Friday links: how to teach paper writing, chill out about self-citations, and more

Also this week: why girls shy away from math-heavy STEM fields, do preprints make authors patient with reviewers, statistical vignettes as teaching tools, and more.

From Jeremy:

Interviews with several experienced ecologists, reflecting on changes in the discipline in the last few decades.

A big Gates Foundation-funded initiative to identify college students at risk of failing and provide them enhanced advising had absolutely no effect on student outcomes in a massive randomized controlled trial across three US colleges and universities. Indeed, at one of the three institutions, there were hints that the program worsened student outcomes. Perhaps because students were discouraged by being flagged as at risk, or dropped out rather than take extra meetings with advisers. Kudos to the Gates Foundation for funding this study, designing it well, and publishing the results–but there’s no getting around that the results are discouraging.

Why are women massively underrepresented in heavily-mathematical fields like physics, engineering, and, um, mathematics? Various reasons, no doubt. But one big one, that affects educational and career choices starting many years before college, seems to be that girls have a comparative advantage in reading, boys have a comparative advantage in math. That is, girls tend to be better at reading than they are at math, whereas the reverse tends to be true for boys. So if everybody plays to their own strengths, you end up with girls avoiding math-heavy fields and boys going into math-heavy fields. The link goes to a new PNAS paper by Breda and Napp, based on PISA test data, survey responses, and subsequent educational choices for 300,000 15-year old students from 64 countries. I skimmed it, it seemed pretty convincing to me, but I freely admit I’m no expert here so would welcome comments from those who know more than me. I liked that the paper at least addresses alternative hypotheses like girls misperceiving their own mathematical abilities, and boys and girls choosing the fields where their absolute (not comparative) advantages lie. Though it’s worth noting that some of those alternatives aren’t mutually exclusive with the comparative advantage hypothesis. One take-away for me was that, rather than asking “why are girls choosing not to go into some STEM fields?”, we might be better off asking “why do girls, and boys, make the educational and career choices they do?” After all, every girl who doesn’t go into a math-heavy field is a girl who goes on to something else instead, and every boy who goes into a math-heavy field is a boy who doesn’t go on to something else instead. But what do you think? (ht Marginal Revolution)

Chill out about self-citations. The vast majority of among-researcher variation in self-citation rate merely reflects which researchers have run cohesive research programs in one study system for a long time, rather than bouncing among topics and study systems. And scroll down to the comments, where Steve Cooke and Andrew Hendry catch a potentially-serious technical flaw in that Plos Biology paper on self-citations that everyone is talking about. And that’s before we even start talking about how blanket criticism of any and all self-citation is likely to differentially impact the wrong people.

I love this idea for teaching graduate students how to write papers!:

I think an equally good version would be to assign students a published paper by a good writer, that they haven’t yet read. Don’t show them the abstract and intro. Just give them the rest of the paper, have them write an abstract and intro, then compare to the actual abstract and intro. (ht @noahpinion)

Interesting hypothesis: it’s now less important for reviewers to complete peer reviews quickly, because authors can just post preprints to make their work available to anyone who would like to see it immediately:

Curious to hear what folks think of this. As an author, are you now happy to wait however long it takes to receive good careful reviews, knowing that your preprint has already been posted?

Hoisted from the archives: statistical vignette of the day as a teaching tool. Feel free to steal these for your own undergrad stats courses.

Question formulation technique. Interesting-sounding teaching technique to introduce a new topic. I’ve never tried it but commenter Harrison recommends it highly.

The obituary for Cordelia Scaife May, who passed away recently, makes for sobering reading for anyone who supports environmental causes (which I do), or thinks the Earth is or soon will be “overpopulated” (which I don’t). May was a wealthy philanthropist who started out supporting bird conservation. She moved into supporting family planning via Planned Parenthood due to concern about overpopulation. But she eventually dedicated her life and funds to virulently anti-immigrant movements, feeling the US was being “invaded on all fronts” by foreigners who “breed like hamsters”. She’s far from the only prominent white supporter of environmental causes to find it a very short step from caring about nature to Donald Trump’s position on immigration–think for instance of Madison Grant or John Tanton. The latter was inspired in part by ecologist Paul Ehrlich’s arguments on overpopulation and the anti-immigration implications he drew from them. I definitely wouldn’t suggest that environmentalism is always or necessarily anti-immigrant or racist. Like any view it can (and for many environmentalists, has) evolved away from its racist roots. But still, this is history ecologists should know and reflect on.

