"Hey Professor Grey Fox, how come nobody ever….."

January 17, 2012

eli rabett observed in a comment to a prior post about reading the literature that

Graduate training is designed to pass lore from advisers to students. You learn much about things that didn’t work and therefore were never published [hey Prof. I have a great idea!…Well actually son, we did that back in 06 and wasted two years on it], whose papers to trust, and which to be suspicious of [Hey Prof. here’s a great new paper!… Son, don’t trust that clown.] In short the kind of local knowledge that allows one to cut through the published literature thicket.

This is true but one can’t take it too far. Lab lore can be another term for superstitious behavior. It is possible that “the way it works” is really just one of many ways to get something to work…and perhaps not even the best, most efficient or most clearly interpretable way.

There is another realization that comes along with time and reinforces the suggestion to ask senior professors things but not to actually take their angle on the matter.

As you move into early and middle independent career you may find yourself asking the senior Professors why X finding was never followed up on when you run across a fascinating bit of data in the old literature. Or perhaps you will ask whether Y was ever observed after having a “gee that’s not supposed to happen” moment in your own studies. Maybe you will need to inquire why the field does it like Z instead of the way that makes most sense to you.

This can turn into a research program or two if you are paying attention. Sure, if you ignore collective wisdom that doesn’t necessarily appear in the published literature, you run the risk of wasting much time re-inventing the wheel. I’ve done that too. And I will admit that there are several of the most curious leads that I have run across that I simply have not managed to turn into a research program yet.

However. There are ideas such as these that have turned into at least a R01 level funded project and resulting papers.

So don’t necessarily take the good Professor’s word that “I think Professor Schmoe did that back in ’68 and didn’t get anything” as being the end of your inquiry.

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No Responses Yet to “"Hey Professor Grey Fox, how come nobody ever….."”


  1. Boooooring. Why don’t you post on thatte fucken Bichon thatte killed the infant the other day?

    Oh, wait. That was a pit bull. My bad.

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  2. DrugMonkey Says:

    Do you have DNA confirmation? A lot of Yorkie mixes are confused for the totally sweet and cuddly genuine pit bull, Pp.

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  3. Lab lore is interesting and I take it under consideration but still form my own ideas. Some of it holds up particularly about labs that publish shitty papers and whose data/methods are as clear as murky water. But the majority of it is utter bullshit, unless it has some details attached to it.

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  4. Joe Says:

    In terms of methods, I learned as a grad student to always try to improve them rather than to superstitiously follow the lab protocol. My advisor was always fiddling with methods to improve the S/N ratio or cut time, and I think it is great for students to see that the protocols are not magic.
    I would agree that lab lore is helpful in knowing which guys in the field publish irreproducible crap.
    I am hoping that the proliferation of journals, particularly journals like PLoS One that claim to publish any sound research, will allow more negative data to be published, and we can all waste less time on trying to follow up on something that is a dead end. Making meeting abstracts available online may also help with this.

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  5. eli rabett Says:

    So, and this is a true story, many many years ago in a lab far away, young Eli went to Prof. Grey Fox (and a Rabett working for a Fox is an interesting tale) and said, hey Prof. Eli had a great idea. And Prof. Fox proceeded to tell Eli why it would never work.

    About a year later, Big Name published on the great idea, and the young Eli went to Prof. Fox, and said, hey, you were wrong. Prof. Fox, being a Fox, simply replied “You didn’t do it”

    Lesson learned.

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  6. Sxydocma1 Says:

    This very thing is happening to me right now. During some experiments, I made a similar observation about something that was shown in the eighties and never followed up on in the literature. I am now writing a grant and hope to get a paper out soon regarding my follow up to this observation. Maybe it will result in spectacular fail, but maybe, just maybe I have stumbled upon something…

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  7. whimple Says:

    @Sxydocma1: The grant application is the weak link in the chain. There is a lot of resistance to supporting things that were “overlooked”, or worse, that run counter to “the conventional wisdom”.

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  8. drugmonkey Says:

    True enough whimper and I’ve spent many a round on those fights. In fact I’m gearing up to start another skirmish right now.

    like I said though, some of these types of issue have resulted in funding. Eventually.

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  9. Sxydocma1 Says:

    @whimple I agree. Luckily, this observation is not the crux of the proposal. I am not certain if this following up never occurred because, at the time, there weren’t certain techniques available and more known about what I am observing or if it was simple lack of interest. I’m hedging my bets with the former.

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