Thursday, January 27, 2011

Little fish, Big Pond

GMP commented recently about my rantings regarding a particular paper review process (Engineering Professor: Terrible reviewing practices). Her comment was that the name plays a big role in where a paper is accepted. I completely agree with that statement, but was wondering how far can I run with it. In my CV, can I say this is where the paper is published, and then next to it say where it should have been published? :) What if I created a normalization scale? I guess citation data does this to some degree. How tacky is it to have the number of citations listed next to each of one's publications?

More importantly, how much does this little fish bias get taken into account during the tenure process?

To take this a bit further, what do people think about double blind paper review? I definitely see the benefit of knowing the source for grant proposals, but I can't think of a single reason for why I should know who did the work when I'm reviewing the results. In fact, since I'm human, even if I pretend otherwise, there will almost always be a bias on some level when I know who did the work.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

It's all about your 'hood, a social commentary

I had an anecdote that I was thinking about sharing after reading GertyZ's recent post Calling in reinforcements where she had to defend the following position: 2. people, in general, do not avoid getting jobs so they can collect unemployment I was leaning toward not sharing, since as GertyZ pointed out in her post, there are always exceptions and individual examples that can be used to make a point. Then I had a phone conversation today that pushed me the other way. So here we go:

I grew up in a tough inner city neighborhood. It wasn't dangerous, but it was a lower class neighborhood where if your parents spoke English and had a GED you were above the norm. I still have family in the area so I am still actively interested in what's going on there. Growing up, my next door neighbors had 4 children. 2 boys and 2 girls. The kids were roughly my age. Their parents were on welfare. They we were decent kids, and I remember their dad talking to my dad one day specifically where he was really proud because one of their kids was on the honor role and had won some award.

None of the 4 kids finished high school, they all dropped out after they had turned 16, even the honors student. They had completed more school than their parents. The guys worked occasionally, but they've been off and on welfare since then. The two girls both got pregnant and eventually married. Today, one has 4 kids, the other 6. Also both on welfare.

While many of the extreme conservatives will say that this is why we need to get rid of welfare, I would never say this. This is part of a much, much bigger and more complicated societal problem.

In my grade school graduating class, about 80% finished high school and out of those maybe half went to college. Most are living in the same neighborhood today. Almost everyone finished more school than their parents, but JUST BARELY. That's what worries me. That's what we need to fix.

The NSF wants everyone to do outreach and to motivate the next generation of scientists and engineers in their grant proposals, so I thought I would try to partner with my grade school, to show kids there that it is possible to do better. I wanted to help them out, I don't have money yet to donate, but I wanted to give something back in this way.

Problem 1. The outreach person at my university says you can't just go out and help schools. I should work with schools that are already partnered on programs with the university. News flash, those are already pretty good schools. Sure they are usually not the special math academy, but in general, I would say they are the average schools, not the ones at the bottom. The kids that come to visit labs know that there are labs to visit.

Problem 2. I went ahead and contacted my school, told them I was an alumnus that wanted to help them out. It took them two weeks just to return my phone call. No one at the school had ever heard of the NSF, or that there are university outreach programs, or had any idea how one would work. I tried to explain it to them. I asked them for their input. What do they need to get their kids to do better at math and science? Today the principal told me that they're not sure they want my help, they are pretty happy with the curriculum that have in place now.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Terrible reviewing practices

As I mentioned in my last post, I got a paper rejection this week. That's nothing to write about in itself, but the journey that this particular paper has gone through is worth telling.

So let me start out by saying that this paper reports some seriously ground breaking results. I know it, my co-authors know it, everyone we have talked to about it knows it. And I personally have talked tens of other PIs in the field about it, and they agree. I've presented the results at conferences with much fanfare. So that's why it was initially submitted to Science. They said no. No shock there, the editors gave some half-assed response. So we sent it to Nature. Again a no, but this time the editors spent a few paragraphs summarizing the work and explaining their decision. I was seriously impressed with that. But their response boiled down to: we think these are great results, but it won't generate enough citations because it's not such a hot field. So next we sent the paper to the most appropriate Nature subjournal. It's a fairly "interdisciplinary" paper so it doesn't exactly fit into one of the Nature derivatives. They also stated fairly obviously as well that the paper was being rejected because it won't generate enough citations. In the meantime, we talked with more people about it and they all say that it's great stuff that will significantly affect the field--which to me sounds like it will be cited often. We tried the other Nature derivative that fit. Again no. Same reason. Never made it past the editors.

So finally we gave up and sent it to lower journal. Now, we were sure this would be a cake walk. Man, were we wrong. The paper had only two reviewers. The first had some well formulated comments and concerns, but recommended the paper for publication after the appropriate, relatively easy revisions. The second was a raving lunatic. They went on for almost a page. Almost no punctuation, spelling mistakes everywhere, no useful or insightful criticism. Outright recommendation for rejection. It really feels like some first year grad student jotted down comments on the paper after a bad day, perhaps after getting their own paper rejected, and the PI submitted the review without so much as looking at it. The editor must not have read the comments either, because it came back as a rejection based on the recommendations of the reviewers. The line has been crossed, this one is getting appealed. We'll see what happens.

