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Thanksversity

First, a moment of silence for Freezersaurus (2009-2016); Rest In Recycling. This week we close the door on our years of arctic antics together. A new, uncertain relationship is beginning, with our diversity of icy inhabitants hanging in the balance. A future post will provide an update.freezer

Stomach-Churning Rating: 2/10; no photos, but some politics; take it or leave it.

Speaking of diversity, it’s Thanksgiving in my home of the USA and thus a time for reflection. Such reflections this year inevitably turn to current global events, in which “diversity” has come up in many ways, and then back to my own life, and back again. It certainly has been a year for reflection, and – like many others – my current taste for dystopian tales mirrors that reflection.

In (the United States of) America, Thanksgiving is a tradition of (at least implicitly) commemorating the meeting of two cultures (Native and newly-immigrated American/Puritan) and the eventual fusion/phagocytosis of those two diverse cultures into something new; leading to the USA of today and its diverse inhabitants and cultures. We spend time with family and have awkward conversations or cheer on sports teams or take engorgement-induced naps. We eat diverse foods of the harvest time and thank the spirits/divinity/cooks for their bounty. Many Americans, across our cultural diversity, take time to ponder what they are grateful for. I’ve always loved this holiday because of that, and my fond memories of past Thanksgivings.

And so I am drawn to reflection on the giving of thanks, and the significance of diversity, and I choose today to type some words that echo my thoughts.

I am grateful for what diversity we have. My life is enmeshed with that diversity: I study biodiversity and marvel at the diversity of nature, which both bring great joy to my life. I worry about the state of funding for, and reciprocally the appreciation of, the scientific study of nature and the human value placed on biodiversity, and the implications of those for the future of diverse life on Earth, both human and non-human. It is well known that they are all under threat, in diverse ways, from sociopolitical and other factors.

To me, human diversity (cultural, ethnic, other) is part of this natural diversity; it has evolved and will continue to, for as long as it exists. It is not going away. I am grateful for that human diversity. Some parts of it bring me terrible revulsion, and those are the source of much worry, and our own nature is their source, too. But it brings my life great meaning to interact with different people, to learn new things from them, and to share experiences in more positive ways. I am curious about all of these things, and because of that curiosity in 2016 I have learned more about that human diversity than I ever have before. Some of that learning has been about the dark side of humanity, from political and social trends (or glaring exposure of longstanding biases) in the UK and USA and more globally. Yet also some of that learning has been about the virtues of human diversity and realizing how much solidarity I feel (and have long felt) for those who are trapped in disadvantageous positions along the fault lines of confrontations between different components of that diversity. It has brought out some of my best and worst feelings.

Like a snail, this year I feel that I have periodically been moving forward to inspect the greater world, enjoying it for a time, then recoiling once I encounter the xenophobia, anti-intellectualism, and selfishness, which make me want to stay inside my shell. Long have I inhabited that shell in 2016. I’m not proud of those feelings and that tenancy in my little partition of this world, but they are what I’ve been able to manage. Today, I am trying to appreciate the broader picture and remind myself of where there is still goodness in the world, and how cycles of diversity can stabilize. We have choices to make about how we control those cycles; we humans are unique in our control of them; and those choices are best poised on the understanding that comes from curiosity. It is there in that diversity that Darwin celebrated; “There is grandeur in this view of life,” and today I am thankful for the grandeur that does still remain around us. I am curious to view what grandeur that diversity presents next. We could all use more of that grandeur.

And thanks for reading this post.

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I was inspired this week, after a stimulating conference, to put into writing what my team stands for. What do we have in common with other scientists, or what makes us different, or what should we all be doing together beyond the actual science itself? I’ve written advice for my team before, but not something like this, and with new staff/students coming soon, I want something ready for them to see what we’re about, and what we need to become more of, too. Not a rant, but a calm codification of our core beliefs. I presented this to my team later in the week for edits and ideas, and felt that it’s now ready for sharing. There’s no reason to keep it private; I personally like what’s here at the moment, and response from my team was positive, too. I am sure opinions will vary, and it’s my team to lead so I might not agree with some, but the fact that I’m posting this means that I expect it’s quite likely that this “mission statement” will improve if commenters pipe up.

No images this time, except for Jerry above. I want the emphasis to be on the thoughts.

Stomach-Churning Rating: wot? No, not that kind of post.

Here we outline my team’s fundamental principles and ethos for our scientific activities, beyond the rules of the RVC and other institutions (e.g. funders) that we adhere to, and basic common sense or morality, or elaborating on and emphasizing those in relation to our work. This is a document that will evolve as we learn from our experiences. We welcome input and discussion. It applies to all of Team Hutch’s staff and students (and Prof. John Hutchinson [JRH], too). The intent is positive: to remind us of our overarching scientific standards, to foster lively debate and to educate ourselves by challenging us to think about what we stand for. The motivation is to communicate the team’s ethos, benefiting from past lessons. The application is flexible, to accommodate the fact that everyone is different, although some of our ethos must be rigid.

While we are unified by research interests, we respect and value other aspects of science including teaching and administrative work. We consider science communication and public engagement to be part of research, too. Our focus is on the evolution of locomotor biomechanics in organisms and, to maintain a strength in this focus, we try to remain within it. However, “side projects” are enthusiastically supported as long as the main research foci of projects (including past work) remain the top priorities and on target.

We aim to conduct high quality research (and other scientific efforts), where possible setting and following gold standards, and acting in a professional leadership role. We are willing to slow our research progress in order to improve the quality of the work, although we also recognize that science is an imperfect human venture. “Minimal publishable units” are not a goal of our research but we fully recognize that early career scientists need to publish in order to move on in many careers.

We are scholars- we care deeply about communicating with each other, our colleagues, and the past and future of science via the literature. We try to keep up with progress in our fields. This is normal practice but we try to do even better than normal. We aim to publish all research we do; otherwise it is wasted effort.

We also treasure openness in science, from publishing our work in open access formats where feasible, to externally sharing open data and methods with the broader community and public, as quickly and comprehensively as possible.

Regular communication within the team and with collaborators is immensely valuable and so we respond promptly to it (sensibly—working or communicating out of normal working hours is not expected!). We participate in regular lab meetings as part of the team culture and communication. In socializing within and outside the team, we respect others, attempting to avoid offense caused by demeaning or other behaviour. Our team members should not be condescended to in discussions or otherwise made to feel stupid- speaking out should be cultivated, not repressed with aggression or egotism.

Quality of writing (and other communication such as oral presentations) in science is something that we aim to maximize, improving our own writing skills and products by pushing ourselves to learn to be better and by constructive critiques of others’ writing.

Ethical practice in all of our work is immensely valued. This includes diversity of people and skills, which broaden our perspectives and help us to transcend disciplinary boundaries that might otherwise blind us to broader insights. We are a team- we support each other in our work and careers, trying to eschew internal competition or territoriality. Mutual benefits from teamwork need to be raised above selfish individualism; focusing on one person’s need for career boosts may reduce others’ prospects.

One of the most treasured ethical principles that we cleave to is integrity. Among the worst scientific crimes that can be committed are fraud, intellectual property theft and plagiarism—no goal justifies those actions. We seek to be our own toughest critics, within reason, to minimize errors or worse outcomes in our science. We promptly correct our published research if we find errors needing amendment.

