Playing against the slaughter rule

My middle school baseball team was bad. Really bad. Ball droppingly, bat throwingly, pitch ditchingly bad. It was a good inning if four of our batters made it to the plate. A great inning if the other team didn’t rotate through it’s entire line-up, twice. Our MVP was the kid who caught a ball. And if you think this is going to be one of those articles about how one tough player (me?) turned a bunch of scrappy underdogs into winners, it is not. I played right field, and not particularly well. We lost, often.

In peewee sports, at least in the US, there’s something called a “slaughter rule”. The slaughter rule ends the game if a team is losing by more than a certain number of points. In our case, it took something like a 20 run difference to trigger a slaughter. The slaughter rule exists so that outmatched teams don’t have to slog through 7 innings of a brutal losing streak, racking up demoralizing 112 to zero defeats. Once, we got slaughtered in the first inning.

Were it not for the slaughter rule, I would probably still be out somewhere in right field, wondering if maybe I should sign up for the Latin team next year.

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In the future all scientific research will be funded by Taco Bell …

 

At my university, we recently received a missive from the academic powers that be that faculty research productivity (and thus promotion, raises and tenure) will primarily be measured by the “amount of research funding (direct and indirect) received by the department and the college”.

I think this is a major problem and is a common one across universities.

It’s well known that some fields have lots of research funding available, while other fields don’t (for example). So effectively the above missive means that academic hiring and promotion decisions will not be done on a level playing field. Read More

Graduate minions vs masterminds

The other day I overheard an academic tell an upcoming graduate student that they should pick a PhD project by finding an advisor who already had a project set up and who had funding and that they should do research where the funding was rather than where their interests lay. This was so totally contrary to my PhD experience it left me reeling.

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This is the worst academic presentation in the world … tribute

Conference season is fast approaching, and around the hallowed halls of academia frantic graduate students are rushing around trying to cat herd committee members for thesis drafts and preparing the capstone to all of their recent study and research: the thesis defense. For the past two weeks my life has largely been back to back student presentations, and on the whole they were excellent. a couple of moments when nerves got the better of presenters, but generally high quality.

Then I went to an academic meeting, and I was reminded again why we are struggling to communicate environmental issues to the general public. I had forgotten quite how excruciatingly dull and painfully constructed academic presentations can be.

The presenters were completely unaware of the effect of their talks on the audience, who were checking email, napping and in one case just staring blankly at a wall, which was obviously more entertaining than the presentation at hand.

It really was a master class in how to ensure that your presentation was as dull, dense, and obtuse as possible. So for the benefit of those who what to ensure that they can give the most perfectly dull academic presentation, here are some tips:

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Dipping a Toe in the Confluence

North Carolina is well known for both its distinctive barrier islands (making Pamlico Sound the largest lagoon in the U.S.) and highly productive fisheries.  Both of these features exist in large part because North Carolina sits that the point where two of the largest ocean currents in the Atlantic meet. From the north, the Labrador Current meanders from the Arctic Circle along the Canadian, New England, and Mid-Atlantic shorelines and crashes into the Gulf Stream at Cape Hatteras, deflecting this warm current off its own shore-hugging course from the south and out across the Atlantic Ocean.  Aside from literally defining the shape of the Outer Banks, the collision zone represents the boundary between temperate waters to the north and subtropical waters to the south.  This presence of this border means that, depending on the time of year and local weather conditions, you can catch just about any marine fish native to the Northwest Atlantic Ocean off of the Outer Banks.

This satellite image of sea surface temperatures shows the Gulf Stream (warm red current coming from the south) meeting the Labrador Current (cold purple current coming from the north). Image from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (whoi.edu).

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To co-author or not to co-author?

Writing an academic paper with multiple authors can be problematic at times (for examples see this article and comments on the article), but when do you even make people a co-author?

There are problems across scientific fields with co-authors being added who did not contribute significantly to papers, for example heads of labs or departments, or prestigious individuals (so- called “honorary authors”). Some laboratories even have a policy of adding everyone in the lab who even passed by a manuscript, in order to bulk out resumes.

Individuals who warrant co-authorship, but who are left off the publication (so called “ghost authors”)  are also an issue. One of the most common examples of this is when an ambitious faculty member leaves off a student who conducted majority of the work (or who possibly even came up with the idea) because they want first (or possibly sole) authorship for the paper so that they can further their academic career. In the biomedical field ghost authors are often pharmaceutical industry representatives who may rewrite sections of manuscripts to show their product in the best light, but exclude themselves from authorship and thus obfuscating conflicts of interest. Such conflicted ghost authors are not unique to the biomedical field though, and industry, military or governmental ghost authors have frequently been known to substantially rewrite (and change the conclusions of) marine environmental science papers, especially when they deal with controversial topics.

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Snowy Owls and Goliath Groupers: Why I co-authored “Trophy fishing for species threatened with extinction.”

In both my professional and private life, I am a man who wears many hats. I am a deep-sea ecologist, a science writer, a goatherd, a geneticist, a conservation advocate, a grill master, and many others. When David asked me to join him in co-authoring “Trophy fishing for species threatened with extinction: A way forward building on a history of conservation” I did so not in my capacity as a marine science Ph.D., but as a recreational fisherman who cares deeply about the survival of his sport. Without fish, there is no fishing.