Out of all this though, what bothers me the most is the raving lunatic review. Since when can reviewers be so unprofessional? I've gotten poorly written reviews in the past, at least once or twice that I can remember, but of course didn't mind too much because they were positive. Two or three phrases, not even sentences. Reviewers have at least a college degree and in theory the person getting the paper to review has a Ph.D. Is being insanely busy a valid excuse for not, at least, hitting spelling and grammar check in Word? Have these people never taken a professional writing class? Do they not realize this is wrong? This thought caused me to take action with my own trainees. I'm having them write up reviews for a paper and I'm going to critique what they submit to me next week. Maybe all new PIs should get a class in how to review a paper.

Do you folks (all 2 of you reading this) come across such poorly written reviews as well? Is there an editor out there that has ever returned a review back to the reviewers for doing a shitty job? Or at least told them that they should try harder in the future?

Monday, January 17, 2011

The year in review, 2011 edition

2011 is off to a fantastic start. I've been working on this post off and on for several days now. Somehow it always devolves into me ranting like a raving lunatic. It's in the spirit of sharing my experiences with kindred spirits in the blogosphere. Since I haven't found a proper outlet for venting yet, here it is:

I stayed in academia to try to balance the world. I encountered so many brilliant, slave driving, malicious, egotistical faculty during my Ph.D. at top tier research U that I decided I had to do something about it. Otherwise I would just be another whinny Ph.D. student that complains for 5-6 years and then goes off and takes a pretty well paying job in industry, never to care again while the system continues to degrade. (I apologize here to all of the non-engineering readers out there that by comparison struggle immensely to get jobs.) Now I feel like I'm turning into this snobby professor, just like what I was exposed to. I do want to mention though, that I don't find my current colleagues to be such jerks. To their credit, they at least appear to not be bitter and evil. That being said, here are some more of my annoyances thus far in 2011.
I already posted about the accounting error, so I won't revisit that here.

I finally managed to find one adult on campus that does something more than the StairMaster at the gym. So now, I'm routinely getting my ass kicked at a racket sport by a guy that's about my dad's age. That's apparently what happens when one stops exercising for 4 months and gains 15 pounds in stress related weight. 

I think my lab is finally running out of things that can go wrong. The first lab I was promised does not have the proper ventilation. So I'm stuck going into a temporary lab space, less than half of the size of the first lab. To free up space, I had them move the safety shower. The plumbing wasn't reconnected well and the lab was flooded. Luckily there was no equipment in there. Next, they found hazardous chemicals in the drains and had to shut down my water supply and spent several days cleaning it. Not from my lab BTW. Just about ready to go now.
Two Friday's ago, I didn't exchange a complete sentence with another person all day. I leave my door open, but no one stops by, not even my own students. One day I may miss this peace and quiet, but right now I don't care for it. To add to that, I received an email that my grant was rejected about two weeks after I submitted it. Turns out, as I suspected, the email wasn't real. I was told by a tech guy that the email was sent by mistake because they are testing a new system. Of course, I couldn't reach anyone official from that department all afternoon so I didn't know for sure. I finally got an apology on Monday for the screw up.

I asked for a support letter for a grant and got it...with two mistakes. The first is forgivable, my personal education was wrong, which you expect the department to know, but hey it's not their own information. The second mistake was that the name of the grant was misspelled.

The bookstore didn't order enough copies of the book for my class. This is after they first had listed the wrong book for the course, which luckily I caught by checking on my own. Now I have students bothering me about what to do about their homework. What amount of responsibility should I put on the students for waiting until the last minute to buy their books?

Today I'm sitting at home, trying to work on a grant proposal while having a bad case of diarrhea from eating too much pizza over the weekend.

This leads me to thoughts of maybe I'm in the wrong profession. Is it worth the sacrifice to do this? I enjoy science and teaching, and the hope of job security, but common. How screwed over would everyone be if I just threw in the towel? Would I be happier as a therapist, sitting around, getting paid to listen to other peoples' problems. Or for fucks sake, as an Internet marketing analyst. My buddy is making more money and gets to drink with hot shot CEOs for a living.

Oh, and I just got a paper rejected this morning from the 5th journal attempted. More on that later.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

IBM Watson

February 14-16 an IBM computer will compete on Jeopardy. I wonder what it will wager on Double Jeopardy questions. Will it have a confidence rating programmed into it? Obviously if it is in the lead, with 30 seconds to answer in Final Jeopardy, it should be able to answer any question. Also, from my rather limited knowledge of AI, isn't the biggest factor here internet connection speed?