Ethical sourcing of and handling of data or specimens is important to us. Whether it is favouring publically accessible as opposed to privately held fossil (or other) specimens or cadaveric material that was obtained via traceable sources that maintain legal or optimal standards of animal welfare, we target the “high road” in obtaining material for study. If we conduct in vivo animal research we attempt to transcend the standards of the “three R’s” and set a high example, maximizing animal welfare and benefits from that research—as we are at a veterinary university, we involve vets and other health and welfare specialists in transferring knowledge from our work to improving the lives of animals.

We try to be inclusive in coauthorship of publications (following RVC rules) but especially do not tolerate “honorary coauthors” who contribute little or nothing to research. We value idea production, data collection and provision, analysis, writing and revision as ingredients that earn coauthorship.

[these next two paragraphs still feel too formal/negative to me, but they highlight something important that I’ve learned about; to a degree there must be hierarchy, and I’m the only one that will be in Team Hutch for as long as it lasts, so I have to be the enforcer of its long-term rules. It’s the aspect of this job that I probably enjoy least, but it looms there whether I like it or not.]

As per RVC intellectual property (IP) rules (as well as rules of funders etc.), all IP generated while working at the RVC remains its IP, managed by JRH. Such IP can and should be used by those generating it, and others that would benefit (including those who have since left the lab) but to ensure proper conduct, JRH must approve usage.

JRH is the leader of the team and as manager has final say in decisions, but encourages negotiation and reasonable disagreement to seek mutually acceptable solutions. JRH makes mistakes too and welcomes them being pointed out. JRH seeks to help his team succeed in whatever career goals they have and for long after they depart Team Hutch, but expects solid effort at work in return, and dedication to the principles outlined here.

We are human. We want fun, enjoyable lives including at work, and this pursuit of fun colours all that we do, because science is fun and so are scientists. We want that fun to radiate upon the world and echo through time.

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That’s as it stands right now. What do you think? I am certain that I have left things out, but it’s a start.

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Why

I had a nice chat today (OK, a while ago, when I first started writing this post) with a researcher who wanted to know why I blogged and how I balanced my science communication work with my research activities. In talking with her, I realized that there was a way to explain my views that I hadn’t thought of before and then I realized that this might make a blog post that other people would care to read. So here it is.

Stomach-Churning Rating: 0/10. Just vomiting out words.

I’ll take a historical perspective to answering why I bother doing what I do, and how I came to do it.  As an evolutionary biologist, and as a teacher and communicator, I find that this kind of narrative works for me and for others, in deepening comprehension of why things are the way they are. In my pre-college and college years, I loved to read and write, and I liked science. A professor as a father, a mother who encouraged scholarship and a family that liked to go experience nature together helped. I eventually got competent at writing and maintained that ability (even musing about whether I might become a Hollywood screenwriter– bullet dodged?), whilst figuring out that some sort of biology might be right for my career. Off to college I went.

Amidst the beer-fuelled haze of undergrad life at the U Wisconsin, I fell in love with the science writings of Stephen Jay Gould and some others, which today would be blog posts. A course in the history of science and a lot of courses in biology shaped my interests, and to cut that story short, off to grad school I went in 1995. I’d discovered the internet (on my dad’s iMac) while recovering from some major health problems, and liked it. I learned to love it during my PhD work, participating in a lot of arguing on the Dinosaur email listserver and other kinds of online writing.

In particular, I fell in with the crew of grad students writing pages for the UCMP website— the original online virtual museum. These pages, intended as “virtual exhibits”, were more or less blog posts, or wikipedia-esque entries, or whatever you want to call them in modern parlance. They were reviews of and commentaries on current knowledge on various topics in biology/palaeontology. I now realize that even back then I was an avid science communicator, especially online. I now realize that this hasn’t truly changed in 20 years, except how I do that online communication.

I lacked the self-confidence (or experience) to do much science communication in person, preferring to take the time to slowly write posts/pages online while in hermitage in the museum basement’s computer lab or at our lab’s office computer. Oral presentations utterly terrified me (sometimes to the point of paralysis) until late in grad school once I’d had some practice doing them at seminars and conferences, then I started to love talking about science in person to larger groups (teaching undergrads helped build this love, too). My work began to attract the attention of the media, especially in 2001-2003 during my postdoc at Stanford once my T. rex and elephant biomechanics research got published, and that attention helped train me (through some great mentors’ help) to be better at reaching and engaging with the public via the media.

By 2003 I was a faculty member and my science communication activity continued, even expanding as I became more well-known. Yet my online “scicomm” presence was by this point reduced essentially to only my personal RVC webpages (with several stories about my research that were akin to blog posts) and occasional journalists’ stories about my research. I focused on being a “typical” scientist. That worked for me; I was happy with it.

Finally, in ~2010 I started to catch the online science communication bug again, inspired by bloggers and science writers (and scientists) like Darren Naish (Tetrapod Zoology) and informal chats with colleagues who were experimenting with the newer forms of communication, which were far more engaging than prior forms like the static, non-interactive webpages I’d worked on at the UCMP. And so here I am; see the “Welcome” tab for how this blog originated.

Why then do I continue with this and how to I find whatever balance exists between scicomm and research? First off, I don’t like to think too much about categorizing what I’m doing. It’s all science (writ large) to me, whether I am doing computer analysis or dissections or writing papers or training people or writing blog posts or tweeting. There is a “zero-sum game” that people obsess about in balancing scicomm “versus” research. Yes, it’s true: there are just 24 hours in a day, and to be a successful scientist one must spend some of those hours, on average, on research. Wow. But as long as the research is moving forward at a pace I’m happy with, I don’t care if it took me an average of 6.5 or 8 hours/day to get my part done, or how that time precisely was spent. I don’t think I ever have cared. I don’t do hours-accounting to ensure that I am clocking in and out the “correct” number of hours. I hate that shit and it’s why I didn’t go into a job where I must clock in and out. Lack of freedom suffocates me, and I think that the zero-sum mentality suffocates science.

Similarly, I don’t feel that some vital opportunity is lost by spending time on scicomm rather than research data. I’m sure that, over the years, I’ve “lost” a paper or two that I could have written instead of doing some blogging or other scicomm, but I have enjoyed the latter and others have too, so I feel that it has been more than worth whatever “cost” there has been. If some scientists feel that essentially all they should be doing in science/life is publishing peer-reviewed papers, that’s their opinion but it is not mine. But — I don’t consider that my blog posts are equivalent to peer-reviewed papers by any means, either. I list my blog on my CV as one line, not all of my blog posts like I do for my papers. It is far harder to publish a scientific paper than to write a blog post; there is no equivalency, at present.

