Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Academic Bully: Treatment and Side effects

So, you have identified someone with the Academic Bully syndrome and are wondering how to help this unfortunate soul....or at least help yourself by helping them control their symptoms. What do you do?

Honestly, it is easiest is to walk away and never look back, but sometimes this isn't possible. In this case, I have found a treatment that, so far, has been 100% effective.

Before I explain the treatment, let me present my credentials. I have had extensive experience with Academic Bullies on job interviews (lovely interactions that included telling me I was an "idiot" and my science wasn't actually science, for example), on collaborations (where they tried to force me to make them coauthors on projects they had nothing to do with), and in the classroom (students can exhibit this syndrome as well, and it is not pretty). Every interaction is the same. Bully says something rude that I assume is a misunderstanding and I respond diplomatically. After a few assaults I realize I'm being socially hog-tied so this person can psychologically beat me.

The treatment for an academic bully is to let them know that you will will not play by their rules. Every time I stand up to an academic bully, they not only back off, they treat me with respect. Honestly, every time. I won't say any of us are buddies and the respect is often more wary than deeply heart-felt, but I'm a simple person and I'm happy with not being mentally beaten on a regular basis. Now, if you are uncomfortable with threatening to kill someone and put their body in a dumpster, there are other - some may say classier - options to make a bully back off. FSP had a great response to her Academic Bully:

...I said "You must never read any scientific journals. I find that surprising for a senior graduate student. Is that typical of this department?"

This is the "turning the tables" approach where the bully says something that implies something wrong with you, but can also imply something wrong with them. Acmegirl also handled hers with style. She employed the "I'm patiently explaining to you why you are a dumbass" approach. This treatment requires a lot of patience, but often results in such a thorough dosage that the person never displays symptoms around you again.

The trick is developing a way that allows you to get around the social constraint in a way you are comfortable with. Over the years, I have developed what I call the "laughing smackdown". I treat the attack like a joke (afterall, what normal person would seriously say that?) and then, still laughing, I deliver the smackdown. I say something equally outlandish while laughing (like it's a joke). The insertion of humor allows me to give socially acceptable cover to my response and the bully knows that I will not just sit there and take it. The treatment is to let them know you'll stand up for yourself and the trick is to figure out a way to apply your treatment that you are comfortable with.

With any treatment there are potential side effects and dosage issues. How frequently you have to dose your Academic Bully will depend on the individual. Some of mine are good after one dose, others I am still dosing years later. The good news is that it is often painfully obvious when your Academic Bully needs their next dose. An unexpected side effect I have experienced is the academic bully may, in rare cases, fall in love with you. I had this happen once and it took me years to get rid of him.

Obviously, this is not a one-bully fit's all approach. A good example of a different type of bully who will not respond to this treatment is the Princess. For an example of a Princess, read Professor in Training's description of DrMeMeMe. Application of the above treatment to a Princess can cause toxic side effects. Princesses will get haughty and sulky and probably initiate petty thieving, vicious rumors, and other subtle psychological torture. (I found this out the hard way). So you need to diagnose your bully carefully.

So good luck out there, diagnose and treat your bullies carefully and hopefully you may earn yourself a little space.

When brains insist on vacation

So, I promised today part II of academic bullies, but it will have to wait. Normally I come into work, drink a cup of coffee, write a piece for the blog while my brain boots up, and then roll into my day. I wrote the academic bullies pieces this weekend at home and my brain was not capable this morning of doing anything outside the coming to work routine, so academic bullies is at home and I'm here. I'll try to post it this evening when I get home.

However, I feel like my morning isn't complete if I don't write something and what is on my mind right now is that my brain is being seriously rebellious. I have lots of things I need to do, but very little that my brain will agree to focus on. My brain and I have always had a delicate relationship and I have learned over the years that if I treat it like the highly-strung, delicate apparatus it is, I can get great mileage out of it, but if I ignore the weird sounds and sluggish performance, it will come to a grinding, screeching halt just when I need it the most. I've been pushing really hard this summer for a variety of reasons that I may blog about in the future. Suffice it to say, that I've been ignoring my brain's warning lights for a little too long. Yesterday, it pretty much flat-lined on me. After some attempts to jump start my brain with caffeine paddles, I managed to revive it enough to finish my presentation for next week. But the strain was too much and when my brain started to flat-line again, General Disarray insisted that my only hope for finishing out the week with any semblance of productivity was to go home and let it rest.

