26 May 2015

Tuesday Crustie: Troglobitic

From a cave in Tennessee. The photographer calls them isopods, although they look a little longer and narrower than many isopods.

Photo by Kristen on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

19 May 2015

Tuesday Crustie: Cha-ching!

The ancient so revered crustaceans that they put them on their money! According to the caption:

Coin from the city of Priapos, Mysia, (today Karabiga; Turkey) 1st century B. C.

The page I found this on includes a lengthy discussion of the origin of “lobster” and “crayfish.”

External links

How did lobster mean two different species?

15 May 2015


Natalie Morales reviewed my itty bitty ebook, Presentation Tips!

Natalie. Effing. Morales!

(And she liked it! Squee!)

Update, 1 August 2017: My little ebook makes a cameo appearance in this new interview with Natalie (my emphasis):

And then there is her Instagram account. “I’ve noticed that all these celebrities were getting a bunch of free shit and sort of faking it on Instagram,” she explains. “I was like, well, why not just, like, blatantly do it? Why not just go, like, ‘Hey, I like free stuff. Don’t send me a shitty thing because I’ll say that it’s shitty, and I’ll post about it.’”

She started the Instagram account @NatalieMoralesLovesFreeStuff, and now she gets free stuff — including a fantasy novel someone has written, a public-speaking manual someone has written, chocolates from a small candy shop, a board game someone developed, and some swag from Dyson.

12 May 2015

Tuesday Crustie: Go!

Meet a regular on Teen Titans Go!

Unfortunately, this resident outside Titans Tower seems to have no name.

But he can take comfort.

At least he has his own wiki entry.

And crabs are much cooler than seagulls.

11 May 2015

When does authorship stop meaning anything useful?

“My god... it’s full of authors.”

Prof-Like Substance drew my attention to this fruit fly paper, which may be a new record setter. I have never before seen a paper with over one thousand authors. One thousand and fourteen, if my count is correct. (Image at right. Click to enlarge... if you dare. That took some image stitching, let me tell you)

The highest I’d seen before this was a paltry 816.

I was curious what you had to have done to be listed as an author. With that many, it seemed like the criteria for authorship might have been, “Have you ever seen a fruit fly?” I went looking for statement about author contributions, which some journals have. There is not any such declaration in the paper.

The PDF of the paper gives a bit of a clue as to what’s going one. The author list is more modest on the title page, which lists the authors as, “Wilson Leung and Participating Students and Faculty of the Genomics Education Partnership.” So a lot of these authors are students who took a class, and probably completed part of the analysis as a course assignment.

Digging into the acknowledgements, though, suggests that the inclusion for authorship was marginally higher than being an data monkey:

The authors also thank additional students who contributed data analysis to this project, but for various reasons did not participate in reviewing the manuscript.

This suggests that all thousand or so authors at least looked at the paper and signed off on it. But judging from the course listings in the Acknowledgments section, it seems that many of these were undergraduate students, and I wonder whether any of them had any substantive opportunity to have input into the text and interpretations of the paper. And can everyone stand behind, and vouchsafe, the data here? Some guidelines require that of authors, and I think that’s a pretty good guideline.

I am all for engaging students in research, and crediting them. But this is a bad way of doing it.

Papers like this render the concept of “authorship” of a scientific paper meaningless. This feel more like a participation award than authorship. A possible solution, as I’ve suggested before (also here; paywalled), is that we need to give up “authorship” and focus on “credits” that are clearer descriptions of the contribution individuals make. Call the students “contributors” rather than authors. Put it in a supplemental file.

Additional: Okay, this paper has 1,446 authors, and this one has 2,932 authors. (Hat tip to Jens Foell for pointing those out.) Both are particle physics papers, though, a field which has been dealing with large author numbers for a long time. The paper under discussion here, the fruit fly paper, may be a record for biology. Even the draft human genome got ‘er done with “just” 272 authors.

New rule! If the number of authors on your paper can be measured in “kiloauthors,” having your name on the paper will not count for tenure and promotion purposes.

Update, 12 May 2015: The journal’s blog describes how this paper came to have over 1,000 authors, with over 900 of them being undergraduate students.