I was, at first, skeptical, but over the course of a summer, I came to appreciate what David was trying to accomplish.

I wrote most of my thesis on this boat, with a rod in the water.

I wrote most of my thesis on this boat, with a rod in the water.

Before I talk about fish, I need to talk about birds. 

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Ocean things we’re thankful for, West Coast Edition

As some of you know (especially if you follow us on OpenExplorer), Amy and I have once again made the vast, continent-spanning migration from the Pacific to Atlantic coast, this time settling down in rural Virginia. While we enjoyed our time out in the weirdly foggy, impossibly dry San Francisco Bay Area, we also learn that the southeast US is our ecological niche. Even so, we met hundreds of new and interesting people, got to play with some tremendous tech, and had a great time. So here are the top five San Francisco Bay Area ocean things we are thankful for.

1. Vallejo

Of all the cities that comprise the “Bay Area”, Vallejo, the smallest and furthest from the heart of San Francisco, feels the most maritime, by far. With a downtown only blocks from the waterfront, an expansive city park right at the edge, and an active ferry terminal for commuters, people with a nautical cut to their jib will feel right at home. Though smaller and more suburban than most Bay Area cities, it’s also a whole lot cheaper, with 2 bedroom houses renting for the cost of hot swapping* a futon in San Francisco.

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Mr Darcy’s Guide to Conference Etiquette – Part 2

(click to see part 1)

It is indeed most vexing when an uninvited guest appears on one’s doorstep unexpectedly. So why is turning up at a conference without registering considered to be acceptable? When invited to dinner, one is expected to RSVP so that the host knows to expect one, and it is common courtesy to do the same for a conference – by registering early the organizers can plan in advance for catering, for transportation, for room sizes – a whole host of activities where knowing numbers in advance is helpful. If one does not register until the last moment, one cannot complain if rooms for presentations are fully scheduled with no space for additions, or they run out of biscuits at the coffee break. Late registrations are also more expensive, so unless one’s attendance at the meeting was literally a last moment decision, one has just wasted one’s own money purely because one was not organized.

Even worse is the person who “gatecrashes” a conference. Many meetings are organized by professional societies and/ or charities. Yet I have observed with mine own eyes people who exploit the open nature of conferences and attend sessions, parties and other activities without having paid, even to the extent of eating and drinking fare that others have paid for. Such people are the worst of scoundrels and are in effect stealing large amounts of money from said charities. Conferences are expensive to run and someone has to pay for the food that freeloading cad is eating. That is money that could have been spent, for example, on grants for participants who are students or from developing countries, but that now has to be spent paying for the shortfall caused by stowaway delegates. Read More

Mr Darcy’s Guide to Conference Etiquette – Part 1

It is a truth universally acknowledged that conferences are a necessity for the professional growth of an academic. They are important occurrences for learning about the methods and results of peers in one’s field, cutting edge techniques and the latest information that could be incorporated into one’s own studies and papers. With the vast quantity of scientific publications now available that would fill library upon library in my family seat of Pemberley, conferences veritably serve up a buffet of the latest and most relevant research results, saving one weeks of searching and heaven forbid, reading. Conferences are also opportunities for informal colloquies where one can receive and give advice, share ideas and develop research and writing partnerships. Many of these latter activities occur, of course, outside of the lecture halls, over a bottle of claret or a glass of port – or, for the less refined, a dram of Scotch whisky. Rare is the conference where one does not come home with a leather-bound notebook full of contacts with whom to correspond, studies to cite and methods to apply to one’s own work. Occasionally conferences have even been known to foster romantic liaisons, and there has been more than one highly advantageous and amicable marriage that has resulted from an academic meeting.

Oh yes, conferences are also places where one may share one’s own work. They give one a chance to share data and ideas with academic peers, to receive support, or possibly criticism, so that one can strengthen and refine one’s analysis and one’s interpretation of data.

However, it is becoming all too common that, for many, the latter is the only reason to go to a conference. Moreover, an oral presentation is increasingly the only format of worth and if one’s abstract is not accepted, or if one is offered “merely” an alternative format, such as a poster, one will refuse to attend.

Quite frankly, I view any academics who would refuse to attend a conference on their own specialist topic because they are denied an oral presentation, as poor and narrow-minded. Nothing grows in a vacuum, and innovative science is no exception. To refuse to attend a meeting because one is not presenting a talk is to figuratively cut off one’s nose to spite one’s face. It is the academic who suffers who denies himself the latest research results from, and direct interaction with, the best scholars in his field.

I recognize that there are many academic institutions that will provide funding for conferences only when one has an oral presentation accepted, but if one belongs to such an institution, then work to change its policy! Such institutions are stifling academic growth, and moreover ultimately reducing their visibility, reputation and enrollment. Each academic that goes to a conference is potentially an opportunity to market and advertise a university, and potentially attract and recruit students. The tuition from just a single graduate student persuaded to come to a university or college by talking to a conference goer, pays back the expenses of sending that person to the conference tenfold. This also encompasses funding graduate students, as potential students would as likely, if not more so, listen to their peers about an institution. A single happy, enthusiastic graduate student at a conference could potentially attract dozens of other students to apply to a college or university, a fact that many academic administrators overlook to their financial disadvantage.