I know so many people who seem to have brains of steel and I envy them in some ways. I could be so much more productive if my brain didn't need to take down-time, but I have found that my brain needs its quiet time...time when it is apparently...thinking.

I know it is weird to speak of one's brain in the third person, but I do sometimes feel like I have an uneasy truce with something I do not quite control. My responsibilities involve feeding it (it loves science, languages, history, art, and video games), taking it on 'field trips' (it seems to love traveling abroad and art museums), and giving it encouragement and reassuring it that it's a good brain (well, actually, I'm very bad at that, but fortunately General Disarray takes care of that responsibility). In return, it takes problems I can't seem to solve, chews on them, and spits out innovative ways of dealing with the issue. Our strife comes when I want it to solve a problem and it thinks that I have not taken good enough care of it...that's when the battles begin and let me tell you...the brain always wins.

Right now, I'm bribing my brain....just a few more days and we'll go to Milwaukee and you'll hear about all sorts of cool science that will be new. I also tried to bribe it with a tour of the Miller Brewery, but it spit that out pretty fast...however, I hear they have a nice little art museum..."Hmmm," the brain says....Quick, while it's distracted, maybe it'll let me rewrite that paper!

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Academic Bully: Symptoms and Diagnosis

In academia, we have a variety of adept psychological bullies. In this two-part series, I will focus on the "academic bully". The best way to describe this syndrome is through example, so I am using an interaction described by FSP on her blog:

When first introduced to a grad student whose research was in a field closely related to mine, the student said "I've never heard of you." Then, in case this comment was a bit too subtle for me, he added "You must not publish very much".

This is what I would call a text-book example of the "insulting academic bully" syndrome. This is not to be confused with aggressive scientific questioning, though there is a variant of the academic bully syndrome that can masquerade as valid scientific questioning: the "scientific academic bully". For a good example of this you should read acmegirl's description of interacting with a scientific academic bully at her poster presentation. It's classic.

Regardless of the variant, the Academic Bully is someone who says aggressive, bullying things that under normal rules of social engagement would not be acceptable to say and then uses those same rules of conduct to hamstring the other person. It's similar to the boyfriend who breaks up with his girlfriend in a restaurant to avoid a "scene" - they manipulate a social interaction so that they can do something unpleasant AND the other person feels they cannot respond because they might look bad. However, unlike the boyfriend who dumps you and is gone, once an academic bully realizes you will play by social norms, they are a bit like the Energizer Bunny - they just keep going.

How do I know? I had a friend who was an Academic Bully and he told me this was the case. I know, it sounds like "friend" and "Academic Bully", seem like they should not be in the same sentence unless there's a "not" in there, but he was an unusual academic bully (I've met lots of them, so I know of what I speak). I think he was conducting a social experiment - how far can you push someone before they finally abandon the constraint of accepted social conduct? If you stood up to him he was your loyal friend for life...if not, well...He once told me that he continued tormenting a person in our lab because he (the victim) would never just tell him (the Academic Bully) off no matter how out of line he (the Academic Bully) was. He told me all this after I just couldn't take him any more and told him he was being a tool and if he didn't shut up I would kill him, discard his corpse in a dumpster and tell his wife he ran off with an undergrad cheerleader....details of my response have been altered to protect my identity, but it shockingly wasn't that far off. We were great friends after that.

My friend was what I would call a "benign" Academic Bully (the word benign is used here not to denote approval, but in the more medical sense, since you often still have benign growths removed). His bullying had nothing to do with gender or ethnicity, was focused on the "older" members of the lab who he thought should be able to defend themselves (ie. other postdocs and senior grad students), and was confined to scientific issues. "Cancerous" Academic Bullies also exist. They only exhibit symptoms towards women and/or minorities and the intent is to undermine the victim's self-esteem and make them doubt their own worthiness, intelligence, and/or accomplishments. I have run into numerous examples of both during my career. For those of you who follow Adventures in Ethics and Science, these syndromes are analogous to the spherical vs asymmetrical bastards concept.