Yet on the flip side, blogging is valuable and fills a gap that scientific papers cannot. Once I became a Professor in 2011, I felt even more liberated than when I got tenure. I felt that it was time for me to try new things and take risks, that this was what being a professor was partly about. So I looked around at opportunities and, reflecting on my experiences with documentaries like “Inside Nature’s Giants” and various conversations I’d had in person and on social media (mainly Twitter), I tried blogging. I saw opportunities to engage a broader audience in discussions about anatomy, and I wanted an outlet in which to be creative as a writer and scientist, so blogging fit me. In a blog like this, I can be human, I can talk about myself or others in a personal, less detached and dry way, I can make very speculative statements, I don’t have to reference everything or obsessively avoid any sloppiness, I can be casual, I can be longwinded (like this post), whatever — I can do what the fuck I please, including say “fuck”. I can write posts on anything I want and it doesn’t have to be a novel contribution nor do I have to “sell” it in ways that I might with papers. Try those things in a peer-reviewed publication. Research papers are straight-jacketed by rules because that constrained format has worked for them over the past two centuries. It works for transmitting carefully-checked results that assemble a body of increasingly-trusted knowledge.

I like the release that blogging gives me, to be intellectual in a more creative, explorative, personal, conversational way. This freedom is healthy and rewarding for me, I’ve found, giving me a satisfaction that I can’t get from just grinding away at papers, by engaging with the broader, (potentially) global public rather than just a few specialists — or just a few local people at public science events. Let’s face it, a lot of our peer-reviewed publications don’t matter much; they won’t get cited much and might eventually get forgotten, and even those few specialists that do care about them might not care that much. What matters to me is how I feel about how I am spending my life. I do passionately love discovering new things in my research but science doesn’t start and end there for me. Much like with social media, I’ve benefited from things (some unexpected) like new collaborations, meeting scientists/journalists/science-enthusiasts who become new friends, invitations to do new things like give seminars or take part in bigger media (documentaries, major websites, etc.), being seen as an expert by a broader audience, a stronger and more diverse CV (including positive comments on reviews for funding/other applications), improved writing/communication skills and more. Hence it would be false to say that I lose something by not spending all my time on conventional science. I gain other things from blogging and other scicomm that have their merits, and in the end only one thing matters: does it feel worth it to me? Yes. Do I think that everyone must/should do the same? No. To each their own, but more scientists should consider broadening their scicomm horizons, giving the potential benefits more thought in the weighing of all the priorities that they must juggle. Some people aren’t ready to add scicomm to their repertoire. Some just aren’t suited to it at all. That’s fine. It’s part of the diversity of science. Not everyone can be part of the same conversations and experiences.

To me (like so many in scicomm), whether it is papers or blog posts, it’s all about conversations. These formats of conversations have the same intent: to share and discuss. Indeed, they have much in common, formatting and rules aside. That’s why I like in-person interactions, or seminars and conferences, or social media, or other forms of conversation, too. Each has its pros and cons, and except for social media scientists have been doing them for centuries. One could consider social media/blogging to have been around for 20+ years depending on how one defines it. I’ve realized that I’ve been engaging in conversations over the internet in analogous ways for those decades, and that blogging is not that new for me after all. I see myself as taking a break from the UCMP webpage-writing in by 2001 to returning to public online scicomm in 2010-11, with Facebook acting as a midwife for that transition. Posting science stuff on Facebook to a few hundred friends (ten of whom might show signs of caring) just wasn’t enough for me by ~2011. Since then, I’ve found that the diversity of the world that I can engage with in all these conversations expands my horizons and teaches me new things about science (e.g. other fields I don’t know much about) and about people (e.g. other scientists/science-enthusiasts/journalists I hadn’t met), or even changes the way I look at my own research (e.g. major trends in open access, open data, etc.). This is another major benefit that I wouldn’t get from isolation in an ivory tower. All of these things are echo chambers, whether one is in isolation in the research field of evolutionary biomechanics or the larger area of scicomm that this blog explores, or scicomm on Twitter, or whatever. Mindfulness of that reality can help prevent one’s mind from becoming too full of those echoes and losing sight of the broader world, and I try to be mindful.

I’ve discovered that I like to share, that this is a big part of my personality. I had suppressed some of that side of myself in the early 2000s, developing trust issues that I see in many other scientists today. I imagined things like: if I share, what if someone criticizes me, or I say something wrong and get embarrassed, or someone steals my data/ideas, or someone doesn’t like how I seem to be spending my time, or something else goes wrong. These imagined risks came from stories I’d heard about naughty colleagues and other people, and things I’d experienced myself, some of which were very unpleasant (e.g. colleagues trying to use me, or taking my data or ideas; or people just being jerks). I focused on the negative aspects of sharing but didn’t thoughtfully weigh them against the positive. I now see what I had missed, although things worked out well for me anyway and I don’t deeply have regrets about what I didn’t do prior to 2010-11. I was more selfish, true, and that was strategic selfishness (focus on my research career) as well as irrational selfishness (avoid things that scared me as risky), and there are other things about me back then that I don’t like (e.g. more competitive, less helpful/collegial; which tends to come with secretiveness/lack of sharing) but I don’t beat myself up about them. I could have been much worse, and what matters now is the choices I make now, which I think about much more carefully than I did back then, with the benefit of wisdom gained through successes, failures and mistakes.

Similarly, I don’t like to harangue myself about whether I am doing “work” or “life” stuff. I’m not a fan of this dichotomy. It is an unfair attitude to force upon oneself, in my opinion. “Work vs. life” is set up to impose self-flagellation for doing the wrong thing at the wrong time. I believe in work-life integration, just as I believe in research-scicomm integration in science. I do what I need and want to do when it feels right to do those things. The ultimate goals are what matter most; I want a good life in all facets, including making the lives of those around me good, too. I seek happiness and enjoyment and satisfaction, and do what feels like it will best bring me those things at any moment, depending on how I feel. Sometimes I have energy inside that feels best directed toward writing a blog post. Sometimes I’m more excited about a paper. Or a movie, or a cuddle with cats, or whatever. Generally my #1 job priority (as a senior mentor to numerous people) is to help my team get its work done and published (see my prior posts on managing teams), and whatever other time remains when I feel like working is spent on other things, like my own research or scicomm or whatever. I try to avoid guilt-bludgeoning myself about whether I am working or “living” at 06:00 or 10:45 or on Sunday or Wednesday. But I do bother myself about ensuring I have time with my family and friends, which brings many flavours of happiness and enjoyment and satisfaction that science cannot. I don’t believe in working that much on weekends (but I do dabble sometimes, and I don’t overly guilt-trip myself if I do) and I do want to take time off after 5pm most nights with family, and I do need 7-8 hours of sleep or I’m extra grumpy and low on my science-fu levels. I’m happy with my work-life integration, and it seems to be playing out OK as long as I manage my stress levels and physical fitness.

In summary, to me blogging is part of the balance that I try to seek in life, and that balance is deeply personal, ever-changing, and enjoyable to me. There will never be a right answer to the question of what balance is “right” for any one person, but there is a threshold of contentment that can be reached in seeking that balance, and if one reaches that, then that’s good. There will be people that try to tell you that the balance you seek is wrong, and some of them will be worth listening to but others are best ignored or told to piss off. That doesn’t mean that you won’t have to convince people that your balance is “right” for you, whether it is your family or your peers or grant funding committees. I’m fortunate that experiences in terms of people criticizing my time spent blogging have been minimal for me (I know this is not true for plenty of others!), yet I feel well-prepared to defend my blogging interests if I’d have to.

