Oops!

Finding typos in a paper post-publication is dismaying, if inevitable. This isn’t usually fatal and will generally go unnoticed. Even after sinking hours of labour into it there are bound to be some miner errors. 

References to ‘screwed data’ and a ‘screwed distribution’ have not stopped a 2004 paper in the International Journal of Obesity from garnering over 300 citations. Likewise, a group of Japanese researchers concluded: ‘There were no significunt differences in the IAA content of shoots or roots between mycorrhizal and non-mycorrhizal plants’. The paper has racked up 22 citations in spite of the significunt slipup.

An unintentionally honest method appears in another paper, where the authors state: ‘In this study, we have used (insert statistical method here) to compile unique DNA methylation signatures.’

A couple of cringeworthy blunders have drawn the attention of the academic community in recent years. The Gabor scandal started when an internal author note was accidentally included in the final published version of an ecology paper:

Although association preferences documented in our study theoretically could be a consequence of either mating or shoaling preferences in the different female groups investigated (should we cite the crappy Gabor paper here?), shoaling preferences are unlikely drivers of the documented patterns…

The comment was added following peer review during the revision process and unfortunately slipped through the cracks in subsequent rounds of editing. 

A similar mix-up shook the chemistry world in 2014, when an internal note was published that apparently asked an author to fake some data:

Emma, please insert NMR data here! where are they? and for this compound, just make up an elemental analysis…

Elemental analyses are readily fabricated and are easy to slip into a paper if the journal does not ask for a copy of the independent laboratory report (in this case, however, the journal ultimately found no evidence of falsified analyses).

Rest assured that it is not only researchers who make mistakes. The London School of Economics once sent an email to around 200 students to confirm that they had accepted their place at the university, but due to an administrative error the email was addressed to Kung Fu Panda. This error caused some concern in a school where 25% of students are Asian, but apparently the choice of name merely reflected one staff member’s fondness for the film.

Other names in the test database included Piglet, Paddington, Homer, Bob and Tinkerbell.

 

The Story Behind a Moving Academic Acknowledgement

This post discusses mental health and suicide. If these issues affect you, or somebody you know, you can contact the Samaritans. Whatever you’re going through, the Samaritans are available by free phone call 24/7

A few weeks ago, I came across a moving tribute to a lost friend in the unlikeliest of places: the acknowledgements section of an academic paper.

I reached out to the author, Oliver Rosten, to ask him about his motivation for penning the acknowledgement and how it came to be published.

Can you tell me a bit about Francis and the circumstances that led to this tragedy?

Francis and I met in 2006 at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS), where we had both just started two-year research fellowships. We instantly hit it off, having a shared sense of humour and similar outlook on the absurdity of existence. I soon learnt that Francis suffered from depression. Over the years I knew him, I tried to support him as much as I could.

Both of us felt under pressure at DIAS. Two-year fellowships are short and, in our particular field, that gives you a little over a year to produce something in time for the next application deadline. Francis also had to deal with being in a different country from his partner.

After DIAS, I moved to Sussex and Francis got a position in Amsterdam. He was extremely isolated there and also frustrated at the lack of recognition his work was getting. (Since his death, it has become highly regarded.) After Amsterdam he secured a position in Crete but, around the time he was due to start, he returned to the UK and died by suicide.

What gave you the idea to include this acknowledgement?

As soon as I started the paper – which I did after leaving academia in 2011 – I knew I wanted to dedicate it to Francis. I can’t remember when the exact words of the acknowledgement crystalised but I knew that this was something I had to say. 

Did you have any difficulty getting it published?

I had considerable difficulty getting it published! 

I first posted the paper on arXiv in late 2014. Then, after making some corrections, I submitted to the Journal of High Energy Physics (JHEP) early 2015. The paper was accepted by the referee, but the acknowledgements were flagged for editorial review. The editor asked that I remove them. I refused and gave my reasons, and the editor responded:

The required corrections concern the last paragraph of the acknowledgements. We would remove it completely. I think the first phrase is too much: I guess there were more basic problems in Dolan’s life than the pressure put by physics work. Certainly people, say in business, behave more brutally than in academia. The second phrase could be OK but a bit out of place: in a scientific paper we discuss about science, not about life.