So, having discussed the definition and symptoms of the academic bully, you think you have diagnosed your bully and wish to apply some remedy to their illness. Perhaps you are hoping for some ointment, pill, or even electric shock therapy that will cure them once and for all. Unfortunately, if you are unlucky enough to know an Academic Bully, I am sad to say there is no cure for their condition. However, I have found that there are some treatment options that can help keep this person's symptoms in check. Hang in there, and tomorrow I will discuss treatment options and warnings about unexpected side effects.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Watch out Milwaukee, here we come

In less than a week, Milwaukee will be over-run by a few thousand people. These people will undoubtedly stand out from the local populace; they will be wearing Tevas or Chacos (I've supplied a link for those who have no idea what I' m talking about) and often shorts, t-shirts, fleece (in our defense it is often really cold in those convention centers), and pieces of clothing by Columbia, Mountain Hardware, and other outdoor outfitters. Most tellingly, many of them will be carrying a tote bag and forget to take their name badges off when they leave the conference center...yes, the annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America is descending on Milwaukee. Woohoo!

When I was a graduate student I hated this meeting. It is large (almost 5,000 people) with 25-30 concurrent sessions of talks. It is so easy to feel lost and overwhelmed. I would try to see talks constantly from 8 am to 5 pm, yet I always seemed to miss the talks everyone was abuzz about. Friend: "Did you see that fabulous talk by Dr. Amazing? I think it altered my whole view on exciting area Y". Me: "What?" (Flipping frantically through the schedule of talks) "How did I miss that? No, I was stuck in this pointless talk about boring area Z given by Dr How-the-hell-did-he-get-a-Ph.D".

Ironically, it was only when I gave up on the meeting as being pointless that I actually found it valuable. Since I always seemed to be wasting my time in talks irrelevant to my research, I started contacting friends and collaborators before hand to see if they would be there and wanted to meet about projects, life, whatever. I also stopped trying to see as many talks as possible and started applying a triage system - big names talking on new ideas, research coming out of labs I am often citing, and talks by people I have never heard of but seem directly relevant to my current or future research directions. If there is nothing I want to see, then I try to schedule that time to interact with colleagues. Suddenly, I was seeing the talks relevant to me and getting valuable work and networking done.

This year may be different for me. Most of my close colleagues and collaborators aren't going this year. This means that this is the first year in a while where I won't have my core set of people to interact with. I've been trying to figure out what this means for my conference going experience and I have come to one, dreaded, conclusion....I will have to meet new people (shudder). I say this because I am the world's worst networker. Strangely, if someone approaches me, I have no problem talking cogently. If I approach someone else, it all goes to hell...quickly. I suspect that it has to do with some perceived onus of responsibility for the conversation. If I am taking up someone else's time, I better be brilliant and witty, but I have no such expectations if someone approaches me.

Since I am such a horrible networker, I've decided to attend as many of the official social events as possible - the various "(Insert name here) mixers". Events with food and alcohol are useful crutches for me....if I don't like the social interaction I am stuck in I can swill my drink and go get another or if I say something wrong, I can buy myself some time to think my way out of it by gobbling some goodies.

I assume that someday networking won't be so awful. I assume that someday I'll realize that it's not that I'm so bad at it, but that we are all pretty bad at it (which is why people who are good at it get such advantages - but that's another post). In the meantime, I will don my Chacos, gird myself with my plate of food and my drink, and go once more into the breach....and you never know, maybe I'll even meet someone who will become part of that group of people I really look forward to seeing every year. Maybe.

Friday, July 25, 2008

“what lame crap music is on your iPod”

I'll start today's blog with PhysioProf's comment to my blog yesterday:

There's nothing wrong with ignoring this "meme tag" shit.

With two meme tags going around yesterday (the 100 books tag I blogged on yesterday and the iPod tag I'm going to do today, I've had plenty of opportunities to observe the sociology of meme tag. As any good scientist should do, I have allowed the data to inform my interpretation. Yesterday I struggled with my painful childhood memories of chain letters as social control implements. However, after yesterday's shenanigans, I think it's clear that is not what is going on. My new hypothesis is that meme tag is a blogging form of "butt sniffing". For those of you who do not own dogs (and may be wondering if this blog has just earned an X-rating), butt sniffing is how dogs get to know each other. Seeing what "shameful" music PhysioProf or DrDrA has on their iPods - and what they consider shameful - tells you something about them that does not necessarily come through in blogs...same with assessing whether someone has a similar "literary background" as you do. While I have deep issues of doing things because people expect me to do it, I have no problems with butt sniffing (I should also probably note at this point that the opinions expressed in this blog are solely mine and do not reflect those of my institution, my funding agency or General Disarray who may all have fundamental issues with - and possibly regulations against - butt sniffing). So, since PhysioProf sniffed my butt, here we go:

