Honorary authorship is fraud.

Authorship on peer-reviewed papers is a big deal in academia. If you’re a grad student looking for a postdoc, the very first thing your prospective advisor is going to want to know is what you’ve published (this is arguably true at every level, though funded grants become important, too). Customs vary among fields, but in mine (ecology and evolutionary biology), the first author is typically the person who carried out the experiment and wrote at least a first draft of the paper, and the last author is typically the head of the lab group, who is presumed to have played a role in planning the research, advising the first author along the way, and writing and revising the resulting paper. In between (if there are more than two authors) are people who have made some other contributions, which can cover a wide range of activities.

Sometimes, though, people who haven’t made any significant contribution at all are listed as authors. This happens for a variety of reasons, but the one I want to talk about today is so-called ‘honorary’ or ‘gift’ authorship. This is something I have long had a strong opinion about: in my mind, honorary authorship is unethical. It is an abuse of the system. It is academic misconduct. [Read more…]

I thought I’d buried the hatchet with Research Outreach

…but they dug it back up!

Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!

The backstory here is that I wrote a post a couple of years ago that expressed some not very flattering opinions about a publication called Research Features. A while later, their Editorial Director emailed me that she was “interested and concerned” about what I had written and asked if we might talk on the phone. When I replied that I’d rather discuss it by email, she left the conversation and never came back. I later found out that their writers were only paid £50 for each article, and I wrote about that. This year, I learned that the same people had started a new publication, Research Outreach, that seemed to have cleaned up its act relative to Research Features, and I wrote about that. Their Operations Director responded with a couple of very nice comments, which I posted in their entirety.

It turns out that while I was making nice with Research Outreach, they were bolting the doors and tuning up to play “The Rains of Castamere.” [Read more…]

Ph.D. position on evolution of multicellularity

Go to Sweden. Learn about multicellularity. Taste dank saké.

Eric Libby is looking for a Ph.D. student to model the evolution of multicellularity at Umeå University in Sweden. Here’s the project description:

[Read more…]

Peer review isn’t magic

In response to Tom Sheldon’s dire warnings of the dangers of preprints, “Preprints could promote confusion and distortion,” I’ve suggested that what really promotes confusion and distortion is credulous reporters failing to apply basic journalistic standards:

Peer review isn’t a magic wand that guarantees that only solid work gets published, and it isn’t a substitute for skepticism. Reporters have a responsibility to evaluate the evidence in a paper whether it is peer reviewed or not.

A couple of recent examples are relevant. First, the claim by mathematician Michael Atiyah to have proven the Riemann Hypothesis, an immensely important number theory problem related to the distribution of prime numbers. Remember, along with promoting “confusion and distortion,” Sheldon had warned that preprints could rob journalists of “time and breathing space,” pressuring them to rush to sensationalize bad science. Reporting on Atiyah’s claim shows what utter nonsense this is.

[Read more…]

In defense of preprints

At the end of July, I criticized an opinion piece that Tom Sheldon published in Nature, “Preprints could promote confusion and distortion“:

While the article casts preprints, preprint servers, and scientists who post their work to preprint servers as potential sources of misinformation, its arguments better support the case that science reporters should act more responsibly…What irks me is that I can’t find any hint in the article that Sheldon thinks journalists share the blame when they sensationalize bad science.

The latest issue of Nature includes three more critical responses to Sheldon’s nonsense.

[Read more…]

Postdoc opportunity studying Volvox!

If I were a graduate student nearing graduation, I would apply for this: an NSF-funded postdoc opportunity in the Umen lab at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis.

[Read more…]

A further comment on “Don’t ask for letters of recommendation up front”

I recently argued that asking for letters of reference to be submitted with applications for tenure-track positions devalues the time of highly productive scientists:

Letters of recommendation should be requested by the committee, and they should be requested after the first cut.

A senior researcher who’s a friend and colleague recently told me that for the last few years, she has simply not applied for any position that asked for letters of reference up front. It’s not hard to understand why. After a while, you start to feel that you’re imposing on your references (in reality, it’s the search committees who are imposing). In my case, I’ve submitted well over a hundred such applications, which means that each of my three references has supplied over a hundred letters (and thank you for that).

[Read more…]

Don’t ask for letters of recommendation up front

I’ve been sitting on this for a while, not wanting to piss off hiring committees who might evaluate my own applications. I have applied for over a hundred tenure-track faculty positions, and I’ve had over a dozen in-person interviews. One of the things that has always struck me is the incredible degree to which the time of anyone not on the hiring committee is devalued. This is true of the applicants’ time, but today I’m mainly talking about the time of their references.

It’s typical to request three letters of recommendation with an application, but some departments will request four or (rarely) five. In most cases, the application is considered incomplete and will not be considered until all of the letters are submitted. If one of your references has a hard time with deadlines, tough.

In most cases, your references will be fairly senior scientists, Associate Professor or above. It would be nearly impossible, for example, for your Ph.D. advisor to be an Assistant Professor, since that position typically lasts about as long as a Ph.D. In my case, all three of my references were full Professors, one a department head. In nearly every case, all three references will be highly productive scientists. Their time is valuable, not just in terms of salary but in terms of advancing science. Requiring letters of recommendation up front wastes it.

Letters of recommendation should be requested by the committee, and they should be requested after the first cut.

[Read more…]