Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Google Scholar v. Web of Science

From the comments to yesterday's post:

ISI/Web of Science (WoS) is " better than Google Scholar by an order of magnitude."

" citations are definitely higher on Scopus than on WoS."

"Web of Science has a few errors in my records, though not nearly as bad as Google Scholar.."

"I prefer Google Scholar.. My prediction is that WOS will decline in popularity over time unless it makes drastic changes."

OK, so let's do the numbers.

I compared citation data in Google Scholar and Web of Science for 25 of my publications. (I did not search in Scopus).

I looked at a range of publications in terms of publication date, my place in the authorship order, and type of publication. For 18 of the 25 publications, Web of Science counted more citations, so I definitely like WoS better. For these 18, Google Scholar's citation count ranged between 0-92% of the citations in WoS; the average was 62%.

For 3 of the 25, Google Scholar counted the same number as WoS, and for 4 others Google Scholar counted more citations, although typically only slightly more than WoS (84-92%). There aren't enough data for me to conclude anything systematic based on these small numbers, but I was intrigued by the fact that 2 of the publications that had a higher citation count in GS than in WoS were in topics outside my primary research field.

The publications for which Google Scholar did a significantly worse job of finding citations than WoS --i.e., finding <40% of the citations listed in WoS -- were typically in my oldest publications and in my most recent publications, although there is one paper published in 2002 in a mainstream journal for which GS found <40% of the citations listed in WoS.

These results are not surprising; it is not news that these sites are not perfect at counting citations.

These databases are very useful for doing literature searches, and should be used primarily for this purpose rather than as key data in decision-making about jobs, promotions, and awards. Nevertheless, I have been on committees in which various members exclusively used one or the other of these sites for looking up the publication records of applicants/nominees, and I have seen citation numbers listed in many CVs and in letters of recommendation (typically without reference to which citation index was used to determine those numbers).

To some extent, this is OK. A very high number of citations is impressive, whether it is 250 or 320. For some of my papers with more modest numbers of citations, though, I might as well just make up a number between 5 and 50 than rely on the count in either Google Scholar or Web of Science.

Even so, for my field (or subfield) of the physical sciences, Web of Science is definitely "better" at counting citations for most publications. For those of you who prefer GS to WoS, perhaps you could leave a comment indicating your field. Are there particular fields for which GS is better at finding citations?

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Seeking Perfection

Is your citation record in Web of Science (or the moral equivalent) perfectly correct? Or are there errors?

If there are errors, are they insignificant (not worth correcting) or significant?

If there are significant errors, have you done anything about it? (Or will you?) It is possible to request a data correction using a form provided on the Web of Science website.

There is one particular paper of mine that is particularly prone to being cited in various and sundry ways. In fact, the citations for this paper are strewn about in so many different apparent titles in my citation report that, were the errors to be fixed and the citations combined, my h-index would increase (gasp). There are other errors as well, mostly because authors citing my work used an incorrect volume, page, or year, but most of these errors do not affect my h-index.

Should I try to fix the errors, or, at least, the one that would affect my h-index? Would you, if you were (or are) in this same situation?

Thursday, June 24, 2010

I Am A Total Hypocrite

First of all, I'm taking a little break from blogging for a longish weekend -- Friday through Monday. Comment moderation will be sporadic today, and will then diminish to nothing, resuming early next week.

Second, I am a total hypocrite. If someone introduced me in a professional setting as "X's wife" (X, of course, being my husband), I would be really annoyed if that is the first thing people were told about me. In fact, I have been annoyed by this very thing in the past, especially when introduced to an audience just before I give a talk, but also when introduced informally to a group of Scientists at a conference.

But, not long ago, someone introduced my husband to some colleagues at a conference as "FSP's husband" (using my real name, not FSP), and I was amused. Fortunately, my husband was amused as well.

I can sort of rationalize the hypocrisy because the situations are not equivalent. In the past, before "The End of Men"* of course, being introduced in a professional setting as someone's wife could be interpreted as defining you primarily in your role as a wife rather than in your role as a scientist. For example, being introduced as X's wife just before I give an invited talk on my research involves more than mentioning a neutral social factoid about my life; it says "Here is the most interesting thing about this woman. We'll get to her accomplishments in a minute, but for now you should know who her husband is."

My husband has never been introduced before a talk as "FSP's husband", whereas I have been introduced as his wife just before I give a talk.

It's less of a big deal if it happens when being introduced to a group of people standing around a poster at a conference (for example), although it can still be annoying, depending on the people/context. In those settings, spouse-centric introductions happen to both of us, depending on whether we meet a group that is more familiar with his research or mine.

I don't think that I will ever accept this mode of introduction as the first thing an audience is told before I give a talk on my research. If we get to a point, however, when being introduced as someone's spouse really is just a neutral social factoid that is brought up in some of the more informal of our professional interactions, then we can be equally amused by either scenario.

*Oh wait, that doesn't apply to the physical sciences; quote from the article: "Just about the only professions in which women still make up a relatively small minority of newly minted workers are engineering and those calling on a hard-science background.."

Wednesday, June 23, 2010


A reader sent me this link and wonders if there is a (reasonable) explanation for the last item in this alphabetical list of categories for abstracts:
  • Astrophysics
  • Atomic, molecular and optical physics (AMO)
  • Condensed matter physics
  • Nanophysics and nanomaterials
  • Nuclear and elementary particle physics
  • Physics and Climate
  • Women in physics (KIF)
If you only saw the headings, you might assume that the last category involved discussion of topics relevant to recruiting or retaining women in physics (for example). But no, these are research abstracts, just like the others, although there are only three:

C. Fox Maule(1)
Comparing regional standardised precipitation indices from climate models and observations

Henriette Skourup
A study of Arctic sea ice freeboard heights from ICESat measurements

Karina L. Gottlieb Ph.D.1
Investigation of respiration induced intra- and inter-fractional tumour motion using a standard Cone Beam CT

I looked up the "Network for Women in Physics in Denmark" (KIF) and I can see that they are a section of the Danish Physical Society. It is therefore likely that each category of the conference is organized/sponsored by a different section.

