Saturday, June 30, 2007

Morale Raise

In other posts, I’ve written about how my new department chair is nice and fair to the point of being incapable of seeing when others are being not-nice and unfair. He tells me (or my husband) with some frequency that he respects me, but the reason he feels the need to say this often is because there are many intra-departmental episodes that seem to suggest otherwise. In addition, he doesn’t take action to move the department in any new directions other than business-as-usual. Examples I’ve mentioned before: he doesn’t object when there is a semester with no women speakers and he doesn’t do anything proactive to give women faculty important responsibilities.

BUT he just did something that was in his power to do but that took some proactivity to accomplish: he gave me a big, double-digit merit raise to help bring my salary closer to that of my male peers. To do this, he went to the provost and got additional funds, so he wasn’t taking anything away from other departmental colleagues. He did the same for my husband, who was also underpaid relative to his accomplishments. I think part of the chair’s motivation is that he knows that other universities are recruiting us. Even so, getting a big raise feels good after years of below-average raises from the previous chair, who favored the old guys and faculty friends in the department.

The departmental ecosystem has improved for me this year, thanks to the change in leadership. This makes decisions about leaving a bit more complicated. If I do go elsewhere, I won’t be leaving primarily out of anger and bitterness but rather for new opportunities and the chance to do something different with the rest of my career. That’s probably healthier, but it doesn’t make the decision any easier.

Thursday, June 28, 2007


For my entire life, I have been afflicted by a severe problem with motion sickness. I will spare you the ghastly details of my uneasy relationship with vehicular travel, and in particular tales of my youth involving having a nautical family that thought nothing was more fun than to spend the weekend on a sailboat.

Such experiences used to be confined to travel and watching certain movies (I wish movies could be rated for their likely effect on the balance-impaired), but the advent of PowerPoint, laser pointers, and other advances in presentation technology has had the consequence of introducing motion sickness into my academic life. I am commonly nauseated at talks, even when I like the science and/or the scientist.

I just had a rather extreme experience with this: a talk involving a wildly moving laser pointer and lots of animations. At least the talk was lacking one of my most hated nausea-inducing features: unnecessary animations for changing from one slide to another, including the awful rotating-cube animation. Even so, I felt queasy for more than an hour after the talk.

For the really motion-filled talks, I have to close my eyes or I will faint (or worse). I hate to do this because then the speaker might think I am sleeping (like some of my senior colleagues). And sometimes even closing my eyes isn’t enough because the flickering of light and colors on my eyelids is enough to induce queasiness. Covering my eyes isn’t a socially acceptable option. Sometimes I am able to look down and pretend to take notes and avoid the worst of the motion-effects that way.

Some talks are much enhanced by animations, and I don't begrudge the speaker the use of some zippy moving graphics. I use animations and movies in my talks when they serve the purpose of making an important point. It's the bad laser pointer technique and the gratuitous spinning things that I could do without.

If someone asks me what I thought of the talk I just described, an honest answer would be "It made me feel violently ill."

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The First Two Lines

When my students are preparing presentations for conferences, I always tell them that the first 2-3 lines are particularly critical and I want them to think carefully about how they will introduce the talk. After the first few lines, the rest of a talk is typically straightforward (data, interpretation, conclusions), but the first few lines are where you either grab the audience or you don't. This is when you lay out why the work is interesting and important, and why anyone should care about the rest of what you have to say. In fact, it's a lot like writing a proposal..

Today a student practiced his talk for me, and his first line was about the techniques and materials. I told him that that sentence could be the third or fourth line, but not the first. This discouraged him, so we discussed it for a while. It turns out that he didn't feel confident giving a cosmic and general first sentence because he has decided that everyone in the audience will know more about the topic than he does and so will know better than he does why the study is being done.

This student has been doing excellent and original research on the topic for several years. In fact, I would even say that he is the world expert on this topic. There will no doubt be some very brilliant people at his talk who have broad knowledge of related topics, but even so, he has to lay out the philosophy of the research at the very beginning of the talk. I think the people he is intimidated by are going to be intrigued by his results, and I told him so very emphatically. I told him that even if the entire audience consists of experts in his exact research topic, he still has to explain why this research is important. As the audience will not consist entirely of experts in his research topic, it is even more important to introduce the motivation of the talk at the very beginning.

