A query came in through the email box:

Do you use ELNs in your lab? Is that something that you think would make a useful blog post? I haven’t found much elsewhere in the blogosphere about ELNs. Maybe you will find this to be a shining example of why you have stuck with paper and pen.

I don’t use one so I’m turning this over to you folks. Any recommendations for your fellow Reader?


As you know, DearReader, I blog and engage with the Twittersphere under a pseudonym. I do so for a variety of reasons, some of which were in the forefront when I started and are no longer really an issue. Some reasons have appeared or become strengthened over time. Some are relatively more important to me and some are less important.

Some of these reasons overlap with the usual ones described in defense of pseudonymity and some are relatively unique to my own personal decisions on reasons that are both personal and professional.

Some reasons that I have for being a pseudonymous blogger are entirely related to making my blogging more effective in terms of what I want to do.

In what is now over seven years engaging in the blogosphere there is one issue that has brought me to do the most unsolicited, tut-tutting, pseudofatherly advice to bloggers via nonpublic communication methods.

Never assume your pseudonym is iron clad protection against being identified by people that matter to you. Ever. Blog accordingly.

My advice stems from my occasional coursework in human cognitive psychology. It shouldn’t surprise anyone but apparently it is not at the forefront of everyone’s mind (more on this in a second). The brain is a wonderfully synthetic organ that permits the linking of seemingly unconnected facts and experiences into a sometimes brilliant whole. It is fantastic at taking seemingly limited, low bandwith, pixellated information and creating a detailed picture. What this understanding means for pseuds is that you cannot help but leave breadcrumbs as to your identity. You blog because you want to talk about things that are important to you. Good blogging is infused with the personal perspective and the personal anecdote. One can’t help but assert some aspects of ones authoritah! (more on this below) in making an argument. Categorical interests tend to set a context.

Most importantly these random details and contexts permit the Reader to rule out many of the obvious suspects for whom you might be.

Next, I turn to the question of voice. If you are doing blogging right (IMNSHO), you are infusing your writing with a defined voice. Usually, that is your voice and sounds one heck of a lot like the things that you usually say in real life. After all, these are matters that are important to you or you wouldn’t be blogging. While there is no particular reason a complete stranger should recognize your voice, I hold it to be self-evident that your friends and colleagues will. My assumption has always been that if anyone who knows me runs across my blog and reads more than about two posts, they will know it is me. With very little doubt.

With that said, pseudonymity still works. Determining the identity of a given pseudonymous person on the internet still requires a bit of work, if one is not fortuitously connected to that person in real life. Depending on the various categories of personal information available, there may be many people who could be the blogger in question. This will vary tremendously depending on the number of the tiny bits of information one curious pseud-buster has available to them. One of the most important barriers to detection is therefore the avoidance of direct linking of a real name to a pseudonym in a place that is easily Google-able.

Due to these and other factors, maintaining the relative security/secrecy of ones pseudonym depends on the community. It depends first and foremost on the community not to put the identification of a pseud’s real name with their pseudonymous person in any digital format that can be Googled and/or linked. This is a relatively easy distinction.

Integrity of pseuds also depends on the community minimizing the extent to which it provides, amplifies and broadcasts the tiny bits of information that identify the blogger. This, my friends, is the tricky bit.

A blogger may have provided some detail of their person, identity or life many years ago in a random post which a given Reader remembers. Generally speaking, if a blogger talks about something on blog, well this is fair-ish game. If I let you in on a detail of my life and leave it on the blog, I certainly can’t blame anyone else for knowing this detail. And yet. A pseudonymous blogger may not wish the details critical to divining his or her identity to be repeatedly mentioned, in context, over and over for all and sundry to assess. But we exist in a community. We make friendships that depend on personal details in many cases. We make connections with Readers that are based on those tiny details and assumptions about our past and present. We embrace granfalloon. This works at cross-purposes with the integrity of the pseudonym. And so it depends on the community to uphold the pseudonym veil.

One defense I make for people who interact with pseudonymous persons and inadvertently make comments that would tend to out the pseud is a caution for those who are themselves pseudonymous. In many cases where a person identifies the real life identity of a pseudonymous blogger, it consequentially becomes unimaginable that this person is really trying too hard to be pseudonymous. As I said, if a person who knows me well runs across the blog, they are going to be thinking that it sounds so much like him that there is no possible WAY he is trying to be secret about it. Others who put the several obvious clues together, see that a pseud repeatedly mentions such clues and likewise conclude that it is an open secret of the not-very-secret variety.

The trouble is, it is very difficult for such people to remember that this is not the case for everyone and the goal is to not facilitate trivial identification. It is also difficult for people to remember that there are certain details that one does NOT ever cop to on the blog. It is difficult to remember that just one extra detail may narrow down the suspect from a group of six to an obvious one.

