My goal as a reviewer: pass the Poulin test

As a graduate student, I attended my first infectious disease-themed meeting shortly after receiving the reviews on my first thesis chapter. I was excited about the work, and had sent it to Ecology Letters, which reviewed it but rejected it. I talked about the same study at that meeting. It was a small meeting, and one of the great things about the meeting was getting to interact with senior people in the field. This included Robert Poulin, someone whose work I really admired. I was really excited to get to talk to him! During our conversation, he asked about the status of the work I’d presented at the meeting. I said that it had just been rejected by Ecology Letters and then was about to launch into a vent about the reviewers. As soon as I said (in what I’m sure was an exasperated tone), “One of the reviewers”, he stopped me and said “I was one of the reviewers.” I will be eternally grateful for that.

That moment has stood with me throughout my career. In addition to preventing me from embarrassing myself (more!) in front of him, it taught me a really important lesson about peer review. We complain about Reviewer 2 and shake our fist at that mythical beast, but there’s a decent chance that Reviewer 2 is someone who carefully reviewed the manuscript and thought something was problematic. Or maybe it’s that, with a bit of distance from the work, Reviewer 2 thought the work wasn’t as novel as I did as an author, making rejection from a journal like Ecology Letters completely reasonable.

This interaction taught me an important lesson about how easy it is to think of an anonymous reviewer as an adversary, when there’s a good chance they’re a scientist whose work I admire and whose feedback I would value.

There’s an idea that anonymity leads to animosity. I think that’s more often discussed in terms of the person making the comments – for example, as a reason for the toxic nature of the comments on websites. But it also applies in the other direction – in an anonymous interaction, it can be easy to assume the person writing the comment is unreasonable (unless they think our work is brilliant – then clearly they are totally reasonable!) I think the way the scientific community discusses reviews (including on twitter) probably doesn’t help.

Personally, when I receive reviews, I have to work to put myself in the mindset that these reviews can help my paper, even if they’re negative. There are still occasions where my first reaction is something like “How is it possible for reviewers to be so clueless?!?!” but then, after coming back to the reviews a few weeks later, I realize that the reviewers were pointing out something that we didn’t explain very well or a part of the literature we really should have discussed more or an alternate explanation we hadn’t fully considered.

As I’ve blogged about before, I don’t sign most of my reviews. But I still write them with that interaction I had with Poulin in mind. My goal is to write reviews where, if I ended up in that same situation at a meeting, I would be okay with identifying myself as the reviewer, even in cases where my review was a critical one. In other words, I want to pass what I’ve come to think of as the Poulin test.

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My strategies for mentoring undergraduate researchers

At this year’s ESA meeting, I was part of an Inspire session organized by Nate Emery on “Students As Ecologists: Collaborating with Undergraduates from Scientific Question to Publication”. It occurred to me that my talk would be good fodder for a blog post. So, here are (some of) my thoughts on some specific strategies for working with undergraduates in the lab. This post includes information both on types of projects that we’ve had undergraduates work on, as well as things that I think are important related to working with undergraduates in the lab.

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Should the advisor leave the room for part of a student’s committee meeting?

Scrolling through twitter a couple of weekends ago, I saw this tweet:

At first, I misread it and thought it was indicating that the student had been sent out of the room (which is the norm for committees I’ve been on). It took me a second to realize that it was the advisor who had gone out of the room so that the student could have a discussion with their committee without the advisor present. I suspect my misreading wasn’t just a product of quickly scrolling through twitter on the weekend—rather, I think part of the reason why I misread it was because it was such a shift from how things are normally done in departments I’ve been in.*

After realizing what it said, though, I thought it was an interesting idea. I can think of cases where it might have helped to have a discussion without the advisor there to get a better sense of the student’s opinion on things, such as when they would prefer to defend or how excited they are about project 1 vs. project 2 or how they feel about traveling to remote location X to collect samples. And, in the rarer cases where there were major problems, it might have led to those becoming apparent to the committee sooner, which hopefully would lead to the student getting support sooner.

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Do you know a department/program/university/institute/etc. that is doing something worth emulating regarding graduate student mental health?