I asked him how he would answer the question "Why is this research interesting and important?" if asked by (a) his mother, (b) an undergraduate science student, and (c) a so-called expert in the research topic, and he had excellent responses for each. Then he took bits and pieces of his various responses and crafted an awesome first two sentences. I think his talk is going to be really great.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

March Manuscript Madness

Yesterday I wrote about reviewer statistics for a particular journal. Another part of this journal dataset shows the number of manuscript submissions/month over the past 5 years. Submissions are very constant for 9 of the months, but there is a trough in July and a big spike in March (trailing off only slightly in April).

The summer dip in submissions is not surprising, but if you'd asked me to guess which month would have the trough, I probably would have guessed August. Instead, August has the same number of submissions as September (and October and November etc.), but July is dramatically lower.

And then there's the March spike. Perhaps these are manuscripts that are worked on over the winter holidays but are not quite finished when the new term starts and then completed by March?

Monday, June 25, 2007

Reviewing Reviewers

This weekend I have been poring over statistics provided by a journal for which I do some editorial work. In addition to data related to how the journal is doing (impact factor, ranking among journals in related fields etc.), there are also lists of reviewers: who did reviews, how many each has done, and how long the reviews took.

It's amazing to contemplate these lists, first of all because they are a testament to the huge amount of work reviewers do in the name of 'professional service'. I have done my share of complaining about reviews of my own manuscripts, so it's good to be reminded from time to time that, despite some unethical and rude reviewers, the system of peer review is an impressive thing in terms of its scope and time involved.

I did a quick, statistically invalid analysis of the reviewer data for the past year to see whether the time it took a reviewer to complete the review was random or correlated with seniority. My working hypothesis was that younger scientists do quicker reviews. The dataset is sufficiently large to make an analysis like this reasonable, but I wasn't rigorous about tracking down reviewer time-from-Ph.D. data. I put reviewers in one of several bins: postdoc, assistant professor, mid-career, late-career, retired, and I put research scientists into these same bins based on where they would be in terms of time since Ph.D. if they were tenure-track. It's not a perfect system, but I just wanted to get a sense for any trends.

The quickest reviewing groups are the early-career and retired scientists. There are a fair number of outliers -- assistant professors who are very slow, mid-career and senior people who are very fast, but in general the time-to-review increases with seniority, then drops for emeritus professors. If I did a rigorous job of tracking down reviewer data, it would be interesting to see if there's a detectable change in review time immediately following tenure. Would it be an increase in time because the pressure to impress everyone eases, or a decrease because other pressures have eased (and many faculty get a sabbatical soon after the tenure decision)?

Within bins, reviewers who reviewed multiple manuscripts tend to be consistent in their time-to-review. Some people are quick reviewers and some are not. It's rare to see someone who did one review in a short time and another review in a significantly longer time. I thought there would be more variation because the time frame might be affected by how busy someone is, as well as factors related to the manuscript length and quality: some manuscripts are easy to review and some require a huge amount of time. But no.. time-to-review seems to be a personality trait more than anything else.

Friday, June 22, 2007

(Not) Aiding & Abetting

A few times in the past year, I've written about situations in which research groups at other universities started working on very similar things as my research group, in some cases after seeing a proposal or talk by my group. Depending on the situation, this is either fine (scientific results should be reproduced, and good ideas should inspire other good ideas) or unethical. I'm not going to repeat that part of the discussion today.

The issue of the day related to the copycat scenario involves a strange email I got from one of these copycats. Last year, I learned indirectly that he and a colleague started working on the same thing I am already working on, using the same materials and techniques. I'm not too concerned about this because I've got a head-start on the research, I have funding (they do not), and I'm egotistical enough to think that my work is better. Whether or not the latter is true, I'm just doing the research as I think best, finding out some interesting things, and not worrying about these other guys. Except.. today one of these people wrote me a vague email asking me to tell him how I do one particular critical step in the research. He was cagey about why he wants this information, leaving open the possibility that he is working on something completely different that just happens to require this information.