But concurrently there is a question of trust: shouldn’t those parties evaluating your life-balance be accountable for trusting you to make your own decisions, and questioning whether the standards-of-balance they hold as ideal should apply to you or not? This will always be a source of some tension with some people—and maybe it should be, but it has to be, because we are not all the same people living the same life. Maybe it’s easier “just” to focus on cranking out data and papers and not doing much else in science, much like it might be (or seem) easier “just” to blog 100% of one’s time. Maybe there’s jealousy or insecurity or fear of change that wells up in those that do find a certain, seemingly simple, set of priorities to be the right balance for them in their life, but don’t like to see others seeking a different kind of balance. Keeping more balls in the air in juggling life’s balance ramps up the complexity and that can be more difficult to control; more unstable, even. All of these questions of priorities, trust and balance arise from our humanity and our diversity and present us with frequent choices about how to handle them. I’d like to end this post on a more positive note by suggesting that we celebrate these questions, and by doing so that we celebrate our diversity and humanity and become part of the dynamic kaleidoscope of science and the real world. Maybe we should worry less about judging how others balance their lives; lives whose details we probably know little about; and push ourselves to learn something from our fellow scientists and science enthusiasts by seeking to understand how they’ve arrived at the point in life that they’re at, and seeking to build edifices of trust that there are many ways to contribute to science. We might learn new things that could inspire us to change our own priorities, much as I did in my life journey that led to this blog’s inception. There is a lot of common ground to roam in discussions about balance in the lives of those passionate about science. Curiosity and trust are key components of that ground’s bedrock, like they are of science’s. Discovery and sharing are other parts, in which research and scicomm play important, interactive roles.

I’m curious to hear what others think of things I’ve raised in this post about why I’ve struck the current balance I’ve made in my life (particularly regarding blogging but similarly extensible to social media), and how that relates to the many ways that others can find balance, which might lead to more harmony between research and scicomm in science. Kumbaya?

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I think a lot about where my ideas come from as a researcher and what a “new” idea really is, in addition to the “value” (in any sense) of scientific ideas. As a senior researcher, I find more and more that such evaluations of the merits of ideas are a huge part of my job. And I hear my colleagues talking about similar things all the time. Variably, the reflections and discussions boil down to something like these (falling somewhere in the multi-dimensional space illustrated by two extremes below):

  1. “Study by so-and-so claims that it shows something novel but it’s not; such-and-such said/showed that in year XXXX”, or
  2. “I came up with the idea for the paper/grant and that is the most important thing”.

The above extremes, and perhaps all points in between, could always be debatable. There is no across-the-board, seemingly profound statement that can encompass all possibilities, like the ironically trite “There’s nothing new under the sun”, or vast oversimplification “Ideas are easy to come by; data are hard.”

What is a new idea and what is one worth? Well, yes, that varies in science. I think it’s helpful to dissect these issues separately- the origin and evolution of ideas, and then their currency in science. And so here I will do that. These are not new ideas– even for me; I’ve been sitting on this post since 18 October 2015, waiting for the ideas to coalesce enough to post this!

Stomach-Churning Rating: 1/10; ruminations, some of which may be blindingly obvious. No images; just a long read.

It’s safe to say, and I know a lot has been written about this in the history and philosophy of science, that almost all “new” ideas in science are incremental. They tend to be little steps forward; not Kuhn-ian revolutions that blindside the community. Fans of Darwin and other science heroes are constantly reminded that even the geniuses’ ideas emerged mostly from the tangled skein of scientific society; coalescing from particles suspended in the scientific group-think. That doesn’t devalue science, as science is still making big strides– by (increasingly?) small, frequent steps across the scholastic landscape (see below).

It’s easy to take a shortcut and say, for example, that evolution was Charles Darwin’s big idea (or give him the lion’s share of credit) when of course that is a huge oversimplification and highly misleading– historical evidence shows beyond question that evolutionary ideas had been bounced around for decades (or centuries) and that Darwin had come across plenty of them, his grandfather Erasmus’s Zoonomia being an obvious one out of many influences. I was recently teaching my main undergrad class about this very topic and it got me thinking more about how, on the more standard scale of us non-genius scientists, ideas always have many common ancestors and lateral transfer of heritable material (to abuse the evolutionary metaphor). Saltationism/macromutation of ideas is rare, hence precious when it truly does happen. But hybridization (multidisciplinary syntheses; integrative science; all the rage these days– usually for good reasons) is a powerful force, probably today more than ever in science, able to generate and tackle big ideas.

It’s just as easy to default to the breathless “Wow, everything is new!” shortcut. The 24-hour news cycle takes a regular tongue-lashing from scientists and other science communicators from taking this shortcut too often. We might more reflexively forgive that cycle in the breath after cursing it, because memories and attention spans are short, hectic lives are only a bit longer, and thus in the latest science news story the headline or ~500-word article can’t regale us with the entire, nuanced history of a subject *and* explain within those tight constraints what incremental advance has been made, with due credit to all antecedents. Would we prefer less science news coverage overall, to save that breathlessness for the rare occasion when it is truly deserved? Or just more boring, toned-down, long-winded coverage (cough, this post, cough?) that attracts less interest in science overall? I’d be wary of such arguments.

Scientific journal articles, too, are becoming more complex because of the increasingly specialized, technical nature of many fields that have benefited from prior scientific advances. Online journal formats are helping to loosen the noose of word limits on those articles. But good mentors (and reviewers, and editors) remind young (and all other) scientists that overly long papers will raise the risk of fewer people reading them or spotting key phrases buried in them. “Moderation in all things.” Usually. “Exceptions to all things”, too, I admit– sometimes long papers are great!

Furthermore, much as journalists can’t cover, or be familiar with, the whole history of a field, so it is becoming harder even for specialists to follow scientific progress within a specialized field. Open access to literature and online papers or emailed pdfs are helping, with even many very old classic papers becoming digitized. Yet then while you’re reading through some of the old literature you’d missed, and doing teaching and research and admin and other tasks that life as a scientist demands of you, new papers are popping up. You see some of them, and others get missed because there are too many papers getting published to follow them all, and because there are so many journals (many of the online ones being very generalist, so a paper on a given topic could appear anywhere), and even the best literature-searching tools don’t find everything. Patience, to a degree, in tolerating missed references is thus important, although it can help to point them out diplomatically.

I find it exasperating trying to keep up with the fields I work in. Seriously, I frequently look at my folders of papers “to read” and I think “*@$*! I’ll never read all that now!” Ten years ago it was different. I felt like I could, and I think I mostly did, keep up with my interests. Furthermore, I care about reading others’ research. I love reading science and I feel proud to keep up with a topic, knowing that I’m doing my scholastic duty. I want to learn what others have learned, both in the far past and far-flung countries and in the recent cutting-edge studies. I have gotten where I am from doing that– the literature routinely inspires me to take new directions in research and many of my best papers/grants/projects have come directly from that inspiration. I worry that I am missing opportunities for new ideas by not reading all of the old ones. But no one can do everything.

Aha! I have reached one of my points! The literature is there to show us the way; show us where the knowns and unknowns are in science. The peaks of knowledge where science has climbed to new heights of understanding! The valleys of ignorance where a bit of research effort or luck might get you far in making “new” discoveries! Or you can slog it on the slopes and try to conquer the peaks on that scholastic landscape (Sewall Wright fans, take note); show that your disciplinary Mt. Everest is taller than anyone thought it was. We all have our favoured routes as researchers. The point is to discover something “new” to science. It is all new, if it is worth doing, as a scientific researcher. And maybe 99.99% of that newness ascends from base-camps on older, lower landscapes.