There is general agreement that too many graduate students experience poor mental health and that more needs to be done to address this problem. A recent well-controlled study found graduate students were at 2.4x greater risk of common mental health disorders. That number won’t surprise anyone in academia—it doesn’t take much time in academia to realize that poor mental health is unfortunately common.

There is still much work to be done to better understand the problem and the factors that contribute to it. But there is also a need to make changes that might help improve graduate student mental health. To list some of the specific things I’ve been thinking about:

  • developing a system for checking in on students who are at stages known to be stressful (e.g., qualifying exams, defending);
  • having a department point person who helps connect graduate students with mental health resources; and
  • how to ensure better access to mental health care and increased normalization of seeking mental health care.

There are also issues related more broadly to the culture in which graduate students carry out their research, including a need to fight against a culture of overwork and to reduce sexual harassment. (1 in 5 targets of sexual harassment will be diagnosed with a depressive disorder, and there is a positive correlation between the amount of sexual harassment a woman experiences and the degree to which she reports depression, stress, and anxiety.)

As I think about things that could be done to better promote and support graduate student, my hope is that there are already departments, programs, universities, institutes, societies, etc. that are already doing good things in this area that others could emulate. It could be something big—one person who responded when I asked about this on twitter talked about a rapid response coordinated care team that works with grad students in crisis and grad chairs—or it could be small:

(Bonus: the dogs are listed as staff on the Emory CAPS website!)

Please let us know in the comments about good things people, departments, institutions, etc. are doing related to graduate student mental health! 

Guest Post: iPads and digital data collection in the field

From Meghan: This is a guest blog post by ecologists Isla Myers-Smith and Gergana Daskalova from the University of Edinburgh. I loved their comment on my post on our new lab notebook backup system and asked them if they could turn it into a guest post. I was very happy that they agreed! Isla and Gergana are off to the Arctic this summer with the Team Shrub field crew for another year of hopefully successful digital data collection. To find out more about their research check out the Team Shrub website and blog (https://teamshrub.com/).

Guest post:

Two things have really changed my academic life over the past five years: the first is embracing GitHub for version control of code, data, manuscripts and my research group’s individual and combined science, and the other is switching over to digital data collection. For ecologists who haven’t made the switch from paper field books to iPads and digital data collection it is not as scary as you might think!!!

Caption: Collecting plant phenology data – the recorder sitting in the back with an iPad! (photo credit: Jeff Kerby)

The benefits of going digital

Digital data collection can be more rigorous with error checking as data are collected to prevent mistakes. Data can be better backed up. And finally, it forces us to put thought into the structure of data before we collect it (significant digits, continuous or categorical data, are the data unrestricted or constrained to a particular range or particular set of values, etc.), which helps down the road when it comes time for analysis. Digital data collection has saved days, if not months, of data entry each year for my team and has allowed us to go from ecological monitoring in the field to analysis of results within hours instead of days. Our work flows are streamlined and our iPads are waterproof, so data collection can occur under any conditions – and we work in the Arctic, so we experience it all from wet to dry, hot to cold, rain, snow, you name it.

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Rough drafts, getting words on the page, and the pain – and pleasure – of writing

Intro: this is the first of a series of posts exploring some common themes in three books I’ve read recently that relate to writing: Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Helen Sword’s Air & Light & Time & Space: How Successful Academics Write, and Tad Hills’ Rocket Writes a Story. (And, yes, one of those is not like the other.) This post focuses on getting started with a new writing project, rough drafts, and the pleasures of writing.

The post:

Everyone I know flails around, kvetching and growing despondent, on the way to finding a plot and structure that work. You are welcome to join the club.

     – Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

Unfortunately, a universal experience of writing is that getting started can be hard. Rocket knows this:

The next day, Rocket returned to his classroom. It was time to begin. He looked down at the blank page and the blank page looked up at him. But no story would come.

From Tad Hills’ Rocket Writes a Story

This is something that all writers struggle with, but that can be especially problematic for new writers. The task can seem so big and daunting – and there’s a decent chance that you are feeling like an imposter who is about to be exposed.

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My lab’s new lab notebook backup system. Part 2: The system

In yesterday’s post, I talked about my motivations for seeking a new system for backing up lab notebooks and data sheets. Here, I describe the system we’re now using for backing up lab notebooks, data sheets, etc. I think it’s working well. At the end, I ask for suggestions of systems that work for backing up files on lab members’ laptops, which I think we could do a better job of.