The particular procedure with which he is struggling is something that my group struggled with as well. It took a lot of effort and false starts before we finally found a way that works well and consistently. It doesn't surprise me that he is having trouble with this too, but I think it's obnoxious that he wants me to tell him how to do this. He already took my idea, and now he wants me to make it easy for him to do the actual work.

I wrote back a polite but vague reply, acknowledging that it's a difficult thing to work out and asking some questions about what he has already tried. If he seems interested in discussing it further, I will help him. I see no reason to be secretive, even if I don't like or respect his tactics.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Relative Engineering

Recently, a relative who is a mechanical engineer visited me, and I gave him a tour of some of the lab facilities in my department. This was extremely interesting for both of us. He was amazed at the kinds of things we can do in these labs, and I was very interested in his comments about ways to improve the lab in some important ways. He had lots of excellent advice about ways to increase efficiency and decrease some unwanted side-effects related to operation of some of the machines.

This was both great and not-so-great because the things he proposed -- even simple things -- are probably impossible to do if we involve the university's facilities office. The facilities office here is inefficient, expensive, slow, and has mysterious ways of working that can produce negative results. Does anyone out there have a facilities department that is actually helpful, efficient, quick, and cost-effective?

There are so many things I wish I knew more about, and now mechanical engineering is high on the list. It's impossible to do everything yourself, though, and this incident with my visiting relative highlighted for me yet again how much you can learn if you spend time with people in other fields.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Infinite Time

Like most professors, I have an infinite amount of work I could/should do. I do as much as I can within the limits of time and health, but there is always more to do. This doesn't bother me -- I like that there is always something new to do, but even so, I do sometimes think "If only I had more time..".

More time has arrived. At the moment, both my husband and daughter are away, giving me infinite time, at least for this week. When I have solo-time like this in the summer, it doesn't take long for me to revert to my pre-mom existence of working long and late hours in the office. When let loose in time like this, I tend to work all night, sleep a little, then go back to the office. Meals are erratic and the cats are confused. I get a lot done and that feels really good. It is very refreshing to have long stretches of uninterrupted time to think and write. However, when my days of infinite time end, I know that the pile of things to do will not be any smaller because more is being added all the time. So what's the point? The point is that it is fun. I will be happy to have my family back soon, but for now, I'm going to enjoy being adrift in time.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Speaking of 2 Career Couples

Yesterday I heard a report on Marketplace (American Public Media) about 2-career academic couples. The story was motivated by the occurrence of the 5th annual Dual Careers Conference.

When I heard the story, I was in the final hours of a very long drive and was not in the best of moods. My impression at the time was that the story was extremely negative, although it does mention that some universities are participating in Higher Education Recruitment Consortiums (HERCs). HERCs are ".. clearing houses for all available jobs at all participating schools in a region." I suppose that could be helpful in some regions. It's not enough to solve the problem of 2-career couples, but it's some progress.

I just read the transcript of the Marketplace story today, and I still find it disappointingly negative. The husband and wife featured in the story have lived apart for nearly 20 years. In their interview, each one makes points that resonate with me; for example, about how neither one could ask the other to give up something that is such a major part of who they are. The interview is very sad because they've been apart for so long and decided not to have children because of their commuter relationship. It's important to tell stories like this, as it's a situation many academic couples face, but it's not the whole story by any means.

There are couples who have made the 2-career situation work. These examples are not so rare as they used to be, and it wouldn't be hard to dig up an example or two. Instead, the story ends with this sad quotation from one member of the long-separated academic couple: "God, I don't want to do this forever. It's such a hard existence."

Another Marketplace story of interest had to do with women's voices, and how the pitch of your voice can affect whether you're taken seriously.

NYU's Sheila Wellington says it's important for women to cultivate a strong voice.

OK, fine, but it is also important for men to learn to take women seriously even if we sound like women.