But there is new (tiny steps), and then there is NEW (quantum leaps), and we must be wary of that’s-not-even-new-at-all (previously charted territory, or even plagiarism). The aspect of “new”-ness here that interests me is the subjective judgement we make in assessing that originality. As an example from my own research in vertebrate palaeontology, I’ve published around 12 papers that orbit the topic of whether a big theropod dinosaur such as Tyrannosaurus rex could run quickly if at all. This all began with my 2002 paper in Nature, which at the time was a “new” application in palaeontology of methods that were well over 30 years old then (inverse dynamics analysis of musculoskeletal mechanics), and owed a lot to simpler approaches by RMcNeill Alexander and others, but probably was published (and gained me some notoriety/infamy) because it answered a tough question in a clever, basic and reproducible way.

My (and coauthors’) papers in 2004, 2005, 2007 and onwards fleshed out this topic more and showed some of the nuances overlooked in that 2002 study. They were all “new”, even though that question “Was T. rex a fast runner?” was gradually beaten to death by them to the point where even I am tired of it now, although I can still see areas where I’m not satisfied with my own answers. I guess the 2002 paper was NEW in its own moderate way and the later papers, even though some of them were much fancier (e.g. using 3D imaging and cutting edge computer modelling; not just simple equations and sketches), were incrementally new in terms of the answers they gave, even if methodologically NEW-ish. We could debate the finer details of the “new-ness” there until the heat death of the universe, but I doubt it would be of more than of very niche (read: tediously nerdy and semantic/subjective) interest. Debating whether something is new or not quickly gets boring. It’s a dull criticism to level at a new study, because most studies (at least in my field) are conducted and published for a good reason and probably are new in some way; the ways they are not new are far less interesting. It’s maybe even harder to accurately delineate the “new-ness” of a study than it is to berate it for its old-ness; the latter is the knee-jerk retort too often on social media, perhaps, and easily fuelled by scientific self esteem issues.

Returning to point 1 above, then, sure. That study in year XXXX by so-and-so probably does have some relationship to the latest studies in a related field. And it behooves us as scholars to be aware of those homologies and homoplasies that are the history of any scientific discipline’s intellectual evolution. But giving the authors or the news media a tongue-lashing for talking about (incrementally) new research probably is more often wasted breath than otherwise; boiling down to debate over which hairs have been split and by whom and when. There are plenty of cases of excessive spin and hype, my personal punching-bag being the humdrum T. rex “scavenger” nonsense, but I usually find it more rewarding to look for the value in scientific ideas and data than excoriate the excesses of how they are presented to the public.

What’s more interesting, to me, is how weaving together old research to allow new ascents up scholastic landscapes moves science forward, sometimes in surprising ways. Old research provides data and ideas that are ancestors of new ideas and eventually new data. Indeed, this reticulating phylogeny of data and ideas muddies the waters between “data” and “ideas” in some cases. We need both, and different researchers fall into different positions along a spectrum. I see some scientists who take an “r selection” approach to ideas, throwing them out in a shotgun approach (sometimes with little or no peer review to control their quality) and hoping that some stick, adhering to supportive data. In contrast, other scientists fall closer to the “K selection” extreme, slowly nuturing ideas with cautious care, focusing on building up mountains of rigorous data to test those ideas with, until together they are ready to leave the academic nest and be published.

The integration of data and ideas from old research plays a variable role in that evolution of data and ideas– some of those scientists (falling on any point along that r-K spectrum) rely more on careful reading of past scientific literature to give their work firm historical footing and inspiration, whereas others mostly pluck a few references that they need to cite once they write up their work, not so keen on spending their time keeping up with the literature and thus focusing more on their own internal thought processes or other sources of inspiration. Different strokes for different folks…

What I’d like to close with, as a roughly second point of this post, is to question the inherent value of scientific ideas. I emphasize that I am unable to provide any easy answers here. What is the value of a good idea that needs testing by some kind of data? The source of inspiration may be immaterial to that evaluation; where one got one’s ideas may not matter here, it’s more about the value of the idea at hand– be it a hypothesis, a general question, a “what’s up with that?” (my personal favourite kind of research question); whatever.

For example, I can think of many cases in my career where a certain paper or grant owed hugely to an idea I had; without that idea, which wasn’t initially obvious, we’d still be stuck at some lower scientific base-camp, and big papers or grants or whatever would not have happened, and careers might not have blossomed the way they did (who knows!). My job as a senior researcher is often to “give away” ideas to those I mentor and collaborate with, and I love doing that. It’s seldom one-sided, with me playing the parthenogenetic parent and that’s it; normally these processes are intensely collaborative and thus multiparental hybrids. But I can usually trace back where the lineages of ideas came from and weigh their merits accordingly, and sometimes as scientists we have to do that.

However, it’s not just about ideas, either– a great scientific idea can be wonderfully valuable, but until it is tested its value might only be speculated upon. It takes the infamously time-consuming and technically challenging procedure of scientific  data collection and analysis to test most ideas, and different collaborators may play lesser or greater roles in that process vs. the ancestral idea-generating process(es). Along the way, we must think of ideas for how to test the main idea itself: what methods might work, what has or hasn’t been tried before to tackle similar problems, and is the method we’ve chosen even working as the scientific work proceeds or must we switch approaches? That gets messy; ideas and data begin to become entangled, and contributions of individuals intermingled, but that’s how science works.

This leads to the flip side of the value of scientific ideas, that in many cases they aren’t worth that much— they may be dead-ends for one reason or another: just foolish ideas; or untestable with current tools/data; or so obvious that anyone could have come up with them; or boring and not really worth trying to test. I’ve found it common to publish a paper and then hear, at some point before or after publication, another researcher say (in reference to some major or minor aspect of the paper) something like “Hey I mentioned that idea in this paper/book/blog post!” More often than not, I don’t want to say it in retort but my reaction is “Well, duh. It’s a pretty obvious idea”, and/or “That’s great, but you didn’t test it; that’s the hard bit”. Cheap ideas by definition aren’t worth much fuss. To abuse Shakespeare, “The science is the thing; wherein we’ll catch which idea in science is king.” (sorry!)

A common example I run across that falls within this theme of cheap ideas is to encounter a colleague (e.g. a new student, maybe one with lax supervision) who describes their new research project in which they apply some sort of fancy technique like computer modelling/simulation to an animal, such as a nice dinosaur fossil, doing what some previous study/studies had done with other species but applied to a new species. Uncomfortably often, when asked their justification for applying that method to that animal is because they can, and because they happen to have that animal accessible, rather than because there is an urgent, exciting question that must be answered for which that method and specimen are ideally suited to testing. It’s not worthless, but… more emphasis on the value of ideas and less on climbing Mt. Everest because it’s there might have been rewarding?