I can definitely see the purpose of having such a section as part of the overall society, but I can't see why there would be Physics research talks, on topics ranging from tumors to climate, in a Women in Physics session.

So I am wondering: What is the practical or philosophical reasoning for having a separate session of talks or posters on such varied scientific topics? Why would someone submit a research abstract to the Women in Physics section rather than the relevant scientific section?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Off Message

Here is a comment from my teaching evaluations for a medium-sized, mid-level course for majors in Science:

she is so kind and sweet :)

Well, that's.. special. Except that I wasn't trying for a "kind and sweet" kind of impression. OK, maybe "kind" -- I do try to be kind. But "kind and sweet"? No.

I don't mean to be ungrateful, but.. ick.

Sure, the alternative is worse: mean and bitter. But I have fangs and claws! I hiss when annoyed!

Last year I wrote about my surprise when a student hugged me after a final exam, to thank me for helping her (a lot) during the term. I worried that I was getting too "mom-like" and less professorial -- not in the stereotypical sense of being remote and detached, but in the awesome way of being authoritative and respected.

Can someone be "kind and sweet" and authoritative and respected?

The student who thinks I am "kind and sweet" wrote no other comments. Perhaps soon we professors will all have Facebook pages for our courses and, for our teaching evaluations, students can "Like" us (or not).

Monday, June 21, 2010

Basic Training

When I was a grad student, I participated in the usual seminars and journal clubs at which a group of students +/- faculty read and discussed journal articles. Typically, the group would take each article apart in great detail: text, figures, tables, everything.

I was fascinated by this. I found it intensely interesting to scrutinize a paper in extraordinary detail and argue about it with a group of people with different points of view and personalities. It took me a while to gain enough confidence and knowledge to jump into the discussions, so in my early grad years I listened much more than I spoke, but later I got more comfortable contributing to the discussion.

These discussions were not for the sole purpose of tearing everything down and determining that everyone (else) was stupid. Of course any paper can be criticized, but in general we found something worthwhile in most papers. Some contained fatal errors, and I admit that it could be fun to find these, but most papers, despite their flaws, have something of interest. We were certainly highly critical of the articles, but (at least, for me) the main purpose of these discussions wasn't to attack and destroy.

I learned a lot from these discussions of journal articles, and so, as an assistant professor, I looked forward to teaching seminar courses or leading other such discussions with my own graduate students and postdocs. I wanted to show my students how to look closely at a paper and extract its essence, evaluating the data and ideas, and how to be critical of methods, assumptions, and interpretations.

And my students hated it. They hated that every week we criticized a paper and tore it apart. They found the experience deeply depressing.

I altered my approach a bit with later journal discussion classes and groups. I tried a more balanced approach, so that it was obvious that these articles had content of interest, otherwise we wouldn't be discussing them. Students still hated it. They didn't want to read the articles in as much detail as I was asking them to do, and they didn't want to be so critical. They thought I was being too mean.

When I moved to a different university, the culture of my new department was a bit more serious and I had more success with students who enjoyed detailed journal article discussions, but I have never again found the type of stimulating environment that prevailed at my grad school in this particular respect.

That's actually OK with me. Now I am satisfied with a much less intense and critical discussion of articles. I'm happy if we focus on the core concepts and interpretations, and if everyone learns something from the reading and discussions. You don't have to take apart every sentence and figure and table to get a lot out of this type of exercise. If an article makes us think and leads to interesting tangential discussions, that's great.

I wonder, though, if students who don't participate in the attack-dog style of journal reading are learning less about how to put a paper together, and are not as prepared to review manuscripts if they end up in an academic career after graduate school.

The intense paper deconstruction in which I participated as a graduate student was a great education for me in terms of the mechanics of what goes into a paper and how best to construct a solid paper. But maybe there are other ways to learn this skill; perhaps just by diving into writing and getting a lot of feedback is just as (or more) effective.

And as for learning how to review: Perhaps reviewing skills can be gained in part by looking at reviews that others do of one's own submitted manuscripts.

I know that journal clubs are alive and well at many institutions and I think that is a good thing. I don't believe that the culture of attack-and-destroy for these discussions is harmful and instills a culture of aggression and contempt. I think that intense experiences with criticism and discussion of published work can be extremely valuable training for intellectual development and acquisition of knowledge about how things are done (e.g., the mechanics of putting together a paper).

However, I no longer think, as I used to, that such experiences are critical to graduate or postdoctoral training. That is, I think students and postdocs do need to learn how to be critical -- to question assumptions, examine the evidence, think about other interpretations -- but there are other ways to get there.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Avalanche of Useless Science

In a post last winter, I discussed whether papers that receive few or no citations are worthwhile anyway. I came up with a few reasons why they might be worthwhile, and noted that the correlation between number of citations and the "importance" of a paper may not be so great.

In an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education this week, several researchers argue that "We Must Stop the Avalanche of Low-Quality Research". In this case, "research" means specifically "scientific research".

How do they assess what is low-quality ("redundant, inconsequential, and outright poor") research? They use the number of citations.

Uncited papers are a problem because "the increasing number of low-cited publications only adds to the bulk of words and numbers to be reviewed."

There you go! A great reason to turn down a review request from an editor:

Dear Editor,

I am sorry, but I am going to have to decline your request to review this manuscript, which I happen to know in advance will never be cited, ever.



What if a paper is read, but just doesn't happen to be cited? Is that OK? No, it would seem that that is not OK:

"Even if read, many articles that are not cited by anyone would seem to contain little useful information."

Ah, it would seem so, but what if the research that went into that uncited paper involved a graduate student or postdoc who learned things (e.g., facts, concepts, techniques, writing skills) that were valuable to them in predictable or unexpected ways? Is it OK then or is that not considered possible because uncited papers must be useless, by definition? This is not discussed, perhaps because it is impossible to quantify.

