25 May 2017

Incoming: ReSearch: A Career Guide for Scientists

I just signed an author’s agreement for ReSearch: A Career Guide for Scientists. It’s been a while since I’d thought about this project.

I didn’t write it, or even a chapter. Back in 2015, one of the co-authors, Nathan Vanderford, cold emailed me asking if I would be willing to write something about “personal branding.” I said, “Sure!” So I wrote a little sidebar as a case study.

The book is slated for release next month. I’m curious to see how my little contribution is woven into the text.

External links

Publisher’s website
Amazon page

22 May 2017

A short conversation on the beach

Last week, I was out on the beach at South Padre Island, collecting sand crabs for my research. This involved lots of shoveling. When I do this, I often have people come up and ask me what I’m doing. A common guess is clams (none worth digging for on South Padre). Jokingly, people ask if I'm looking for buried treasure.

Normally, I try to cut the conversation short. I’m working. If you’re trying to get something done, it’s not always the time you want to chat with others.

Last week, I had just found an Emerita benedicti and was walking up to deposit it in my bucket. A woman came up while I was doing so and said, “Tortugas?”

Guessing she did not speak English, I searched my brain for the tiny amount of Spanish I knew. I held out my hand to show the little beast, and replied, “Cangrejos.”

“Ah, cangrejos!”

I guess my pronunciation was at least understandable. I was weirdly proud of that.

16 May 2017

Broader impacts, part 2


Hooray for arbitrary large round numbers! My answers on Quora have tallied one million views on Quora.


And yesterday saw my most views ever. Not sure what answer is getting all that traffic.

Related posts

Broader impacts

09 May 2017

Tuesday Crustie: Say a prayer

Australian crayfish are often like the country itself. Big, brash, and often highly charismatic. This newly discovered crayfish is a fine example of that.


Meet Euastacus vesper.As the Australians say, “She’s a beauty.”


Sadly, the authors expect this species is already criticially endangered. Like many crayfish species, it has a tiny distribution. But in slightly more cheerful news,the authors note they are working on describing even more new species in this genus.

Reference

McCormack RB, Ahyong ST. 2017. Euastacus vesper sp. nov., a new giant spiny crayfish (Crustacea, Decapoda, Parastacidae) from the Great Dividing Range, New South Wales, Australia. Zootaxa 4244(4): 556–567. https://doi.org/10.11646/zootaxa.4244.4.6

External links

Euastacus vesper, a new Euastacus for NSW
Eustacus vesper – a NEW Euastacus for NSW

 



08 May 2017

Perfecting the wheel instead of reinventing it

Back in grad school I read a lot about movement analysis and dance notation, and that was when I came across this dedication of the book Choreo-graphics, by Ann Hutchinson Guest:

This book is also dedicated to those who come after and who, instead of contemplating inventing a new dance notation system, discover what has already been achieved and contribute to the art of dance by directing their energies and talents to the perfection of the best one available.

I haven’t read this book in decades, but this quote stuck with me. I think the book said something like there had been a new dance notation system proposed every four years. I could sense her mild frustration that there were so many different systems out there, and people weren’t building on previous work. They were blowing things up and starting from scratch, every. Single. Time.

I think of this quote when people suggest that we should have new scientific journals. Or new programs. Or new administrative structures. So often our reaction to finding something that we think is not performing to our expectations is to walk away from it and start over again. But I like Guest’s approach: direct energies and talents to perfecting the best ones available.

References

Guest AH. 1989. Choreo-graphics: A Comparison of Dance Notation Systems from the Fifteenth Century to the Present. Routledge.

01 May 2017

We do not need new journals for negative results

Experiments are intended to show one thing effects another. However, not everything affects something else. Many experiments that show “no effect,” or “p > 0.05” are often called negative results.

The general wisdom is that negative results are harder to publish than one that show an experimental manipulation did have an statistically significant effect (“p < 0.05”). Anecdotally, the paper of mine that had the longest, toughest slog to publication was one with negative results.

Is the solution to this problem to create another journal? No.

First, we already have journals in biology that specifically say in their titles that they exist to publish negative results. We have the Journal of Negative Results in BioMedicine (started 2002) and Journal of Negative Results - Ecology & Evolutionary Biology (started 2004).

Second, we have journals that, while not specifically created to accept negative results, specifically include publication of negative results in their editorial mandate. Usually, this is phrased as “reviewed only for technical soundness, not perceived importance,” and these have become known as “megajournals” (regardless of how many papers they actually publish). This format, pioneered by PLOS ONE, is still quite new. Several megajournals are less than five years old (click to enlarge pic below).


The age of these journals is important to consider when talking about publishing negative results. In my experience, many academics take a long time to realize when the publishing landscape has changed. For example, I have been in many discussions with scientists who are actively publishing, active on social media, who mistakenly believe that “open access” is synonymous with “article processing charge” (APC). This is incorrect.

It takes time to change academics’ publishing habits. Five years is not enough to see how the creation of these journals affects the publication of negative results.

And more journals are on the way. The Society for the Study of Evolution has Evolution Letters coming, and Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology has an open access journal coming (though it seems likely these will review for “impact,” not only for technical soundness).

I do realize that some journals are better at upholding this editorial standard than others. For example, sometimes PLOS ONE reviewers have sent back reviews considering “importance” of the findings, even though the journal tells them not to do that.

In biology, you probably have at least six perfectly respectable journals that happily publish negative results. This is why I contend that we do not need to create new journals for negative results. We need to use the ones we have.

I think the underlying problem with discussions of negative results is that we talk about “negative results” as though they were all the same, scientifically: “no effect.” All negative results are not equivalent; some are more interesting than others. Below is a crude first attempt to rank them.

  1. Negative results that refute strongly held hypotheses. Physicists hypothesized that space contained an aether. Nope. Harry Whittington though the Burgess Shale fossil, Opabinia, was an arthropod. Nope. That was just a big old bunch of negative results. But they were clearly recognized as important in getting us off the wrong path.
  2. Negative results that fail to replicate an effect. These are tricky. We all recognize that replication is important, but how we react to them differs. Sometimes, failure to replicate is seen as important is demonstrating incorrect claims (like Rosie Redfield and others showing that GFAJ-1 bacteria, sometimes referred to as “arsenic life”, did indeed have phosphorus in its DNA rather than arsenic as initially claimed). Sometimes, failure to replicate can be dismissed as technical incompetence. (The “Tiger Woods” explanation.)
  3. “Hey, I wonder if...” (HIWI*) negative results. These are negative results that have no strong hypotheses driving the experimental outcome. Like asking, “What is the effect of gamma rays on man-in-the-moon marigolds?” Well, do you have any reason to believe that gamma rays would affect the marigolds differently than other organisms? If you don’t, negative results are deeply uninteresting.

In other words, that results are negative has very little bearing on how people view their importance. The importance of the hypothesis that underlies those negative results play a much bigger role in whether people are liable to think those negative results are interesting.

That is, even if you have another journal specifically for negative results, people are still going to think some results are more interesting and publishable than others. People whose negative results fall into the HIWI category (which may be a lot of those experiments) are still going to have a rough ride in publication, even for journals that consider negative results.

External links

Garraway L. 2017. Remember why we work on cancer. Nature 543(7647): 613–615. http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/543613a (Source of the “Tiger Woods” metaphor)

* In my head, “HIWI” rhymes with “Wi-Fi.”

This post prompted by Twitter discussion with Anthony Caravaggi.