Returning to the main thrust of this post conveyed by the title, then, it’s not easy evaluating what the value of an idea is in science, but it’s something that we all have to learn to do as researchers, and it can bring out the best and worst of our humanity as scientists; perhaps leading to conflict; or it can even just end up with an unsatisfyingly muddled answer. So tread carefully on that scholastic landscape, and think about how you choose your way across it– there are many routes, but I think we can generally agree that the prize of discovery (whether incrementally small or uncommonly large) is a big part of why we dare the journey.

I’d love to hear your thoughts, your stories, and other insights here– it’s a very broad topic and lots of room for discussion!

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This is a follow-up post to my earlier one and also weaves into my post on “success” (with a little overlap). I am sharing my thoughts on this topic of research management, because I try to always keep myself learning about doing and managing research, and this blog serves as a set of notes as I learn; so why not share them too? I tried editing the old post but it clearly was too much to add so I started a new post. It’s easy to just coast along and not reflect on what one is doing, caught up in the steady stream of science that needs to get done. Mistakes and mis-judgements can snowball if one doesn’t reflect. So here are my personal reflections, freshly thawed for your consideration, on how I approach doing research and growing older as I do it, adapting to life’s changes along the way.

Stomach-Churning Rating: 0/10, just words and ideas.

I realized that a theme in these rant-y posts on my blog is to Know Yourself, and, in the case of mentoring a team, Know Your Team. That knowledge is a reward from the struggles and challenges of seeking whatever one calls success. I critique some traits or practices here that I’ve seen in myself (and/or others), and perhaps managed to change. And I seek to change my environment by building a strong team (which I feel I have right now!) and by finding the best ways to work with them (which I am always learning about!). I also realized a word to describe a large part of what I seek and that is joy. The joy of discovery in the study of nature; the joy from the satisfaction of a job well done; the joy of seeing team members succeed in their careers and broader lives. I want to know that multifarious joy; the ripening of fulfilment.

We’re all busy in one way or another. Talking about being busy can just come across as (very) boring or self-absorbed or insecure. Talk about what you’re doing instead of how much you’re juggling. That’s more interesting. Avoid the Cult of Busy. I try to. It’s any easy complaint to default with in a conversation, so it takes some alertness… which keeps you busy. 🙂  I remember Undergrad-Me sighing wistfully to my advisor Dianna Padilla “I’m SO busy!” and her looking at me like I was an idiot. In that moment I realized that I was far from the only (or most) busy person in that conversation. Whether she was truly thinking that I was naïve, my imaginary version of her reaction is right. It was a foolish, presumptuously arrogant thing for me to declare. There surely are more interesting things to talk about than implied comparisons of the magnitudes of each other’s busy-ness. And so I move on…

Don’t count hours spent on work. That just leads to guilt of too much/too little time spent vs. how much was accomplished. Count successes. A paper/grant submitted is indeed a success, and acceptance/funding of it is another. A handy rule in science is that everything takes so much more time than you think it does that even trying to predict how long it will take is often foolish and maybe even time that could be better spent on doing something that progresses your work/life further.

Becoming older can slow you down and make you risk-averse, so you have to actively fight these tendencies. Ageing as a researcher needn’t always mandate becoming slower or less adventurous. But life will change, inevitably. One has to become more efficient at handling its demands as life goes on, and force oneself to try new things for the sake of the novelty, to think outside the box and avoid slipping into dogma or routine. We don’t want to be that stereotype of the doddering old professor, set in their ways, who stands in the way of change. The Old Guard is the villain of history. Lately I’ve been examining my own biases and challenging them, potentially re-defining myself as a scientist. I hope to report back on that topic.

The tone of life can darken as one becomes a senior researcher and “grows up”, accumulating grim experiences of reality. Some of my stories on this blog have illustrated that. In an attempt to distract me from that gloaming on the horizon, I try to do things at work that keep it FUN for me. This quest for fun applies well to my interactions with people, which dominate my work so much– I am seemingly always in meetings, less often in isolation at my desk. The nicer those meetings are, the happier I am. So I try to minimize exposure to people or interactions that are unpleasant, saving my energy for the battles that really matter. This can come across as dismissive or curt but in the end one has little choice sometimes. These days, nothing to me is more negatively emotive than sitting in an unproductive meeting and feeling my life slipping away as the clock ticks. I cherish my time. I don’t give it away wantonly to time-vampires and joy-vandals. They get kicked to the kerb– no room (or time) for them on this science-train. Choo choo!

Moreover, the No Asshole Rule is a great principle to try to follow at work. Don’t hire/support the hiring of people that you can’t stand socially, even if they are shit-hot researchers with a hugely promising career trajectory. Have a candidly private moment with someone who knows them well and get the inside scoop on what they’re like to work with. Try to get to know people you work with and collaborate more with people that you like to work with. Build a team of team-players (but not yes-men and yes-women; a good team challenges you to know them and yourself; so there must be some tension!). That can help you do better science because you enjoy doing it more, and you prioritize it more because of that, and you have more energy because of all that. Hence your life gets better as a result. I prefer that to a constant struggle in tense, competitive collaborations. One of the highest compliments I ever got was when someone described me to their friend as a “bon vivant”. I felt like they’d discovered who I was, and they’d helped me to discover it myself.

I wondered while writing this, would I hire 2003-Me, from when I was interviewing for my current job 12 years ago? I suppose so, but I’d give myself a stern scolding on day one at the job. “Chill the fuck out,” I’d say. “Focus on doing the good science and finding the other kinds of joy in life.” I like the more mellowed-out, introspective, focused, compassionate 2015-Me, and I think 2003-Me would agree with that assessment.

There is a false dichotomy in a common narrative about research mentoring that I am coming to recognize: a tension between the fortunes of early career researchers and senior research managers. The dichotomy holds that once one is senior enough, ambition wanes and success is complete and one’s job is to support early career researchers to gain success (as recompense for their efforts in pushing forward the research team’s day-to-day science), and to step back out of the limelight.

The reality, I think, is that all these things are linked: early career researchers succeed in part because their mentors are successful (i.e. the pedigree concept; good scientists arise in part from a good mentoring environment), and research-active mentors need to keep seeking funding to support their teams, which means they need to keep showing evidence of their own success. Hence it never ends. One could even argue that senior researchers need to keep authoring papers and getting grants and awards and other kinds of satisfaction and joy in science that maintain reputations, and thus their responsibility to themselves and their team to keep pushing their research forward may not decrease or even may intensify. Here, a “team” ethos rather than an “us vs. them” mentality seems more beneficial to all—we’re in this together. Science is hard. We are all ambitious and want to achieve things to feel happy about. I don’t think the “it never ends” perspective is gloomy, either—if the false dichotomy were true, once one hit that plateau of success as a senior researcher, ambition and joy and personal growth would die. Now that’s gloomy. Nor does the underlying pressure mandate that researchers can’t have a “life outside of work”. I’ve discussed that enough in other posts.

Trust can be a big issue in managing research. If people act like they don’t trust you, it may be a sign that they’ve been traumatized by violated trust before. Be sensitive to that; gently inquire? And get multiple sides of the story from others if you can… gingerly. But it also might be a warning sign that they don’t deserve trust themselves. Trust goes both ways. Value trust, perhaps above all else. It is so much more pleasant than the lack thereof. Reputation regarding trustworthiness is a currency that a research manager should keep careful track of in themselves and others. Trust is the watchdog of joy.