31 thoughts on “Friday links: how to teach paper writing, chill out about self-citations, and more

  1. Regarding environmentalism and racism/anti-immigration, at some point in the future I want to do some writing on the blog about the relationship between far-right politics and “green” politics. The association of green=left is a relatively recent one, the fascist links are historically even stronger and persist even to this day in the form of the eco-fascism of the Unabomber and more recent domestic right-wing terrorists. In relation to over-population, I think I’ve mentioned it before, but if you’ve not read it, Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now has some really interesting things to say on the topic.

    • And in the last presidential election the US Green Party candidate was pro-Russian, much as Donald Trump is. So even these days, “green” doesn’t always equal “left”. Or if it does, well, apparently “left” and “right” are the two ends of a horseshoe and so the extremes aren’t nearly as far apart as one might think. Or something. I am definitely not informed or insightful on this topic!

      • Yes, I always envisioned it as a horseshoe, but the gap in the middle is filled by anarchism which can itself align with the left or the right, forming more of a circle 🙂 And you’re correct, the distance between them is not so far, evidenced by the fact that Stalin and Hitler were allies at the start of WW2.

      • In this interview with Brian Reynolds Myers, an expert on North Korean ideology and propoganda, Myers argues that present-day North Korea fits into the gap (though obviously not as a form of anarchism!):

        If we have to posit [North Korea] anywhere on the ideological spectrum, we have to say that it’s more of a far-right country. This is a country with a race-based way of looking at the world. It does have a command economy, but the far-right national defense states of the 1930s and 1940s, namely imperial Japan and Nazi Germany, also had a command economy. It was perhaps not quite as extreme as the one you see in North Korea, but a command economy is by no means incompatible with a far-right state.

        But we have to keep in mind that this left-right scale should really be envisioned more as a kind of circle. In other words, the further you get to the extreme left, the closer you get to the extreme right. I would see North Korea as being right there where the extreme right and the extreme left meet.

      • Thanks Peter, yes, I think there’s a lot of truth in that: dictators act like dictators regardless of their political ideology. Perhaps anarchism is best thought of as an outer layer to the circle; one can come to anarchism/libertarianism from many points on the ring. As a student I was drawn to anarchism because it seemed to transcend ideological notions of left and right, which hugely appealed to me. Over time this has grown into a political pluralism – take what has been shown to work and reject what doesn’t; that still doesn’t ally me with any one party (though it means I reject the basic tenets of many).

    • Naomi Oreskes in her book Merchants of Doubt draws some interesting links between Soviet expat physicists who came to the US and in the US left saw their former communist oppressors and therefore threw themselves in as scientific “expert” debunkers of environmentalism including climate change. I found it pretty convincing.

      And again in the US but much of the roots of conservation in the US go at least in some part to Teddy Roosevelt who was a Republican president. Richard Nixon for all his failures was no slouch on conservation either.

      It is indeed a complex and tangled web between left/right and environmentalism.

      All of which is to say would love to see your future blog post.

      • Thanks Brian, I need to read that. In the UK some on the far left are rejecting climate change as a capitalist hoax designed to keep the working class in its place. It’s a weird, weird world out there……

      • “In the UK some on the far left are rejecting climate change as a capitalist hoax designed to keep the working class in its place. It’s a weird, weird world out there……”

        Wait, what? I thought the far-left position on climate change was that it was both real and a *good* thing because it would rid the world of capitalism. See Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: https://www.amazon.com/This-Changes-Everything-Capitalism-Climate/dp/1451697392

        But given how justly famed left wing politics is for circular firing squads, I guess I should not be surprised that leftists disagree on whether climage change will destroy capitalism or is itself a capitalist hoax.

      • I think it very much depends on which flavour of far left you subscribe to…. There’s as many viewpoints as there are people it seems; in the past mponth I’ve been described as an “eco-loony” by an agriculturalist and as “sleeping with the enemy” by an environmentalist – you can’t win……

      • Now I’m morbidly curious to watch a discussion (argument? agreeable meeting of the minds?) between left wingers who think climate change is a right-wing hoax and right wingers who thing it’s a left-wing hoax. 🙂

      • At the same time we can have the left complain how the BBC is right-biased, and the right complain that it’s left-biased. I’ll bring the popcorn 🙂

      • Question: is the association between environmentalism and immigration restrictionism waning among younger generations of ecologists, and perhaps environmentalists more broadly? The examples of environmentalist immigration restrictionists cited in the post and comment thread are all senior or now-deceased people.

      • In a complete coincidence, apparently there’s some political news item today about Republicans trying to tar Bernie Sanders (falsely) as a racist Malthusian?

