Poll results: How mathy are ecology, evolution, and genetics?

Last week, I did a quick poll asking people how much math they think is involved in ecology, evolutionary biology, and genetics, and also how much math they use in their own research. What counts as a “moderate” or “substantial” amount of math is up for debate, of course. But I am most interested in the comparison between the three fields and, especially, in comparing the responses of DE readers with those of my intro bio students.

To give more explanation: it seems clear to me that undergrads are generally surprised by the amount of math that is in ecology. And, from talking with colleagues (here and elsewhere), it’s clear I’m not the only person who has the impression that college students do not expect ecology to involve math.

I’ve been thinking about how to try to address this with students. I want to try to better prepare them for what the ecology section of the course will involve. I worked with Susan Cheng (Cornell) to design a survey for students, polling them on their views of ecology, evolution, and genetics. We ran the survey at the beginning of the semester and plan on running it again at the end of the semester to see whether/how views change.

What did we find?
75% of incoming Intro Bio students think geneticists use a “moderate” or “substantial” amount of math. But only 33% think ecologists do.

How does that compare with DE readers?
64.7% of Dynamic Ecology poll respondents think geneticists use a “moderate” or “substantial” amount of math. 78.5% think ecologists do.

And how does that compare with what ecologists report in terms of how much math they use in their own research? 80% of DE poll respondents who identified as ecologists said they use a “moderate” or “substantial” amount of math.

(Sample sizes: For Intro Bio, n = 271; for the DE poll, n = 349; for the subset of just ecologists, n = 225)

In other words: there is a really big difference between the amount of math that students just starting Intro Bio think ecology will involve vs. how much ecologists say it involves.

I’ve been thinking about how I will talk about this with students. I think that, at the start of the population ecology lecture, I will tell them that there’s something that often surprises students: ecology involves math. I will note that most people haven’t been exposed to ecology before taking the course – it was certainly true for me that I never thought about ecology before getting to college. I think that, as a first year college student, I didn’t really know what ecology was, but probably had a vague sense that it was what you see in the nature videos on PBS. It definitely did not occur to me that it involved math! I can then transition to saying this is similar to what students in this year’s course think. I then plan on presenting the same set of numbers that I have above. My hope with this is not to scare them, but to better prepare them for what is coming.

I think it’s problematic that, this year and the two previous times I’ve taught Intro Bio, I’ve only taught the ecology half of the course. That means I haven’t worked with the students through all the genetics stuff — which is hard but in a way that they expect. So, I haven’t developed a rapport with the students as we work through that material. That means one potential explanation for why there’s an unexpected about of math in the ecology portion of the course is simply that I’m a mean person who likes to make things hard. So, I’ve asked to teach the entire semester the next time I teach. I think it will help a lot.

We plan on surveying the students at the end of the semester to see how their views have changed. I’m very interested in seeing those results, but I’m not sure they will change much. Again, because I’m only teaching the second half of the course, some of them might not change their views on how much math is involved in ecology because they might still think that I was just making things unnecessarily hard. (We actually don’t do a lot of math, in my opinion. There’s no Lotka-Volterra, for example. But it’s more than they expect.) So, I’m interested not just in seeing how the views change this semester, but also how they change in future semesters. My hope is that, in the future, I will be able to prepare them for ecology involving math by showing them data on how views of previous students changed over the course of the semester.

Do you find undergraduates who are new to ecology are surprised by what ecology is, including the amount of math it involves? What (if anything) do you do to try to prepare them for what ecology is?

Last and corresponding authorship in ecology: a series of blog posts turns into a paper

My paper on last and corresponding authorship appeared in the journal Ecology & Evolution today. Normally I don’t plug my papers on the blog, but this one is different: this paper arose out of a poll and a series of blog posts on the site, so it seems appropriate to wrap things up with a quick post today.

I suppose it’s actually not quite accurate to say the paper arose out of a poll. Before that, I had a tweet storm as I thought through issues, and that, in turn, was motivated by needing to decide on author order for a manuscript. When I was at Georgia Tech, I was told that I should be last author on all papers coming out of my lab as a sign of having driven the work. But I have a paper from work I did as a grad student where I am the last author (with my advisor as a middle author) because I did the least work on the project (Cáceres et al. 2008 Freshwater Biology), so the advice I got at Georgia Tech surprised me at first. At Georgia Tech, I was also told that I needed to be corresponding author on papers out of my lab; when I first got to Michigan, I never heard anyone mention corresponding authorship as something that mattered (and that included when I directly asked a couple of people about it). Notably, though, in the past year I did hear colleagues bring it up a couple of times.