The essay authors take a swipe at professors who pass along reviewing responsibilities: "We all know busy professors who ask Ph.D. students to do their reviewing for them."

Actually, I all don't know them. I am sure it happens, but is it necessarily a problem? I know some professors who involve students in reviewing as part of mentoring, but the professor in those cases was closely involved in the review; the student did not do the professor's "reviewing for them". In fact, I've invited students to participate in reviews, not to pass off my responsibility, but to show the student what is involved in doing a review and to get their insights on topics that may be close to their research. It is easy to indicate in comments to an editor that Doctoral Candidate X was involved in a review.

Even so, the authors of the essay blame these professors, and by extension the Ph.D. students who do the reviews, for some of the low-quality research that gets published. The graduate students are not expert reviewers and therefore "Questionable work finds its way more easily through the review process and enters into the domain of knowledge." In fact, in many cases the graduate students, although inexperienced at reviewing, will likely do a very thorough job at the review. I don't think grad student reviewers contribute to the avalanche of low-quality published research.

So I thought the first part of this article was a bit short-sighted and over-dramatic ("The impact strikes at the heart of academe"), but what about the practical suggestions the authors propose for improving the overall culture of academe? These "fixes" include:

1. "..limit the number of papers to the best three, four, or five that a job or promotion candidate can submit. That would encourage more comprehensive and focused publishing."

I like the kernel of the idea -- that candidates who have published 3-5 excellent papers should not be at a disadvantage relative to those who have published buckets of less significant papers -- but I'm not exactly sure how that would work in real life. What do they mean by "submit"? The CV lists all of a candidate's publications, and the hiring or promotion committees with which I am familiar pick a few of these to read in depth. The application may or may not contain some or all of the candidate's reprints, but it's easy enough to get access to whatever papers we want to read.

I agree that the push to publish a lot is a very real and stressful phenomenon and appreciate the need to discuss solutions to this. Even so, in the searches with which I have been involved, candidates with a few great papers had a distinct advantage over those with many papers that were deemed to be least-publishable units (LPU).

I think the problem of publication quantity vs. quality might be more severe for tenure and promotion than for hiring, but even here I have seen that candidates with fewer total papers but more excellent ones are not at a disadvantage relative to those with 47 LPU.

2. "..make more use of citation and journal "impact factors," from Thomson ISI. The scores measure the citation visibility of established journals and of researchers who publish in them. By that index, Nature and Science score about 30. Most major disciplinary journals, though, score 1 to 2, the vast majority score below 1, and some are hardly visible at all. If we add those scores to a researcher's publication record, the publications on a CV might look considerably different than a mere list does."

Oh no.. not that again. The only Science worth doing will be published in Science? That places a lot of faith in the editors and reviewers of these journals and constrains the type of research that is published.

I have absolutely no problem publishing in a disciplinary journal with impact factor of 2-4. These are excellent journals, read by all active researchers in my field. It is bizarre to compare them unfavorably with Nature and Science, as if papers in a journal with an impact factor of 3 are hardly worth reading, much less writing.

3. ".. change the length of papers published in print: Limit manuscripts to five to six journal-length pages, as Nature and Science do, and put a longer version up on a journal's Web site."

I'm fine with that. It wouldn't have any major practical effect on people like me who do all journal reading online anyway, but for those individuals and institutions who still pay for print journals, this could help with costs, library resources etc.

Let's assume that these "fixes" really do "fix" some of the problems in academe -- e.g., the pressure to publish early and often -- so what then?

"..our suggested changes would allow academe to revert to its proper focus on quality research and rededicate itself to the sober pursuit of knowledge."

Maybe that's my problem: I enjoy my research too much and forgot what an entirely sober pursuit it should be. I guess the essay authors and I are just not on the same page.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

FSP Check List

After writing about general academic issues in The Chronicle of Higher Education for the past year or so, I wrote a column specifically about being a Female Science Professor. Predictably, there are a mix of negative and positive comments, but most are positive, much like the comments to posts on that topic here in the FSP blog.

The first comment to appear in the CHE re. my column, however, was a classic one: men in other fields have it hard too, a woman has won a Nobel Prize in physics so women physicists "ain't all that rare", and I should "shut up".

In the column, I picked almost at random a few example incidents to mention about my experiences as a Female Science Professor. In the comments, there are examples of other sexist incidents, all of which I have also experienced. This gave me the idea to make a list of all the ones mentioned -- and ask blog readers to add to the list -- and then we can check off the ones we've personally experienced. Kind of like Sexism Bingo, but in list form.

Here's what I've got so far:

__ Someone who has read your papers and doesn't know you assumes the papers were written by a man.

__ Someone mentions that hiring/including women might involve a lowering of standards.

__ Someone refuses to believe a woman is a professor (extra credit if disbelief persists after being told unambiguously that a woman is a professor).

__ A particular person (student or colleague) routinely and aggressively questions the knowledge/expertise/authority of a female professor but does not do so with male professors.

__ Someone assumes that your co-author is your adviser rather than a colleague, even though you have been out of grad school for quite a while.

__ Someone says, contrary to the data, that in fact women aren't all that rare in your field because they know (or know of) at least one.

__ The men in your field are simply known as scientists or engineers or researchers etc., but you are typically referred to as a female scientist, female engineer, female researcher etc.

__ When you are in the department office, visitors assume you are an administrative assistant (extra credit if people, including students, command you to do a task for them without even asking if this is your job).

__ Someone tells you that you shouldn't complain about sexism because men have difficult lives too.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Gray Matters

Whenever I write a post with "gray" in the title, some people think I am going to talk about hair, but no -- to me, "gray" signifies the mythical "gray zone" in which your grant proposal is neither awarded nor declined.. yet.