        I cannot be bothered to dig into this. Partisan political fights are not where one should look for insight into the roots of environmentalist thinking, and I don’t know that they’re even a good reason to read up on those roots. I was just amused that we’re accidentally talking about today’s news.

  2. As an author, are you now happy to wait however long it takes to receive good careful reviews, knowing that your preprint has already been posted?

    I don’t know how useful an outside comment is, but since in my field (astronomy) we’ve been used to almost everything being available as preprints since the early 2000s… I’d guess it’s unlikely that people will really become more accepting. We still get annoyed at delayed reviews.

    Admittedly, the practice in my field is about half[*] “put your preprint on the arXiv when you submit it” and half “wait until your paper is accepted by the journal before you put it on the arXiv”. So if you follow the latter practice (as I usually do), waiting for a review delays when you can post the preprint version.

    [*] Very impressionistic statistics. I should probably try doing a simple survey of a few days’s worth of posts on the arXiv to see if that’s really true (while having to ignore the annoying issue of preprints — mostly from cosmologists — that don’t bother telling you whether the paper is “submitted” or “accepted”).

    • “in my field (astronomy) we’ve been used to almost everything being available as preprints since the early 2000s… I’d guess it’s unlikely that people will really become more accepting. We still get annoyed at delayed reviews.”

      Welp, so much for the hypothesis that preprints = author patience with reviewers! 🙂 That’s a very useful comment. Although as you note, it would be interesting to know if astronomers who post preprints at the time of submission feel differently.

      • it would be interesting to know if astronomers who post preprints at the time of submission feel differently.

        Impressionistically, I’d say they mostly feel the same — in that I know lots of people who do that and still get annoyed when the review is delayed. (I should mention that my practice applies to papers that I’m the lead author on; I’ve certainly been a co-author on a number of papers that were posted to the arXiv when they were submitted.)

        Sometimes people split the difference, and post the paper to the arXiv after the first round of the refereeing process (the idea being to signal, “OK, we’ve probably fixed the most egregious errors that the referee might have found in the first version, so you can probably trust this version won’t be too different from the final, accepted version.”)

      • Thanks, I’m going to consider the hypothesis refuted. 🙂 I mean, I’m sure some people who post preprints at the time of submission thereby become patient with reviewers. But clearly that’s not the general rule.

    • As a journal editor I do not have any sense that people do not care about how long the review takes. Slow reviews lead to more correspondence than other topics (e.g. “unfair” review).

  3. Doesn’t not self-citing also hurt your students as they become junior faculty? If I cite Rockstar and Skipvb 2016 in Virtuoso and Skipvb 2019, do you think a tenure committee for Rockstar will discount it because my name is on both papers? I don’t. But I bet the committee will count citations in one way or other (n, h, etc,)

    • Tenure committees at Calgary don’t really look at citation data in my experience, or at any quantitative index based on citation data, unless the person coming up for tenure brings it up themselves in their application packet. And even then, there are so many other lines of evidence that get looked at. Plus, your supervisor would have to self-cite papers you co-authored a *lot* to move the needle on your h-index. So as a supervisor, I’m afraid I can’t get worked up one way or the other about how my citation practices might affect my students’ careers.

    • Just wanted to add that they aren’t just writing papers. I remember meeting a couple of prominent ecologists for the first time at a booth for Hurlbert’s organization, the Scientists & Engineers for Population Stabilization at an ESA meeting (2013, I think).

      • I remember many being upset about this presentation on abortion by Max Kummerow at ESA 2017: https://eco.confex.com/eco/2017/webprogram/Paper67394.html

        A group of grad student ecologists at Minnesota had a reading group a couple years ago on whether (and which) ideas from ecological theory are influencing rhetoric about population and immigration. We certainly talked about Hurlbert and (farther back) Garrett Hardin, as well as the general discourse around the human population among ecologists back in the 60s and 70s. I think there is certainly still some influence, but there’s also a lot of far-right nativism that adopts a much more wishy-washy sort of vague (sometimes neo-pagan influenced) environmental consciousness.

  4. Thanks for more links to good stuff. Appreciate the chill out over self-citations link. They make good points, however the supporting data plot of h-index vs. h-index minus self cites doesn’t look right.
    Their plot of 2126 authors publishing in ecology and evolutionary biology, shows no author has fewer than 7 publications that have each been cited at least 7 times. Every new author has to start with no citations to their work. Considering the steady flow of new scientists publishing their first papers, there have to be multiple points on the origin (0,0). I would expect a dense blob of points with early-career scientists with h-scores <10, yet only 3 of 2126 ecologists and evobiologists have h-scores <10.

  5. Pingback: Grapes of Math | Barbara Oakley

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