Friday links: the Dynamic Ecology moth, life advice from Rich Lenski, and more (CORRECTED)

Also this week: igniting the ESA meeting, improving retention of female students in male-dominated fields, scientific aliases, 3D printed mouse penises, stupid things we refuse to link to, and more.

From Jeremy:

In an old comment thread we discussed the interesting idea of an arXiv overlay journal. The way it works is that anyone who publishes a unreviewed preprint in discrete analysis on arXiv can ask the “overlay journal” Discrete Analysis to review it. They have a board of editors who arrange the usual sort of peer review, in their case evaluating preprints on the basis of interest/importance/etc., not just technical soundness. If the preprint is accepted, the journal “publishes” it by linking to the preprint DOI. The idea is to decouple two functions of traditional journals that no longer need to be coupled: evaluation of papers, and publication/distribution of papers. Thereby dramatically lowering the costs of open access publishing, since posting to arXiv is free to authors. Now somebody’s doing something similar for evolutionary biology, though with significant wrinkles that to my mind subtract rather than add value. In particular, the editors (called “recommenders”) find their own papers to recommend rather than relying on author submissions, and they can recommend published papers as well as preprints. Which means there’s a fair bit of overlap here with Faculty of 1000, not to mention “people using social media to recommend stuff they liked”. I think the recommenders are likely to end up mostly recommending papers that would’ve come to readers’ attention anyway, thereby making the recommendations largely redundant with existing ways of filtering the literature. The initiative advises recommenders to prioritize unreviewed preprints, but so far that’s not what they’re doing. The early recommendations are dominated by papers from high profile journals like PNAS, Current Biology, and Plos Biology. The one preprint I saw was from the lab of a well-known PI. This highlights a major, often-overlooked function of conventional peer review of mss submitted by authors: it’s an attention redistribution mechanism, not an attention concentration mechanism. Arguably, the world has plenty of methods of attention concentration and needs more methods of attention redistribution. But it’s early days and time will tell, I think it’s great that people are experimenting with new ways of doing things. CORRECTION: I got much of this wrong, my apologies, and thank you to Ruth Hufbauer for correcting me in the comments. You should click through and read Ruth’s comments, but the short version is that this new initiative is much closer to that arXiv overlay journal than I had initially realized. In particular, the recommenders are doing full peer reviews of preprints and papers submitted for their consideration by the authors. And reviewing already-published papers is just a way for them to help get the word out about this new initiative. I think it’s a very interesting new initiative and look forward to seeing how it develops. (ht Andrew Gelman, who see this as an improvement on related initiatives: “ArXiv is too unstructured, NBER is a restrictive club, traditional journals are too slow and waste most of their effort on the worst papers, twitter’s a joke, and blogs don’t scale.”)

Terry McGlynn wants many more Ignite sessions at the ESA meeting to cut down on the number of parallel sessions and boring talks, and foster more discussion. I think the current mix of talks and session types is fairly optimal, though I’d like to see the ESA go back to the 15 minute time slots they used to have rather than the current 20 minute slots. Thoughts?

Do university administrators have the wrong incentives? I agree that central administrators have overly-strong incentives to start new initiatives that create work for faculty and frontline staff, and that require hiring of additional administrators. But in my experience these initiatives don’t generally take the form of real estate projects.

I’m a bit late to this: Rich Lenski invites you to vote on whether he should modify his famous Long-Term Evolution Experiment to include a second treatment (transferring a smaller fraction of the population to fresh culture medium each day, so as to get more generations per day). Includes a fun quiz as what effect you’d expect the second treatment to have. Follow-up post here, in which Rich discusses his own seemingly-frivolous-but-actually-profound way of answering his own quiz question. Related: my interview with Rich from 2015.

This week in Things I Refuse To Link To Because They’re Stupid: As you’ve probably heard if you’re on Twitter, a couple of philosophers got a fake paper consisting of satirical nonsense and penis jokes published in a social science journal. Another Sokal Hoax, right? Except the journal in question is a predatory author-pays open access journal that will publish just about anything. And except that the paper was first rejected by another extremely obscure journal, which then cascaded it to the predatory journal. It’s like the authors were trying to shoot fish in a barrel in order to prove that fishing is bad, except that they shot at the fish and missed, so instead they bought some past-date frozen fish sticks from a dodgy supermarket, ate the fish sticks, and then claimed that was somehow the same as shooting fish in a barrel, thereby proving that fishing is bad. Well done to all concerned, including anybody who retweeted or linked to this stupidity approvingly, for making the world a little worse. At least Steven Pinker reversed his initial stance on this.

This has nothing to do with any of our usual concerns around these parts, but it will make you laugh and warm your heart: a small illustration of what a great guy Roger Moore was.