I don't quite know how to judge "lame" or "embarrassing" objectively (obviously if it's on my pod, it's because I love it or because General Disarray put it there). Given some of the things that are on people's lists, I suspect there is a lot of music on my pod I SHOULD be embarrassed by! So, here are the things I was embarrassed by when my students walked into my office and it was playing... loudly:

1) Black Eyed Peas- "My Humps". I honestly thought it was hysterical the first few times I listened to it, then a student walked in while it was playing ("My humps, my humps, my lovely lady lumps") and I was mortified (and wondered if I could be sued!)

2) Avril Lavigne - "Girlfriend". Sheer mindless (teenager) fun, which is only embarrassing because...well...I'm a little beyond my teenage years and do not have a teenage daughter to blame it on.

3)Gwen Stefani - "Hollaback Girl"

"Uh huh, this is my shit
All the girls stomp your feet like this
A few times I've been around that track
So it's not just gonna happen like that
Because I ain't no hollaback girl
I ain't no hollaback girl"

Really, what's not to love about that song?

4) Dido - "Here with me". I try to hide it sometimes, but I really am a girl at heart....sigh.

5) D-12. "My band". A hysterical spoof on boy bands by Eminem and his crew. It is a really funny song....but not something my students seem to understand.

And there you have it. To quote Dr. Free-Ride: "You're tagged if you want to be"

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Apparently I've been....tagged?

I don't get many comments on my site (honestly, I'm not complaining as I'm pretty antisocial anyway and don't really know how to respond to people commenting on what I say) but I was caught by surprise this morning by a comment that said only: TAG! After cautiously exploring the link attached to the word, I found I had been tagged in a game called 'meme tag' by BikeMonkey....well, that actually didn't clarify anything for me. So, after some googling, I found a blog that explained the rules of meme tag. General Disarray, who had been following my befuddlement (worried that I had been cyper-punked by some female scientist hating stalker, I assume), snorted and said "It's a chain letter".

I hate chain letters. I was always the kid in school who hated the social obligation pressure of "not breaking the chain" and so would, of course, break the chain. (I was - perhaps not surprisingly - not very popular as a kid). So here's my dilemma - my innate personality against my true enjoyment of the people in the blogosphere and therefore my desire not to be rude and make people mad... therefore here's my compromise: I have played the game but I have not tagged anyone - therefore I am both playing AND breaking the chain. (Crap, I'm going to get chased around the playground again by an angry mob, aren't I?). However, I invite my seven readers (whoever you are) to play if you wish. Here are the rules (plus the rules for meme tag if, like me, you are new to this concept):

a) rules for this particular game of tag: On your own blog, take the list of books below and highlight in bold anything you read completely. Put in italics anything you started but didn't finish. Leave in normal font, anything you have not read.

b) rules of meme tag in general: at the end of the blog where you have done the above, you should list 6 people who you "tag" and are supposed to do this particular activity on their blog. Go to their blog and leave a comment letting them know they've been tagged.

c) While not in the rules on the blog I read, I think you are probably supposed to also include a link to the blog that "tagged" you so people can trace it back to the hypothetical originator.

Okay here we go (along with some comments from me....)

