Friday links: nobody wants portable peer review (apparently), $10M worth of bugs, and more

We read All The Things this week, and you should too. 🙂 Such as: tell me again what “biodiversity” is and why it’s “good”, grad student mental health, real life bird-rabbit illusion, the most motivating grade ever given, meta-analysis of meta-analyses, does recruiting girls into STEM solve the wrong problem, stats vs. calculus, #thanksfortyping, and more!

From Meghan:

A new study finds that one in two PhD students experience mental distress, and one in three PhD students is at risk of a common psychiatric disorder such as depression. And the study notes that the students had relative financially security, so presumably the stats would be higher for students lacking that. Female students are at higher risk than male students, as are students working for laissez-faire advisors (which this other article describes as “avoiding responsibility, not responding to problems, being absent when needed, failing to follow up, resisting expressing views, and delaying responses”). I’ve written about my experiences with anxiety before, and we have a related guest post by a grad student with anxiety. I am not a mental health professional but, in my opinion, if you are even considering seeking help, that’s probably a sign that it’s worth looking into more, given the large stigma in our society associated with mental health issues. If you don’t know where to look — or feel unable to look — ask a trusted friend, family member, professor, or anyone else you trust to help you.

More on grad student mental health: this Times Higher Education piece lays out the results of a study done at the University of Manchester. It reports finding that grad students with disabilities were at greatest risk of low mental health well-being, that a competitive work environment exacerbated mental health problems and dissuaded students from seeking help, and that students need more information on resources available to them.

This article, about a couple who donated their bug collection (estimated to be worth $10 million) to the University of Arizona, is wonderful. This is my favorite quote:

“They’re such wonderful creatures,” she said. “Wouldn’t you like to fly? Wouldn’t you like to swim underwater for three days? Not to mention stinging. I have a neighbor I would like to sting.”

Real life bird/rabbit illusion:

Over the weekend, there was a twitter hashtag #thanksfortyping, acknowledging the generally uncredited and unvalued academic work done by women. Here’s one (from the person who created the hashtag):

(Jeremy adds: not bad, but I’ll take Arthur Stinchcombe for the win:

Also, Kieran Healy was way ahead of Twitter on this. On his blog back in 2007, he asked who was “the last typing wife”.)

Here’s a post on how having children has helped one woman in academia. This one really seemed to resonate with folks when I shared it on twitter.

I like these propaganda-style posters by Paul Sizer related to women in STEM. (Megan Lee also has some really neat posters featuring women in science, including Rachel Carson, Jane Goodall, Rosalind Franklin, Mary Anning, and more.) (Jeremy adds: I guess I need to update my old post on cool science graphic art)

The March for Science has announced Mona Hanna-Aatisha (the physician scientist who was instrumental in exposing the Flint Water Crisis), Bill Nye (the Science Guy), and Lydia Villa-Komaroff (a scientist who helped discover how to make insulin) as headliners.

From Jeremy:

Here’s Meghan’s editorial in online environmental policy magazine Ensia on how axing clean water regulations and enforcement is penny-wise, pound foolish.

Axios Review founder Tim Vines on what he learned from the failure of the portable peer review service. The author of the piece, the always-thoughtful Phil Davis, comments on what the failure of Axios Review says about the state of the peer review system more broadly.

Writing in American Scientist, here’s the always-thoughtful Mark Vellend on the biodiversity conservation paradox: in many places, the number of species has remained the same or even increased, but yet we ecologists still consider the associated changes in species composition “bad”. Some of that is because replacement of local endemics by globally-distributed species represents no net change in local biodiversity but a reduction in global biodiversity. But that’s not the whole story–so what is the whole story? Can we articulate an explicit, compelling rationale for our inarticulate, gut-level intuitions about what “biodiversity” is and why it’s “good”, so that “biodiversity” can serve as the basis for conservation science? Mark suggests we can’t:

In short, a great burden was placed on the shoulders of the concept of biodiversity—to simultaneously represent all that we value about nature and to provide a way to quantify this value in a straightforward way. The concept might now be collapsing under this weight.

Related old posts from me and Brian.

A meta-analysis of meta-analyses testing for many purported sources of bias (i.e. over- or underestimates of true effect sizes). Magnitudes of most biases are small on average but vary greatly among fields. Small, early, highly-cited studies tend to overestimate effect sizes, suggesting that readers should routinely be skeptical of such studies.

Daniele Fanelli interviewed 14 scientists who voluntarily retracted papers for honest errors. On the whole, the interviewees were surprised to discover that they didn’t suffer any negative consequences for their retractions, and some reported receiving kudos. A small and non-random sample, obviously, but for what it’s worth I think that’s very good news. Related posts from Brian and Meghan.