I have been talking to various colleagues recently, as some of us await decisions about various proposals. I recently got one grant for which I am very grateful because the science is going to be very cool and the grant will help support a new graduate student. I am, however, in limbo about another proposal that I submitted quite a long time ago, long before the grant that was just awarded. I expected to hear by now, but I have not.

How do I know I am in a gray zone and not just impatient or delusional?

My own personal definition of the phenomenon of being in the gray zone is a situation in which others who submitted to the same program have already received word that their proposals were awarded or declined, but others have not heard yet. If some already know about their proposals and I don't know anything yet, my proposal is in a gray zone.

I know that such regions of the grantosphere exist because I have been in the gray zone before. Sometimes I emerge with a grant, sometimes I don't.

Obviously being in the gray zone is not as good as getting the grant funded right away and not as bad as being definitively rejected, but is there any point in being hopeful whilst waiting to hear from NSF?

Colleague #1 says there is no hope, there is no gray zone, and anyone who hasn't heard yet isn't going to get the grant. There's probably just some administrative reason why the official "We regret that.." e-mail can't be sent out yet.

Colleague #2 says that we have hope, there is a gray zone, and perhaps the program officers are trying to find a way to fund our proposal.

I veer between these points of views every 12 minutes, but I tend to agree more with Colleague 2. Now I just have to decide whether to contact the program officers and see if they have any information for me now, good or bad, or whether I want to continue to wait and hope for the best.

If you have been in a gray zone with a proposal, did you contact a program officer to extract information because the waiting was too agonizing, or did you just wait (and wait) because you'd rather live with the hope of getting the grant than hasten your knowledge of the rejection?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Summarily Rejected (reprise)

A reader writes with a query about some manuscripts that were rejected without review; in one case the summary rejection was sort of understandable, but in the other, not at all. Summary rejection was a topic of a post last summer, but it is a perennial topic. In fact, I recently recommended rejection of a manuscript without review.

Why did I do it?

I don't do this often, but in this case the manuscript failed to cite or even mention (e.g., in a cover letter) a paper with a similar title published by the same authors in another journal last year, it was a matter of minutes to compare the two and see they were essentially the same, and, as if that weren't enough, it was a poorly written paper with conclusions unsupported by the inadequate dataset. I think that decision was quite reasonable.

Other situations involving rejection-without-review, like one described by my correspondent, are more difficult to understand, especially if the editor does not explain the basis for his/her decision to reject without review. Editors should explain the reason(s), even if it is as simple as "We can only publish 0.2% of the manuscripts we receive, we glanced at yours and weren't immediately gripped, end of story."

If you think a particular rejection-without-review is completely unwarranted given the interest-level of the paper and the fit with the journal, then it's worth trying to argue with the editor in a clear and calm way. Marshall your arguments for why your manuscript should at least be reviewed, and give it your best shot.

Monday, June 14, 2010

iCollege U?

Knowing that I am interested in how higher education is perceived by those outside academia, and in particular the depiction of higher education in the media, a friend sent me a link to a video of an interview on The Daily Show. In this episode from last week, the governor of Minnesota had this to say about what we need to change about how the government spends taxpayers' money:

For example, higher education.. Do you really think in 20 years, somebody's going to put on their backpack, drive a half hour to the University of Minnesota from the suburbs, haul their keister across campus, and sit and listen to some boring person drone on about Econ 101 or Spanish 101?

No, of course not! In 20 years we will all have personal jet-packs so we can fly from the suburbs to our classes and jobs!

Actually, no one said that. In fact, Jon Stewart said, Isn't that was college is supposed to be?

Governor: Yeah, partly. Partly.

(various jokes about how college is supposed to be boring or students will just party and never want to graduate)

The governor continued: Is there another way to deliver the service other than a one-size-fits-all monopoly provider that says "Show up at 9:00 on Wednesday morning for Econ 101"? Can't I just pull that down on my iPhone or iPad whenever the heck I feel like it, from wherever I want, and instead of paying thousands of dollars, pay $199 for iCollege...

There followed a somewhat incoherent and disjointed discussion involving public vs. private options, the governor's repetition of his statement that there is a "one-size-fits-all" system run by a bureaucracy, and his wish that we could "put the consumer in charge".

This is strange on so many levels. I think it would be great if a college education were much less expensive and easily accessible to all (without massive student loans), but somehow I don't think this governor is proposing to increase state funding for his university to allow for tuition decreases.

But let me be more systematic so that I don't drone on and on like I do in my Science 101 lectures. Here is a list of the things I don't like about this grim depiction of the travails of 21st century college students:
  • the emphasis on the (implied unreasonable) physical effort and time involved in attending a class. Even if we expunge from our minds the vision of an otherwise able-bodied student lying on the couch in the rec room of their parents' suburban home, unwilling to do more than push a few buttons on some awesome later generation of iPhone, and instead imagine someone with work/family commitments that make commuting to a campus difficult, does Governor Pawlenty think that even today there are no other options for that student?
  • the gratuitous insult that implies that instructors "drone" to passive audiences, making it not worth the effort to attend a course in person. You can't even fast forward when someone is speaking to you in person, in real time!
  • the implication that it is obnoxious for a university to expect that a student will show up at a particular time and place for a class. I have heard that some companies expect their employees to do this as well, but maybe that's just a vicious rumor.
  • one-size-fits-all? Where does that come from? What does that even mean in this context, especially in a statement that implies that, in the future, no one will physically want to travel to a campus to take classes? There are many options in higher education today, not just public vs. private, but also within public university systems, and even within a single university. There are online courses and other forms of distance learning, there are large classes and small classes, there are lectures and seminars and independent study programs. There are day classes, night classes, and summer classes. There are typically multiple sections of intro classes. All of these are potentially quite interactive, including the online courses, providing students with a wide range of options.
  • Put the consumer in charge of what? That's a buzz phrase -- let's empower the people (who will pay lower taxes), not the big institutions (that suck up all our tax money and give nothing back)!
Public universities should provide high-quality education to students, and should keep costs to students and taxpayers as low as possible. There should be constant efforts to improve teaching and the overall educational experience for students. Some of that push to improve comes from the needs and demands of the "consumer", so if that is what it means to put the consumer in charge, I can agree with that. If it means that states can squeeze the budgets of universities because consumers don't want to pay more for a course than they do for an iPhone, then I start to disagree.