It is difficult for the well-intentioned internet friend to remember that a pseudonymous blogger is constantly adding new Readers and that they are not all aware of personal detail.

It is also difficult for the well-intentioned interlocutor to remember the possible harm that might be created by mistakenly linking a pseud to the wrong person- either because of direct accusation or because of mentioning details that might point in the wrong direction. There have been several cases brought to my attention in which it was clear that someone thought “Drugmonkey” was some other scientific peer of mine. This is, given my comments and tone about several serious things in science, not fair to them.

So….about me.

One reason that is a mainstay of my pseudonym is my understanding of the way that one’s personal authoritah! within science can make one lazy when it comes to arguing about the conduct of science. Michael Eisen has made the case for this in an excellent post. I like rambunctious discussion and being called out on the stupid stuff I say on the blog. I value being called out on my privilege. While I consider myself to be no great shakes in the professional arena, it is assy in the extreme not to recognize that my role places me in a position of power relative to others. Some of whom are my readers. There are grad students, postdocs, junior faculty, my lateral peers and even graybeards from my field that interact with me online. People who might hesitate to say something for fear my role as a paper or grant reviewer, potential mentor, associate editor, casual peer-recommender or letter writer may be contaminated by some personal pique over online interactions. See Dr Isis’ excellent post for a reality check on this fear.

A related reason lies in the disconnect between my prescriptive comments about the way this career business should go, my descriptive comments and how I might behave within my sphere of professional obligations. Especially at the start of my blogging, I was worried that I would be compromising the mission of the NIH were I to be directly linked to my blog comments; this had to do with grant review. It would be very easy to conclude that I was pursuing a grant review agenda that was entirely at odds with the charge given us by the CSR. I happen to think that I do a pretty good job of doing the work expected of me in navigating the provision of personal expertise for which I was selected within the instructions and obligations of the formal review process and the cultural expectations of a study section. And every reveiwer has biases. Unfortunately the CSR/NIH is in the business of pretending individual biases do not exist in study section and therefore the admission on the part of a reviewer would be a detriment to what they are trying to do. So this was an issue.

Another reason has to do with insane, theologically motivated opponents of animal research. As you know, we have several colleagues in the neurosciences that have been under siege in their homes for years now. I’ll let you do the math on that one.

I have a spouse. At times, this blog ventures into territory in which people want to know a lot about said spouse and our domestic arrangements. I try not to make decisions and to take actions that directly involve other people’s beeswax without their explicit permission. This is no different.

Now, one of the more interesting issues to distill out of the foregoing comments is that a pseudonymous identity can be misleading. Obviously there are going to be people synthesizing the bits of information and the statements and comments made to come up to a wrong impression. I mentioned misidentification of an individual above. But there is also the misidentification of various personal and professional characteristics. And this misidentification can be viewed as the type of dishonesty that is often used to argue why pseudonymous participants on the internet are horrible and evil.

One specific example has to do with a couple of my friends on the Twittahs. Who have taken to engaging in the sort of tangentially-outing behavior that I describe above as possibly coming from a place that does not include active malice. In this particular case it was by way of referring (inaccurately as it happens) to the number of R01 grants on which I serve as PI. The reason for doing so was because these individuals (or at least one of them) has the strong impression that my comments on the NIH grant game substantially misrepresent this fact about my career. In a way that somehow unfairly benefits my pseudonym. It is not clear to me whether the objection was to the force of my arguments or the appreciation the community has for my comments, these being the two sources of currency I can think of.

In a sense these are mind boggling accusations for anyone who has read my blog over any period of time. I make it pretty clear what my job category is, what my perception of “what it takes” is, my general type of research and approximate depth in the career etc. I also mention repeatedly how grateful I am for both my relative success within the NIH system and to the taxpayers for their ongoing support. All of these should give anyone who has a half a clue about this business some idea of where I stand. Apparently, however, it is possible that my Twitter persona creates an entirely different view of where I stand and therefore the persona created by the blogger seems….different. Somehow.

Obviously I am only partially responsible for the perceptions that I create. And there are people who jump to some pretty far fetched conclusions in their desire to undermine me, as opposed to my arguments themselves.

I think, on more sober reflection, that this anecdote underscores both my reasons for mounting my arguments from a position not directly tied to my status in science/academia and my comments above about the community involvement in maintaining pseudonym integrity.

I end with one of my themes for the year. I ask the outer of pseuds and the arguer against psueds:

What’s the end game here?

As a blowhard on the internet is finding out this week, outing a pseudonymous blogger doesn’t injure this person’s standing, authoritah! or arguments. It doesn’t reduce the size of the persons’ internet platform for advancing a cause or, most likely, interfere with the real life career. If anything, it enhanced all of these things! And said blowhard clearly injured his own real-life standing with his petulance.