I almost gave up on this paper multiple times, because I wasn’t sure it was worth the time. But I kept hearing comments from colleagues at various institutions about author order or corresponding authorship coming up as an issue, especially related to tenure & promotion discussions, so it seemed important to get this information out there in a format where it could easily be shared.

What did I find? This is the abstract of the paper:

Authorship is intended to convey information regarding credit and responsibility for manuscripts. However, while there is general agreement within ecology that the first author is the person who contributed the most to a particular project, there is less agreement regarding whether being last author is a position of significance and regarding what is indicated by someone being the corresponding author on a manuscript. Using an analysis of papers published in American Naturalist, Ecology, Evolution, and Oikos, I found that: 1) the number of authors on papers is increasing over time; 2) the proportion of first authors as corresponding author has increased over time, as has the proportion of last authors as corresponding author; 3) 84% of papers published in 2016 had the first author as corresponding author; and 4) geographic regions differed in the likelihood of having the first (or last) author as corresponding author. I also carried out an online survey to better understand views on last and corresponding authorship. This survey revealed that most ecologists view the last author as the “senior” author on a paper (that is, the person who runs the research group in which most of the work was carried out), and most ecologists view the corresponding author as the person taking full responsibility for a paper. However, there was substantial variation in views on authorship, especially corresponding authorship. Given these results, I suggest that discussions of authorship have as their starting point that the first author will be corresponding author and the senior author will be last author. I also suggest ways of deciding author order in cases where two senior authors contributed equally.

If you’re interested in finding out more, the paper is open access. Something that is fun is that this is the first paper to appear in Ecology & Evolution’s new paper category, Academic Practice in Ecology and Evolution. Also fun is that, after acceptance, the production staff required that I add an author contribution statement to my sole-authored paper. So, I wrote: {continues below the break}

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Poll: How mathy are ecology, evolution, and genetics?

Something I’ve been interested in is student views on ecology, evolutionary biology, and genetics, including how much math they think is involved in the different disciplines. I’ve surveyed my Intro Bio students to get their views, and realized it would be interesting to compare it to what ecologists, evolutionary biologists, and geneticists think. Hence this poll! The poll is brief, but I’m doing it in google forms so I can do the cross tabs.

Here’s the link to the poll in case the embedding doesn’t work. The embedded poll is below the break.

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Is my latest paper a super-cool result? Or merely a “cute” curiosity? You tell me!

My collaborators and I just published “Population extinctions can increase metapopulation persistence“. New Scientist did a piece on it, which is the first time any media outlet other than my local newspaper has written up my work. I’m chuffed about this, because I think this is the coolest paper I’ve ever done by some distance.

Or, maybe it’s just a cute result–a fun curiosity. I could even imagine someone arguing that it’s oversold fluff. So why do I think it’s so cool? And what’s the difference between “cool” and “cute”?

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Bad coauthors: how to avoid them and what to do when you have one

Note from Jeremy : this is a guest post by Abe Miller-Rushing and Richard B. Primack. Richard was Abe’s PhD advisor, and they continue to collaborate on many projects.

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BadCo-Authors

In this staged photo, Richard Primack and his research team exhibit disagreement and conflict.  In practice, weekly lab meetings and social activities (lunches, pot-luck dinners, walks, etc.) create opportunities for communication and shared goals.

We have written 45 articles together over the past 15 years. We know each other well and trust each other a lot.

But we (and probably most of you) have had experiences working and coauthoring papers with people we don’t know well—sometimes people we don’t know at all before a project begins. Most of the time the result is great! There are a lot of awesome scientists out there. And even when coauthors don’t click, it usually works out just fine—not everyone is going to be best friends, but most ecologists can get along well.

Occasionally, however, we have worked with bad coauthors: people who make doing research and writing papers way more complicated, difficult, and unpleasant than it needs to be. We have witnessed others work with bad coauthors, too. As editor-in-chief of a journal, one of us (Richard) has had to step in and mediate failed coauthor relationships too many times.

What makes a “bad coauthor?”

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Who should be senior author on papers resulting from collaborations between multiple research groups?

