Changes in number of authors and position of corresponding author in Ecology papers

Based on my interest in authorship practices in ecology, I decided to look at papers published in Ecology in each of the past seven decades to see how corresponding authorship changed over that time.* I looked at the first (or second**) issue of Ecology in 1956 and every ten years thereafter.

tl:dr version of the results: Not surprisingly, the number of authors increased over time. For corresponding authorship, I found that, in 1996 and earlier, the corresponding author was almost never indicated. Looking every 5 years from 2001-2016, the first author*** was usually the corresponding author, though expanding the analysis to include AmNat and Evolution**** suggests that some of the changes might be due to some of the more mundane aspects of publication.

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One way to make academia less anxiety-inducing: Be specific in your emails!

A few years ago, I asked a senior colleague for feedback on something I’d written. He agreed, and a couple of days later, sent an email saying “Is there a good time to discuss this?” I immediately thought it must mean he’d really hated what I’d written. I replied, suggesting a few times in the next couple of days. In his reply, he choose the latest of those times, saying he needed more time to mull it over. That confirmed my worst fears – it was so bad he needed extra time to figure out how to tell me how bad it was! After spending some time getting no other work done because I was so distracted, I decided to write to say that, based on his emails, I was worried that there was a major problem with what I’d written. He replied immediately saying not to worry, that it read very well, and that he just had a few ideas that he thought would be easier to discuss in person.

I was thinking of this situation again recently when I was emailing a student in my lab. She’d emailed about a proposal she’s working on, laying out two different options for a fellowship proposal she’s working on. My thinking, when reading the ideas, was that both of them could work, but that there might also be other options, and that it would probably be best to discuss all the options in person. Looking at my schedule and comparing with hers, I could see that we wouldn’t be able to meet until the end of the week. So, I initially wrote a reply that said, “Can we meet Friday at 11 to chat about this?” In the brief pause before hitting send, I realized that, if I were in her shoes, I would spend the rest of the week trying to interpret what that email had meant, most likely assuming it meant something bad. I then realized that could be easily addressed by instead saying something like, “Both of these ideas look good to me, but there might be other options worth considering, too. Are you free to meet Friday at 11 to discuss the options more?”

After writing about being a scientist who deals with anxiety, one question I’ve been asked repeatedly is what faculty can do to make their labs friendlier to students with mental health issues. I’m generally unsure of how to respond to this – so much depends on each particular situation. But avoiding unnecessary vagueness in emails is one pretty straightforward, simple thing that people can do to make academia friendlier to everyone, but perhaps especially to those with underlying anxiety issues.

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Work at the times that work for you

A couple of nights ago, I checked the weather forecast for the next day, in part to see how cold it would be for my morning run. I was surprised to see that the forecast was for 3-6 inches of snow overnight. (I hadn’t realized a storm was coming!) I had no interest in trying to slog through a run in 3-6 inches of wet, unshoveled snow in the dark, so decided I would work when I first got up in the morning (in that wonderfully quiet time when I’m the only one in the house who is awake) and go to the gym at the end of my work day. And that’s what I did. I got up, made myself some tea, sat down to check twitter, and then started working, which included replying to some emails that had been hanging around in my inbox.

That was when I remembered a conversation I’d recently had about whether it’s okay to send work emails outside of “typical” work hours. This is a topic that comes up on twitter sometimes, too, as well as on facebook. The concern is that, if you’re sending emails early in the day or in the evening or on weekends: 1) you have an unhealthy work/life balance and/or 2) you are sending a message to others that they should be working at those times, too. I fully, completely support having interests outside of work, and think that working long hours is unhealthy and unproductive. But I don’t think the way to achieve healthy work habits is to be proscriptive about when people work, or to shame others for working outside the hours that we deem acceptable.

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Mentoring plans: a really useful tool for PIs and their lab members

Over the years, I’ve heard people talk about mentoring plans and individual development plans (IDPs), and always thought they sounded like they could be worth trying some time. But I never made it a high priority, and so never actually got to doing them with my lab. I got as far as starting to do an IDP for myself to test it out, but never got further than that. Then, last year, I had to do a mentoring plan with one of my students, as a requirement of her graduate program. As soon as I did that one with her, I realized I needed to be doing these with everyone in my lab, including grad students, postdocs, technicians, and undergrads. Here, I’ll describe what we include in our mentoring plans, talk about some of the ways they’ve been helpful, and will ask for ideas on some things I’d like to add or change.

