What kind of scientist do you want to – and should you – be?

Last month, I had the great privilege of attending the 100th Ecological Society of America meeting. This meant there were many opportunities to reflect upon the last century of ecological science and think about what worked, what didn’t, and where we go from here. As with many of the sciences, this involved a lot of hypothesizing about what a future successful scientific career will look like. Almost unanimously agreed upon was the fact that the rigid and one-track paths of the past are crumbling around us as we speak. Ecology also has much to teach the world, in an age of trying to deal with global issues of climate change, food security, and ecosystem service conservation.

In one of these sessions, a number of the speakers pointed to a book written about 1990’s scientific practice by Donald Stokes called Pasteur’s Quadrant. While an old reference now, the speakers encouraged us that we haven’t truly taken the message to heart yet, and that the type of inward gaze on scientific culture is exactly what we need today. In short, Stokes classified scientists into four types, depending on whether their mission was to advance understanding of the universe, help solve real-life issues, both, or neither. He then aligned some well-known scientists with each category.pasteur_quadrant

 

In the ecological world and the talks at ESA, the lower right quadrant was occupied by natural historians – people with deep local knowledge but without much practical use. Each person who presented the quadrants included a different natural historian, which made the general point: no one remembers people who work in this quadrant, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not important or that folks in other quadrants don’t rely on their work regularly.

More generally, the conversation of who goes where brings up an overlay of professional rewards. People who win Nobel prizes, or MacArthur awards in ecology, almost all fit in the Bohr quadrant. People remembered popularly by members of the public over centuries  almost all fit in the Edison quadrant. However, potentially the most impactful (if unappreciated) work falls within Pasteur’s quadrant, where it can meet the needs of both scientific and public audiences. Stokes went on to say that more people should be trained and rewarded for use-inspired research.

In the coming century of ecology, and all science, we are tasked with advancing our knowledge of the universe while also contributing to some very large global issues. Pasteur and others like him are living proof that achieving both goals simultaneously is possible. Not everyone can be Pasteur, as we rely on workers in all four quadrants to put together a complete scientific profile. But we could help out future generations by redefining one kind of success as use-inspired theory building. By cutting down the basic/applied divide and admitting that doing applied work does not make you a lesser scientist. And remember to give credit to your natural historians.

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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Is peer-review best left to academic journals?

If you have ever dealt with scientific data, you’ve probably encountered one of the shadier sides of science: academic publishing. While they’ve stood, in some cases, for centuries, as the official record of scientific advancement safeguarded under the watchful eye of peers, modern journals live in a modern world. Millions of words have already been spilled on the subject, so that’s not what this article is about. Instead, I’m left asking whether academic publishing is the only means of getting the stamp of peer-review these days?

The reasons leading me to ask this question are many, but primarily through working in a management arena lately. One example, in particular, highlighted many of the disconnects between the need for verified scientific data and the incentives of journals. This moment was at a Chesapeake Bay Program Sustainable Fisheries Goal Implementation Team meeting (for those of you not in the Chesapeake region, that’s a consortium of regional fisheries managers), where a room full of decision-makers needed a verified stock assessment of blue crabs to move forward with their management planning. Peer-review is the time-tested, well-understood, and arguably easiest means of verifying data. Read More

A poster to remember

Today I was at an undergraduate research event with our best and brightest presenting their research via posters – great science, but often dreadful posters.

Posters can be a great medium for getting your science over to an audience. They have the benefit that if you can draw people into your poster you can have a lot more intimate face to face discussion with your peers. But first you have to draw them in…

Increasingly poster sessions in conference are becoming large sprawling events, and your poster is going to have to compete for attention with hundreds if not thousands of other posters, with your audience having little time to browse, they may be distracted by friends and colleagues, they may be tired as poster sessions are often at the end of a long day of presentations, and possibly (probably) slightly to moderately drunk. Here are some simple tips for making a good poster that has impact.

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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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Fun Science FRIEDay – I can SEE what you’re thinking!

Humans are edging closer and closer to telepathic communication where one human communicates with another purely from thinking. Wait… what’s that you say? We are already there?! Like something out of a sci-fi thriller neuroscientists in Europe and America demonstrated the viability of direct brain-to-brain communications in humans.

"Brain-to-brain (B2B) communication system overview. On the left, the BCI subsystem is shown schematically, including electrodes over the motor cortex and the EEG amplifier/transmitter wireless box in the cap. Motor imagery of the feet codes the bit value 0, of the hands codes bit value 1. On the right, the CBI system is illustrated, highlighting the role of coil orientation for encoding the two bit values. Communication between the BCI and CBI components is mediated by the internet." (Photo credit: Grau et al. 2014)

“Brain-to-brain (B2B) communication system overview.
On the left, the BCI subsystem is shown schematically, including electrodes over the motor cortex and the EEG amplifier/transmitter wireless box in the cap. Motor imagery of the feet codes the bit value 0, of the hands codes bit value 1. On the right, the CBI system is illustrated, highlighting the role of coil orientation for encoding the two bit values. Communication between the BCI and CBI components is mediated by the internet.” (Photo credit: Grau et al. 2014)

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The dangers of excessive self-citation

Warning: This blog contains themes of a professional ethical nature that some readers may find offensive. Intended for a mature academic audience only.

As I was spending a lazy Sunday morning, tucked up in bed fiddling with my iPad, a perky little blog came across my Twitter feed (read it here). Some rather sad data were contained within: approximately 82% of journal articles in the humanities don’t get cited (within the first five years of publication anyway) and just over a quarter (27%) of natural science articles don’t get cited either. I was actually surprised that the percentage of non-cited paper was that low, until I read down the article and noticed that the analysis didn’t include self-citations. Scientists, especially marine biologists, are particularly bad at excessively self-citing, or as I like to call it, #citurbation.

Self-citations are the guilty secret of science researchers. Let’s face it, we’ve all done it at some time. Now I’m as guilty as the next scientist – late one Friday night I’m still working and on the computer screen in front of me I have a half-done editorial and, guiltily,  I slip in a self-citation. Or in the final throes of a massive multi-authored monograph, I toss in a self-citation from left field. But why is it that marine biologists so often self-cite? Is it because of lack of attention? Biomedical articles rarely go uncited (and their journals typically have much higher impact factors). Is it because marine biology journals tend to have low impact factors and marine articles are spread across so many journals that they don’t get the same prominence (see this previous SFS blog, he says in a blatant example of self-citing)?

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