Communities have behavioral standards. They tend to be opt-in. On the internet, there is very little enforcement of the rules. So anyone is free to be any sort of ass that they desire. We should all recognize this. This corner of the internet inhabited by academics, and scientists in particular, is most assuredly a community, however. So if you choose to be an ass, the community is going to tell you so. We should all recognize this. All of us are going to be the ass at times. If you aren’t, you aren’t really saying anything of importance. We can control, however, the scope of our assiness. And the response we have when told we are being an ass about a particular topic. We should all recognize this.

I think I’ve done a post on this before but it arose again on the Twitts today.

As a lab head, I give all the trainees access to our funded grant proposals..and often the applications I am working on. I would certainly give them to someone in my lab upon request if I had forgotten to email something to them (or not bothered in the case of our current firehose of applications).

I am at a considerable loss to imagine why any lab head would have a problem doing this.

Does anyone have any new insight on why a PI would not make the funded grant proposals available? Doesn’t everyone in the lab need to have at least some understanding of what is supposed to be accomplished?

Now, benign neglect, I can sort of understand. Not all the PIs out there understand how important it is to get the trainees thinking about the grant cycle as early as possible. Opinions vary on that. Some would rather trainees not be “distracted”. I get that…but I think it outmoded.

But outright refusal to hand the grant over if asked? That is odd….almost to the point of suspecting shenanigans.

Anyone out there ever reviewed SBIR or STTR grants for the NIH? Any thoughts on what seems to be most important, common pitfalls and the like? Any thoughts on how the review discussion tends to differ from standard R01 review?

I have essentially zero experience with these mechanisms and some reader was asking…..

A question arrived about publication expectations for trainees at the blog mailbox recently.

I was wondering if you would consider a blog post and perhaps encouraging discussion on a related topic, on how do you evaluate your student/postdoc performance and how common is the 1 paper/yr “rule”?

At the outset I was skeptical that much use would come of trying to answer this because the real answer is “It depends very much on subfield and ultimate career aspirations, therefore broad sweeping pronouncements are of little value.“. And this is true. But what the heck? I’ll give you my thoughts from my point of view, no doubt some others will go shitnutz about how it is clearly different and maybe we can hash out the space of useful answers.

Some detailed stuff that I thought about, but often are not discussed thoroughly include:
– I always assumed that when people talk about 1 paper/yr it refers to 1 first-author paper but not in a top-tier journal (usually “best in the sub-field” journal, e.g. Org. Lett., J. Med. Chem., etc.)

Yeah. I think one paper per year is a pretty good general starting point. Emphasis on general. For trainees, I think this average will be lower, ditto if you only count first-author papers. But it is a pretty good target expectation for the central tendency. One first author per year in a “top tier” journal is a ridiculously absurd expectation for postdocs. Even one per year in a “top tier” journal as senior author is only possible for the very top laboratories and is therefore not the expectation for everyone. If you can do it, good on you, but it ain’t typical. So if you are in a place where you think this is the standard for postdocs? please. I’m familiar with a lab that has probably one of the highest CNS counts ever and the postdocs do not hit one CNS pub per year as first author. They have not done so over the ~15 years I’ve been watching the lab’s production. So anyone who does this out there in the whole postdoc population is the rare exception.

– How do you factor in non-1st author papers? Ignoring the effects of journal IF, would one 1st-author paper = two 2nd-author paper?

There is no direct relationship, I would argue. Non-substitutable quantities. No amount of non-first author papers makes up for not having any first-author papers. They are just that important in the minds of many people, including me. Conversely, the existence of some 2nd-Xth author papers is better than not having any, because more is better when it comes to publications on the CV. I suppose at some point there would be a balance point in which too many Nth author papers starts to subtract from the credit generated by the first-author list. It would be related to the thought of “why doesn’t this trainee have more firsts if she is this experimentally productive?”.

– Do people even consider anything greater than 2nd-authorship (i.e. having 3rd authorship is basically useless or not counted)? If so, does the level of the prestige of the journal change this perception (i.e. having 3rd authorship in PNAS is equivalent to a 1st-author in some 2nd-tier journal like Biochemistry)?

In my view, no, the Nth author on an article in a higher IF journal doesn’t trump first-author in a lesser journal. See above, the Nth authorships count but I would say they are independent of the first-author credits. So within the sphere of Nth authorships, sure, the higher IF is better.

– How do you factor in the prestige or IF of the journal? Does publishing in Science/Nature/Cell count as having 2-3 1st-author papers in 2nd-tier journals?