And then there's the issue raised by Deborah Tannen:

If they sound too young, Tannen says, they run the risk of not being taken seriously. On the other hand, if a woman sounds too authoritative . . . she .. has to choose between being a good authority figure and being a good woman.

An academic woman listening to these programs yesterday might well get the impression that she's likely to end up alone and afraid to speak in any voice.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Excusable Absences

For those of us who teach and do research at a research university, one challenge of simultaneously teaching and doing research is how to deal with the travel that is necessary for the research but that conflicts with the responsibilities of teaching.

Even though summer has just started, I am already making decisions about travels for the next academic year, and trying to decide how to balance teaching responsibilities with research-related travel. There are some conferences I have to attend (2), some I would like to attend (2 others), and some invitations to give talks at other universities. There is other travel I would like to do (e.g., visit colleagues and other labs). However, even if I wanted to be away that much, I am teaching 2 classes in the fall and taking a class as a student. So, I am trying to restrict my travel to the minimum: the 2 essential conferences. My grad students will represent our group just fine at any conferences I can't attend, and I will try to schedule all invited talks for the spring semester, when I am team-teaching and have a more open schedule.

And, yes, some conferences are essential for presenting results and for networking. A colleague of mine recently filed his annual NSF report and didn't report any conference presentations,and there were no papers or theses yet to report; the program director rejected his report. My colleague did in fact have conference presentations to report, but he didn't think these were important to mention. He added the abstract citations, and the report was accepted.

Even with my plans for limited travel in the fall, I will miss 3 classes for one course, and 2 for another. There are various ways to deal with these absences, including:

- scheduling an exam for a day I will be away, if the timing makes sense for an exam then. In the pre-email era, I never scheduled exams for times I would be away, unless I was around up until very close to the time of the exam. Now that students are most likely to email me with questions, I can help them remotely just as well as if I'm in my office. If I'm going to be away for 2 classes in a week, I schedule the exam for the first absence, and cancel the second one. It's more difficult if the class meets less and/or doesn't have exams, but in these cases I provide an extended, structured activity that can be accomplished with small working groups and email input from me.

- arranging for a substitute: a grad student, postdoc, or colleague. This can work well as long as not overdone, and can be a good experience for a grad student or postdoc (as well as providing additional good material for letters of reference). This fall, I have an informal agreement to trade substitute activities with a colleague who will also be traveling a lot. I've taught his course before and he's taught mine, so it's an easy trade.

I have never left a movie to be shown to a class while I'm away, but I suppose this would be OK as long as the movie was well justified in the context of the class.

It would be best for my teaching if I didn't miss any classes, but that's not possible.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Virtual Anxiety

First of all: There is an awesome post at Zuska's site about how she feels about the responses to her blog, even when the comments aren't flaming or judgmental. It is very eloquent, but sad to read for those of us who greatly enjoy her blog and know that what she is doing is really important.

Second, the topic o' the day: another issue related to the complexities of getting everyone in a research group to play well with others.

Some of my research group members were disturbed to find out that another member spends a lot of time playing computer games that simulate extreme violence. I don't know the details of the games, but I suppose I would be disturbed if the violence were a particular sort -- for example, directed against children, kittens, or physical scientists. Most likely it is a fantasy game involving monsters or whatever.

It's not something I understand; I can't handle watching even low levels of violence in mainstream movies, and this severely limits the number of movies I can watch without closing my eyes. But, although I don't think it is a good thing that the student is so interested in virtual violence, I'd need to know more before deciding that this student has a problem that impacts his work in my group. Those who are upset by his descriptions of how many things he's killed and dismembered have asked him not to tell them about this, and I think that is reasonable.

I once worked with someone who made a point of leaving disturbing images on work computers for me to see, and that was a problem. That's not the case with the current situation.

I think about the issue of computer violence often in the context of my daughter's computer activities. I have talked with her at length about what is OK and not OK in terms of internet use, virtual reality, and so on. I am generally aware of her computer activities, but I don't monitor them extremely closely. Mostly she has been obsessed with Club Penguin this year, and that seems quite harmless even if some (actually: all) of the activities seem bizarre to me. However, an older friend recently introduced her to a new internet game, and I was taken aback when my daughter said, casually "You know that new game that I play where the point is to kill everything in sight?". No, I did not know she was playing a game in which the point was to kill everything in sight. She assured me that she knows that this is just a game and that killing real things is wrong, blah blah blah.

