The names of all co-authors on publications. The only authorship information to be provided is the number of authors and the applicant’s place in the author list. So for instance, your cv would list publications like this: “Second of two authors. 1974. Disturbance, patch formation and community structure. Proceeding of the National Academy of Science USA 71:2744-2747.”
  • The names and contact details of references.

Presumably, you’d also need to redact the names of PIs and co-PIs from grants, the names of co-authors of conference presentations, and various other bits of information, but the ad doesn’t say that.

I think this is an interesting experiment to address an important issue, and I think it’s a credit to the folks at Duke that they take the issue sufficiently seriously to be willing to take a step like this (EDIT: To be clear, I don’t necessarily agree that the specific step they’re taking is the right one. But that they’re willing to take this step is a sign of how seriously they take the issue, and it’s good that they take it seriously). It’s not an unprecedented step. UConn EEB did a version of this for a couple of searches a couple of years ago, though I hear through the grapevine that they’ve now gone back to doing conventional searches (anyone know more about that?) (UPDATE: Mark Urban from UConn has commented on UConn’s experience; thanks very much to Mark for sharing this.)

Some thoughts and questions below the fold.

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