And I don't agree that there is a monolithic University bureaucracy that has only one idea about how to educate its students.

All that aside, I do hope that the governors of our states realize that there is more to a university than how it lectures to undergraduates, important though that part of a university certainly is. I hope they realize that the research and teaching missions of a university are intertwined, that there are real people teaching those courses (only some of whom drone), that there are discoveries and innovations resulting from the efforts of those people (including some students), that some courses do require physical participation by real 3D students and professors in real time, and that perhaps businesses and other organizations seeking to hire graduates of our great institutions of higher education will prefer that their new employees are willing and able to haul their keisters into work at a specified time and place.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Mean Women

Quite often, I get e-mail that goes something like this:

"A female professor/supervisor was really mean and unfair to me. What's up with that? I thought women were supposed to be really nice and supportive because there are so few of them/us. How are women ever going to get ahead in science/engineering/math if some women are really mean?"

Some of these complaints are from young women who are disappointed that they had a negative experience with someone they hoped would be a mentor.

Some of these complaints are from men who note that if women want to be respected, we had all better start behaving better (because of course every single woman is a representative of all other women).

Is there really any mystery here? Some women are jerks. Men do not have a monopoly on jerk behavior. The existence of male jerks has not stopped men from succeeding.

I wish there were fewer jerks in the world and I am not defending female jerks or condoning their behavior or lacking empathy for their victims, but at the same time I think it is unwise (and not quite fair) to expect all women to be nice.

I also think that the belief that successful women "pull up the ladder" so that younger women cannot attain similar levels of success is a myth based on assorted anecdotes of not-nice behavior by some women.

I think that I am overall a somewhat nice person, but that doesn't mean I am consistently nice, or that I am nice to everyone. Does my lack of total niceness mean that I am an obstacle to the progress of women in science? Does anyone believe that the only way women will attain increased representation in the sciences (for example) is if every single female scientist is super nice to everyone all the time?

A related question: Does anyone really believe that the world's problems will be solved when there are more female leaders? I think there should be more female leaders of the countries of the world, but only because women make up ~50% of the world population and because some women are fully capable of being in charge of a country. I am not under any illusions that world peace will automatically ensue once more women are presidents and prime ministers.

When more women are given the opportunity to be in positions of power, whether over countries or academic science department or even over individuals in scientific research groups, a wrong will have been righted -- i.e., the systematic denial of opportunity to people for reasons unrelated to their abilities or qualifications -- and maybe some things will get better. Maybe there will be fewer unfair barriers to career opportunities and advancement for women in STEM fields, and maybe academic culture will overall be improved for everyone when there is more diversity of experience and opinion represented in these fields.

Maybe. Just don't expect all women to be "nice", either nice according to a universally accepted unisex definition of the term or nice according to a more restricted perception for how women should behave.

Thursday, June 10, 2010


When submitting an NSF proposal on a research topic that is closely related to work done in a previous or soon-to-expire grant (i.e., essentially a continuation of a research project), the options are:

- Submit a complete, new proposal. Of course you need to be very clear in the project description why new work on the same or closely related topic is justified and compelling, but otherwise the new proposal is administratively distinct from the previous one. This is reviewed just the same as proposals on entirely new research.

- Submit an Accomplishment-Based Renewal (ABR) proposal consisting of up to 6 reprints of publications that resulted from the original project in the past 5 years (2 reprints may actually be preprints) and a summary (max 4 pages) about the new research proposed.

I like writing proposals, but I can see the appeal of assembling 6 reprints and preprints and sending them off with a short summary of the transformative new research (+ all the usual forms and information about "human resources" and so on). My impression, though, is that ABRs are quite rare in my field. Perhaps the program officers don't like to go this route because it's better to have a full-scale review to back up decisions. (?)

The obvious advantage of the ABR is, of course, the time it saves. You write 4 pages of new research rather than 15 pages, and you send a bunch of reprints and preprints instead of writing a Results of Prior NSF Support section in the project description of a 15-page proposal.

In the NSF Grant Proposal Guide, PIs are "encouraged" to discuss renewal proposals with the program officers and are "strongly urged" to discuss ABRs with the program in advance. I have a feeling that this is code for "No matter how great you and your research are, you definitely need to discuss this with a program officer before packaging up your awesome reprints and bypassing the full proposal route."

So, my fellow NSF supplicants, have you submitted a renewal proposal, how close was the new research to the old research, which route did you go, and how successful were you?

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

On Fecundity

A letter in the 3 June 2010 issue of Nature addresses "The role of mentorship in protégé performance". That sounds sort of interesting. I'd like to know ".. the extent to which protégés mimic their mentors' career choices and acquire their mentorship skills".

Those are two very different things, though. I can see how you could determine whether protégés follow the same career path as their advisers, but you need some assumptions to go from those data to interpretations about acquisition of mentorship skills (or lack thereof).

To address these issues, the authors (Malmgren et al.) used a large database that has tracked mathematicians and their academic "genealogy" for centuries. Despite the massive database going back to 1637, the authors analyzed only the years 1900-1960 because these data were deemed "most reliable" and this range allows the tracking of a few generations.

More recent data would be interesting to consider as well, if possible, particularly to see if the culture of academic math departments has changed. Or perhaps nothing changes the culture of math departments; the authors concluded that, despite the occurrence of some world wars etc. in the 20th century, there were "no systematic historical changes" evident in the database.

The research was designed to evaluate whether protégés "acquire the mentorship skills of their mentors". This is done by studying mentorship fecundity. I am not sure that fecundity necessarily relates to "mentorship skills" or "mentorship success", but that's how it was defined.