I will point out that there are guidelines for who gets to be an author. These are not perfect (Drugmonkey hates them), and not often followed in the trenches. But they do represent an attempt to spell out what authorship should mean, by a fairly substantial number of people working in scientific publishing.

I doubt that every undergraduates on this paper truly helped draft or revise the paper (criterion 2) or can be truly accountable for everything related to the paper (criterion 4). To their credit, author number 1,014 says on the blog:

“Actually we got some important comments back from students,” says Elgin.

I’m pleased that some students made important comments, but I have doubts that all the students genuinely met the “draft and revise” criterion. Reading a paper and saying, “Okay,” doesn’t cut it for me.

Update, 13 May 2015: This story has bubbled over to Nature’s website, with some comments from the non-student authors. Warning: contains me.

Update, 21 July 2016: This blog post discusses a highly cited technician (mostly so I can find it again later).

Related posts

Letter in Science

External links

Class projects as publishable research?
Undergrads power genomics research
Who is an author? (ICMJE “Vancouver guidelines”) 
Fruit-fly paper has 1,000 authors

06 May 2015

Riding into the sunset: my last class at UTPA

I just taught my last class at The University of Texas-Pan American ever. And, in contemporary fashion, I marked the occasion with a few selfies with my students.

Today is the last day of classes for the spring semester. There are still grades to calculate and such, but there are no more lecture days.

I am not teaching in summer 2015. I desperately need time not teaching to do many, many things. My office is about two years overdue for a purge, I have two manuscripts waiting for my revisions, there’s administrative stuff...

And when Fall 2015 rolls around, I will be teaching at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.

When I got here in 2001, the first class I taught was General Biology. And today, the last class I taught was General Biology again. And the students were good sports, so it was a nice class to end my UTPA teaching on.

It’s the end of an era.

05 May 2015

Tuesday Crustie: Beautiful

Meet Cherax pulcher. Its last name, “pulcher,” literally translates to “beautiful.”

Unfortunately, the beauty of this species may be its downfall. They are already for sale, and collected in large numbers, in the pet trade. And since the species is new to science, we know almost nothing about its basic biology.

Astacologist Chris Lukhaup mentioned on his Facebook page that he’s spent over a decade working on the description of this gorgeous new species. They aren’t all this pretty; there are a couple of different morphs, and no doubt Chris’s considerable photographic talents are at play in this picture, too.

Update, 13 May 2015: This crayfish is featured in this New Scientist article. Warning: contains me.

Update, 15 May 2015: It’s so nice to see crayfish in the news, and attention being drawn to the potential dangers of exploiting an almost unknown species for the pet trade. This article in the Washington Post says the species looks like a Lisa Frank creation... wait, did they steal Jason Goldman’s joke?


Lukhaup C. 2015. Cherax (Astaconephrops) pulcher, a new species of freshwater crayfish (Crustacea, Decapoda, Parastacidae) from the Kepala Burung (Vogelkop) Peninsula, Irian Jaya (West Papua), Indonesia. ZooKeys 502: 1-10. http://dx.doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.502.9800

04 May 2015

Don’t forget who approves new doctoral programs

The University of Michigan has been hosting a series of talks on the future of graduate and postdoctoral training in biology. There is a comprehensive Storify of tweet here.

American discussions about whether there are too many doctoral students and postdocs appear to be very much driven by federal funding agencies, mainly the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. Both have an interest because they provide are the source of support (salaries and such) for graduate students and post-docs.

The role of American states in this whole scenario is almost never mentioned.

In Texas, new doctoral programs have to be approved by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. I have not conducted a survey of all the higher education systems in the United States, but I suspect that there are similar boards in other states.

If there is overproduction of doctorates, the states bear some responsibility for creating new doctoral programs.

While I hear from federal agencies on graduate student and post-doc training quite often, I almost never hear what the states think of all this.This mattere, because each state can have its own higher education agenda. And that agenda may not align with the agenda of the federal funding agencies.

The federal agencies get a lot of attention in this regard because they have money. But there should be a lot more attention focused on what the individual states think on the future of graduates and post-doctoral training. The states should not create doctoral programs at whim then leave them to be funded by federal agencies, any more than institutions should recruit grad students, and send their recent graduates off with little more than, “Good luck with that job hunt!” when they’re done.