1 Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen (went through a phase where I was all about all things Austen. I think I was fascinated by what happens when people actually follow social norms...)
2 The Lord of the Rings - JRR Tolkien 3 Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte
4 Harry Potter series - JK Rowling
5 To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee
6 The Bible (I really tried to read it from cover to cover but got hung up on all the begats)
7 Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte
8 Nineteen Eighty Four - George Orwell
9 His Dark Materials - Philip Pullman (and they are indeed pretty dark for "children's" books, interesting though)
10 Great Expectations - Charles Dickens
11 Little Women - Louisa M Alcott
12 Tess of the D'Urbervilles - Thomas Hardy
13 Catch 22 - Joseph Heller (one of the best books ever and I'm convinced that it's the inspiration for much of university policy)
14 Complete Works of Shakespeare (yes, I honestly read all of them and I did it in the 7-12 grades....afterall, it was better than being chased around the playground by the angry mob!)
15 Rebecca - Daphne Du Maurier
16 The Hobbit - JRR Tolkien
17 Birdsong - Sebastian Faulks
18 Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger
19 The Time Traveller's Wife - Audrey Niffenegger
20 Middlemarch - George Eliot
21 Gone With The Wind - Margaret Mitchell (my last attempt at doing what all the girls were doing....they loved it and wanted to be Scarlett, I thought Scarlett was a whore. That's when I switched to Shakespeare).
22 The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald
23 Bleak House - Charles Dickens
24 War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy (yes, I really did read the whole thing. It was great, but I had spent so much time with those characters that I felt like I was losing some of my closest friends when I finished the book)
25 The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams
26 Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh
27 Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky
28 Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck
29 Alice in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll
30 The Wind in the Willows - Kenneth Grahame (when my life is not Alice in Wonderland, it's Mr. Toad's wild ride, that's all I'm going to say)
31 Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy
32 David Copperfield - Charles Dickens
33 Chronicles of Narnia - CS Lewis
34 Emma - Jane Austen
35 Persuasion - Jane Austen
36 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe - CS Lewis
37 The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini
38 Captain Corelli's Mandolin - Louis De Bernieres
39 Memoirs of a Geisha - Arthur Golden
40 Winnie the Pooh - AA Milne
41 Animal Farm - George Orwell
42 The Da Vinci Code - Dan Brown
43 One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
44 A Prayer for Owen Meany - John Irving
45 The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins
46 Anne of Green Gables - LM Montgomery
47 Far From The Madding Crowd - Thomas Hardy
48 The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood
49 Lord of the Flies - William Golding (shudder, a little too close to home)
50 Atonement - Ian McEwan
51 Life of Pi - Yann Martel
52 Dune - Frank Herbert
53 Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons
54 Sense and Sensibility - Jane Austen
55 A Suitable Boy - Vikram Seth
56 The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafon
57 A Tale Of Two Cities - Charles Dickens
58 Brave New World - Aldous Huxley
59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time - Mark Haddon
60 Love In The Time Of Cholera - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
61 Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck
62 Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov
63 The Secret History - Donna Tartt
64 The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold
65 Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas
66 On The Road - Jack Kerouac
67 Jude the Obscure - Thomas Hardy
68 Bridget Jones's Diary - Helen Fielding
69 Midnight's Children - Salman Rushdie
70 Moby Dick - Herman Melville
71 Oliver Twist - Charles Dickens
72 Dracula - Bram Stoker
73 The Secret Garden - Frances Hodgson Burnett
74 Notes From A Small Island - Bill Bryson
75 Ulysses - James Joyce (I'm still confused....)
76 The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath
77 Swallows and Amazons - Arthur Ransome
78 Germinal - Emile Zola
79 Vanity Fair - William Makepeace Thackeray
80 Possession - AS Byatt
81 A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens
82 Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell
83 The Color Purple - Alice Walker
84 The Remains of the Day - Kazuo Ishiguro
85 Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert
86 A Fine Balance - Rohinton Mistry
87 Charlotte's Web - EB White
88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven - Mitch Albom
89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
90 The Faraway Tree Collection
91 Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad
92 The Little Prince - Antoine De Saint-Exupery
93 The Wasp Factory - Iain Banks
94 Watership Down - Richard Adams
95 A Confederacy of Dunces - John Kennedy Toole
96 A Town Like Alice - Nevil Shute
97 The Three Musketeers - Alexandre Dumas
98 Hamlet - William Shakespeare
99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Roald Dahl
100 Les Miserables - Victor Hugo

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Overt and Subtle Forms of Gender Discrimination

The focus of my blog is not on the gender aspects of being a scientist, but as noted by other bloggers the fact of being a female scientist sometimes makes this inevitable. There have been some interesting discussions at various blogs regarding issues facing female scientists (see: Female Science Professor, PhysioProf at Feministe, and DrDrA at Blue Lab Coats).

I think the recent airing of horrible things that we have all witnessed is healthy because it takes stories that are hidden in dark closets and publicizes that this behavior is NOT okay. I have my own set of stories that happened to either me or friends: sexist jokes told on interviews, statements to the effect that a male student is driving his own research, but a female student must just be her advisor's puppet, etc. But these more direct things worry me less than some of the more subtle, subconscious things. Let me demonstrate:

You are going to arrange a high profile symposium or workshop, you need to invite 20 people right now - make your list as quickly as possible (i.e., just like most of us do because we've got too much to do and so little time to get it done!).