A brief aside: This may be a seminal paper, but I wish there were a different term that could be used than fecundity to represent the number of protégés a mentor trains. I also wish there were a better term than "protégé", although I know that technically the word is used appropriately in this paper. Advisee and mentee aren't great words either, but somehow they seem more professional to me. Or, if protégé must be used, can I be called a patron rather than a mentor?

Anyway, what we all want to know is:

Can you predict the fecundity of a mathematician?

Well, it's complicated, but you can write an equation! Also, you can make an analogy with parents (= mentors) and children (= protégés), such that a protégé's graduation date is their "birth date". I'm not sure why this new terminology was introduced, as the original concepts of mentor, protégé, and graduation date are not that complicated, but so it goes.

The results, which aren't actually explained in the paper, are "three significant correlations in mentorship fecundity", which I will condense into two:

1. Protégés of mentors with low fecundity (< 3 protégés) had more protégés than "expected".

2. The protégés of early-career mentors are themselves more fecund than "expected" and are more fecund than protégés who are advised by these same mentors later in their careers; i.e., fecundity might be influenced by the adviser's career stage.

The first interpretation did not surprise me, although one has to be clear about what the "expected" fecundity of protégés is before deciding if the result is greater or less than expected. The second one is more surprising, but whether it has any meaning depends, of course, on the methods and assumptions of the study.

It's a rather strange study and we can pick away at it, but is there anything to be learned from it about the influence of mentors on the later careers of their mentees? I doubt it, although I think the motivating question of the study is an interesting one, and perhaps impossible to study in a meaningful and quantitative way. To be relevant to modern mentorship, such a study would also have to track career paths that veer from math to engineering, or to any of various other interconnected disciplines.

And, because being a successful mentor doesn't have to mean that we clone ourselves and produce academic children who mimic our careers, perhaps there would need to be a different way of measuring the quality and success of mentorship than simply counting up the numbers of academic children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

But I Don't Want to Write about John Tierney Again

Thanks for all the e-mails and comments with links to the New York Times commentary by John Tierney, but what he wrote is just more of the same of what he's written before: i.e., many women don't want to be scientists or engineers, others can't because they aren't as good at math as the guys. Oh yeah, and Larry Summers made some reasonable statements in a speech that was misunderstood by hysterical females.

This is the person who questioned the National Academy of Science's report, Beyond Bias and Barriers, because a committee with lots of women on it produced the report (and women aren't objective about these issues).

This is the person who wrote a bizarre op-ed column about how women who accompany their husbands to Civil War reenactments must find it liberating to wear bulky clothes that make them swelter in the heat. The women don't get to do excellent things like pretend to kill people and be killed (only authentic men can do that), but at least fat women even look kind of good if you bundle them up enough.

And so on. I stopped reading his commentaries after that, until forced under torture to read his latest thoughts on the topic of Women.

His new essay is more of the same: There are flawed studies that show that females and males have similar quantitative skills and better studies that show that more males than females are extremely talented at math. This is one reason why men are more successful in math, science, and engineering. If women were good at math and science, perhaps they would understand these scientific studies with all the numbers in them.

On one point I reluctantly sort of agree with him: i.e., workshops to "enhance gender equality", mandated if certain legislation becomes law, could be kind of grim. In all likelihood, these would be yet another sounds-good-in-theory administrative requirement that PIs and others would have to sit through to be allowed to run our research groups.

I could be wrong about that. I know that some targeted workshops on equality issues -- e.g., for hiring committees or department chairs -- if run by peers with experience in the relevant activities, can be very effective.

I am, however, picturing something along the lines of the dismal "ethics" workshops that researchers at my university have to attend at regular intervals, or a workshop I went to about teaching those delicate creatures known as "first year students" -- a workshop at which we professors were instructed by people who had never in their lives taught a first year, or any, student. I am thinking about other workshops at which participants were bombarded with surveys filled with leading questions that provided data so that someone could assess what we think before and after we are workshopped. I do not play well with others when I am being assessed by poorly worded surveys.

I am all for equality workshops if by some miracle they are more effective than other workshops that help us be better researchers and teachers. I do not agree with Tierney that these workshops are unnecessary because (1) what inequality exists is just the natural order of things (men are better at math), and (2) "careful" studies show that women already get lots of grants and promotions and therefore there is no inequality in those respects (apparently the subject of a future column).

My favorite quotation of the essay, on the topic of high SAT scores: "..someone at the 99.9 level is more likely than someone at the 99.1 level to get a doctorate in science or to win tenure at a top university."

He does not, however, take that thought too far (smart!), and he does admit that there is possible "social bias" against women. And some other complex factors. And stuff. But don't expect a lot of women scientists at top universities anyway.

We have made some progress towards increasing the participation of women in STEM fields in recent years, but an important question that many are asking now is why the greater numbers of women undergraduate and graduate students in STEM fields has not translated into more women at more advanced levels of academia and industry. Something just doesn't add up.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Large Lens/Little Lady

A female friend who spent the first ~40 years of her life as a man has long been involved in photography, first as a hobby and later as a professional pursuit. She has lots of specialized photographic equipment that she uses to take photos that appear in books and magazines.

Something that happens to her as a woman but that never happened to her as a man is that people will see her out taking photographs with her professional photographic gear and will comment that she has impressive photographic equipment "for a lady" (or "woman" or "gal").

I have often been accused of seeing things through "a gender lens", but can we also apply this phrase to the people (all men so far, according to my friend) who make "that's a big lens for a little lady" type comments?

These men don't see a person who is a highly capable professional photographer, they see a female using specialized photographic equipment, and that somehow looks odd to them. But what is so incongruous about a woman with a telephoto lens and a tripod?

Somehow they also overlook the fact that she is 6' tall and therefore not a "little" lady, except perhaps to men who want to see all females as small, weak, and incapable.

