Ask us anything: choosing between short-term and long-term impact, and what won’t we write about (updated!)

A little while back we invited you to ask us anything. We’ll be answering your questions over the next few weeks. Thanks to everyone who submitted questions!

Questions have been edited for clarity and brevity; see the comments on the linked post above for the original questions. We answered them in arbitrary order, except that we indulged ourselves by answering a couple of fun/navel-gazing ones first. 🙂

Would you rather be very successful in your own lifetime (lots of funding, papers, and students; great job at a prestigious university, etc.) but have no lasting impact on your field, or have little funding/recognition/impact/reward in your lifetime but have a lasting impact on your field that’s only recognized after you die? (from Jeff Houlahan)

Jeremy: Shorter Jeff: would you rather be Johann Becher or George Price? 🙂

Like many people, my first reaction is “But I want both!”* 🙂 And even if I can’t have both, I’ve never felt any pressure to try for one or the other. All I’ve ever tried to do is the best science I can. I try to ask good, well-motivated questions and then really nail the answer. Hopefully avoiding both the trap of jumping on trendy bandwagons, and the trap of doing something weird or self-indulgently obscure. And I try to do other things that hopefully help shape the direction of the field in a positive way–like write this blog! If you do really good science, and if you’re lucky (as I’ve been), you’ll have a rewarding career in science. And you’ll have done as much as anyone reasonably can to give themselves a shot at lasting impact.

*I say “many people” not just because some people surely prefer one or the other, but because some people probably don’t care much about either. That might be a good conversation topic at some point–what’s the role of ambition in science, particularly the ambition to influence the direction of your field? In some circles, ambition in scientists is seen as a vice, but I don’t think it is, at least not necessarily. There’s definitely such a thing as too little ambition in science, and caring too little what others think of your work.

Meg: Increasingly, I feel like the biggest impact I will have will be by blogging and through teaching and efforts to diversify sciences. It’s not that I don’t like the research I’m doing or think that it is uninteresting. But I think that, if I can do something that will keep more students from underrepresented groups in STEM, that would have a much, much bigger impact than all of the papers I write combined. That sort of work doesn’t come with a lot of recognition for the most part, but it is by far the most satisfying to me personally. When I think about why I go to work in the morning, efforts to diversify science are at the top of the list. So, I suppose I’d say the latter. That said, I have a job at a prestigious university, and have generally been successful as a scientist. Maybe I’d have a different answer if that wasn’t the case?

Update added by Meg 1 September 2015: After reading this post, my UMich colleague Tim McKay sent me this quote from John Janovy’s book Dunwoody Pond:

“Nevertheless, young scientists as well as old ones, eventually come to realize they are only single individuals in a massive population, and that their work is but a small contribution to the overall product of humanity. Teaching scientists are more fortunate than pure researchers when confronted with the final analysis of their efforts; a living legacy of people whose thoughts are shaped in part by their own ideas is a truly satisfying accomplishment. But no matter who they are, all explorers eventually ask who they are, what it means to have lived the life they chose, and whether they did the right thing.”

The book sounds great overall. I just ordered myself a copy!

Brian  –  I’ve always been a contrarian and a bit of a march to my own drummer (I’m certainly rowing upstream on my statistical machismo posts!). So I’d have to go with the latter. But can I argue that neither should be the motive? The motive should be to do good science and have fun, and let the chips of public perception fall where they may (and it might be more a matter of luck than anything you control).

What do you really wish you could blog about here, but don’t (self-censorship) because it doesn’t seem appropriate for this blog? (from crowther)

Jeremy: There’s nothing I feel like writing about but don’t because it wouldn’t be a good fit for this blog. I don’t have any urge to write about, say, politics, or fantasy novels, or stuff from my personal life, or my own research, or etc.

There are topics that would fit on this blog, but that I avoid writing about. With very rare exceptions, I don’t do “post-publication review” of individual papers. Both because individual papers rarely matter enough to be worth spending time criticizing, and because of the risk that I’d be seen as picking on the authors.