Interesting story of the retired statistician who recently proved an important conjecture linking probability theory and geometry. Part of what’s interesting about it is how long it took word of the proof to get around. Apparently, if you publish your work in an obscure venue, word may not get out all that fast, or at all, even if you also publish an open-access preprint on arXiv. Especially if you’re not well-known.

An argument that efforts to recruit girls into STEM are solving the wrong problem. I really sympathize with the authors’ experiences. Back when I almost quit science I was fortunate in that I had no reason to worry about how quitting would affect anyone but me and my wife. I can only imagine how stressful it would be to feel like you have to stick with something you don’t enjoy because if you quit you’d be “letting the side down”. And I agree with the broad point that, in many (not all) STEM fields, underrepresentation of at least some underrepresented groups is now mostly a matter of retention at certain later career stages (and the historical legacy of past recruitment and retention), not recruitment at the undergraduate level (Shaw & Stanton 2012). But some of the other broader points seem off base or overstated to me; curious what others think. Surely there are ways to expose members of underrepresented groups to career paths they might not otherwise have considered, and support them on those career paths, without lying to them or guilt-tripping them? I’m thinking of the ESA’s SEEDS program, for instance. Maybe some of what’s going on here is that the author’s bad experiences were in computer science, a field that’s especially gender-imbalanced?

An argument that the whole topic of animal personality is just old wine in new bottles. I only skimmed it and it’s too far from my field for me to judge it confidently. Curious what others think. (ht Small Pond Science)

Sticking with Small Pond Science, Terry McGlynn argues that we should teach biology students more stats and coding, and less calculus. Kudos to Terry for saying what our students should learn less of, not just what they should learn more of. Too many people advocating for teaching more of X neglect to do this. You can’t go to heaven without dying, people. Related: Brian’s suggestion for what math ecologists should learn, and how.

Speaking of teaching more stats, maybe students should learn them from this sci-fi graphic novel about the main character’s quest to learn statistics. Review from ecologist Katie Burke here. (ht @noahpinion)

An argument that what the US needs is more college towns. Which would mean throwing a lot more resources–including research dollars–at the colleges and universities we already have.

The US scientific workforce is aging rapidly, in part because a lot of it is baby boomers, and in part because of the end of mandatory retirement. (Aside, in an old linkfest which I can’t find just now, a Finnish commenter reported that Finland still has mandatory retirement–but many scientists there continue working for free even after they retire.) In related old posts I mused on whether fundamental research (as opposed to applied research) is a young scientist’s game, and on attempts to rigorously estimate the career stage at which scientists typically do their best work.

McGill University with what appears to be a pretty egregious violation of academic freedom. Click through for some context you might not have been aware of from the most widely-circulated news reports; the post is by a close colleague of the affected prof. Extended key quote on how universities don’t actually want public intellectuals or public engagement; they just want (good) publicity:

The basic problem, as far as I can see, is that the desire for increased public engagement is not driven by any real concern over the quality of public discourse. University administrators want faculty to have a higher public profile because they know which side their bread is buttered on, and they understand the need to justify their budgets. Politicians and the public look at the research being done in universities and easily conclude that it is all useless. If, however, the university can point to a faculty member who is on television, or who wrote an op-ed, it allows them to say “look, we’re making a contribution to society” (with the subtext, “you should keep funding us”). Basically, we provide air cover so that the troops on the ground (i.e. the rank and file faculty) can get the job done that matters (i.e. producing the research that will increase the status of the university among peer institutions). Because this is the university’s motivation, what they really want is professors who will go out and make the chattering classes feel good about themselves, by repeating back to them things that they already believe, in slightly uplifting language.

Further context and commentary here from another close colleague of the affected prof, and here from someone who wasn’t a close colleague. The Canadian Association for University Teachers is investigating.

Good thing that $10M insect collection wasn’t donated to the University of Louisiana-Monroe. They’re preparing to throw away all of their natural history collections so they can make more room for their track team.

I meant to link to this a while back but forgot. But better late than never: the true story of how getting a C on his college essay about amending the US Constitution motivated Gregory Watson to get the US Constitution amended. His prof subsequently changed his grade to an A+.

Read this “hacker koan“, discuss possible application to randomized null models in ecology.

And finally, your university’s graduation ceremony is inferior to Kyoto University’s. 🙂 (ht @noahpinion)

16 thoughts on “Friday links: nobody wants portable peer review (apparently), $10M worth of bugs, and more

  1. Have there been typing husbands? I formatted my wife’s massive art history dissertation in LaTeX, does that count?

  2. Grateful for the link to the Guardian article – Donation of collection to U Arizona – recognising the O’Briens and interesting in relation to two of the other stories. They are a shining example of outstanding dual careers continuing well past normal retirement age. However not unique: in my own limited experience I can list, from my undergraduate days Robert and Ruth Blackith (diptera) and more recently, Dick and Tish Askew (lepidoptera),and Robert and Kerry Ann Dressler (orchids). There is surely a book to be written of these and other fascinating science couples.