Friday, June 04, 2010

No Gap

A graduating high school senior recently told me that she is taking a "gap year" before going to college or doing whatever comes after next year. "Gap year" is a nice, all-purpose term that can be used to describe a post-high-school, pre-everything-else year that some young people take before diving back into school or starting a job. The term makes the year seem rather alluring, possibly filled with adventure and personal growth experiences.

I have no worries about this particular young woman. She is very dynamic and involved in many activities. I am sure she will end up doing something interesting.

I applaud her gap year plans, even though I am not personally a gap year kind of person. I would have hated taking a gap year. I am too impatient for such things; actually, "impatient" is a nice way to describe what I am. I have never taken any "time off" to do anything else but be in academia as a student or researcher or professor, and that's exactly the way I have wanted it.

Oh, perhaps I would have benefited in some way from doing something outside academia for a while: volunteering in a school, standing on a street corner asking people if they have a minute for the environment, working on a cat ranch (they exist!). But I didn't want to. Once I took a course in my field of science during my freshman year of college, I knew what I wanted to do and I have never wanted to do anything else.

I reject the hypothesis that I would be a better person or adviser had I worked outside of academia, although I agree that it's good if a department has some faculty who have done so.

My personal rejection of the gap year concept doesn't mean that I look down on those who do take time off. I have advised students who had a gap year or six. That's fine. That's just not me. And I don't think I will freak out (too much) if my daughter decides to take a gap year when it is time for her to make decisions about her future.

The closest thing I had to a gappish year was a year spent abroad as a student. I did the backpacking through Europe thing for weeks at a time, living on $5/day, sleeping on trains, eating bread and cheese, meeting lots of interesting people, and realizing that traveling alone in some places was a really bad idea. I had a great time.

In between adventures, I went to my classes, of course; some were really good and some were really awful, but the entire experience was so exotic (big university in international city vs. small liberal arts college in the US), even the bad things were kind of interesting. [One exception: On the first day of a literature course, the professor announced that rape was the most heroic deed known to mankind and was much misunderstood throughout history. He was going to be our guide through rape scenes in literature, to explore the heroic elements of this act. I walked out of the class, dropped it, and took a course instead from a kindly old professor who loved architecture, art, and literature.]

So, I have been gapless, unless you count term leaves and sabbaticals. I guess these are sort of gap year-like in that they are for recharging and doing something different, in some cases in a different place. At the same time, they are not as open-ended as a "gap year" in which you don't really know what you'll be doing when the gap closes, so the comparison kind of falls apart there.

I think there are gap year kinds of people and non-gap year kinds of people. What is an excellent idea for some people would be torture for others. Whichever kind you are, I think it is important that we not make assumptions about the "other" kind: gap year people are not necessarily less serious than non-gappers, and non-gappers aren't necessarily one-dimensional monomaniacs who don't want to live in the "real" world.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Too Many Women?

A strange question from a reader, with some background information:

I'm a nearly-done PhD student in engineering. I am a woman. My Master's thesis advisor was a man. My PhD thesis advisor is a woman... I did a research abroad program last summer .. and my advisor was a woman. I will do another research abroad program this summer, this time in [another country], and my advisor will be a woman.

So here is the question: as I look for a postdoc and I think about my recommendation letters, I will probably have 3 out of 4 letters be from women. In my field (engineering/physics) women are still very rare. Will there be a tendency for people on my reviewing committee to see this as a warning sign? (i.e., that I work better with women?) Also, I am starting to make connections for my postdoc, and one of the faculty who is doing the most interesting research in the area is a woman at an Extremely Excellent University. If I happen to get an offer and happily work with her for a few years, will having my last 4 academic advisors being women be seen as a bad sign?

On one hand, I think this is all stupid and people should judge me based on my research and the research of my advisors (which is high-quality), but at the same time I am concerned with the prejudice that I still see in academia that I might be setting myself up for an uphill climb when looking for a tenure-track position.

Thoughts? It frustrates me that this would never be an issue if the gender issue was reversed (a male student with almost all male advisors), but based on research about the impact of having female names on a paper submission, etc, I don't want anyone to get any negative impressions from my recommenders' names/genders.

Do we really have to go straight from being concerned about the lack of women faculty in STEM fields to being worried that someone with female advisers will be viewed as unable to work with men? Perhaps we do (the cynical side of me says, understanding where the e-mail writer is coming from), but I hope we don't (the optimistic/delusional side of me argues).

My take on this:

If you do the usual things -- publish, publish, publish; have excellent letters; be visible at conferences at which you have interesting conversations with a wide range of people -- then your applications for jobs should be competitive. And if you get an interview, you should be able to dispel any concerns about your ability to work with a diverse group of faculty, students, and others by having successful, friendly, constructive interactions during the interview.

I have been on hiring committees that had some members who routinely devalued the opinions of female letter writers and the qualifications of female applicants, but committees today also typically include others who notice such behavior and don't let it pass unmentioned.

In theory, another fairness filter occurs at a higher level, in which an "equal opportunity" office is supposed to gaze at the demographics or other data related to an applicant pool relative to the interview pool (and possibly also the make-up of the hiring committee) and see if there is a problem. In reality, I have found this stage to be completely gutless; at no point have I seen an EO office complain that an all-male hiring committee only came up with an all-male short list; these things can be explained away too easily.

So, you can't completely avoid unfair and irrational behavior by hiring committees and you can't count on other aspects of the system to catch any problems, but I think the plethora-of-women situation will likely not be a problem. It might be a curiosity, but not a problem.

Others may disagree..

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Bringing it to the Table

In the 16 May 2010 Chronicle Review, there is a series of short essays by scholars and professionals who discuss Women in Architecture: "What do they bring to the table? Do they offer a working style or leadership style different from those of men?"

I know nothing about architecture, and I found these questions a bit depressing (in particular, I think "bring to the table" was a poor choice of words, although I know it is a common, generic expression). I was nevertheless interested to read what the scholars and professionals had to say. Were there any similarities with "women in science/engineering" issues?