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On finding errors in one’s published analyses

Dan Bolnick just had a really important – and, yes, brave – post on finding an error in a published study of his that has led him to retract that study. (The retraction isn’t official yet.) In his post, he does a great job of explaining how the mistake happened (a coding error in R), how he found it (someone tried to recreate his analysis and was unsuccessful), what it means for the analysis (what he thought was a weak trend is actually a nonexistent trend), and what he learned from it (among others, that it’s important to own up to one’s failures, and there are risks in using custom code to analyze data).

This is a topic I’ve thought about a lot, largely because I had to correct a paper. It was the most stressful episode of my academic career. During that period, my anxiety was as high as it has ever been. A few people have suggested I should write a blog post about it in the past, but it still felt too raw – just thinking about it was enough to cause an anxiety surge. So, I was a little surprised when my first reaction to reading Dan’s post was that maybe now is the time to write about my similar experience. When Brian wrote a post last year on corrections and retractions in ecology (noting that mistakes will inevitably happen because science is done by humans and humans make mistakes), I still felt like I couldn’t write about it. But now I think I can. Dan and Brian are correct that it’s important to own up to our failures, even though it’s hard. Even though correcting the record is exactly how science is supposed to work (and I did corrected the paper as soon as I discovered the error), it still is something that is very hard for me to talk about.

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A bit of good news that most ecologists weren’t expecting: recent ecology hires are gender balanced (updated periodically)

Most recent update: Dec. 30, 2016. To date, all updates have introduced only tiny quantitative changes to the original results, no substantive changes.

Recently I decided to quantify the gender balance of recently-hired ecology faculty in North America. “Recent” being operationally defined as “hired in 2015-16, or in a few cases in 2014”. Data on the gender balance of faculty is widely available only at the level of very broadly-defined fields like “biology”. Current faculty gender balance mostly (not entirely) reflects the long-term legacy of past hiring and tenure practice rather than current hiring practice (Shaw and Stanton 2012; ht Shan Kothari via the comments). And nobody’s anecdotal experience informs them about the outcomes of more than a tiny fraction of all ecology searches in any given year. So this seemed like a topic on which many people would welcome some reasonably comprehensive data. Follow the link for more details on how I compiled the data. In that old post, I also conducted a poll asking readers what they expected me to find.

Here are the answers: what fraction of recently-hired North American ecologists are women, and what do ecologists think that fraction is?

Many of you are going to be pleasantly surprised…

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Inbox insanity: A way to unsubscribe?

You’ve got mail. Lots of it, especially if you’re a faculty member. And it’s overwhelming. Those were some of the results of the email poll I did recently. I wrote the post because I am often overwhelmed by email. I was curious to know if others were, too. (My guess was yes.) I was also hoping that someone would have magically figured out how to make the email problem go away. Sadly, there doesn’t seem to be a magical solution, but there were some useful tips. In this post, I’ll first give the results of the poll, which I think were interesting. Then I’ll get to some of the suggestions that came in on the blog and via twitter.

The poll

In the poll, I asked:

  1. How many work-related emails are in your inbox now?
  2. What is your goal for the number of work-related emails you aim have in your inbox?
  3. How often do you feel overwhelmed by email?

and then asked for information on the respondent’s current position and age. (I was originally also planning on asking about gender, because I thought it would be interesting to see if there was a difference, but I forgot when I set up the poll. Whoops.)

Before getting to the poll results, a little more on the data, code, and analyses: If you’re interested in the full data set and/or the code I used to analyze it, those are available here. I especially want to focus in on the cross-factor analyses, which I think are the most interesting. These rely on the Likert package by Jason Bryer, which I first learned about from Rayna Harris. It makes really cool figures for this sort of data!

Now, the results:

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The importance of saying yes

In July 2012, I received an email that has had a profound effect on my career and life. The email came from Jeremy. He had begun blogging as part of the editorial board of the journal Oikos, but had resigned from their editorial board, so it no longer made sense to blog there. Instead, he had the idea to start a blog written by a small group of ecologists. The blog was to be named Dynamic Ecology, and he wanted to know if I would be interested in writing for it.