If you will have a chance to write a history paper or even some special proceedings about him, you can put descriptions of his life and commentaries, but they are out of place in JHEP.

I objected and it was taken up by the scientific director, who came down on the side of the editor. I withdrew the paper and submitted it to Physical Review D. It was seen by 3 referees, one of whom provided some very useful scientific feedback. Ultimately we ended up at loggerheads over certain changes demanded by the referee, so the paper was rejected.

Two referees for Journal of Physics A then accepted the paper with glowing reports, but the editor asked for me to remove the second paragraph of the acknowledgements. I again refused and ended up withdrawing the paper

I changed my strategy and tried emailing journal editors directly to ask whether, if the paper were accepted for scientific content, it could be published with the acknowledgements intact. The European Physical Journal C responded in the affirmative – they were actually very supportive. After making some minor changes following peer review, the paper was accepted, almost 3 years after it first appeared on arXiv.

In your view, what are the main causes of the ‘psychological brutality’ of the postdoc system?

  • Short term positions;
  • Low salaries. I’ve personally known postdocs trying to live on a pittance;
  • People are frequently separated from their partner;
  • In some fields it is hard to work on your own ideas and, if you do, there can be a lot of pressure to do more mainstream work;
  • For people with medical issues, there is the prospect of no continuity of care. I think this can be a severe problem for those with mental health issues (compounded by the fact that your local support network evaporates every few years).
  • The cliff edge: What happens if you don’t get another job? Every few years, this comes around and I think, generally, each time it gets more stressful as there is more at stake: Am I too old to retrain? Can I support my family? But if I give up now is all my research for nothing?

What can university leaders do to change this?

Regarding the post-doctoral system, I’ve given this a lot of though over the years and have the following suggestions. The first two are important but perhaps not as radical as the last two.

  1. Postdoctoral positions should be for a minimum of 3 years. For my (old) field – theoretical high-energy physics – there is a distinct application season: generally job applications must all be done by the end of any particular year (I assume things are as they were when I Ieft academia in 2011). When starting a new position (typically September), this generally means that postdocs have a little over one year in which they must produce new work. The pressure of this can be almost unbearable. I know that there are some institutions which (as far as I know) only offer 3 or 5-year positions, which should be applauded.
  2. Postdoctoral positions should be well paid. When low salary impacts quality of life there may be a commensurate impact on mental health. I’ve always been fortunate that my wife and I have travelled together and she’s always been able to work – this has made a big difference. Indeed, during my time in Dublin she earned much more than me which enabled us to live far more comfortably than we’d have otherwise been able to do.
  3. Every institution should have members of staff, ideally with training in mental health issues, whose sole job is to support the postdoctoral community. I envisage this a a key part of institutions taking true responsibility for the gifted and dedicated people they hire on temporary academic contracts. This would have a number of facets:
    • For those with known mental health issues, the staff would help to ensure continuity of care when someone moves institutions. This is a vital point in my opinion because postdocs find themselves, every few years, in a situation where their entire local support network disappears. For those with mental health issues this can be extremely damaging, not least because one may have no familiarity whatsoever with the mental health care provision that exists in a potentially new area or country.
    • When postdocs come to the point where none of their applications have been successful or they otherwise decide to leave academia, these staff would be there to provide emotional support and also to offer advice on how to transition into industry.
  4. Institutions should, for postdocs who have reached the end of their academic careers, offer a period of paid retraining. The cliff-edge that many post-docs experience can be incredibly stressful – this was certainly the case for me. Institutions prepared to hire incredibly talented and dedicated people on temporary contracts have (or should have) a duty to make sure these people have the best and smoothest transition to whatever it is they go on to do. While I can see a gut reaction that this may overburden academic institutions, I think there is real scope to make this positive and beneficial for all involved, particularly if local industries are involved in the process. And, of course, it would not be the case that institutions would have to do this for every postdoc; plenty will remain in academia.

What can we do as a community to make sure such tragedies are not repeated?

