Assorted thoughts

This page is under construction. It contains an assortment of links on science, education, and society. Joel takes responsibility for its content, although his thinking on all of these subjects has benefited conversations with other lab members (as well as many others!).

General thoughts on science:

An interesting article addressing both the discovery of cool science (mitochondrial antioxidants!) and how easy it is(n’t) to identify scientists’ likely future contributions at an early point in their careers. A series of publications by the National Academies of Science on how important discoveries began as basic science.

A great article on the importance of stupidity in scientific research.

And another, on the relative importance of effort as opposed to test-taking ability in succeeding in science. “The students who thrive are not necessarily the ones who come in with the perfect scores. It’s the ones who love what they’re doing and go at it vigorously.” Which raises an important question–what motivates us to work hard? Here is an article arguing for the importance of internal (love of learning, desire to improve the world) and *not* “instrumental” (eg, fame and fortune) motivation. You might think that both would be helpful, but in the study they describe (looking at the long-term success of cadets at West Point), instrumental motivations were actually harmful. Interesting!

Fun podcasts and movies and other resources on science in general available at radiolab and ibiology.org.

A really interesting post on statistics and data analysis (with a cool interactive visualization tool), retractions and fraud, bad science, and why “science is hard:” http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/science-isnt-broken/#part2

Science and society:

Is science anti-religion? Is religion anti-science? Joel thinks this is interesting; some thoughts here.

“Science is the poetry of reality.” Richard Dawkins.

The role of universities in society, by Andrew Maynard.

An interesting article arguing that antiscience beliefs jeopardize US democracy.

An important effort to connect scientists to non-scientists in society: Get Out the Science.

Should scientists advocate for science in our society? There is a lot on this right now; here is a statement from AAAS supporting the March for Science, and here is a good blogpost from Scientific American on “How to defeat those who are waging war on science.”

We now have THREE great local general science presentation venues! The Carolina Science Cafe, Motorco’s Periodic Tables, and Pompieri Pizza’s Trattoria Discorso.  Beer and science!

A cool tool to see if the words you use are easily accessible to the nonspecialist, by the writer of xkcd (awesome sciencey humor)!

Education:

On the value of a liberal arts education, by Duke’s former president Nan Keohane.

On why a college education should not be treated as a commodity.

On the complementary functions of liberal arts and STEM education.

On the power of patience.

Reviewing manuscripts, peer review, and openness of data and review:

  • Useful starting places for how to review are here, here, and here.
  • Here is an interesting story on the growing phenomenon of open peer review and open posting of data (something that my colleague Alex Francisco and I have also advocated in the realm of toxicology data: Meyer and Francisco 2013).
  • And here is one on the growing movement towards open-access journals, something that I like a great deal. But beware! as almost anyone with an academic email address realizes, there are also a lot of fake journals publishing junk, proliferating under the guise of the open access movement. Yet this costs money, since there is no subscription fee. Here is an interesting article on an extreme case of the role of money in publication even in a legitimate journal; this despite the exceptional profit margins of many such publishers (in part because we scientists review for free…).
  • The PLoS journals are well-known and outstanding examples of open access publication, and I like in particular PLoS ONE’s choice to explicitly not consider “impact” and likelihood of being cited in deciding whether or not to accept manuscripts.
  • Interesting further experiments along these lines are being carried out elsewhere; one reason I serve on the editorial board of BMC Pharmacology and Toxicology is that this journal has chosen to experiment with posting early versions and reviews of manuscripts, and of giving the reviewers the option of not being anonymous (open, as opposed to single- or double-blind, review). Here is a recent assessment of by the BMC editorial board, and here is a related blog.
  • As reported here, the even more novel approach of “prepublishing” (prior to peer review) data and papers online has apparently taken off in Physics and Mathematics, as an alternative to the current peer review system; venues such as arXiv are beginning to include biology papers, and venues such as bioRxiv are being developed specifically for biology.
  • The same article discusses two other areas of great concern in current science–the very large percentage of high-impact findings that turn out to be irreproducible (eg, only 6 of 53 important cancer paper findings were reproduced), and the need to find a venue for publication of negative results.
  • Speaking of negative results, here is a report on an interesting idea for how to encourage journals to accept negative data papers.

Impact factors:

In my opinion, these are a small step away from useless. Some interesting takes on the subject:

  • Here is a formal evaluation of misuse of such data (fun quote: “While numbers appear to be ‘objective,’ their objectivity can be illusory.”)
  • Here is a nice summary of several of the major technical issues with the impact factor; here is a response.
  • Here is a more philosophical discussion of the issues with focusing too much on where our papers are published.
  • A formal statement on issues with impact factors, from the Cell Biology community, addressing how this metric should(n’t) be used for promotion and other decisions and processes. Choice quotes: “The impetus for the meeting was the consensus that impact factors…do not accurately reflect the value…of the work published in these journal…;” Researchers should “Challenge research assessment practices that rely inappropriately on journal impact factors.” And a more recent assessment.
  • Evidence is growing that the more “newsworthy” studies are the most likely to be wrong: Publish and be wrong. Top journals arguably publish the least reliable data.
  • Finally, here is a humorous take–but also one that makes an important point. Why did we choose this career, again?

So…I think we need to evaluate the work we read on a case-by-case basis. Here is an attempt to measure impact of specific articles by citation, normalized to “field.”

Thoughts related to an academic career:

First: I am writing this from the academic career perspective because it is what I know best, not because I think academia is what all PhD students or other students should aspire to. I sort of stumbled into this career myself, and especially in a field like environmental science,  a lot of people want the knowledge for reasons very different than an academic career–and that’s great! Some of this may apply to other areas as well, I think. That said, here are some thoughts:

On how I chose this career: I have written a piece on this, but because it is somewhat personal have not posted it. If you are interested, email me with an explanation of why you are interested, and I will (probably) be happy to share it with you.

Lee Smolin’s great commentary on the apparently growing disillusion among grad students with the idea of an academic career.

A nice essay on advice to graduate students.

Advice, most of which I agree with, on picking (and being?) a good graduate school mentor.

On running a lab and “personnel management” (urgh). Mentoring resources at Duke. An interesting article on power dynamics and communication.

On the importance of introspection and quiet thought. And another! And another!

Interesting advice on an academic career.

Concerns about biomedical research and education in the US; more at this website.