Huh. A bit surprised I never had occasion to repost this. Well, the conversation about the Ginther report and disparity in NIH Grant success reminded me of this.

Originally posted 03/23/09.



In the year 1899 an American cyclist won the world championship in the 1-mile track event. In those days, track cycling was what really mattered and cycling was a reasonably big deal. So this was an event in sport. An even bigger deal was the fact that Marshall “Major” Taylor (Wikipedia) was black. This fact was, likewise, important:

The League of American Wheelmen, then the governing body for the sport, banned blacks from amateur racing in 1894, just as bicycling’s popularity surged.

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Thought of the day

October 21, 2013

For academics:

The greatest realization you can make is that success, no matter how modest, changes power dynamics. One of the reasons that people in academics get into trouble is that many never escape the mindset of graduate student trying to defend, postdoc trying to get a job and/or assistant professor trying to make tenure.

No matter how successful they become, many still see themselves as the powerless peon, just like anyone else.

They never notice that the other voices have stopped speaking.

h/t: scicurious

Someone or other on the Twitts, or possible a blog comment, made a remark about academic citation practices that keeps eating at me.

It boils down to this.

One of the most fundamental bits of academic credit that accrues to authors are the citations of their research papers. Citations form the ballyhooed h-index (X papers with at least X cites each) go into the “Highly Cited” measure of awesomeness and are generally viewed as an important indication of your impact on science.

Consequently, when you choose to cite a review article to underline a point you are making in your own article, you are taking the credit that rightfully goes to the people who did the actual work, and handing it over to some review author.

Review authors are extracting surplus value from the people who did the actual creating. Kind of like a distributor of widgets extracts value from those people who actually made them by providing the widgets in an easy/efficient location for use. Good for them but…..

So here’s the deal. If you are citing a review only as a sort of collected works, stop doing that. I can make an exception when you are citing the review for the unique theoretical or synthetic contribution made by the review authors. Fine. But when you are just doing it because you want to make a general “ is well established that Bunnies make it to the hedgerow in 75% of baseline time when they are given amphetamine” type of point, don’t do that. Cite some of the original authors!

If you really need to, you can cite (Jo et al, 1954, Blow et al 1985, Moe et al 2005; see Pig and Dog, 2013 for recent review).

Look at it this way. Would you rather your papers were cited directly? Or are you okay with the citations for something to which you contributed fundamentally being meta-cites of some review article?

Show me the data, Jerry!!!!!!

September 3, 2013

Today’s Twittsplosion was brought to you by @mbeisen:

he then elaborated



There was a great deal of distraction in there from YHN, MBE and the Twitteratti. But these are the ones that get at the issue I was responding to. I think the last one here shows that I was basically correct about what he meant at the outset.

I also agree that it would be GREAT if all authors of papers had deposited all of their raw data, carefully annotated, commented and described (curated, in a word) with all of the things that I might eventually want to know. That would be kickass.

And I have had NUMEROUS frustrations that I cannot tell even from methods sections what was done, how the data were selected and groomed, etc in many critical papers.

It isn’t because I assume fraud but rather that I find that when it comes to behaving animals in laboratory studies that details matter. Unfortunately we all wish to overgeneralize from published reports….the authors want to imply they have reported a most universal TRUTH and other investigators wish to believe it so that they don’t have to sweat the details.

This is never true in science, as much as we want to pretend.

Science is ever only a description of what has occurred under these specific conditions. Period. Including the ones we’ve bothered to describe in the Methods and those we have not bothered to describe. Including those conditions of which we have no knowledge or understanding that they might have contributed.

Let us take our usual behavioral pharmacology model, the 10 m Hedgerow BunnyHopper assay. The gold standard, of course. And everyone knows it is trivial to speed up the BunnyHopping with a pretreatment of amphetamine.

However, we’ve learned over the years that the time of day matters.

Until…finally….in its dotage seniority. The Dash Lab finally fesses up. The PI allows a trainee to publish the warts. And compare the basic findings, done at nighttime in naive bunnies, with what you get during the dawn/dusk period. In Bunnies who have seen the Dash arena before. And maybe they are hungry for clover now. And they’ve had a whiff of fox without seeing the little blighters before.

And it turns out these minor methodological changes actually matter.

We also know that dose response curves can be individual for amphetamine and if the dose is too high the Bunny just stims (and gets eaten by the fox). Perhaps this dose threshold is not identical so we’re just going to chop off the highest dose because half of them were eaten after that dose. Wait…individuals? Why can’t we show the individuals? Because maybe a quarter are speeded up by 4X and a quarter by 10X and now that there are these new genetic data on Bunny myocytes under stressors as diverse as….