As a community, I think we must try to engage those in positions to implement change in a dialog. Optimistically, perhaps it may be possible to draw up a ‘charter for postdocs’ to which institutes can subscribe to, which would guarantee that they agree to certain standards of treatment for postdocs.

 

If these issues affect you, or somebody you know, you can contact the Samaritans, free, 24/7.

 

 

You Must Be Very Intelligent – The PhD Delusion

Most academics are so passionate about their work that it is a struggle to separate work from life. I have long resisted this urge, trying my best to keep the inbox off over the weekends and taking proper holidays (i.e. non-academic books only). This reluctance extended to banning anything vaguely academic from my personal world, including academic novels and films depicting campus life. 

The Groves of Academe, Mary McCarthy’s deliciously scathing commentary on liberal arts schools, was the first to change my mind, and just in time. The rise of the academic novel in recent years has seen the publication of many truly unmissable books that beg to be read, from The Secret History, Donna Tartt’s ambitious and intellectual murder not-so mystery, to Lab GirlHope Jahren’s quirky memoir and ode to friendship, plants, and the tenacity of the unsung women of science.

A new addition to my growing collection of academic novels recently landed on my desk – Karin Bodewits new book You Must Be Very Intelligent: The PhD DelusionYou Must Be Very Intelligent promises a “witty, warts-and-all account of post-grad life” featuring “success and failure, passion and pathos, insight, farce and warm-hearted disillusionment.”

As Karin puts it:

Ever since I finished my PhD, I knew I had to write this book. While it isn’t a diary of my time as a PhD student, it isn’t quite a work of fiction either. If it were, I would probably have described some secretive, unethical research taking place in dank basements beneath cloisters, proving that scientists are amoral psychopaths (I did meet some people I could imagine creating a three-headed sheep for shits and giggles but I never actually saw anyone trying it).

I nonetheless saw stuff that was dramatically dark, barking mad and hilariously ridiculous, but in an everyday way. I saw the monsters beneath the meniscus of human nature surfacing in a supposedly sedate world; of frustrated egos the size of Africa, where competition is pathological, volcanic rages seethe and tin pot dictators are drunk on oh-such petty power. It’s a world where glory is the goal and desperation is the order of the day; a world where young adults are forced into roles that make Lord of the Flies look like Enid Blyton.

It was an education. And it taught me to be wary of education.

Karin kindly agreed to share a couple of chapters, including the all-important Chapter One, and Chapter 35 (look out for the surprisingly saucy illustration of academic ”collaboration”!).

Karin Bodewits has a PhD in Biology from the University of Edinburgh. In 2012, she co-founded the company NaturalScience.Careers. She published her first book, a career guide for female natural scientists, in 2015, and just won the Science Slam in Munich. She writes short stories, career columns and opinion pieces for magazines like Chemistry World and Naturejobs.

 

Full disclosure: I didn’t get paid for this post, but I did get a free copy of the book. I do have a fledgling Amazon affiliate account, which means that if you buy the book after clicking on a link here, I get 3 cents or something.

Doodling for Academics

In recent weeks, I have been slowing down a little in an attempt to find some of that ever-elusive ‘work-life balance’. Amongst other fledgling self-care efforts, I have started exercising again (following an unintentional but extensive hiatus) and reading more. Now, I am adding colouring to my list of relaxing activities, and here’s why.

A few months ago, I was contacted by University of Chicago Press asking if I’d be willing to take a look at a new book, Doodling for Academics by Julie Schumacher. This sounded like a lot of fun and the book is awesome, so I was happy to provide a blurb:

The wonderfully weird illustrations in Doodling for Academics brilliantly capture the bizarre highs, and arcane lows, of academic life. Full of fun activities to pass the time at staff meetings, this book will be a quirky addition to any academic office.

In Julie’s own words:

The original idea for Doodling for Academics came from University of Chicago Press editor Christie Henry. When she proposed it to me, my first instinct was to dismiss it, but then I found myself laughing while day-dreaming through a few possible images. I had never collaborated on a writing project before, so the matching of concept, illustration, title and caption for the forty different panels was initially overwhelming. Illustrator Lauren Nassef and I exchanged hundreds of emails and drafts, and had several very long conference calls, but never met until after the book was finished.