If Watson wins, I'm not sure that I will keep watching. If fact, it might be time to start appeasing our electronic overlords. I would like to start by apologizing for kicking one of your relatives in college. It was purely by accident that I gave it amnesia (screwed up hard drive).

What does everyone else think about this?

Friday, January 14, 2011

Shaking my head in disbelief

I hate constantly ranting. It makes me feel bad. But it really feels like I have nothing good to say about anything at the moment. Today's annoyance:

As mentioned in my previous post, I've been on a spending spree, buying toys for my students as well as all the mundane things that only I find cool, like Parafilm. Today I get back to my office after a full day of pointless meetings to find an email in my inbox from our purchasing department. It says that my purchase can't be completed because of insufficient funds. WTF?! So I haven't been tracking my accounts on our archaic university system so closely, but I have been maintaining my own spreadsheet which shows that I should still have a few thousand left in this account.

So I walk over to our local purchasing person to inquire politely about this. I get the same comment. You are out of funds. We have no idea why. Check your monthly printouts. Yes folks, printouts. So I've now spent the last two hours of my life matching up my purchases and internal accounting with the university system. I've found the problem. This is focken unbelievable. 1) I submit a form with the amount I want charged for a purchase. 2) I submit the quote I get from the company to confirm the amount. Now I don't really care what the quote says, just what the bottom line is. Sometimes the quotes are "fancy" with full prices and the discounts subtracted so I can see my "savings." Now for some genius reason, our braindead people use the quote instead of the form to figure out what to enter into their stupid arse system. So they enter the base amount on one line, then enter the discount on another line. They do enter it as a negative number to indicate the discount. very clever. EXCEPT, the system doesn't subtract out the negative numbers. So I've been getting charged the full amount on things. Hence the discrepancy. Luckily it looks like it's only happened twice.

And actually, I even caught this once because the vendor called me and told me that they got the wrong amount. I told our people that they sent the wrong amount and they attributed it to a typo and I bought it instead of following up. Now it happened on a big item and several thousand dollars got sent to a vendor and I can't buy my stuff. And who knows how long it will take for me to get my money back into the account?

And this is only one of today's headaches.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011


Sorry about the radio silence. Two proposals due this week and preparing for the start of classes. The snow day today saved me huge. Some much needed writing time has been freed up by the metric fick-ton of white powdery substance outside.

More interesting posts will be forthcoming in the next few days.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Money well spent?

Today I spent a quarter of my start-up money. Most of it went to a few big ticket items that I have been carefully selecting and comparing for the last few months. It's a bit scary spending one's annual salary in a single day when there is no guarantee of future funding ever arriving, but it had to be done. There is zero chance of getting data when there is no equipment for running the experiment. Too bad this isn't like buying a car, where I can drive it right off the lot. I get to sit around for a few weeks now while the order goes through several purchasing and accounting personnel at Research U and then at the company. Then industrious German workers get to assemble it, test it, and ship it over. Then it will sit in customs and probably be delivered to the wrong building. About a month from now, if I'm lucky, I'll assemble my new stuff only to find out that they used metric screws and it won't fit in my Imperial unit setup.

Other items in my virtual shopping cart were more standard, but conversely took almost as long to select. I enjoy having a giant selection to choose from as much as the next guy, it is the American way after all. But would it kill "large supplier A" to obtain full descriptions for the stuff on their website. An added bonus would be some organization in how the information is actually presented. For example, I had to order some lab coats. There are over 75 types/brands of disposable labcoats to choose from. Once I got past the obvious things like color, length, number of pockets, and types of cuffs, I got the the good stuff. Will it protect me? People in my lab will be working with bacteria and some benign chemicals. There's no search column for this on the website. Some coats protect against minor spills, some against aerosols, some keep me safe from microparticles, some from medium blood spatter, and some are chemical resistant, but the overwhelming majority say nothing about the subject, nor do they tell me the material. They are soft and durable, but will that keep me safe? How about adding some more relevant information and having some sort of rating system for how much protection I can expect from a given thickness, material, coating on a coat? Ooh, ooh, I know, how about a chart? List the material, thickness, and price. Why bother carrying a product that is supposed to protect a human being when no information is given about how well it works? Or worse, you are given some cryptic value system like superior or 5 star protection. (Should I go with the lock or the shoe in of the week? It is a really big lock...) It's as if the manufacturers don't want us comparing their products. (I'm starting to suspect a conspiracy. Brand loyalty in the sciences, after all, is worse than Pepsi vs. Coke) Instead, you want me to call and find out the specs on your merchandise, then hunt around on the web and through lab safety manuals checking for compatibility. In this case, I didn't have a favorite brand, so I ended up going with one that had at least some information listed. Would others have done the job? Maybe, but we'll never know.

And don't even get me started on gloves and pipet tips.