Brian, Meg, and I tend not to rush out posts on whatever controversy is currently consuming the attention of the entire science blogosphere/Twittersphere. Tim Hunt or whatever. That’s because we usually don’t have anything to say that others aren’t saying already. Instead, we usually just wait until the next linkfest and post a few links to any pieces others have written that we thought were particularly good. Hopefully we add a little bit of value to the conversation that way (likely only a little bit). This also helps us make our views on hot button topics known in a way that minimizes the risk of us getting drawn into heated arguments we don’t want to be drawn into, since our linkfests draw relatively few pageviews and comments. And sometimes we’ll just ignore the controversy entirely. We don’t feel like we have to chime in on whatever the rest of the science blogosphere is talking about.

Personally, I also avoid posting on whatever controversy is currently firing up the Twitterverse because I find really heated, largely Twitter-based arguments to be mostly unproductive. Even if I had something to say that I didn’t think anyone else was saying, I probably wouldn’t bother to say it, at least not until after the furor had died down.

Similarly, I personally avoid posting on topics on which I think it’s hard to have a productive conversation because a critical mass of really vocal people have strongly held views. For instance (and this is just one example of several), I don’t post much on open access publishing for that reason. I just don’t feel like getting into an argument with the open access evangelists, there’d be no point. It just wouldn’t be an enjoyable and productive use of my time.

In part, this speaks to my own limitations as a writer. Both Brian and Meg have an amazing ability to say something substantive about hot button topics in a way that leads to productive conversations rather than pointless shouting matches. Case in point. And another.

It’s possible that I should trust our commenters more. We have awesome commenters, we literally only ever have to block one in a thousand comments. But then again, all it takes is a few lousy comments to wreck a thread, and one’s morning. And the likelihood of getting lousy comments increases dramatically if we post on a hot button issue and draw in a lot of “strangers” who’ve never read us before and never will again. And if that happens too often, you run the risk of driving away the awesome commenters.

When I do write a post that I think might upset some people, I try to write it carefully and make sure to back up my claims with evidence. But if that would be a lot of work, I won’t bother unless I really care about the topic.

Finally, there’s always some very small but non-zero probability that anything you write will seriously upset someone. I’ve had the unpleasant experience of having someone get seriously upset with me over a post I hadn’t worried about at all. As a blogger, you just have to live with that risk.

Meg: There are some topics I avoid posting about because the stories are too personal (though I certainly post about some things that others wouldn’t, such as crying through my defense!) or because it puts someone else in a bad light. I feel most conflicted about the latter, because sometimes those stories feel important to tell in light of a recent event. But, in the end, I decide that it’s not worth the impact it would have on me. So, I suppose I disagree a little with Jeremy’s last point. I certainly agree that a risk of blogging is upsetting people (and I have really, really upset a few people with my posts). But that backlash can take a really big toll on me, and it’s not something I take on lightly.

Brian: worrying about whether I will upset people doesn’t really drive what I blog about. It certainly drives how I blog a lot (i.e. keep it non-personal and constructive which are good rules of thumb for all of science and all of life). Mostly what I blog about or don’t blog about has to do with what I see as niche or brand of the blog and of my own posts. So like Jeremy said, I don’t do reviews of cool papers. Sometimes I read a cool paper and think about blogging, but its not us (but it is some other blogs that I very much enjoy reading). To be honest though, there is not a lot of times I think “I’m not going to blog about that”. Blogging is not a huge time sink, but it certainly takes time and has opportunity costs, so if I couldn’t blog on what I care about, I wouldn’t do it. So my decision tree is not “should I do this?”, it is “how can I do this and feel like it is a positive contribution?”.

2 thoughts on “Ask us anything: choosing between short-term and long-term impact, and what won’t we write about (updated!)

  1. Hi Jeremy, Meg and Brian, great answers. And the take-home message seems to be that it really is the journey not the destination – probably the best philosophy to have if you’re in it for the long haul. Best, Jeff

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