As soon as copies became available, my department chair held a coloring party. We stuck our finished artwork on the staff fridge when we were done.

I loved the book so much I asked the publisher if I could post a few free pages for fellow academic doodlers to print out and colour in. Three free doodles are provided below, and you can click here to get your hands on the full book, which contains 40 of these wonderfully silly and snarky illustrations.)

 

Julie Schumacher is professor of English and director of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Minnesota. She is the author of the best-selling Dear Committee Members, winner of the Thurber Prize for American Humor. Lauren Nassef is a freelance illustrator and artist living in Chicago.

Full disclosure: I didn’t get paid for the blurb, but I did get a free copy of the book. I also didn’t get paid for this post, I just wanted to share the fun so I reached out to the publisher for the free pages. I did however set up an Amazon affiliate account (an idea I had only when finding a link to buy the book for this post), which I believe means that if you buy the book after clicking the link above I will get 3 cents or something.

This Study is Subject to Certain Limitations: Overly Honest Academic Caveats

Alison Edwards is an independent researcher, translator, editor, writer, and lover of tennis, infrastructure, and collared shirts done all the way up. This post originally appeared on her blog The Rogue Linguist. Follow Alison on twitter @rogue_linguist

This study is subject to certain limitations. For starters, it is imperceptibly different to the last six studies we salami-sliced into articles. Just as with those papers, we tortured something out of one and the same dataset and had a copyeditor repackage the intro so that it looks sort of newish.

***

One possible objection to our work may be that it appears to have insubstantial theoretical underpinning. That would be a correct, if mild, assessment, given that it has no underpinning of any kind at all.

***

The literature review can at best be described as thin, as we read exactly none of the papers referred to. Instead we pursued the following three-pronged information-gathering strategy. 1) We took what Author X said about Author Y’s work and passed it off as our own interpretation without bothering to cite Author X. 2) We perused the reference lists of previous papers and intuited the content of seemingly relevant articles from their titles alone. 3) On a few rare occasions we were compelled to hunt down a paper ourselves; a shout-out to Sci-hub and internet piracy is in order here. In such cases any direct quotes come from the abstracts, as that is as far as we got in terms of actually reading them.

***

The results of the study are tempered somewhat by the fact that we plucked the methodological technique out of thin air, neglected to validate it in any way and described it in as deliberately vague terms as possible. As a consequence, future researchers trying to replicate the study will almost certainly get entirely different results.

***

This study requires the reader to ingest a good dose of LSD before reading.

***

The generalisability of the results is limited due to the sample size of exactly N=1, namely my three-year-old daughter. Oh sure, I’ve dressed it up as a qualitative, longitudinal study of child language development, but Blind Freddy can see I’ve just recorded my kid at random, cherry-picked a few select utterances and even mimicked her myself when her actual developmental process didn’t align with the fictional one I invented for the paper. Oh, and I don’t have a daughter.

***

At this point in time our conclusions necessarily remain tentative, as we came up with them at the tail end of a heavy night of drinking long before actually having conducted the study. Only by a great leap of the imagination could one accept that they genuinely follow from the results.

***

The device tested in the study was developed by the same body that funded the research. In this sense, should one wish to be all pedantic about it, one could speak of a so-called “conflict of interest”.

***

Arguably, this is actually a pretty solid study in terms of execution; it’s just that the entire underlying premise is wildly wrong. In our view, the traditional imperative to come up with something both well-considered and well-executed falls beyond the scope of the present study; we leave it to future researchers who are more masochistic than ourselves to rectify this minor shortcoming.

How ‘broken’ is academia, and how can we fix it?

Jon Tennant just finished his PhD in paleontology. This post originally appeared on Jon’s blog, Fossils and Shit. Follow him on twitter @protohedgehog.

In every coffee break conversation, you hear murmurs of a ‘broken academic system’. Hallways whisper secret conversations about the latest case of professional abuse, the tenured professor still writing papers on a type-writer, and the grad student that mysteriously disappeared just 6 months in.