I didn’t sleep that night. There were plenty of reasons to say no. I was preparing to move from my job at Georgia Tech to a new faculty position at Michigan, and would, for that year, have labs running in two places. I would be teaching Introductory Biology in my first semester at Michigan, to hundreds of students. I had a toddler and was pregnant with my second child. My first graduate student was working to write up her dissertation. We were setting up new field sites in Michigan. I planned on submitting my tenure dossier the following summer.

Yet, the reason I couldn’t sleep was that I knew I wanted – needed – to say yes, despite all those other things going on. In the months leading up to that, I had been finding myself increasingly interested in speaking out about science and topics related to the process of science, and this was a chance to do just that. I had a hunch that it would end up being an important blog in the ecology community, and that I would regret it if I turned down the opportunity.

So, I wrote back and said yes. I am so glad I did.

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Poll: guess the gender balance of recently-hired North American ecologists (UPDATED; poll now closed)

Many academic fields are staffed by a male-biased mix of faculty. But the existence and degree of faculty gender imbalance varies among fields. Further, those fields often are quite broadly defined in published datasets (e.g., “biology”), which can leave many people wondering how well published data apply to their own, narrower field (e.g., “ecology”). Gender balance of academic fields also changes over time, but only slowly. Published data therefore only give you an imperfect sense of the gender balance of recent hires in your field. And personal anecdotes and experiences provide only a very small sample. Every year there are many dozens of faculty hired in ecology and closely-allied fields, but nobody hears through the grapevine about the outcomes of more than a small fraction of those hires.

So I decided to quantify the gender balance of recently-hired ecology faculty at North American colleges and universities. I’m doing it by going through this very comprehensive list of all ecology & evolution faculty positions advertised in 2015-16, and checking the university websites to identify who was hired. This turns out to be really easy in many cases, and difficult or impossible in the remaining cases (I therefore remove from the dataset). To keep things manageable, I’m skipping positions outside North America, of which there are very few on the linked list. I’m also skipping non-ecology positions, of which there are many. So not, e.g., biology, anatomy & physiology, genomics, evolution, paleontology, museum curator, science education, etc., even though some of those positions might have been filled by ecologists. But I’m defining “ecology” pretty broadly so as to include fields in which people who self-identify as ecologists often apply for and obtain positions. “Ecology” for purposes of this exercise includes wildlife management, conservation, ecological genetics, ecological physiology, evolutionary ecology, microbial ecology, fisheries, etc. My judgments on what constitutes “ecology” obviously are somewhat subjective and arbitrary, but I don’t see why that would affect the results. To focus on new faculty, I’m only looking at assistant professor positions, so ignoring the (very few) ads for heads of department, program directors, endowed senior chairs, etc. See the footnote (*) at the end for more nitty-gritty details on my procedure. UPDATE: To be clear, I’m including positions at all types of institutions, not just R1 universities. And you should do the same when answering the poll below. I’ll present the results broken down by institution type for anyone who’s curious about that.

I’ll present the results in a future post, in a sufficiently-complete form that you can go back and reproduce my work if you wish.

But before I show the results, I’m very curious what you think I’ll find. So below is a little poll. What do you think is the gender balance of recently hired North American ecology faculty? (UPDATE Nov. 10: responses have slowed to a tiny trickle, so I’ve closed the poll so that I can start analyzing the results. We already have 468 respondents–thanks to everyone who responded!)

p.s. Obviously, these data won’t tell you whether the outcome of any particular search was fair, much less whether every individual applicant for every position was evaluated fairly. And I have no way to collect lots of contextual information that you might want in order to interpret the results, such as the gender mix of the applicant pool for every position. In that future post I’ll talk more about what I think we can and can’t learn from these data.

*Failed searches are among those for which I can’t tell who was hired, so they automatically get dropped from the dataset. The difficulty of identifying who was hired mostly has to do with departmental web page design, so I’m confident that the easily-identifiable hires are a random sample of the population with respect to gender balance. A couple of times, I’ve determined that a position that I thought was ecological wasn’t filled by an ecologist; I’m dropping those cases from the dataset.  I’m being careful to remove duplicate ads from the list so that I don’t double-count anyone. I’m including some other recent (2015-16) hires that weren’t on the linked list. I learned about these either from colleagues, or by stumbling across them while checking on listed positions. A few of the hires I stumbled across might actually be 2014 hires, but I’m fine with that because those are still very recent hires. In every case so far, gender has been obvious from the person’s name and photo.