Fortunately, she still seems to prefer the happy little penguins, but I don't suppose that will last, and I don't suppose my student would be interested in switching to Club Penguin. I don't think it is possible to kill the penguins, although the fish don't seem to fare as well.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Insanity Magnet (continued)

The perceptive reader may have noticed that I encounter a lot of strange people in my work (I am using the word 'strange' loosely again; see previous post). This has been a feature of my entire academic career, and is a topic for many afternoon cafe discussions with my colleagues. Is it random, do I somehow attract strange people to work with me, or is there a complex (positive? negative?) feedback in which I nucleate instabilities in previously normal people? I will probably never know, but I am acquiring lots of data through experience.

Encounters on the Strange Spectrum include those with:

- strange non-academic people; see earlier post on erratic/threatening man in my office a few weeks ago. He has not returned, but I had another random strange person wander into my office last week. He was large but he was not threatening. He pointed at various things in my office and asked me to give them to him. I kept saying no, and eventually he left.

- strange academic people. In my previous post, I presented two general examples from the Strange Spectrum, from somewhat dysfunctional to kind of scary. Obviously there is a lot more to each of these examples than what I wrote, and any decisions I make about continuing or discontinuing to work with a student will involve taking all the information into account.

A key point is that when you supervise a group of students (and postdocs), there are many complex issues involved in figuring out the best and most fair way for everyone to have the most positive and constructive experience and work environment. This is a difficult thing to balance in the best of circumstances in which everyone gets along and works hard, and it can be extraordinarily difficult if one or more group members are dysfunctional in some way.

The dysfunction scale is vast, and includes the socially awkward and the scary (as I described in my last post). Nevertheless, I have a responsibility to everyone in my group, functioning or otherwise, and it is a never-ending challenge to fulfill that responsibility.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

How Strange Is Too Strange?

Keeping in mind that, in my research group, no one is entirely sane, we all have our eccentricities, and many of us are afflicted by some amount of social ineptness.. it turns out that some of the undergraduate students working with my group this summer are truly strange. I am not a real doctor, of course, so I'm not about to diagnose Asperger's Syndrome or some form of mental illness, and therefore I am using the word "strange", realizing it is rather lame. "Strange" can be benign and/or interesting, and using the word assumes that there is something else that is recognizable as not strange.

Even with those caveats and my lack of objectivity about what is strange, I can say with some confidence that these students are very strange in not-so-positive sorts of ways. In the mildest case, the student is difficult to talk to, doesn't seem to understand normal social interactions (like when a conversation is over or what is appropriate to say to someone you don't know well), refuses to do some basic (non-dangerous) research activities owing to irrational fears or preferences, and is easily derailed by minor obstacles. It's OK to be socially awkward, but refusing to do certain tasks means that someone else has to do them.

In a more extreme case, the student (as I just found out this week) is obsessed with violence, behaves erratically, hears voices, and scares those who work with most closely with him.

These strange students are very smart, do well in classes, and come highly recommended. My hope has been that they will enjoy doing research this summer and we will all find a way to work together. Now, however, I wonder whether I should draw a line between merely strange and scary-strange.

I have talked to the scary-strange student, and he is quite open about his emotional and personal problems. Soon after he started working with my group, I passed him in the hallway and said "Hi X, how's it going?" and he immediately told me in great detail about his relationship problems, his long history of instability, and much more. He says he is getting help with his problems and is hopeful that he can function better soon. He's out of town for a few weeks, but when he returns I will have to figure out whether to keep him on as a research assistant for the rest of the summer. If I decide he can't work with my group any more, the reason will be because he is scares people, not because I've been dissatisfied with his work, so it's a difficult decision.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Chemistry People

Until this year, the entertainment at my daughter's elementary school end-of-year ceremony has been a magician or something of that ilk. Magicians cost money, however, and can be difficult to schedule, so this year, somewhat out of desperation, there was a Chemistry Demonstration by a team of 'chemistry performers' who do amazing things with chemistry for school groups. It's part of an outreach program at the university, it's free, and the kids loved it. The chemists were more entertaining than the magicians of previous years. My daughter reported that several girls in her class now say that they want to be "chemistry people" when they grow up. Who knows if they really will, but today's chemical entertainment definitely left the kids with the impression that chemistry is cool and interesting. Outreach works?!