I’m going to try and outline here what I have seen in my experience and through many discussions with an enormous variety of people about what the most pressing issue in the current system is.

It’s all about power, and the abuse of it.

Academics who are embedded in a position of status or power must have successfully navigated the academic webways, played the game just right, in order to be where they are now. This must be true, based on the virtue of the fact that they are there.

These very same people are those who control almost everything – they sit on your hiring committees, they are the gatekeepers to journals, they review your grants and decide who or what receives funding. They also are the ones with the capacity to create real, systemic, and cultural changes, because they are the ones pulling all the strings.

However, by the very virtue of being successful, they can easily become blind to the faults of the system, because you can’t see them as negative when they have worked for you in a positive manner. Because they have overcome obstacles, they fail to see why others cannot in the same way, or that these obstacles impact upon different people in various ways – typically disadvantaging the already disadvantaged most. By definition, marginalised communities are invariably under-represented, but are often the very common and real victims of faulty systems. But when do we ever hear their voices?

Success in academia, or any walk of life, blinds people to the reality of failure. For whatever those reasons might be. How common do we see the attitude of “It’s not a problem because it doesn’t happen to me.” in academia? “I made it here, so others can too.”

This sort of ignorance and lack of empathy results in a system that constrains innovation, stifles cultural adaptation, and defines inertia as the norm through a system of fear. Fear because you can’t challenge this status quo, as it’s the members of it who are going to decide if your paper gets accepted, you get hired, or you get that grant. They decide if you are able to pay your rent and feed your family.

This reality is a huge problem, as those who wield this power won’t always do so. They’ll try to for as long as possible, but it is the grad students and postdocs (early career researchers, ECRs) who will inherit the system. But they aren’t having much say in what it is they will inherit.

Students of today are growing up in a very different web-powered digital world. This world is all about creation, innovation, and the freedom to share knowledge and ideas. But ECRs are penalised for speaking out and challenging and creating, because at the moment they have no power in the system. You can look at the table and watch the game, but you don’t have any chips so you can’t play.

A consequence of this is that diverse voices are not invited, welcomed, or recognised to be at the tables where the important decisions are being made. The top of the system, where all the power is, represents a culture of replicas, of clones, the same demographic who know how to play the system to win the game. It will rarely be success based on individual prowess or skill, but a process of a thousand small events with a thousand different players that were leveraged at the right time, with just the right amount of luck, that manifests itself as personal achievement and results in acquisition of power.

It’s these very same people though in power who don’t want to undermine the foundations of their own success. It makes perfect sense – that’s human nature. A researcher would have to have a serious foot-shooting fetish to point out the flaws in their own achievements. But this means that the ‘elite’ by default choose ignorance over empathy, over generational sustainability, over using their power selflessly to help others.

There are some people at the top who have gained better awareness, and who listen to others and try to induce positive change. But they remain a minority, and we as a culture and a community have to do better to increase social mobility and increase engagement that transcends academic hierarchies.

One solution to this is to have grad students and postdocs better represented in the places that are deciding the future structure of academia: every hiring panel, each grant committee, engaged in advisory roles for every policy process.

If we do not do this, we are left with the very same people who won the long game dictating the rules for future students based on their own minority experiences, rather than the unheard and unseen majority. All the time, we lose our best and brightest as they become disillusioned with the system, and are chased out for one reason or another – just another leak in a very patched-up pipeline.

What I want to see more of is senior researchers listening more to ECRs, to their experiences, their problems, their requests. I want them to embrace empathy for those who haven’t won the game, or refuse to play it. I want them to use this to build a better future for everyone that breaks down power dynamics, embraces diversity and encourages equity, and creates a better environment for innovation to flourish without fear.

Let us be brave and challenge the status quo, let us create, let us think outside the box. Isn’t this is what research is supposed to be about, after all?

Note: Parts of this discussion are chopped up on Twitter here.

Edit: I’m much less interested in responses to this about how the system has benefited people (i.e., the “It’s worked for me so what’s the problem” mentality). That’s not what this is about. I’m interested in finding out why it doesn’t work or hasn’t worked for those who are worse off. #notallacademics, right..