So why do the new papers just report the effects of single doses of amphetamine in the context of this fancy transcranial activation of vector-delivered Channelrhodopsin in motor cortex? Where are the training data? What time of day were they run? How many Bunnies were aced out of the study because the ReaChr expression was too low? I want to do a correlation, dammit! and a multivariate analysis that includes my favorite myocyte epigenetic markers! Say, how come these damn authors aren’t required to bank genomic DNA from every damn animal they run just so I can ask for it and do a whole new analysis?

After all, the taxpayers paid for it!

I can go on, and on and on with arguments for what “raw” data need to be included in all BunnyHopping papers from now into eternity. Just so that I can perform my pet analyses of interest.

The time and cost and sheer effort involved is of no consequence because of course it is magically unicorn fairy free time that makes it happen. Also, there would never be any such thing as a protracted argument with people who simply prefer the BadgerDigger assay and have wanted to hate on BunnyHopping since the 70s. Naaah. One would never get bogged down in irrelevant stuff better suited for review articles by such a thing. Never would one have to re-describe why this was actually the normal distribution of individual Hopping speeds and deltas with amphetamine.

What is most important here is that all scientists focus on the part of their assays and data that I am interested in.

Just in case I read their paper and want to write another one from their data.

Without crediting them, of course. Any such requirement is, frankly my dear, gauche.

In Science, from Sandra L. Schmid, Ph.D. [PubMed] who is Chair of Cell Biology at UT Southwestern.

The problem:

CVs provide a brief description of past training—including the researcher’s pedigree—as well as a list of awards, grants, and publications. A CV provides little insight into attributes that will ensure future success in the right environment. For example, a CV is unlikely to reflect the passion, perseverance, and creativity of individuals who struggled with limited resources and created their own opportunities for compelling research. Nor is a CV likely to identify bold and imaginative risk-takers who might have fallen—for the moment—just short of a major research success. The same is true for those who found, when they realized their goal, that their results exceeded the imaginations of mainstream reviewers and editors, the gatekeepers of high-profile journals. Finally, for junior hires at early stages of their careers, a CV is unlikely to reveal individuals who are adept at recombining knowledge and skills gained from their graduate and postdoctoral studies to carve out new areas of research, or those able to recognize and take advantage of unique opportunities for collaboration in their next position.

Her Department’s solution:

We will be asking applicants to write succinct cover letters describing, separately and briefly, four elements: (1) their most significant scientific accomplishment as a graduate student; (2) their most significant scientific accomplishment as a postdoc; (3) their overall goals/vision for a research program at our institution; and (4) the experience and qualifications that make them particularly well-suited to achieve those goals. Each of the cover letters will be read by several faculty members—all cell biology faculty members will have access to them—and then we will interview, via video conferencing technologies, EVERY candidate whose research backgrounds and future interests are a potential match to our departmental goals.

She closes with what I see as a deceptively important comment:

Let’s run this experiment!

You have probably gleaned, Dear Reader, that one of my greatest criticisms of our industry is that the members of it throw all of their scientific training out the window when it comes to the actual behavior OF the industry. Paper review, grant review, assessment of “quality”, dealing with systematic bias and misdirection…… MAN we are bad at this.

Above all, we are reluctant to run experiments to test our deep seated beliefs. Our beliefs that GRE quantitative or verbal or subject predict grad school performance. Our beliefs that undergraduate GPA is the key or maybe it is research experience in a lab of some DewD we’ve heard of. Our belief that what makes the postdoc is X number of first author pubs in journals of just exactly this Impact Factor. Our confidence that past performance predicts future success of our new Asst Professor hire….or tenure candidate.

So often we argue, viciously, our biases. So infrequently do we test them.

So bravo to Chair Schmid for actually running an experiment.


August 23, 2013

The Twitt @TellDrTell wondered:

This brings up the question of what is meant by the “terminal degree“, and this way of phrasing it focuses on one aspect of the concept, namely the “highest” degree.

For many fields of endeavor, some sort of degree that includes the word “Doctor” is the terminal degree. These ones are familiar to my audience.

  • Doctor of Philosophy (PhD or DPhil if you are a Brit)
  • Doctor of Medicine (MD)
  • Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM)
  • Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS)

These terminal degrees happen to predominate in our research fields and in the population of PIs who secure major grant awards. There are also others of potential interest to this audience, including

  • Juris Doctor (JD. Did you know lawyers can call themself “Doctor”? Why don’t they?)
  • Doctor of Education (Ed.D.; fraught with implications)
  • Doctor of Psychology (PsyD)
  • Doctor of Pharmacy (PharmD)

If you hold only one Doctoral degree then presumably most folks would agree this is the highest one. But @TellDrTell wondered which to consider the highest one if a person holds two doctoral degrees.