Say “No” more often to invitations to collaborate as your research team grows. “Success breeds success” they say, and you’ll get more invitations to collaborate because you are viewed as successful — and/or nice. But everyone has their limits. If you say “Yes” too much, you’ll get overloaded and your stock as a researcher will drop– you’ll get a reputation for being overcommitted and unreliable. Your “Yes” should be able to prove its value. I try to only say “Yes” to work that grabs me because it is great, do-able science and with fun people that I enjoy collaborating with. This urge to say “No” must be balanced with the need to take risks and try new directions. “Yes” or “No” can be easy comfort zones to settle into. A “Yes” can be a longterm-noncommittal answer that avoids the conflict that a “No” might bring, even if the “No” is the more responsible answer. This is harder than it seems, but important.

An example: Saying “No” applies well to conference invitations/opportunities, too. I love going to scientific conferences, and it’s still easy enough to find funding to do it. Travel is a huge perk of academic research! But I try to stick to a rule of attending two major conferences/year. I used to aim for just one per year but I always broke that rule so I amended it. Two is sane. It is easy to go to four or more annual conferences, in most fields, but each one takes at least a week of your time; maybe even a month if you are preparing and presenting and de-jetlagging and catching up. Beware the trap of the wandering, unproductive, perennial conference-attendee if doing science is what brings you joy.

This reminds me of my post on “saying no to media over-coverage“– and the trap of the popularizer who claims to still be an active researcher, too. There is a zero-sum game at play; 35 or 50 hour work week notwithstanding. Maybe someday I’d want to go the route of the popularizer, but I’m enjoying doing science and discovering new things far too much. It is a matter of personal preference, of course, how much science communication one does vs. how much actual science.

The denouement of this post is about how research teams rise and fall. I’m now often thinking ahead to ~2016, when almost all of my research team of ~10 people is due to finish their contracts. If funding patterns don’t change — and I do have applications in the works but who knows if they will pan out — I may “just” have two or so people on my team in a year from now. I could push myself to apply like mad for grants, but I thought about it and decided that I’ll let the fates decide based on a few key grant submissions early in the year. There was too little time and too much potential stress at risk. If the funding gods smile upon me and I maintain a large-ish team, that’s great too, but I would also truly enjoy having a smaller, more focused team to work with. I said “No” to pushing myself to apply for All The Grants. I’ll always have diverse external collaborations (thanks to saying “Yes” enough), but I don’t define my own success as having a large research group (that would be a very precarious definition to live by!). I’m curious to see what fortune delivers.

Becoming comfortable with the uncertainty of science and life is something I’m finding interesting and enjoy talking about. It’s not all a good thing, to have that sense of comfort (“whatever happens, happens, and I’m OK with that”). I don’t want my ambition to dwindle, although it’s still far healthier than I am. There is no denying that it is a fortunate privilege to feel fine about possibly not drowning in grant funds. It just is what it is; a serenity that I welcome even if it is only temporary. There’s a lot of science left to be written about, and a smaller team should mean more time to do that writing.

Will I even be writing this blog a year from now? I hope so, but who knows. Blogs rise and fall, too. This one, like me, has seen its changes. And if I am not still writing it, it might resurface in the future anyway. What matters is that I still derive joy from blogging, and I only give in to my internal pressure to write something when the mood and inspiration seize me. I hope someone finds these words useful.

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For about 3 years now I’ve used the #WIJF (i.e. acronym for What’s In John’s Freezer) hashtag to organize my social media efforts on this blog. Over that time I became aware that “wijf” in Dutch can be taken as a derogatory term for women. And indeed, these days I do see people tweeting derogatory things with the #wijf hashtag, along with other, tamer uses like mine. I’ve come to the decision, albeit gradually and with much internal debate, to stop using that hashtag so I can avoid association with the sexist Dutch word. This post is about why, and what’s next.

Stomach-Churning Rating: Debatable, but 0/10 by the standard of the usual gory things on this blog; no images.

I don’t speak Dutch, but 25 million or so people do. This is a blog about morphological science, and the Dutch have had (and continue to have) a disproportionately strong influence on that field. I’m not claiming to be perfect when it comes to feminist issues, but I listen and I try and I care. My undergraduate tutelage in science was almost exclusively driven by female scientists– I never thought about that before but it’s true; at least 5 different major faculty influences at the University of Wisconsin! I work at a university where ~85% of the students are female (common today in vet schools). My research team has featured 9 out of 16 female postgraduate staff and students since 2004, and a lot of my collaborators and friends are scientists or science afficionados who happen to be female. I have good reason to care, and social media has helped to raise my awareness of important matters within and outside of science that I do care a lot about.

So, while I tend to hate to abandon words (or hashtags), preferring to fight for alternative meanings (e.g. the word “design” in evolutionary biology), and I am a stubborn git, the #WIJF hashtag and acronym are different, I’ve decided, and it’s time to use something else. Admittedly, #WIJF hasn’t been that important to this blog as hashtag or acronym– mainly just I use it, and any “brand name recognition” or other things surely arise more from the full name of the blog. So abandoning #WIJF is an inconvenience but not devastating to my blog. I see this move as (1) taking control of a situation where the benefits of staying with the hashtag/acronym are minimal and the harms, while of debatable magnitude, outweigh those minimal benefits in my view, and (2) demonstrating that I don’t tolerate or want to be associated with sexism or other discrimination. And I hope that this move might inspire others to reflect similarly on their own behaviour. Morphology, like any science, is for everyone, and this blog is meant to be a friendly place.

But a thing that has held me back, even though it is admittedly trivial in the grand scheme of things, is what hashtag/acronym to use henceforth? I turn that over to you, Freezerinos. I have no good ideas and so I am crowdsourcing. I need something short (not #Whatsinjohnsfreezer, probably– too long), something associated with the title of the blog, but also something dissimilar to the naughty word “wijf” and thus inoffensive… ideally inoffensive in the ~7000 languages of the world (!?!?). That might not leave many options! What should be in John’s blog’s hashtag?

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If you’ve been working in science for long enough, perhaps not very long at all, you’ve heard about (or witnessed) scientists in your field who get listed as co-authors on papers for political reasons alone. They may be an uninvolved but domineering professor or a fellow co-worker, a friend, a political ally, an overly protective museum curator, or just a jerk of any stripe. I read this article recently and felt it was symptomatic of the harm that bad supervisors (or other collaborators) do to science, including damage to the general reputation of professors and other mentors. There are cultural differences not only between countries (e.g. more authoritative, hierarchical cultures probably tolerate behaviour like this more) but also within institutions because of individual variation and local culture, tradition or other precedent. But this kind of honorary co-authorship turns my stomach—it is co-authorship bloat and a blight upon science. Honorary co-authorship should offend any reasonable scientist who actually works, at any level of the scientific hierarchy. So here’s my rant about it. Marshmallows and popcorn are welcomed if you want to watch my raving, but I hope this post stimulates discussion. A brief version of this did do that on my personal Facebook account, which motivated me to finish this public post.

Stomach-Churning Rating: 0/10 but it may provoke indigestion if you’ve been a victim of co-author bloat.

