Also this week: gifs vs. your tenure-track job search, contractions aren’t a problem in scientific writing, why science Twitter always discusses the same topics, and more.
Thanks to the #MeToo movement, prominent men (and a few women) in many walks of life are being held accountable for sexual harassment and bullying (good!). Academic science is no exception; think for instance of evolutionary biologist Francisco Ayala’s recent resignation from UC Irvine following a university investigation finding him guilty of serial sexual harassment.
Which raises the question of what forms accountability should take. Most obviously, there are official sanctions imposed by employers, the courts, and other institutions, such as being fired, rescinding of awards and honors, and legal sanctions. But in this post, I want to focus on one form of “unofficial” sanction that could be imposed by individuals: not citing the work of sexual harassers and others guilty of bad behavior.
There’s a lot of debate in the humanities right now over whether or when to cite the work of sexual harassers or others who’ve behaved badly (note that I link to that only for its summary of the debate; I disagree with some of the author’s opinions on the debate). In the sciences, I kind of feel like the issues are fairly straightforward, although perhaps that just shows I haven’t reflected on them sufficiently carefully. So I’m going to think out loud here. Basically, I think it comes down to the purpose of the citation:
Also this week: genius or crank, trading one paywall for another, great moments in seminar awkwardness, the nerdiest Halloween costume, and more. Lots of good stuff this week!
Note from Jeremy: this is a guest post from Mark Vellend.
I feel tired. It’s mentally fatiguing to judge others and to be judged, and it seems that we scientists spend an inordinate proportion of our time doing one or the other. Do we do more than people in other lines of work? Do we do the right amount given our overarching goals? Or do we do too little, or too much? Could we judge in ways that are less exhausting for everyone? My tired mind thinks we do too much, and that there must be better ways of doing it. But that’s just from the gut, and I have no specific ideas to offer. I’m hoping that when you finish reading this you will have some thoughts to share in the comments.
- As an Associate Editor, I’ve got one manuscript awaiting decision, and probably a couple more “out there” in review (I’m not totally sure). I will make a judgement of each, offering my opinion to an Editor about whether a paper should be published in the American Naturalist. There’s at least one major judgement per month. As a reviewer for many different journals, I’ll do the same, one step back in the process, also roughly once per month. The decisions are consequential for the authors.
- Upon submitting my recommendation to the Am Nat Editor, I will also be asked to rate the reviewers of the paper – in other words, to judge the judgements. I’m not sure, but one can imagine that at some level my judgement of the judgements will be judged by other judges. I sure hope someone judges that judgement. Not.
- I’ve currently got an application package for promotion to Full Professor to read, after which I will communicate my judgement as to whether this person deserves promotion. Maybe 2-4 things like this happen in a given year. The outcomes matter for people’s lives.
- The season of NSERC Discovery Grants is upon us, and as a member of the Evolution and Ecology evaluation panel, December-February will involve evaluating some 40-45 full proposals. February will include an intense week of coming up with final judgements as to whether each grant is insufficient, moderate, strong, very strong, outstanding, or exceptional, in each of three different ways: excellence of researcher, merit of the proposal, and training of highly qualified personnel. Over my three-year term, this committee will determine the funding level for more than half of Canada’s ecologists and evolutionary biologists funded through this program.
- For the dozen-plus grad student committees I’m on, each year will involve a handful of oral comprehensive exams, a handful of defenses, and a larger bunch of progress reports. On top of that will be a few turns as external examiner for Ph.D. exams or defenses elsewhere. The committees will decide whether students can continue their degrees, or get their degrees, in addition to judging all the details of their research.
- And also…job applications and interviews, awards committees (I’ve been on two major ones for scientific societies during the past 3 years), discussion groups critiquing papers, grad student seminar evaluations, undergrad papers and exams…and I’m probably forgetting things.
(2) Being judged.
- Every judgement involves both the judge and the judged, so this section can be short (switch roles from the last section). In sum, for every judgement I render, there is a judgement received, on a manuscript, grant proposal, or promotion application of my own. And while no one has an evaluation sheet in hand when I give a seminar, there are most certainly judgements made, sometimes evident during question period (or by someone falling asleep), sometimes not. After a paper is published, sometimes you receive positive feedback, sometimes rather harshly worded e-mails. The positive judgements feel good, but probably not as bad as the negative ones feel bad. The wear you out.
