Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Reviewing The Jerks

A member of my university's Board of Regents once asked a group of us who were assembled to explain tenure to them, "Do you have to be liked to get tenure?" The answer is no, of course. You don't have to be a nice person to do great research. But do you have to be a good person, in the sense of not being too much of an unethical jerk (as opposed to just a regular jerk)?

Almost always, I can focus on the science when I am reviewing a paper or a proposal by a regular jerk, and if I don't feel that I can be objective (to the extent that one should try to be, anyway), I don't do the review. Right now, I'm torn about whether to review a proposal that was sent to me recently. I think that the PI's department and the students and researchers will benefit greatly from the equipment that is part of this proposal, and the PI is probably just a figurehead senior guy who was available to put his name on the cover page.

A review of the proposal should therefore not focus too much on the fact that he hasn't published in decades and hasn't had an original idea since 1973, or on the fact that he is a flaming jerk, serial molester of students, and currently involved in an affair with one of his students (formerly an undergrad in his department, now his grad student). She is 48 years younger than he is, and her research project is, unfortunately, a sham (and is described in the proposal). OK, I think I just decided that I can't be objective about this one. I hope that other reviewers will overlook the unproductive jerk PI and be positive enough that the students (other than his girlfriend/student) and others in his department will get the benefit of the grant.


Anonymous said...

Boy, this struck home. On about a gazillion levels...I recently declined a manuscript review - not for the 'traditional' conflicts of interest, but because I think the senior author is an 'unethical jerk' and I rarely trust anything coming from his lab. Actually, I declined because I knew that I couldn't be unbiased. I know the Editor, and he emailed me and said that he wasn't aware of the conflict and I told him that I knew too much about this laboratory to review the manuscript objectively. It was the right thing to do - because I'd be damaging the students/postdocs involved in the work more than the senior author.

Now, regarding serial molesters of students, I would go into that story too, but I'm legally restrained from doing so. I'll just say that I hope someone who has worked (or is working) around this guy files a complaint (on behalf of the students). Everybody is responsible.

Ms.PhD said...

This brings up an interesting point I should blog about, rather than taking up your space here. Are we really doing any favors to young scientists who ghost-write grants in the labs of senior PIs? Does it make sense to 'punish' lab members for the sins of their boss? Are we just encouraging people to join the labs of jerk PIs when we effectively reward them with money, thus keeping them in business long past their last original idea? Are they really bringing anything to the table anymore, besides their name/reputation from 1973? Aren't we just perpetuating a broken system when we go along with these things?

I think you made the right choice. I just wish there were enough people like you, so that some of these jerks would remain unfunded and unpublished, because everyone declined to review the jerks' work.

Anonymous said...

I don't know what field you're in, but most of the proposals I review come from smaller teams, so the issue of "good lab, bad leader" usually isn't relevant-- we can review proposals, ideally, on their own merits, and the number of "underlings" screwed over because a group leader is a loser is small. What's more, when you review telescope proposals, often the underlings write them, and put their names first. Take my opinion given my cultural bias.

If the proposal is BS and the guy hasn't done anything worthwhile in a couple of decades, the proposal should be turned down. It's kinda sad that the guy gets sympathy becuase of concern for all the other people in his lab -- and his ego and career can be propped on the back of all of them.