Wikipedia and other sources tend to distinguish research degrees from professional degrees. In our usual pool of Doctoral letters, the Ph.D.s are research degrees and most of the other ones are professional degrees. This is underlined by the fact that most of the dual Doctoral degree subpopulation holds a PhD and one of the so-called professional degrees.

Being a research degree, obviously the PhD is higher, better and/or more terminal.

But wait. The Wikipedia lists a whole other bunch of research doctorates, like Doctor of Management and Doctor of Modern Languages, that you’ve never heard of and sound like some scam to avoid doing a Doctor of Philosophy in the respective subjects. In more familiar terms, there are PhDs in both Pharmacology and Psychology, so the PsyD and PharmD seem like lesser degrees to some folks. More limited.

Obviously those are lesser than the professional doctorates in Medicine, Dental Surgery, Veterinary Medicine and Juris. Wait, Juris? Is that law degree more “terminal” than a Ed.D. that was awarded after 6 years* of painstaking thesis research?


Okay, let’s just say the Ph.D. is the best, all others are lesser and you should list your Ph.D. as your highest degree if you are also a M.D. or a D.V.M.

Unless you went to a combined M.D./Ph.D. program, in which case I think you are this, but not separately either a M.D. or a Ph.D.. And yes, unsurprisingly, I have heard at least one M.D., Ph.D. speak of how awesomely better this is than those lesser M.D./Ph.D. folks**.

And since it is usually a Doctor of Philosophy in [Subject], and the sciences are the most awesome, I think we can safely say that if you have two degrees in which one is a Ph.D. [Science] and the other is Ph.D. [Philosophy], the latter*** is the higher one. And you win the entire world’s respect.

*I don’t actually know the duration of Ed.D. programs.
**Gawd, I love academics.

***Because Philosophy squared

GMP has an observation up at Academic Jungle that resonates:

2) Nobody ever pats you on the back and tells you “Good job.” Ever. Except perhaps the people whose approval in the professional arena doesn’t mean much, like your partner or your parents. …The fact that you are supposed to forever go on based on your own convictions and some internal source of energy (must be nuclear, eh?), without ever expecting to get a little energy back in the form of praise from colleagues in the professional community is a really tall order. … I never expected that I would have to be the sole engine propelling myself and all my group members for the next 40+ years. I praise my students when they do a good job, but for us grownups there is no such thing. I suppose you get an award every now and then, but what’s that, a pat on the back every few years? That’s a lean affirmation diet.

It’s totally true. Frequently so, anyway. Those who are supposed to be reviewing and helping with your career locally, such as a Chair or even Dean type of person, are universally motivated to tell you that you are not good enough so that you will work harder. Grant review, paper review…there are some warm fuzzy comments made but somehow the criticisms seem to loom larger. Peers who want to talk about your papers like to bring up the stuff you didn’t do or the flaws or explicate the methods. This is science and a healthy part of it, but it can be hard on the ego since there is never any impression of universal acclaim followed by more and more and more unquestioning approval of your work.

There is a subtle feeling we encourage in science about expectations as well. Sure, you just published a paper, got a grant from the NIH or graduated a PhD student…..but here’s the trick. If you really belong, if you are really one of us…that is expected! So why should there be any special notice for your accomplishment?

Each novel accomplishment for your career simply raises you to a new level of expectation. Just scored your first Nature paper from your own laboratory? Hey, that’s great. But now you are a CNS Glamour Lab and, well, of course that is what you do. (Hey, when’s the next one coming out?)

Over the years I have tried to go out of my way to congratulate my peers, especially the more junior ones, when I see they got a new grant award. Tried to take special notice of their papers and congratulate them on trainees flying the coop. Say something about their selection for study section. I’ve tried to remind some of my closer peers more directly when I see them as an important part of the field and our overall endeavor. And I don’t just limit it to the plebes like me or extramural scientists either. SROs and POs in the NIH need to get some positive feedback too. Your senior faculty won’t be hurt to know you think of them as the best person to serve as Chair or even to make a run at a Deanship (should they be so crazy).

I am not natively a person who is effusive in praise. So I’ve had to make a conscious effort. I’ve done so ever since coming into contact with the Imposter Syndrome in blog-discussions, which was a big factor in crystallizing my thoughts on this.