Indubitably the CNS first-author counts more than several first-authors in lesser journals. One might even suggest that CNS first-author as a postdoc trumps infinity non-CNS first-authors. For some situations. There are those that assert that the presence/absence of very specific journals on the CV is the difference between round-filing an application for an Assistant Professor position and placing it on the long-list for consideration. I credit these assertions but would also point out that there are many perfectly acceptable jobs that would not have this absurd criterion.

– Do people take a time-average (i.e. as long as you get 5 papers in 5 years it’s fine), or is having a regular output more important (i.e. would prefer to have 1 paper every year as opposed to 2 papers in 1st year and 3 papers in 5th year but nothing in between)?

I would say that it is only once one becomes a PI that it is ever reasonable to look at consistency of output. This particular example would not even be noticed, I would say. And even then it sort of depends on the type of work you do. I know of multiple types of work in my areas of interest (particularly human studies) that have years of data collection followed by a flurry of papers.

When I have recommended shooting for consistent output, being concerned with whether a manuscript submitted to Journal X at this point in the year will have a pub date from this year, etc it has to do mostly with motivation. Most of the time the pace of submission for a postdoc is not going to be easily controlled. The experiments have their own timeline. Things come up. New things need to be done to wrap up the paper. Then there are the many sources of delay in the review process. There is no reason to obsess about 2 in first year / 3 in fifth over meeting a strict rate of 1 per year for 5 years.

The clock is ever ticking, however and since one cannot go back and fill in missing publication-years, one is best keeping one’s eye on the prize. If you haven’t had a paper in a two year span, well maybe it is better to dump out a quick one, give up on hitting the highest possible IF, etc. You have to make this judgement thinkingly, of course. And no, there are no formulaic answers such as my correspondent seems to be seeking.

Balance. That is my best suggestion.


August 31, 2012

The notion that tenure provisions in the contracts of University Professors or school teachers means that they are uniquely protected against firing for incompetency is a scurrilous lie.

Many, many job places that do not have anything called “tenure” do in fact have procedures in place, formal or otherwise, that respect the duration of service to the place of employment.

The notion that those more senior than oneself are undeserving of the job titles, promotions, payrate and/or privileges that you do not currently enjoy is a nice comforting meme. But if you are going to advance a strong accusation against the seniority system and argue about who “deserves” to have a job and who does not, you better bring some ammunition.

Or, you know, run for office as a Republican where that kind of unverified ranting convinces someone useful.

UPDATE: Zen reminded of his post on a peer reviewed article examining career arcs. The key points:

The models indicate that as competition increases, many people can be taken out of the career pathway by… blind, stinking, clueless, doo-da luck.

Just as one can seemingly succeed through alignment of circumstances with a normal level of talent and effort, one can wash out through no fault of one’s own too.

But the competition turns out to be very important in this model; and that relates to tenure. Many people want to see tenure replaced with a series of recurring short-term contracts. The authors imply that the short-term model could be harmful for the development of science. A failure in one short-term contract could derail a productive researcher, since early career shocks can ripple throughout a scientist’s career.

And this is why we’re in the state of “Do it to Julia, not me, Julia” backstabbing panic about the NIH budget situation. The immense fear on the part of all many of us that the next grant rejection means the end of our career is palpable. Visceral. The anger of the young that they are “better than” half of the existing faculty and therefore deserve that person’s job is clear. Very clear.

but be careful about that to which you aspire. Our history of pure Darwinian tooth-and-nail employment is not a pretty one. The dawning of the industrial age showed us how that goes down.

Job protections are there because on average they make all workers’ experiences better. Not there to protect the lazy and incompetent. That effect is an unintended consequence.

So when you are ranting your rants about the deadwood tenured fucks, please, do your homework. Show us how dismantling Professorial tenure is not going to rapidly devolve us to the level of the itinerant Adjunct Professor.

The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has an interesting manuscript submission process.

Apart from allowing NAS members to “contribute” a paper from their own lab that they’ve gotten peer-reviewed themselves, there is a curious distinction for more normal submissions.

The pre-arranged editor track permits you to find a PNAS editor before you submit it. Presumably a friendly editor.

In the best case it is similar to a pre-submission inquiry practiced formally or informally at the GlamourMags. In the worst case, an end run around “pure” peer-review via the Insider’s Club.

(The end run being as benign as simply avoiding the desk-reject and as pernicious as getting a gamed peer-review.)

But is this any different from other journals? GlamourEditors require some buttering up. They brag in unguarded moments about how much they’ve “worked with” the authors to make the paper awesome. So many of those papers end up functionally identical to having a pre-arranged editor who has agreed to handle the manuscript.

In pedestrian-journal land, one can easily go Editor hunting. If a host of journals sort-of fit, and the IFs are indistinguishable, then it behooves the authors to seek a journal with a friendly Associate Editor. And to ask for that person in the many submission systems that permit such requests.

So really, how does the PNAS system really differ?

In fact, you might see that as being more honest and transparent.