Monday, June 11, 2007


Following up on the recent topic of the stresses of being a step (or two) removed from a research project and/or a manuscript owing to being an advisor/co-author, here's a splendid new example of the possible pitfalls of being a co-author.

I was recently a minor co-author on a manuscript submitted by a postdoc. He is an excellent scientist and has published before. He is not a native English speaker, and one of the other co-authors and I did a lot of editing to get the writing/English suitable for submission of the manuscript. The postdoc had the final edited version, and then.. I don't know what happened. He submitted some other, earlier version, and he screwed up various technical aspects of the submission. This did not go well with the reviewers. The manuscript probably shouldn't even have been sent out for review, but I guess the editor didn't look at it closely first. There were comments from reviewers to the effect of "Didn't the senior co-authors read this thing?". I suppose our reputations will survive this episode just fine, but it's a little embarrassing.

The postdoc was in another country during submission of the manuscript, so it was not possible to supervise the process. Nevertheless, future submissions will have to be supervised so that this doesn't happen again.

I review and edit many manuscripts in which it's clear that the native English-speaking co-authors did not read the manuscript (other than possibly the one section to which they contributed), so I know it happens all the time. Aside from being not-so-ethical, this makes more work for reviewers and editors, and I'm sorry that I was inadvertently part of the practice. Maybe some journals have an efficient way for co-authors to certify that they approve the submitted version of a manuscript (?).

Friday, June 08, 2007

Interdisciplinary Pretender

Interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, cross-disciplinary, transdisciplinary..

Science research today crosses and merges disciplinary boundaries, and this is a good thing. X-disciplinary is not just a buzz word, but a way to make significant advances in science. At a personal level, I am a big fan of x-disciplinary research because of the opportunities it provides to discover and learn interesting and fun things and to work with a wide range of colleagues and students.

My willingness to work on projects far from my primary expertise has led to some rather odd collaborations and publications. In some projects, my contribution has been minor and my name only appears in the paper(s) in the acknowledgments. In others projects to which I've more substantially contributed, I am a co-author. It's been interesting to see how other people respond to this latter situation.

I recently co-authored a paper on a topic very far from my field of expertise, and this paper got a bit of recognition from the media and from my university. Some people who know me were very entertained by my being part of this project, and thought it was a great example of interdisciplinary research. Others were suspicious -- what role did I really play in this research? What was my name doing on that paper? Do I really know anything about that topic?

Just yesterday, I had an encounter of the latter sort. I was lurking in front of my department building with some colleagues and students, enjoying the nice day and taking strange pictures of each other for our research group newsletter. A colleague, who happens to be in a research field related to that of the paper that I just co-authored, walked over and launched into a tirade about how ridiculous it is that I am a co-author on this paper. He said it was "pretentious" of me, and that he would never "presume" to publish anything in my field. Then he started grilling me, hostile oral exam style, about the topic. Why didn't the paper address X? What did I think about Y, which is important but which our new data can't answer? Did I know that this paper didn't really answer the ultimate question of this topic but mostly covered things that he already knew and therefore was a minor contribution?

This guy clearly has issues, with me or with his own research progress, or something. I thought his tirade was absurd, and responded by taking his photo while he displayed a very cranky and disapproving face. I just smiled and said, calmly, "Not every paper can answer every question, but that shouldn't stop us from writing them." This was actually not a nice thing to say, as he does not publish very much.