Hotel room aliases of statisticians. So, if you were going to register at your ESA meeting hotel under an alias, what would it be? I’m vacillating between “Price, G.”, “Gause, G.”, and “Moyer, J.” Minus 10 Internet Points for lack of imagination if you picked “Darwin, C.” I predict Meghan will choose “Magna, D.” 😉

#overlyhonestacknowledgements. 🙂

And finally, Stephen Heard named a newly discovered moth after Dynamic Ecology! Sort of. Suggest Latin names for the Dynamic Ecology moth in the comments. 😉

From Meghan:

Rich Lenski gave the PhD commencement address at UNC-Chapel Hill. It’s full of lots of great thoughts for new PhD grads (and lots for the rest of us, too). It talks about the role of chance in life and science, about his start as an ecologist, and about the lucky breaks that got him started on his now-classic long term evolution experiment (and some good advice that kept it going).

New data from Britain’s Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) shows that the number of students who have withdrawn from college due to mental health issues is increasing rapidly, up 210% in 2014-2015 compared to 2009-2010 (the first year for which they have data). That article (by The Guardian) showed increases in requests for counseling, too, which, in at least some places, has led to increased wait times.

Ed Yong had a piece on the problems scientists sometimes have going through airport security, due to carrying things like 3D printed mouse penises in their carry-on. (I also love that he notes that saying “you don’t really understand something if you can’t explain it to your grandmother, a barmaid, a six-year-old” is sexist and ageist. Yes!)

Ed Yong also had a piece on the influence of female mentors on engineering undergrads. He writes, “female engineering undergraduates who are paired with a female mentor felt more motivated, more self-assured, and less anxious than those who had either no mentor or a male one. They were less likely to drop out of their courses, and keener to look for engineering jobs after they graduated.” The article notes that the effect is due to female engineering students with female mentors retaining their confidence, whereas those with male mentors lose it. As the article says, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” (Jeremy adds: Hey, I was thinking of linking to this! But since Meghan beat me to it I’ll just add my comments here. I had a look at the underlying PNAS paper. It seems well-designed and the main results are all as Meghan describes (though I don’t understand why the figures have no error bars…) But I wanted to touch on the one result that runs counter to the general thrust of the paper, not because I think it’s the most important result but because it puzzles me a little and I want to hear what others think of it. Women assigned female mentors or no mentors saw their GPAs decline over time; women assigned male mentors experienced no GPA decline. The GPA effects weren’t massive, but they weren’t trivially small either, at least to my eyes. And they occurred even though mentees assigned to male vs. female mentors reported no differences in how often they met with their mentors or how often they discussed course material and study skills. The authors downplay this result because GPA doesn’t translate into satisfaction with or retention in engineering, which is fair enough. But presumably, there are other reasons to care about GPA. I found myself wondering if all mentors could be given different training so that their mentees could get the best of both worlds–mentoring that improves their satisfaction with engineering, their retention in engineering, and their performance in their coursework.)

Here’s a rubric that you can use to assess your syllabus to see how student- and learning-centered it is. I found it useful, especially the parts on pages 3-6.

10 thoughts on “Friday links: the Dynamic Ecology moth, life advice from Rich Lenski, and more (CORRECTED)

  1. Hi Jeremy,
    I’m responding about the Peer Community in Evolutionary Biology, which I’m involved with. There are a couple of misunderstandings reflected in your description of it, above.
    First – despite the folks evaluating papers being called “recommenders,”, they conduct a full normal peer review of pre-prints that are proposed. Recommending papers that are already published just allows us to be part of the conversation, while we’re waiting for the real work of evaluating (and potentially recommending) pre-prints.
    Second – for a pre-print to be evaluated, it needs to be submitted to the PCI. Recommenders don’t search bio arXiv or other places to review items. Just like a journal, the author needs to ask PCI to evaluate their work. Then, if after peer review and revision (just like a regular journal) the recommender things the manuscript has value, they recommend it on the PCI site.
    Third – the ONLY reason that there are more recommendations of published papers than manucripts on archives is because the initiative is brand new and we need to get the word out and convince people to submit their manuscripts to us to evaluate.

    I would be happy to write a post about PCI for dynamicecology if you’re willing!! Ecology needs one of these, too. 🙂

    Best,
    Ruth

  2. I agree with Terry that ESA is due for a restructuring of its conference format. Even though I reside in Portland, I do not plan on attending this year’s conference- although that has more to do with my busy schedule than anything else. But I think it is telling I made no effort to rearrange my schedule to attend ESA, given it is in my own backyard. I think part of that is due to what Terry mentions- parallel topics and somewhat often boring science. I’d take it one step further though, and allege the ESA conference has become less scientific in recent years, with a focus instead on more esoteric topics. For example- ecosystem services is a major theme of this year’s meeting.

    I am not saying that having a more esoteric format is a bad thing, it just isn’t my thing, and so in terms of pure science, I find other meetings far more useful.