Moreover, do not look down upon alternative presentation formats. Posters give one a unique ability to talk directly to conference goers, often while they are well flown on a glass or two of wine, in a depth one cannot achieve with the audience at an oral presentation. A single good, well-designed poster is also very memorable, much more so than dozens of slides in an oral presentation. Speed presentations likewise are excellent conveyors of certain types of information, such as innovative ideas or hypotheses, and like the poster can often be more memorable. Moreover, if one can describe one’s research in a three minute window clearly and concisely, one can also present one’s information in a way that might be more palatable to the general public, the press or policy makers. If one has a project that needs to reach a wider audience – for example, research on the conservation of an endangered species, or highlighting a new threat to the environment – a speed presentation might indeed be the best format.

As for other aspects of participating in conferences, if one volunteers to review abstracts, please do so promptly. Many people are waiting to make travel plans and visa applications, or finalize grant applications based on these decisions. By dilly-dallying, one may not only frustrate the organizers (who very often are senior members of one’s field who will likely remember those who are reliable and efficient reviewers and those who are lazy wastrels who do not live up to their commitments – I certainly do!) but also deny colleagues the chance of attending the conference, ultimately impacting their careers. Also, when and if reviewing, be ethical. If one is given the abstract of a colleague in one’s department, a student or similar, or even a competitor, and one clearly has a conflict of interest, do the right thing and declare it.  The organizers will respect honesty and professional integrity, and one will earn their respect, whereas if one’s conflict is not declared and is later discovered, it could be extremely detrimental, even ruinous, to one’s professional reputation.

If one’s submitted abstract is not accepted, do not write to organizers an angry tirade. “Do you not know who I am!” emails will not work, as they can easily see who one is – an entitled ego-ridden oik! Threats that one will not attend, or that one will tell one’s colleagues not to attend either, unless one’s abstract is accepted, will also not work. The organizers will likely respond not to let the carriage door hit one on the nether regions on the way out. Their job is already difficult, and having a recognized childish and obnoxious attendee at their meeting will not make their job any easier, or more pleasant for the other attendees. Moreover, such behavior is an attempt to circumvent the peer-review process. Peer-review is one of the foundations of academic quality control. Peer-review may have its faults, but it is the best feedback process academia has. Trying to circumvent peer-review by bullying and threats will only make one appear unethical and unprofessional in the eyes of the organizers, who as noted above, are likely to be senior. Most certainly they will be well connected, and will likely tell others about one’s unethical and unprofessional behavior (this again I have seen all too frequently).

It has also become all too common for would-be presenters to berate the scientific program committee if their presentation was chosen as an alternate format, even though the presenter indicated said format was their preferred alternate. Often such admonishments are accompanied with polemics along the lines of “there is no way I can convey the magnificence of my work in a speed presentation” or “I can guarantee that everyone will want to see my talk because it is so important/innovative/will single-handedly save the world/will change our understanding of the universe as we know it, so how can it be relegated to a poster.” Oh the arrogance…

However, people often must cancel attendance at conferences, and presentation slots may become available at the eleventh hour. If one would really prefer a different format for one’s presentation or a chance to present if rejected, politely (and I emphasize politely) contact the organizers and ask if one might be placed in a queue of some sort to take advantage of such last minute cancellations. A polite, good natured request is remembered, whereas an angry tirade… well, it too will be remembered but not in an advantageous way.

Assuming that all goes well and one’s abstract is accepted (even if it is not one’s first choice of format), one should note that many conferences require presenters to register in advance of the meeting, often by the early registration deadline to provide time for the organizers to build the program, and to contact wait-listed presenters in a timely manner. It is simply one’s own fault if one ignores email notifications and does not read submission instructions, and arrives at a meeting to find that one does not have one’s presentation in the program, because one did not register as required; a mistake which might be financially costly.

If the meeting approaches and one realizes that one cannot attend, do tell the organizers as quickly as possible. Conferences typically have a limited number of presentation slots and a queue of hopeful attendees, as noted above. If one informs the organizers swiftly, it will mean that perhaps someone else can present a talk in one’s absence, and as funding is often (sadly) dependent on presenting, perhaps even attend the meeting. By procrastinating and not informing organizers that one cannot attend, one has basically denied colleagues the potential to progress their careers, and for conservation meetings, perhaps even to help protect the environment. Moreover, do not pass on one’s work for another to present in one’s stead (another troubling trend). They will not be able to present it as well and will not be able to answer any questions appropriately. Again this is more likely to reflect badly upon oneself, as well as irritate the organizers who could have gifted one’s presentation slot to someone else, as noted above.

In my next installment I will describe the proper etiquette once a conference is actually upon one. But for now I must be away as my butler tells me that members of the local gentry are calling and I must play the gracious host. I only hope that they do not have a half of unmarried daughters in tow, looking for a suitable husband of means. Sometimes it is truly wearisome to have such a large and sought-after endowment.

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