    • Peter and Rosemary Grant in evolutionary biology. Bruce Menge and Jane Lubchenco in ecology; they’re an interesting example of a couple who started out doing similar work in the same system before later diverging as Jane moved into policy and administration. David and Joan Ehrenfeld in ecology too, though I think they always did rather different work (?). I’m sure there are many other examples and I’m sure you’re right that a good book could be written comparing them. Maybe someone’s written that book already?

  3. On Twitter, Noah Smith elaborates on his argument about the economic benefits of college towns:

    I’m not an economist, but I do wonder how well this scales. I mean, can every town be a college town? And what kind of bump in federal research dollars are we talking about if we really want this to work in a big way? What kind of bump in international students coming to the US? Etc.

  4. It occurs to me that part of the reason word about that proof didn’t get out faster is because in mathematics unknown people always are claiming–mistakenly–to have proven famous conjectures. Indeed, the linked article notes in passing two incorrect attempted proofs of the same theorem that were posted to arXiv by unknowns. Mathematicians naturally (and quite sensibly) react to this by defaulting to not paying attention to preprints by unknowns claiming to have proven famous conjectures.

  5. Mark Vellend’s biodiversity article is interesting but takes a very narrow view of what “biodiversity” actually is, and equates it just to species richness. Since its introduction as a word in the 1980s, “biodiversity” was always intended to include biological diversity at all levels from the genetic to the ecosystemic. That’s enshrined in the “official” CBD definition:

    “the variability among living organisms from all sources including…..the ecological complexes of which they are part; this includes diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems.”

    So to use Mark’s example, invasive species in New Zealand may add to the species-level biodiversity of that archipelago, but it erodes the ecosystem-level biodiversity because it destroys the nature of some of the biological communities and the species interactions that sustain them. Predation by invasive mammals and birds may also reduce the genetic diversity of some species if their populations are severely impacted.

    So much research on “biodiversity”, especially as it relates to ecosystem function, actually focuses just on one aspect of the concept, arguably because it’s the easiest to measure and to conceptualise, and neglects to consider the wider perspective of what biodiversity actually is.

    • Hmm…I don’t think the issue is settled by pointing out that the “dictionary” defines “biodiversity” more broadly (and vaguely) than Mark does. I think Mark’s use of the term matches pretty well the way the term is used in practice in scientific research. Further, I can easily imagine species invasions into an archipelago increasing the variability among the world’s ecosystems by many measures, and so increasing ecosystem-level “biodiversity”, but yet being regarded as “bad”. (And if you reply “those aren’t the right measures” or “but not by ALL measures”, then either way you’re effectively defining the “right” measure of biodiversity as “whatever gives me the answer I’ve already decided is correct”).

      • Well, I wasn’t trying to “settle” the issue so much as point out that statements such as “The concept [of biodiversity] might now be collapsing under this weight” are premature given that only a narrow focus for the concept is presented.

        Fair point regarding increasing the variability of ecosystems at a global level, though at a local level in place like New Zealand the effect could be neutral (i.e. you’re changing one type of ecosystem into another).

        Genetic measures of biodiversity (at an intraspecific level) could still decrease though if population size drops dramatically (as it certainly has for some birds and plants in New Zealand).

        “Mark’s use of the term matches pretty well the way the term is used in practice in scientific research”

        I have to disagree: “genetic biodiversity” is a widely used term, and in conservation biology, “Biodiversity Action Plans” cover threatened habitats as much as species.

  6. “In short, a great burden was placed on the shoulders of the concept of biodiversity—to simultaneously represent all that we value about nature and to provide a way to quantify this value in a straightforward way. The concept might now be collapsing under this weight.”

    And, he is certainly right about all of that. Biodiversity can be an especially compelling measurement- but not always, and not always in of itself. Sometimes biodiversity is all we need to answer a research question such as, “Do 60,000 head of dairy cattle impact aquatic invertebrate communities receiving barnyard waste run-off?”. Other times it is not as clear-cut. So, for example, “Is the presence of an invasive species correlated with the native species distributions?” requires far more than biodiversity assessments.

    Regardless of the inquiry, I believe biodiversity is an important measurement, but should be treated as a tool and not the tool kit, per se. Structure and function of biotic communities likely play a more important role in most settings. Salt cedar, an invasive species of the arid US, is considered a major pain in the rear by most authorities. Yet, it actually contributes to the survival of the endangered southwestern willow flycatcher, and DOES NOT appear to curtail biodiversity, at least as we would traditionally suspect (and contrary to popular belief).

    Biodiversity matters, but I do not believe it is the only elephant in the room.

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