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My lab’s new lab notebook backup system. Part 1: The backstory

Back when I was an undergrad, the fire alarm went off while I was working in the lab. As people gathered outside the building, it became clear that it wasn’t a drill – I don’t recall specifics, but I think it was actually an issue in a neighboring building that caused someone in our building to pull the fire alarm. In the end, it wasn’t a big deal (even for the neighboring building!) But while people were standing around outside, the conversation turned to how much data would be lost if there was a full-on fire. It was clear that lots of people did not have complete backups of their lab notebooks and other data files.

When I was telling about this experience to a friend, Brooks Kuykendall, he told me of his father Bill’s related horror story. In the fall of 1963, Bill had completed his PhD research at Johns Hopkins in Archaeology, and started teaching at Erskine College in rural South Carolina. In the summer and early fall of 1964, after his first year of teaching, he had managed to finish writing his dissertation. In early October, he had assembled the six copies (and these were the days of carbon copies) ready to be submitted to his committee. They were stacked on the floor of his office, needing only to be packed off to go in the mail.

And then that night Bill heard the sirens. Rushing to his office, he found that the building was on fire. The firemen had cordoned it off, but somehow two students—of whom he forever after spoke with gratitude—managed to get in through the window of his ground-floor office, recovering only 1) a single rough draft for the whole text, and 2) a box that had the originals for all of the illustrations. The copies on the floor—and virtually everything else in the office—were ruined by the water.

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Journals have a responsibility to ensure ethical oversight of mental health research (and we do not currently have evidence that grad students are 6x as likely as the general population to have depression and anxiety)

I care deeply about mental health in academia (and have blogged about it in the past, including here and here and here). Given that, I was really interested when a recent paper by Evans et al. came out on graduate student mental health. However, when I read it, two things stood out to me: it didn’t mention IRB approval, and the most striking conclusion – that graduate students experience anxiety and depression at 6x the rate of the general population – is not supported by the study. The key messages of this blog post are:

  1. the authors did have IRB approval to do this work, but Nature Biotechnology did not know that when they published the study. The editor of Nature Biotechnology claims that, since they published this in their Career & Recruitment section, it is not a research article and therefore didn’t require peer review or questions about IRB. This is problematic, as the study is clearly written and presented as presenting new findings, and journals have a responsibility to ensure ethical oversight of work they publish.
  2. While the Evans et al. paper claims “Our results show that graduate students are more than six times as likely to experience depression and anxiety as compared to the general population,” that claim is not supported by their study. Their survey was not a representative sample of the graduate student body (it was a voluntary survey, distributed via social media and email), but they compare it to a representative survey of the general population to get the 6x statistic.

Again, I want to be clear: the authors did have IRB approval for the work, but I only know that because I wrote the authors directly (after being dissatisfied with the responsiveness at Nature Biotechnology), and Nature Biotechnology did not know they had IRB approval when they published the study. In addition, this study does not provide evidence that grad students are six times as likely as the general population to experience depression and anxiety.

Graduate student mental health is really important, so we need to get as accurate a picture as we can of the current situation regarding graduate student mental health. As discussed below, a study (by Levecque et al.) with a more carefully controlled comparison group found a 2.4 increase in risk in graduate students compared to the highly educated general population. This is definitely something that is still a problem and that still needs to be addressed, but it’s not a 6 times greater risk.

To expand on these points more:

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When writing, tell us your biological results!

Quick quiz! Let’s imagine you are reading the results section of a manuscript. Which of these is the most useful/interesting/compelling/informative?:

  1. Figure 2 shows the relationship between infection and lifespan.
  2. Our experiment on the relationship between infection and lifespan found unambiguous results (Figure 2).
  3. Including infection treatment as a predictor improved model fit for lifespan (stats, Figure 2).
  4. Infected hosts lived, on average, half as long as uninfected hosts (20 days vs. 40 days; stats, Figure 2).

I think we’d mostly agree that option 4 is the most informative and interesting by a long shot. It focuses on the biological results, which, as ecologists, are usually our primary interest – presumably you did the experiment because you wanted to know whether and how infection impacted reproduction, not because you just really like making figures or doing stats!

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