Important point 1: This is likely a fairly typical judgement load for someone at my mid-career stage (with the exception of the NSERC panel, which is not a constant throughout a career). In other words, I’m not claiming to do any more of this stuff than anyone else, but rather that we all spend a tremendous amount of time as judge or judgee. Little stuff happens daily, and formal judgements are probably given or received several times per week, averaged over the year. It’s exhausting.
Important point 2: The cumulative mental fatigue is not just from doing the work, as it is for an activity like preparing a lecture. It also stems from the knowledge that each decision matters for someone else’s future – some in only a small way (a mark on an oral presentation) but some in a major way (e.g., funding, promotion). The fact that essentially all final judgements involve multiple judges eases the stress somewhat, but it’s still there. On the other side, being judged is always stressful.
Important point 3: The work of judgement is extremely important and very often gratifying. The importance hardly requires explanation: ideas turn into data and data into knowledge via judgements. The activities described above involve helping many people to get better at what they do, to think more clearly and critically, and to improve communication. The judge also learns a lot, and all that is quite gratifying. In short, my intention is not to suggest that we’re just running around like chickens with our heads cut off, following the rules of the system blindly. The work is important and rewarding. But…
- Do some people steer clear of scientific careers once they see how often they’ll need to judge and be judged? If so, are we losing out from the absence of those people? (Note that I’m not asking about the fairness of judgements – a very important issue – just the fact that so much judgement happens.)
- Would science be better off with more doing and less judging?
- To return to my initial questions: Are we doing the right/wrong amount? Could it be done in a less exhausting way (for both judges and judged)? To be sure, some strategies are already aimed at reducing our collective judgement load, such as journal editorial decisions to “reject without review”, or reducing the number of times one can apply for a given fellowship/grant. These strategies also come with costs, so solutions will not be a simple matter.
Anyone else feeling judgement fatigue? I look forward to hearing what you think…
Six years ago, I invited readers to guess the most-cited ecology paper published in the previous 10 years. Ecology’s most-cited papers are a window into where the field is at and where it’s going. An imperfect and distorted window, of course–only a few types of ecology papers, on a few topics and published by a few journals, have any chance of becoming really highly cited. But a window nonetheless. After all, the papers that become very highly cited are no accident. Rather, they reflect the research interests and citation practices of large numbers of ecologists.
Earlier this month I decided it would be fun to repeat that exercise of six years ago and look up data on the most highly-cited ecology papers published in the last 10 years–forgetting that I already had repeated it just two years ago. Crud. They say the memory is the first…wait, what was I talking about?
But if forgetfulness is one of my endearing features, another is laziness. Having spent several hours researching and writing this post, I’m loath to just junk it. And FWIW, I have some new thoughts on this little exercise and what it says about my own research program.
So below the fold are Web of Science data on three categories of papers. First, a list of the most highly-cited ecology papers published in the last 10 years (in any journal, not just ecology journals). That list is entirely comprised of papers on just four broad topics. So my second list is the most highly-cited ecology papers published in the last 10 years that aren’t about those four broad topics. That second list is entirely comprised of just four types of papers (e.g., meta-analyses). So my third list is the most highly-cited ecology papers published in the last 10 years that aren’t about any of those four broad topics and that aren’t any of those four broad paper types. Some discussion follows the lists. Please alert me to errors and omissions, and I’ll update the post as needed. Some of my searches were WoS topic searches, which tend to miss a lot of papers.
Ok, here we go! Drumroll…
Also this week: getting the most out of conference travel, “the foxes are making coffee”, and I think we can all agree that the optimal number of books to own is n+1, where n is the number you currently own.
Many science journals (e.g., Nature, Science, Ecology, Quarterly Review of Biology, TREE) publish book reviews. Which I mostly don’t find very interesting or useful (your mileage may vary). With the exception of some reviews in Science and Nature and very occasional reviews elsewhere, book reviews in the journals I follow tend to just summarize books, with only brief evaluative comments from the reviewers. That doesn’t help me. It’s too redundant with the book’s table of contents, or with a quick flip through the book at the publisher’s ESA meeting booth (again, your mileage may vary).
What I would find much more interesting and useful would be book reviews like those in the Times Literary Supplement or the London Review of Books. Not so much straight book reviews as essays inspired by one or more books. Essays that use the books as a jumping-off point to talk about some broader issue. For instance, pretty much any good new science book provides occasion to talk about where the field has been, where it’s at, and where it’s going.