It was a bizarre conversation, but what really surprised me about it was the point of view that interdisciplinary research is pretentious. This had never occurred to me before. I think it is a very destructive point of view, rooted in insecurity, weakness, and intellectual failure. Not everyone should or can do interdisciplinary research - and not all interdisciplinary research is inherently 'better' than discipline-focused research - but those who cannot or will not work outside their sub-disciplines should not be contemptuous of (or threatened by) those who do.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Attack Paper

Further adventures with reviews and ethics..

This week I was asked to review a manuscript on a topic that is near and dear to my academic heart, so I agreed to do the review even though I'm a bit overloaded with reviews right now. It turns out that this manuscript is on basically the same topic on which I have a paper in press, in the same journal that asked me to do the review.

When I saw the subject of the manuscript to review, I felt very relieved that my group's paper is already in press, especially since my co-authors and I did not rush to submit our paper -- in fact, it took many years for us to do the work and think about what it all means and write it up. In the meantime, I gave numerous conference presentations on the topic, and this other group has been well aware of our work for years, including the specific data we obtained.

I suppose that it's both good and bad that I am so close to this subject: there's a fine line between having expertise in a topic and being unobjective. Even so, the editor is the same person who dealt with my recent paper, so he knew what he was doing when he requested the review from me and presumably will filter my review comments accordingly. Since I don't have any particular stress about being scooped on this topic, in theory I can be magnanimous about this manuscript, except..

.. except that the manuscript is a bizarre and obnoxious attack on my group's work. It is bizarre because their results aren't significantly different from ours, yet they work really hard to find things not to like in some earlier papers by my group on this topic. It's nice that they reproduced our results (old and new), but they discredit themselves by being so unprofessional in their manuscript, which reads more like an hysterical comment written by insecure and cranky people.

It puzzles me that this group didn't do a more thoughtful job with their criticisms. It is entirely possible to write a critical paper without descending into aggressively weird attack mode. What bothers me more than the personal attacks, which have no place in a manuscript anyway, is that this other group seems to have lost sight of the science. Ideally, a scientific paper will focus on the questions being addressed and the things being discovered. Criticism of other work can be succinctly and clearly stated within the broader scientific context.

In any case, the editor can sort it all out -- in my review, I will try to focus on the substance of the manuscript.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Flight of the Faculty

There's an interesting article at about the large number of faculty being recruited away from UW-Madison: this past year, the number of faculty receiving offers from other schools doubled over what it was 5 years ago. Some of the schools described as "poachers", which is perhaps not the best term, are other large public universities.

The article traces the problem to a salary freeze on what were already lower-than-average salaries compared to professors at peer institutions (but not lower than my full professor salary at a peer institution, UW-Madison professors may be cheered to know!). Budget cuts also resulted in fewer funds for teaching assistants, research labs, and other essential academic items.

In Wisconsin, the state legislature and the university responded by coming up with a retention fund to help keep 'top' faculty, and that seems to have had some success. I think that's great. My university wrote a lengthy and eloquent document about how important it is to retain top faculty, but put no $$ behind it. At the risk of sounding greedy, I will say that it is hard to feel too fond of a place that expects a lot of faculty but does not provide sufficient resources or respect in return. I don't need to make as much as the football coach, (or, to put it more realistically, I don't need to make 10% as much as the football coach), but I do need to make at least as much as my male colleagues who are at similar stages and levels of activity in their careers.

This monetary discussion ignores some other very important reasons why faculty leave, including the phenomenon of faculty flight causing a 'runaway' effect (pun only sort of intended). If some excellent faculty leave your department or program, including some of your most valued colleagues, and then you get an offer or two from somewhere else, it's a lot easier to leave. Decisions to leave are not just based on salary issues. How a department/college/university responds to the initial departure(s) can be very important for other faculty who are considering outside offers. When some faculty flee, those who have not yet fled wonder: Is this ship sinking or is this going to be an interesting place to spend the rest of my career?

Monday, June 04, 2007

Affable But Deeply Flawed Professors

Even though it is almost too easy to make fun of academics in literature, somehow many authors continue to make this entertaining.

