Friday links: Uber for cheating, #2016MMM, and more (UPDATED)

Also this week: #IAmAResearchParasite, parenting in the age of climate change, #52books, science really does advance one funeral at a time, conferencing for introverts, a couple of unusual retractions, email translation, and MOAR! Lots of good stuff this week!

From Jeremy:

For the record, I invented the #IAmAResearchParasite hashtag. Or I would have if Brian and Ethan White hadn’t told me not to. Party poopers.πŸ™‚

A tough task for any teacher or adviser: when and how do you break it to your student or advisee that they’re not likely to achieve their goals and need to make some hard decisions? Say, that they’re not likely to get into med school or succeed in grad school. Lots of good advice in the post and comments. The only point I’d add is that if possible students should be given advice and information about what it takes to achieve goal X before they go too far down the road of trying to achieve it. For instance, I ask prospective grad students about their long-term career goals before they even decide whether to join my lab. I want to make sure that, if they have academia as a goal, that they’re going in with their eyes open about what it will take to achieve that goal.

Plos One just published a paper saying in the abstract and conclusions that human hands are “the proper design by the Creator”. I skimmed the paper, and I’m not a biomechanicist, but it looks to me like normal biomechanics, with some awkward phrasing because the authors are from China. In comments at Plos One one of them disavowed creationism and blamed language issues. To no avail: Plos One has now retracted the paper. No word yet on how the “Creator” phrase got through peer review in the first place. I don’t think it should have. Editors and reviewers shouldn’t worry much about correcting minor problems with the English in papers by non-native speakers. But I do think they should have caught even a passing reference to “the Creator” and politely told the authors to rephrase or delete it. I’m passing on these details because if all you saw was the outraged social media reaction–the vast majority of which was from people who hadn’t looked at the paper–you might well conclude that Plos One published creationism. Indeed, that was my initial reaction, but then I decided I’d better check. I’m glad I did, because while I could be wrong, it doesn’t look to me like that’s what this is. Assuming I’m right about that, I feel for the authors that they’re now caught in a media s**tstorm. (UPDATE: Marc Cadotte also seems to have read the paper, and he thinks it’s intended as creationism. So I dunno. If I cared enough about having an opinion on this, the obvious and right thing to do would be to go read the paper carefully myself, but I’ve got more important things to do.)

Speaking of unusual retractions: A high-profile Journal of Ecology paper from three plant ecologists has been retracted because the data were falsified by tampering with soil samples. This is the 7th retraction for the senior author, Jorge Vivanco, and he and his former postdoc Harsh Bais have been debarred by the NSF’s Inspector General’s office. I feel badly for the first author of this JEcol paper, who from the sound of things was an innocent victim of the tampering.

Stephen Heard with tips on attending scientific conferences as an introvert. Some of the tips in this old post might be useful as well, though it’s not aimed specifically at introverts. And remember: it’s normal to wander alone at conferences. No one will notice you or judge you if you do it, so don’t be self-conscious about it.

A post-publication review by Rich Lenski of a new paper on the evolution of citrate use in E. coli. Clears up some misunderstandings that authors of the paper, and the associated commentary, seem to have about issues ranging from speciation to historical contingency to genetic “information”. Even if you’re not interested in these evolutionary topics, you might want to read it as a model example of post-publication review.

Speaking of post-publication review: Jeff Leek on how preprints and post-publication review could (I’d say likely would) fail if treated as a substitute for the current scientific publication system rather than a supplement. I wouldn’t take his simulation studies of the peer review system quite as seriously as he does, but overall he’s spot on. Makes the very good point that even the strongest advocates of post-publication review don’t, you know, actually do much of it. Also takes on the increasingly-common argument that most papers aren’t important enough to need any reviewing. As Cosma Shalizi wrote a while back, if peer review didn’t exist we’d have to invent it. Click through and read both pieces, they’re very good.

And one more: writing in Science this week, Gilbert et al. question the stats of that big psychology reproducibility project from last year. Gilbert et al. are mostly wrong, and some of their mistakes seem to be pretty basic, but they have some good suggestions for improving the reporting of replications. Good discussion here and here. Good fodder for an undergrad stats course. (ht Andrew Gelman)

Studypool: Uber for cheating on your assignments. Ok, that’s not the explicit intent, but that’s apparently how it’s mostly used in practice. And if you think it’s a sad comment on current US education that there’s a demand for this: there’s always been demand for this. But there wasn’t an internet until recently, so a lot of the demand went unmet. Oh, and I love that many students using these sites are downrating their “tutors” because the answers they purchased were low quality and/or plagiarized. Sounds to me like what you’re buying are lessons in economics, kids.

The joke that science advances one funeral at a time has a lot of truth to it, according to a new working paper analyzing the publication records of scientists before vs. after the death of a leader in the field. Interesting. I think I’ve linked to this before, but to the working paper, which wasn’t open access. Today’s link goes to a blog post.

#365papers is so last year. How about #52books? Ecology grad student Nicole Knight has set herself the goal of reading and blogging about one ecology book per week. Her first book: Brian Maurer’sΒ Untangling Ecological Complexity.

And finally, Mammal March Madness is back! Hashtag #2016MMM. I’m torn between arctic fox (obviously), and snow leopard, because you can only defeat snow leopards by LEAPING TO YOUR OWN DEATH. Oh, and here’s what’s going to happen to Meg’s UW Badger in round one when it faces the mascot of my parents’ alma mater, the Penn State Nittany Lion.πŸ˜‰ (From Meg: You stole my link! Anyway, my building has pumas gracing the entrance, so I think I win either way in that match up. Plus wolverines are in #2016MMM, too, just over in the Chill Mammals division.πŸ™‚ ) (Jeremy adds: I assume this is how Meg imagines #2016MMM in her head.πŸ™‚ )

From Meg:

Here’s a thoughtful post from Jarrett Byrnes on parenting as a scientist in the age of climate change.