I am pretty much through with revisions to my manuscript on authorship, with one exception. One of the reviewers is (quite reasonably) pushing me to make a stronger recommendation about how authorship decisions should be made in the increasingly common case of collaborations between groups. But, of course, this is a tricky issue, and I’m waffling on what exactly to recommend. This blog post is me trying to work through that, and looking for feedback at the end. I’m quite interested in hearing how others think decisions about authorship should be made when multiple groups collaborate substantially on a project!

I’ll start by recapping some of what my results, since they set up the general question. Then, I’ll give some of my thoughts on what might be a proposed solution. And, as I said above, I’ll end by asking for feedback on what I propose.

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Poll results: do ecologists start their PhDs by reading and thinking widely and exhaustively for a year? (UPDATED)

Recently, I polled ecologists and evolutionary biologists (that’s you) (mostly) on whether they started their PhDs by following Steve Stearns’ classic advice to “read and think widely and exhaustively for a year.” I followed this advice. But I was curious if it’s less commonly followed today, and if it’s ever followed at all outside the US where PhD programs are shorter and more often involve students being handed pre-designed projects. Here are the results!

tl;dr: about half of PhD ecologists followed Stearns’ advice. But you might be surprised by who does or doesn’t follow Stearns’ advice; I was!

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Poll: did you start your ecology PhD by reading and thinking widely and exhaustively for a year? (UPDATED; poll closed)

Stephen Stearns’ classic piece, “Some Modest Advice for Graduate Students,” includes this excellent advice under the heading “You must know why your work is important” (emphasis added):

When you first arrive, read and think widely and exhaustively for a year…

If some authority figure tells you that you aren’t accomplishing anything because you aren’t taking courses and you aren’t gathering data, tell him what you’re up to. If he persists, tell him to bug off, because you know what you’re doing, dammit.

This is a hard stage to get through because you will feel guilty about not getting going on your own research. You will continually be asking yourself, “What am I doing here?” Be patient. This stage is critical to your personal development and to maintaining the flow of new ideas into science. Here you decide what constitutes an important problem. You must arrive at this decision independently for two reasons. First, if someone hands you a problem, you won’t feel that it is yours, you won’t have that possessiveness that makes you want to work on it, defend it, fight for it, and make it come out beautifully. Secondly, your PhD work will shape your future. It is your choice of a field in which to carry out a life’s work. It is also important to the dynamic of science that your entry be well thought out. This is one point where you can start a whole new area of research. Remember, what sense does it make to start gathering data if you don’t know – and I mean really know – why you’re doing it?

I followed this advice. I spent a lot of time my first year in grad school reading any paper that caught my eye, in every one of the many leading ecology and general science journals to which my supervisor had personal subscriptions. Including many papers that realistically weren’t going to form the basis for any research project I might possibly propose. (UPDATE: I’m aware that Stearns’ advice often isn’t practical outside of the US, because outside the US PhDs often are shorter (3-4 years) and often involve students taking on pre-designed projects rather than developing their own projects. That’s why the poll below asks where you got your PhD.)

I’m curious whether this makes me unusual, especially compared to current grad students.

So below is a 4-question poll, for PhD students and PhD holders in ecology and evolution (the fields in which Stearns’ advice is most widely-known). Did you follow Stearns’ advice to begin your PhD by reading and thinking widely and exhaustively for a year?

(UPDATE: responses have slowed to a trickle, so the poll is now closed. Post on the results coming soon!)

Some thoughts on The Undoing Project, especially related to science, academia, and mentoring

I recently finished Michael Lewis’s The Undoing Project, which focuses on the lives and work of psychologists Danny Kahneman and Amos Tversky. They changed how we think about how we think, with their work on psychology having major influences in economics and medicine, in particular. I really enjoyed the book, and there were a few points I wanted to write about here, as I think they are important for scientists, mentors, and/or academics to consider. It’s not a full review of the book* – I’m just focusing in on a few areas that I thought were particularly notable.

undoingprojectimage

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Guest post: Got a professional editor?

Today we have a guest post from Richard Primack of Boston University. Last week, I did a poll asking whether readers had used a professional editor for a grant proposal or manuscript, based on a Nature News piece that quoted Richard as saying, “I hire professional editors to help me polish my articles, grant proposals and reports.” he says. “I can do this myself, but it’s more efficient for me to pay someone to help.” I was surprised by that, since it never occurred to me to use a professional editor. The poll suggests I was not alone. 62% of respondents said they’d never used a professional editor for a manuscript because it had never occurred to them; 67% said it never occurred to them for a grant proposal and 68% for their dissertation. In this guest post, Richard talks more about the process.

Richard’s post appears below the break:

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