The most recent example I have encountered is in the short story 'Near-Extinct Birds of the Central Cordillera' by Ben Fountain, in his short story book, Brief Encounters With Che Guevara. In the story, there are some great descriptions of the main character's life as a Ph.D. student in ornithology. For example, despite being prepared for problems while doing field work in Colombia ("In case of trouble, he had letters of introduction from Duke University.."), he is kidnapped by rebels and taken to their jungle camp.

He is unsuccessful at convincing the rebels to release him, despite compelling reasons for needing to be not-kidnapped: "If I'm not back at Duke in two weeks.. they're going to give my teaching assistant slot to someone else."

In one of the more heartwarming but less believable scenes in the book, the deprivations and stresses of captivity, including the possibility of being executed at any moment, make the grad student feel love for the people in his pre-kidnapped life, even "his affable though self-absorbed and deeply flawed professors."

It's just a story, but perhaps graduate school and the academic life in general do prepare you for some challenging and unexpected things, like dealing with strange and possibly unstable people in both academic and non-academic settings.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Active v. Passive

Some recent comments have raised interesting points about the active vs. passive roles of professors in research and writing papers. This is not an entirely new topic, but there are new aspects of it that are worth exploring and discussing. Today I would like to mention two aspects in particular:

1 - I can see why some students and other early career scientists might think that it would be great to be in a position in which other people acquire data for you and you get your name on papers without having to go through all the tedious work and anxiety. However, if I'm PI on a project and/or co-author on a manuscript, I have to be confident in the dataset and interpretations, even if I didn't acquire the data myself. Some types of data are easy to check and it's obvious if there is a problem, but other types of data are more difficult to check. Being one or two steps removed from the data acquisition has its own stresses.

There are some very great aspects of being an advisor of a group, and some of these involve the satisfaction that comes from seeing students and postdocs develop into independent scientists who acquire their own data and write up their results. In my experience, though, it has never been the case that I can just sit back and watch the data and papers roll by, contributing only a word of wisdom here and there. In at least once extreme case, I had to redo an entire MS student-acquired dataset that I only found to be flawed once I delved into it in the course of writing a paper with the student. And then there's the issue of writing, which can be the most stressful part of the whole process for everyone.

2 - Even if all my students/postdocs acquired only perfect and fascinating results, I would still want to get some data myself. I like discovering things, and thinking through the discovery process step-by-step. I can't do that as well by sitting in my office staring at spreadsheets of other people's data. It can be difficult to stay current with new techniques, but I do what I can. For example, I devoted part of my last sabbatical to getting up to speed with one new technique.

With some techniques, I will never be as expert as the students and postdocs, but I hope I never get so far into the managerial parts of being a professor/advisor that I don't ever have time to get my own data. As with the issue of data quality control discussed above, the managerial aspect of this job has its own stresses. For me, an important part of keeping current and enjoying being a professor is being very active in many different aspects of research, including doing research and not just watching it being done.

As a research group advisor, I may cross the line between being controlling and being involved from time to time, but I think being uninvolved and passive would result in some data disasters and would not be nearly so much fun.

Friday, June 01, 2007

It's Raining Reviews

ANOTHER set of reviews came back today for another manuscript. I guess I will be spending the next few weeks revising manuscripts. The manuscripts were submitted over a 7 month period, but they are all coming back for revisions now.

The review process for this particular manuscript was the best of this current batch because it was fast and because the editor did a good job of evaluating the various reviewer comments. The editor sought reviewers on either side of a debate that is addressed in the manuscript, and then sorted through the less-than-objective comments to get at the essential points. That's the way the process should work.

I've been writing papers for many years now, but I still find it thrilling to go through the process of creating them and seeing them through the various stages to publication. There are certainly aspects of the process that can be annoying and disheartening, but, overall, paper writing/submitting/revising/publishing is one of the more fun aspects of this job.

I like it best when I have a number of different manuscripts in the works at various stages, from incipient to in-revision. I also like it when there is variety in terms of authorship and authorship order (and when everyone is happy with the authorship order..). Perhaps it is the variety that makes paper-writing (and being a professor) overall so much fun.