Mine almost always ends up with all men. Unlike other fields, my field is not all male. In fact, there are a fair number of highly respected women and they are never represented in my instantaneous list in the proportions they exist in nature! I find this disturbing because it suggests that somewhere along the way I equated "distinguished" with "male". How can I get mad at men for ignoring prominent women when I do it myself? It's not just me. I have other female friends who have recently recognized that they do the same thing. I figure, as with most things, the first step is to recognize that you have a problem. Now, (after chanting, 'Hi, my name is River and I have a problem perceiving scientific gravitas in women") I make two lists: the original brain storm list and a "re-mix", where I use something other than my brain (i.e. Web of Science, journal table of contents, friends) to identify "silver back females" that I overlooked in my first pass. Like I said, it's the subtle things that scare me more.....

Friday, July 18, 2008

Funding Research with PayPal

In doing my research for my scientific blog yesterday, I ran across the following quote on the Paleobiology Database (PBDB): "The Paleobiology Database's core facility is funded by charitable contributions"

I'm not sure what the story is with that. They also mention that they were originally funded by NSF, but since the "core facilities" apparently include the database coordinator, software manager, and database programmer, I can only assume that they need considerable "charitable donations" to maintain the database itself and support the data collection activities.

This highlights one of the problems with the formation of the digital databases that I think the scientific field has yet to grapple with: digital databases, unlike the old-school data compilation books, need constant upkeep, maintenance, and software upgrades to remain useful. Funding agencies invest money in the initial concept and creation, but should funding agencies agree to fund these projects indefinitely? On the other hand, how useful is it to gather the data into a database that exists for a few years and then decays away? What seems necessary is an alternative, source of support that these resources transition to. But what should that be? One option is to require fees to use the data. While I can understand the necessity of such a step, the scientist in me cringes at the pay-for-data model. Another option is to create an alliance with an institution who commits to basic maintenance of the resource....a federal agency, museums, university, conservation group, etc, whose mission coincides with the focus of the digital database. But is there another option? The Barack Obama option? I have to admit I so enjoyed the PBDB Science (see yesterday's posting) paper and was so appalled that the PBDB didn't have funding that I looked around for a PayPal button to donate a few bucks to them.

While I am only slightly serious about the Barack Obama model of presidential election funding being an option for scientific research in general, I have to admit to some curiosity of what would need to be done to make it work. Obviously, we would need to reach out beyond the our immediate scientific community. Sorry, guys, but if I have enough meaningful spare cash to invest in someone's research, it's going to mine or perhaps extreme charity cases where I think the research is really really important and a crime against humanity to let it die. And perhaps that's the rub, convincing a lot of people who know/understand little about what you are doing and why it is important/cool/interesting enough to spare a few dollars. In my field, at least, I think conservation research might do pretty well that way, but basic scientists like myself may be out of luck. On the other hand, have I mentioned lately how my research is going to save the world......?

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Global marine diversity patterns over Earth's history (or: a cool paper I finally had time to read)

I'm taking a break from commenting on the perceived absurdities in the world around me to focus on a cool paper I read recently - after all science is what keeps me in academia despite the absurdities. The cool paper I'm going to focus on is:

Alroy, et al (2008) Phanerozoic trends in the global diversity of marine invertebrates. Science vol 321, pages 97-100.

To understand why this paper is so interesting (to me) requires a little background. Back in the 1980s, Dr. Jack Sepkoski (an eminent paleontologist at the University of Chicago) scrounged together as much fossil data on marine invertebrates as he could get his hands on and plotted a graph of global diversity over the past 500 million years or so. (I'm unclear on protocol/legality for inserting graphs from published works into blogs, so I'll provide links to sources as best I can; for Sepkoski's curve click here). One of the striking things from Sepkoski's curve is that global diversity of marine invertebrates appeared to plateau for around 200 million years (from the end of the Cambrian (Cm) to the end of the Permian (P) and then increases dramatically after the big mass extinction at the end of the Permian. If you're interested in what controls global levels of species richness, this graph is a big deal. Afterall, dramatic changes in global richness may provide insights into whether there are limits to the number of species the planet can support and what those limits may (or may not) be.