Thanks to Jacquelyn Gill on twitter, I learned about the Noun Project, which looks like it has really handy cartoons for talks and figures. After I lamented the lack of Daphnia in a reply tweet, Emily Jane McTavish pointed me to Phylopic, which also looks like a great resource. It’s even better than the Noun Project because it includes Daphnia.πŸ™‚

Let me translate my email for you! (Except, for me, when I say something was helpful, I really do mean that. I’ve had some people seem offended by that phrase, and maybe this explains why!) (Jeremy adds: that reminds me of this. Which in turn suggests that people who read Meg’s emails think she’s British.πŸ™‚ )

Hoisted from the comments:

Andy Gonzalez asks a good question about the “martini glass” approach to structuring a paper:

To what extent do you think the steep increase in rate of publication has optimized the paper writing process? I am left feeling that the monumental task of editors to make fast decisions on so many papers may have β€˜tuned’ the way papers are written (structure and style).

We are conforming to an approach that makes it easier for busy editors to make a decision, but maybe diminishes the creativity or at least the variety of approaches to writing a paper. I am casting my mind back to papers you could find in Am Nat in the 60s and 70s. There was a much greater variety of styles of writing papers then (not all Martini glass papers!). I enjoy reading those too.

Click through for responses from Brian and me. Brian’s response is better than mine.




8 thoughts on “Friday links: Uber for cheating, #2016MMM, and more (UPDATED)


    Students, given the right environment, mature. With maturity comes success. Just ask Von Miller or Ben Rothlesberger.

    Rather that being a Debbie Downer- instead ask that student what would make them happy in life. Happiness, not money, should be the basis of their decision. I recall struggling during my freshman and sophomore years, because I could not decide what I wanted to do. A very wise counselor said to base my decision on happiness.

    Then, as a junior and senior, I made the Dean’s list every semester.


    • Ok, fair enough. But when does providing information or encouraging a student to consider their goals in a clear-eyed manner become discouragement? Am I discouraging someone from pursuing an academic career path if I show them data on annual number of PhDs vs. annual number of job openings? Am I discouraging someone from going to grad school if I say, truthfully, that they’re unlikely to find a supervisor willing to take on a student with no research experience and a 2.8 GPA that hasn’t improved recently? Am I discouraging someone from pursuing academia if I say, truthfully, that they’re unlikely to find a job if they insist on only considering jobs at research universities in city X or state Y? Those are all honest questions, not rhetorical ones–sincerely interested in your answer. And no, none of those situations are unrealistic strawmen. I, or advisers I know, have encountered all of them, more than once.

      I agree with you 100% that an important part of these conversations is to ask students about their goals and what will make them happy. And I agree that the way you approach the conversation matters a lot. For instance, students often get discouraged by information that they shouldn’t be discouraged by. This came up for instance in my recent post on the ASN Young Investigator Award winners. I went out of my way to point out that nobody should be discouraged from pursuing ecology or evolutionary biology as a career because their cv doesn’t measure up to those of the YIA award winners. I don’t think you ever approach this sort of conversation with the goal of stopping someone from pursuing X.

      But I don’t think any of that is mutually exclusive with being honest and frank with students, or with saying things that might be hard for them to hear. Trying to help a student find a path that will make them happy in the long run might sometimes mean having a conversation that risks making them unhappy in the short run.

      • In general I agree with your comments. I would say though, if motivated, a student can overcome some of these hurdles. For example a tight job market won’t exclude a top performer. Also, the private sector offers many more research jobs for MS/PhDs than academia. So, there are other avenues with these degrees they ought consider. I would say though, despite any constraints- if a student has a dream- go for it, because at the end of the day all we have is our regrets…

    • Thoreau said (in Walden) “If you have built castles in the sky, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put foundations under them”. The key there is the foundations. It should be counted as encouragement, not discouragement, to be honest about what kind of foundations will be needed, whether they are there already or not, and what it will take to put them there.

      • Stepping stones I think. If anything, we should communicate that you can’t get there from here. But instead, one must follow a convoluted and arduous path with lots of sweat equity to achieve a dream. But tell them to never give up on that dream…

    • I think I’ve told you this story, but for the amusement of readers: Before I left the US for my postdoc in the UK, my supervisor Peter Morin warned me that the word “interesting” means very different things to Americans and Brits. To Americans it means “interesting”, to Brits it means “not interesting” or even “rubbish”. When I got to the UK, I told this to my new boss Charles Godfray, who laughed and said that he’d always tell me if my work was “interesting in the American sense” or “interesting in the British sense”. He was true to his word. The research institute where I worked gave the postdocs a lot of freedom. You just had to pitch your research ideas to Charles, and he’d give you permission to spend money on them. I’m proud that only once did Charles respond to one of my ideas by saying “I’m sorry Jeremy, that’s interesting in the British sense.”πŸ™‚

      • Ha- that is a great story, Jeremy. These cultural differences can cause lots of trouble at times. In 99 I attended a conference in Edinburgh. I got along famously with my Euro colleagues until the last dinner. They asked me if I thought the USA was “number one.” With some chagrin, I said “well of course, in may respects.”

        My intent was to communicate some sarcasm to open up the debate- but they were deeply offended because they believed only rednecks to hold such a view. I learnt my lesson- and lemme tell, never made such an utterance in Canada!

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