    • “But I think it is telling I made no effort to rearrange my schedule to attend ESA”

      I think that probably says more about you than the ESA meeting (which is fair enough, of course–to each his own). Portland is likely to be the biggest ESA meeting ever, or very close to it. The biggest one was the last time it was in Portland. More broadly, ESA meeting attendance is on a long-term upward trend, with ups and downs that are mostly to do with whether prospective attendees like the location. There’s no sign in the attendance numbers that folks are getting sick of the ESA meeting.

      ESA also solicits feedback on the meeting every year. From talking to meeting organizers, my impression is that structuring the meeting is an optimization problem with no solution, because different attendees want different things. I think ESA’s response to this is sensible: every year they tweak some things, to see what response they get. For instance, ignite talks are among the recent innovations. They’ve also started adding more plenary talks and outreach events aimed at the general public.

      Re: the meeting theme, I suggest ignoring it. That’s pretty much what every presenter does. The meeting theme has no effect on what talks and posters get presented. I’m not sure why the meeting theme even exists; I guess it’s mostly for public relations/press purposes?

      • @Jeremy: Re “The meeting theme has no effect on what talks and posters get presented.” That’s not entirely correct. You are right in that the standard contributed sessions that happen each year (those organized around broad themes or the sub-fields of ecology) largely pay little heed to the meeting theme. Symposia and organised oral sessions however do have fit with the conference theme as one of the review criteria by which proposals for these two types of session are evaluated. Last year for example, there seemed to be quite a few sessions that had novel ecosystems as their basis.

      • Yes, symposia do have to pay heed to the meeting theme, though it’s often lip service. And contributed papers and posters comprise the large majority of presentations at the meeting.

      • I guess I am more inclined to look at it as a “bang for your buck” thing more than anything else. I have several colleagues in the Northwest that are opting out this year too. Personally I prefer somewhat smaller events with more focus- I usually get a lot more out of those than the more generalized meetings. I think your point about “paying lip service” to the conference theme has an impact too. That is, if I register for a conference that bills itself on the theme of “measuring biodiversity,” for example, then I sure as heck expect that is what the conference will be all about. If it isn’t, then I am not likely to attend that organization’s conference again for quite some time.

        I think that is perhaps one area that ESA has disappointed many of us. If you have a conference theme, then stick with it in your decision making process for all presentations. If you do not have a conference theme, then just call it the Ecology Conference and be done with it. But for me anyway, including “ecosystem services” as part (apparently the focus?) of this year’s theme screamed “not a lot of science to be found here”- this go-round, anyway. I understand and ardently support the well-intended efforts of many diverse fields of study to rescue the remaining natural components of our world. But let’s face it, not all of them are scientific in nature.

        Ecosystem services, as defined by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, defines these services as provisioning, regulating, supporting and cultural. Might as well throw in the kitchen sink too… My point being, this is a policy-based and economic set of criteria. ESA states in the description of the meeting theme that the conference shall attempt to link the importance of biodiversity to the delivery of these services. I don’t know how that is accomplished, and they sure as heck offer no other explanation. So, esoteric is what I see at this year’s ESA meeting.

        And that is OK… but, I do not think that qualifies as ecology per se.

      • As they have been defined by the MEA, yes, absolutely. Perhaps a related word with a similar meaning would have been a better choice: indeterminate. Here’s an example of why I would say as much:

        Modern agri-business is an ecosystem service defined under the MEA. Agri-business is not esoteric in the sense that it is known to only a few. Pretty much everyone understands what agri-business is. But it is esoteric in the indeterminate sense. If I am going to define (scientifically) how biodiversity supports agri-business, that will be determined by the business, not the science.

        I can, for instance, measure the impacts of grain production on the Great Plains of North America. I could do the same for ginseng production in central Wisconsin, or cockroach farming in Florida. Everyone eats grain, only a few ginseng, and nobody cockroaches. The point I was trying to make in saying the conference theme is esoteric is that as stated, it implies science in large part will be applied to cultural and policy-based systems.

        This definition of ecology from google is only partly correct:

        e·col·o·gy
        ēˈkäləjē/
        noun
        noun: ecology; noun: Ecology

        1. the branch of biology that deals with the relations of organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings.
        2. the political movement that seeks to protect the environment, especially from pollution.

        What is given as the second definition is not ecology, it is environmentalism. One is taught in a science classroom, the other in the social science classroom.

        If there is an alternative definition for ecosystem services, then I confess I might be completely off base here. However my long-term understanding is that this is not necessarily a clearly defined set of scientific principles. They are something other than that. Which I believe at the heart of it is not true science. How could it be if it is by definition political in origin?

  3. I endorse @hormiga’s push for more ignite, less 15 minute talks, which over whelm and often are sparsely attended. One problem for this, however, is that non-English-as-first-language ecologists would have trouble with concise, lean, speaking style.

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