There’s precedent for this in other disciplines, such as sociology (which is where I stole this idea from). And it’s how Meghan and I try to write our book reviews, though our blog posts are far from polished essays.
At a guess, I bet the main obstacle would be finding reviewers who want to write such reviews. It’s much easier and quicker for a reviewer to just summarize a book and give only brief evaluative comments. But there are some reviewers who will do it, as evidenced by the fact that some book reviews in Nature and Science read like LRB and TLS pieces.
What do you think? Would you read an equivalent of the LRB or TLS for ecology, or perhaps for some broader field such as biology or science as a whole? I would read the heck out of that!
A while back we invited you to ask us anything. Our final question is from Bruno Garcia Luiz. Paraphrasing from and summarizing the original: What’s the principal motivation for people to do another [piece of] new research, paper, blog post, and so on? Especially given the many reasons for stopping–mental health issues in academia, many people chasing few tenure-track jobs, limited and difficult-to-obtain research funding, etc.
Also this week: bringing
sexy everything back in sociology, times are changing and so are tenure and promotion criteria, Bitcoin vs. university finances vs. bushels of wheat, statistics vs. the Millennium Village Project, and more.
I subscribe to a financial newsletter from Matt Levine. He explains and comments on the business and financial news of the day in a wry style. It’s great stuff; he’s funny, he’s an outstanding explainer, and his general worldview puts him very much on my wavelength. Anyway, I really liked his comments on a blog post by a Facebook executive, in which the executive wrote
Facebook is truly the only company that’s singularly about people. Not about selling devices. Not about delivering goods with less friction. Not about entertaining you. Not about helping you find information. Just about people…[C]onnecting people is a noble mission…
To which Matt responded by pointing out that there are some serious downsides to seeing your job or your company as some all-encompassing noble mission rather than as just, like, a job or a company:
If you come to work and focus on maximizing the profits of your company, that probably doesn’t mean that you’re a psychopath [who will do anything to maximize profit]. It probably just means that you have a job. You compartmentalize things a bit; your work does not contain the entirety of your personhood; it’s a thing that you do because you need to make a living. In this sense, a company whose philosophy is “we will sell products that people want for more than it costs us to make them so that we can make a profit and increase our share price” is rather psychologically healthy. That is a good goal to work on during business hours Monday through Friday, and then leave. It is a modest, reasonable, businesslike goal. Obviously there are large contested margins, and you shouldn’t do psychopathic things to pursue that goal, and some people do and that’s bad, but for the most part “shareholder value” is the sort of mission that inspires people more or less the right amount…
I think this generalizes to science and scientists. I’m an academic scientist. I love my job, I’m pretty good at it, and I think it makes the world a better place. But that’s not all I am, or all I do, or all I could do. I’m also a husband, a dad, a son, a Canadian, an American, and so on. And I read books and coach baseball and cook and garden and drink beer. And if tomorrow I lost or quit my job and had to find another job that didn’t involve doing science (as I once thought I’d have to do), well, it’s just a job. Science would carry on perfectly well without me*, and I’d carry on perfectly well as someone who once was a scientist but isn’t any more.** Leaving science wouldn’t mean that I’d failed, or that I was wasting my PhD, or that I was letting anyone down, or that I was settling for second best, or that I was selling myself short, or whatever.*** It’d just mean I was doing something different with (part of) my life, which is something people in all walks of life decide to do (or are obliged to do) all the time for all sorts of reasons. Science isn’t some higher calling. It’s just one among many things that some people like to do and that are worth doing if you want to do them.**** It should inspire you the right amount.
*Arguably, science would carry on perfectly well without any one person, even a genius like Charles Darwin.
**I mean, depending on the circumstances leaving science might be hard for me financially and for other reasons, just as leaving any job might be for anyone. I’m just saying it wouldn’t be extra hard because it was a science job.
***Well, you could say I failed and let people down if lost my job because I faked a bunch of data or something. But leave such cases aside.
****p.s. click that last link, it’s almost certainly the best thing you’ll read this week.
Related old post:
Helping grad students pursue non-academic careers: advice from Anne Krook. Practical career advice from an ex-academic, that springs from the same point of view expressed in this post.