03 May 2015

Epic fail: universities scared of dealing with bad behaviour

If a student called me a “f*cking moron” to my face, do I have the right to fail that student in my class?

Because that happened recently, just not to me. This story broke a few days ago: a Texas A&M professor decided to fail his entire class. The professor involved reported a host of issues with his students, including clear academic misconduct, but it seems that a lot of the problem arose because students were behaving badly. Calling a professor a moron is... not the way to win friends and influence people.

The university, predictably, is responding thus:

Dr. Patrick Louchouarn, the vice president of Academic affairs at the university made it very clear that although they respect Horwtiz, his failing grades won’t stick.

This is a problem, because a professor’s ability to assign grades is usually one of the places were the instructor has a very high degree of autonomy. It is very, very unusual for an administrator to meddle with the grades assigned by a faculty member.

From this article:

Henry Reichman, chairman of the American Association of University Professors’ Committee on Academic Freedom... said faculty members generally do have the right to assign grades, but there are some extreme circumstances under which this may be limited. He said, for example, that if a college found that a professor was failing students for clearly inappropriate reasons, the institution would be correct to intervene. ...

It should be the right of a professor to grade on behavioral issues and not strictly academic ones, whether that means failing a student who engages in academic misconduct or taking off points for people who miss class or turn in work late.

Reichman understandably goes for clear cut cases in his examples. Academic misconduct is an academic issue, not really a behavioural one. There is a well-established tradition and understanding in higher education that late work is penalized, and that also seems to be an academic issue.

What about students lack “honour and maturity”? Or, to use the case I started with, a student says something hateful to a professor? Can a professor fail a student for that?

I have a problem with that approach. I don’t think I have a right to give a student a lower grade because he or she yelled at me. Grade assignment should be related to the content of the work.

That is not to say that I don’t think the student should have no consequences for bad behaviour. Quite the opposite; I want there to be robust ways for me to report and censure such students. But I don’t have a simple toolkit for doing so. Assigning a grade is easy and involves only me. Report a student acting badly, and suddenly there are whole other levels of administrative machinery that kick into gear. I’m guessing three levels of administration (department chair, a dean, maybe a vice-president) and an investigating committee of faculty will be involved, minimum. And it’s not clear that those other levels of the university will support me. Suddenly, you are worried about retaliation, leniency, and more.

I suspect that trying to fail the student is how many, many professors would deal with the problem. They try to turn a behavioural problem into an academic one. It’s just easier.

And it’s not just professors relating to students.

A new professor who is demanding and abusive is more likely to have his or her department try to get rid of them by saying, “You didn’t publish enough papers in the right journals or get enough grants for tenure” rather than saying, “You’re a jerk who is making everyone around you miserable.” The American Association for University Professors specifically recommends that collegiality should not be a criterion for evaluating faculty.

I’ve said this for a long time. Universities are extremely bad at handling behavioural problems head on. The usual approach is to try getting rid of bad players by giving them a rough ride over academic issues, and not addressing the fundamental problem.

Related posts

Their grades were too... high?

External links

Slam flunk
Professor at Texas A&M Galveston fails entire class

Picture by Nicolas Raymond on Flickr; used under a Creative Commone license.

01 May 2015

Fix journals you have before you make new ones

In an editorial, Society for Neuroscience president Steve Hyman takes on issues of replication and rigor. Near the end, he writes:

With the launch of eNeuro, SfN aims to alter some of the troubling patterns in publication.

I still don’t see why the society needs a new journal to alter those patterns, when it could just change the editorial policies of the journal it already has.

If you think publishing negative results is important, if you think publishing replications is important, change the editorial policies, priorities, and format of Journal of Neuroscience. Cordoning these results into eNeuro sends a clear signal that replications and negative results are second rate science.

Additional, 6 May 2015: Ivan Oransky notes that the Journal of Neuroscience has some “troubling patterns in publication,” like not explaining editorial decisions on retractions and publication bans.

Comments for second half of April 2015

Dead Sea News has a nice new paper on science outreach. Love that. But confused as to why it’as in a computational biology journal.

DrugMonkey asks why people are scientists.