Sepkoski's dataset was pretty impressive for its day, but most of the biological sciences have undergone a technological revolution since the 1980s. (Paleontology is actually a geological science but I've always thought of them as our long-lost biological cousins). Data is being increasingly concentrated in comprehensive digital datasets and this is equally true for paleontology. The Paleobiology Database (PBDB) has been working to gather "taxonomic and distributional information about the entire fossil record of plants and animals" (quote is from their website). Back in 2001 the PBDB group had a paper (Alroy et al 2001 Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, USA 98:6261-6266) which used advanced statistical techniques to deal with some of the sampling problems with the fossil record (i.e., older rocks - thus older fossils - are rarer then newer rocks and fossils...there may be other biases too, but you should ask go ask your neighborhood practicing paleontologist). They didn't yet have enough data compiled to tackle all of Sepkoski's curve, but they did have data to look at diversity trends from two time periods: 450 million years ago (MYA) to 300 MYA and about 150 MYA to about 25 MYA. (For those of you who have no reference point for what those dates really mean, a good reference point is that the dinosaurs went extinct around 65 MYA). Their results suggested that marine diversity in the more recent time period was no different from diversity 400 MYA!! This was pretty mind blowing if for no other reason than it suggested that marine diversity hit some cap 400 million years ago and has been wobbling around that level ever since.

So, now we've caught up with the paper just published in Science. The PBDB has had an additional 7 years to gather more data to bring to the question - how has global diversity in oceans changed through time? Has the number of different groups of organisms continued to increase since life began or does there seem to be some global limit to the diversity supported globally in marine ecosystems? The answer? Somewhere in between....The new graph shares a lot of similarities with Sepkoski's curve, except that the steep rise of diversity in more recent times is dampened. A lot. In fact, to the point that the interpretation may depend on whether you are a glass half empty or half full kind of person. Diversity in the more recent time spans is higher than earlier diversity peaks (~30% higher). Alroy et al interpret their new results as reflecting a constraint in global diversity, since diversity is not much higher than past levels and does seem to have flattened out in the most recent time periods. On the flip side, in the news of the week article in Science, there are quotes from other paleontologists who think additional work is needed on the recent time periods to really sort things out because there are different preservation issues with "young fossils" that could be underestimating recent diversity. In other words, the sharp rise in diversity in Sepkoski's curve could make a comeback. Not being a paleontologist, I have no comment on that, but I am really looking forward to seeing how the new curve stands the test of time. After all, what is cooler than whether or not there is a global cap on diversity on our planet?

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Web of Science killed Book Chapters

Last week, the Junction Potential asked what the "bibles" of people's scientific fields were. That question got me thinking about the books I regularly pull off my shelf. Many of them are reference tomes on statistics or my favorite organism. Others are conceptual foundations for major areas of research by a single author. Others are edited volumes, where people in an area of research contribute a chapter on the theme of the book. The reference tomes are pretty recently published for obvious reasons (don't want to reference outdated information, afterall). The single author books span the range of really old (i.e., Darwin) to published a year or so ago. The interesting pattern is in the edited volumes. They are all pre-late 1990s. These older volumes are classics, with chapter after chapter of useful and novel analyses and ideas. I HAVE post-late 1990s edited volumes, but they do not move off my shelf and typically elicit shudders when I accidentally make eye contact with them. They are BORING. They are rehashs of already published information. They are often horribly written. Maybe I'm just buying bad edited volumes and I'm missing the innovative gems, but I think there is more to this than just my buying habits. I think book chapters are no longer as valued as they once were.

Why do I think this? Because I know they are less valuable to me. They are not indexed in Web of Science, so there is no easy way for me to track their impact for the bean-counters. They do not show up in the nice graph produced by Web of Science showing how many papers a person published each year, so if you published 5 book chapters and no journal articles it looks like you didn't publish squat that year. They are also harder to find than journal articles, so I think many chapters just get lost unless the books happens to be high profile for some reason. Finally, my Promotion and Tenure committee has made it clear that a first authored book chapter doesn't count in the "published a first-authored paper"column in the tenure checklist. (The checklist doesn't physically exist, but it's clear that column exists in their heads, so I guess it exists for me too). When I was a graduate student, book chapters were considered a big deal. (oooh, post-doc X wrote a book chapter, wow maybe someday someone will ask me to write a book chapter). It was a mark of your standing in a field that someone asked you to write a chapter for an edited volume, just like being invited to speak in a symposium at a conference. It was also an opportunity to say things that were too bold/crazy/innovative/speculative to get out in more conservative journals. Now I feel like it is not nearly as prestigious and, from my perspective, is a "lost publication".