The first essay is by Thomas Landsmark, president of an architectural college. He mentions the common view that women are empathetic and like to collaborate, and that women architects tend to work on projects with a "human" dimension -- e.g., homes/interiors or projects related to education or health care. Men go more for the big corporate and major cultural projects. He lists some excellent women architects and praises the work of women who lead architecture schools, in particular for their emphasis on "symbiotic integration of interiors and exteriors", "aesthetically pleasing.. spaces", and "sensitivity to the needs" of various people, including children. These women also have "the management skills to deliver projects on time and on budget."

Despite the perhaps well-intentioned praise, I thought this essay made women architects sound like stereotypical excellent housewives who are nurturing and can manage a budget, and some have just happened to transfer these skills to a profession (often, he notes, in collaboration with their "marital partners or other professionals").

This was depressing, but then I read the awesome essay by Karen Schwennsen, a professor and associate dean in the College of Design at Iowa State, who takes a no-nonsense, no-nurturing approach. With a few word changes to substitute "scientist" or "engineer" for "architect", this essay could be describing the situation for women in other professions in which we are underrepresented.

In answer to the question about whether women architects design, work, or lead in a different way compared to men, Schwennsen notes that "for most of history, being different has meant being less. Questions about whether or not female architects bring something different to the table .. make most of us crazy." Women architects want to be respected for their accomplishments as architects, not as female architects. "They also want to be given a fair shot at competing for work or advancing in their careers".

She lists some women architects who have designed academic buildings, gives examples of their projects, and states: "There is nothing inherently feminine about any of those buildings."

She takes issue with the questions she is supposed to address; these aren't the right questions to ask. She wants to know instead why there aren't more examples of architecture by women. Why is their participation in the profession increasing so slowly? If 40+% of architecture students are female, why do women represent only 10% of architects at major firms?

Schwennsen's answer: It's not because women only want to design daycare centers while the men are off designing gleaming corporate towers. The reasons for the underrepresentation of women in architecture "..are many and complex, but not the least of them are assumptions about gender and the accompanying expectations about behavior and abilities that underlie the opening questions of this forum."

And: "I look forward to the time when we are no longer asking these questions—when professional parity has been reached and is based on merit and talent rather than gender, and when architecture by women is not considered unusual."

It's a great essay.

There are two other essays, both by women. One, by the president of an architecture firm, says she can't "believe differences are defined on gender lines as much as they are on philosophical foundations and beliefs." The other essay, however, is by an academic who believes that there are differences in architecture designed by men vs. women: men and women have different bodies and the body is our "first and primary environment", so "it follows that gender could play a significant role".

It could, but can you really show that it does? Does the body mass index of an architect also affect his or her designs? Do gender/body differences of men vs. women scientists affect how we design scientific research projects? Can you look at a building (or read a scientific paper) and know right away that it was designed (written) by a woman?

I went back and re-read the elegant essay by Schwennsen because I liked it so much. It reminded me that perhaps I can look forward to a time when we are no longer asking what women "bring to the table" in any profession; a time when "professional parity has been reached and is based on merit and talent rather than gender", and when women scientists/engineers/mathematicians/architects/presidents are not considered unusual.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

High Impact Risk Assessment

It used to be the case that it was worth sending awesome manuscripts to the highest impact journals because, if they were going to reject your manuscript, they did so quickly and efficiently. I think those days are gone. This leads me to pose a question, based on the following not-so-hypothetical situation:

Imagine that you have a manuscript that you think is good enough for a very high-impact journal that we will refer to here only by the single-word name of Journal. If you want to be dramatic about it, imagine that you are an early-career academic (student, postdoc, assistant professor) with the dual need of rapid publication of your awesome research results and ideas in as prestigious a journal as possible.

You send the manuscript to Journal, and are lucky enough to have your manuscript reviewed rather than immediately rejected. Or, at least, you thought you were lucky, until you emerge, well over a year later, with a much reviewed and much revised manuscript that is ultimately rejected for not being "suitable" for Journal.

In the end, quite a few people reviewed the manuscript, and some of the reviews were very positive. One, however, was very negative. Perhaps not coincidentally, this review was from someone in the research group with the most to lose if your manuscript is published.

You think that you and your co-authors wrote the manuscript in a very polite and professional way, focusing on the important questions and discussing, not attacking, the work of other groups. You hoped that, if the manuscript were sent to possibly-not-objective reviewers, the editors would weigh any negative comments against this possible lack of objectivity, looking closely at the criticisms to determine if they were valid and substantive. The editors did not do this.

So there you are with a rejected manuscript after a very long time of hoping that you would ultimately survive the lengthy review process at Journal. Now you need to find a rapid way to publish your research results.

If rejection is rapid and the reviewers are ethical, the rejection can be a neutral experience. You are no worse off than when you started, although perhaps a bit dejected. If, however, the entire process leading up to rejection takes an extremely long time, then you may be worse off than when you started.

But: If publishing in Journal or another journal at a similar level is seen as very important -- or even essential -- to your career, what do you do with your next awesome paper?

Do you send it to Journal anyway despite your belief that the editor mishandled your previous manuscript, which spent an unconscionable time in review, because if you do happen to get a paper published in Journal, your career will benefit immensely? Perhaps you can convince yourself that your bad experience was a fluke. You were unlucky; maybe next time would be better. And you aren't guaranteed a better experience at another journal anyway. And you could always withdraw the manuscript and submit it elsewhere if things started to drag on too long.

Or do you decide that the risk of a lengthy and unfair review process isn't worth it and send your manuscript first to Very Good Journal, knowing that there is a better chance of having it published there, and published more rapidly? As long as the journal is well respected and in publication databases, people can find your paper.

So: Are the high impact journals so prestigious that it is worth sending manuscripts there, no matter how long the review and how incompetent the editorial process? Or are the risks of a long and fruitless review/editorial process too great, especially for early career scientists?