So why write a book chapter at all? Well, sometimes there are social reasons for doing so. Sometimes workshops will require a book chapter from everyone and since they're paying your expenses it's a quid pro quo situation. Sometimes those symposium invites come with the same expectation (though without the benefit of the paid expenses). Sometimes the expectation of a book chapter doesn't get popped on you until you're AT the event. That one really annoys me. I've started employing "bullet time" when the word book chapter emerges - you know, like Neo in the Matrix? I dodge and I wiggle and I flail my arms around trying desperately to avoid being committed to writing a chapter. When I do get trapped, I have to admit I don't send my best stuff, for the reasons referenced above. I get no credit for it and I feel like there's a high probability that most people won't find it, so why "waste" my good stuff on a black hole.

The last edited volume I bought caused a revolt in my reading group where we were plodding through ridiculously awful chapters week after week. (Does it count as a revolt if you are both the head of the reading group and the leader of the revolt?) Since then I have stopped buying edited volumes without multiple letters of reference from trusted sources. I have wondered if the edited volume will eventually die or spawn a Web of Science-like database (Chapters of Science?). I suspect, to my dismay, that the edited volume is an albatross we are destined to bear for a while.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Grants, Manuscript Revisions, and Family, oh my!

I thought I would post a brief message explaining my blogging absence. For the past couple of weeks I've been rushing to finish grants and manuscripts while dealing with family issues. Either blogging or my sanity had to give. After long thought, I decided that insane blogging might be amusing to some, but was probably not a long-term sustainable strategy. So, I will spend the weekend drooling on the couch as part of my recovery process and then Professor Chaos will return next week.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The Rabid Reviewer

Reading Female Science Professor's post this morning about inappropriate reviewing behavior, I was inspired to muse about a common type of review I receive on my submitted manuscripts: the rabid review. If you are lucky enough to not know what I am talking about (and yes, I mean rabid and not rapid), I envy you a great deal. The past couple of papers I've submitted have attracted the rabid reviewer like a lightening rod.

I have learned that there are a variety of review types out there: The dumb review: a review so lacking in basic logic and knowledge that you wonder how that person has enough brain cells to coordinate breathing, much less breathe and type at the same time...which come to think of it might explain the review.

The "Why didn't you cite me" review: my favorite example of this is a review I received that was riddled with citations like: Reviewer (1990), Reviewer et al (1992,1993,1994), Random person, Random person, Random Person, Reviewer, et al (2000). This is always particularly entertaining when the review is "anonymous".

The "obviously didn't read the paper review": often identifiable from the numerous critiques of things that the reviewer argues should be dealt with that are actually already in the manuscript.

The rabid review is a completely different beast. It is angry. It is often LONG. It implies that you should have your Ph.D stripped (at best), or be tarred, feathered and/or run naked through the streets (at worst). It is riddled with angry rants about things that are either not in your manuscript, or are pulled out of context in a disturbing political spin sort of way. And EVERYTHING is blown out of proportion. A comma in the wrong place is used as evidence that your science is sloppy. A citation with the wrong year is taken as deliberately misleading. Sometimes there are directly snide comments about you personally (though this is fortunately rarer).

When I was younger, the rabid reviewer would make me cry. After a week or so of waiting for me to get back on the horse, my advisor would take me aside and tell me that my science actually didn't suck and that the rabid reviewer was actually a good sign for the quality of the ideas. With age and maturity I have been able to reduce the time from the crying phase to returning to the manuscript to 24 hours (also, minus calling my advisor for a pep talk, which I often want to do but feel like I should be past by now). The other big difference is that now at the end of those 24 hours I AM PISSED. I am pissed because the rabid review means that someone let something personal interfere with the objective review of my work . There are a variety of reasons for the rabid review. The list is long and runs the gamut from competing labs to people who hate your guts. I don't know if I get the rabid reviewer more than my colleagues, I've never really asked around. However, if my advisor's right that it's a sign I'm on to something good, then my research program is on fire right now....and surely that's a good thing.