At its root, honorary co-authorship (HONCO) shows disdain for others’ efforts in research. “I get something for nothing, unlike others.” It persists because of deference to pressures from politics (I need to add this co-author or they’ll cause me trouble), other social dynamics (this person is my buddy; here’s a freebie for them), careerism (oneself/ally/student needs to be on this paper to boost their CV and move up in their career; or else), or even laziness (a minimal publishable unit mentality- e.g. any minor excuse for being a co-author is enough). All of these reasons for tolerating it, and apathy about the status quo, keep the fires of HONCO burning. My feeling from my past 20 years of experience in academia is that, as science is getting increasingly complex and requiring more collaborators and co-authors, the fire is raging to a point where it is visibly charring the integrity of science too often to just keep quiet about it and hope it doesn’t cause much damage.

There’s a flip side to HONCO, too– it’s not that, as some might take the article above to imply, we all need to boot senior authors off of papers. Senior authors, like other collaborators, have a reason for existing that encompasses — but is not limited to — boosting the careers of those they mentor. We scientists all want the satisfaction of doing science, even if the nature of our involvement in research evolves (and varies widely). Part of that satisfaction comes from publishing papers as the coup de grace to each project, and it’s a privilege that should be open to being earned by anyone qualified. Indeed, if adding HONCOs to papers is fraud, then removing worthy contributors from papers can be seen as a similar kind of fraud (unless a result of mutually agreed I’ll-help-you-for-nothing generosity). The broader point is, authors should deserve to be authors, and non-authors should not deserve to be authors.

On that latter issue, I think back to my grad school days and how my mentors Kevin Padian, Rodger Kram, Bob Full and others often gave me valuable input on my early papers (~1998-2002) but never earned co-authorship on them (exception: mentor Steve Gatesy’s vital role in our 2000 “abductors, adductors” paper). And frankly I feel a little bad now about that. Some of those mentors might have deserved co-authorship, but even when asked they declined, and just appeared in the Acknowledgements. It was the culture in my department at Berkeley, like many other USA grad schools at the time and perhaps now, that PhD students often did not put their supervisors on their papers and thus published single-author work. I see that less often today — but still varying among fields; e.g. in biomechanics, less single-authorship globally; in palaeontology and morphology, more single-authored work, but perhaps reducing overall. That is my off-the-cuff impression from the past >10 years.

I was shocked to see less (or often no) single-authored papers by lab colleagues once I moved to the UK to take up my present post– the prevalence of supervisors as senior authors on papers was starkly evident. On reflection, I now think that many of those multi-authored papers deserved to be such. It was not solo work and involved some significant steering, with key ideas originating from supervisors and thus constituting valid intellectual input. Yet I wondered then if it was a good thing or not, especially after hearing student complaints like waiting six months for comments from their supervisor on a manuscript. But this gets into a grey area that is best considered on a paper-by-paper basis, following clear criteria for authorship and contributions, and it involves difficulties inherent to some supervisor-supervisee relationships that I will not cover here. Much as supervisors need to manage their team, their team needs to manage them. ‘Nuff said.

Many institutions and journals have clear criteria for co-authorship, and publications have “author contributions” sections that are intended to make it clear who did what for a given paper – and thus whose responsibility any problems might be, too. HONCOs take credit without responsibility or merit, and are blatant fraud. I say it’s time we stand up to this disease. The criteria and contributions aspects of paper are part of the immune system of science that is there to help defend against academic misconduct. We need to work together to give that system a fighting chance.

There are huge grey areas in what criteria are enough for co-authorship. I have to wrestle with this for almost every paper I’m involved in– I am always thinking about whether I truly deserve to be listed on a paper, or whether others do. I’ve been training myself to think, and talk, about co-authorship criteria early in the process of research— that’s essential in avoiding bad blood later on down the line when it’s time to write up the work, when it’s possibly too late for others to earn co-authorship. This is a critical process that is best handled explicitly and in writing, especially in larger collaborations. What will the topic of any future paper(s) be and who will be involved as co-authors, or not? It’s a good agenda item for research meetings.

There are also grey areas in author contributions. How much editing of a paper is enough for co-authorship justification? Certainly not just spellchecking or adding comments saying “Great point!”, although both can be a bit helpful. Is funding a study a criterion? Sometimes– how much and how directly/indirectly did the funding help? Is providing data enough? Sometimes. In these days of open data, it seems like the data-provision criterion, part of the very hull that science floats upon, is weakening as a justification for co-authorship. It is becoming increasingly common to cite others’ papers for data, provide little new data oneself, and churn out papers without those data-papers’ authors involved. And that’s a good thing, to a degree. It’s nicer to invite published-data-providers on board a paper as collaborators, and they can often provide insight into the nature (and limitations or faults!) of the data. But adding co-authors can easily slide down the slippery slope of hooray-everyone’s-a-co-author (e.g. genetics papers with 1000+ co-authors, anyone?). I wrote up explicit co-authorship criteria here (Figshare login needed; 2nd pdf in the list) and here (Academia.edu login needed) if you’re curious how I handle it, but standards vary. Dr. William Pérez recently shared a good example of criteria with me; linked here.

In palaeontology and other specimen-based sciences, we get into some rough terrain — who collected the fossil (i.e. was on that field season and truly helped), identified it, prepared and curated it, published on it, or otherwise has “authority” over it, and which of them if any deserve co-authorship? I go to palaeontology conferences every year and listen over coffee/beers to colleagues complain about how their latest paper had such-and-such (and their students, pals, etc.) added onto the paper as HONCOs. Some museums or other institutions even have policies like this, requiring external users to add internal co-authors as a strong-arm tactic. An egregious past example: a CT-scanning facility I used once, and never again, even had the guff to call their mandatory joint-authorship policy for usage “non-collaborative access”… luckily we signed no such policy, and so we got our data, paid a reasonable fee for it, and had no HONCOs. Every time I hear about HONCOs, I wonder “How long can this kind of injustice last?” Yet there’s also the reality that finding and digging up a good field site or specimen(s); or analogous processes in science; takes a lot of time and effort and you don’t want others prematurely jumping your claim, which can be intellectual property theft, a different kind of misconduct. And there is good cause for sensitivity about non-Western countries that might not have the resources and training of staff to earn co-authorship as easily; flexibility might be necessary to avoid imperialist pillaging of their science with minimal benefit to their home country.

Yet there’s hope for minimizing HONCO infections. A wise person once said (slightly altered) “I’d rather light a candle than curse the darkness.” Problems can have solutions, even though cultural change tends to be agonizingly slow. But it can be slower still, or retrograde, if met with apathy. What can we do about HONCOs? Can we beat the bloat? What have I done myself before and what would I do differently now? I’ll take an inward look here.

Tolerating HONCOs isn’t a solution. I looked back on my experiences with >70 co-authored papers and technical book chapters since 1998. Luckily there are few instances where I’d even need to contemplate if a co-author was a HONCO. Most scientists I’ve worked with have clearly pulled their weight on papers or understood why they’re not co-authors on a given paper. More about that below. In those few instances of possible HONCOs, about five papers from several years ago, some colleagues provided research material/data but never commented on the manuscripts or other aspects of the work. I was disgruntled but tolerated it. It was a borderline grey area and I was a young academic who needed allies, and the data/specimens were important. Since then, I’ve curtailed collaborations with those people. To be fair, there were some papers where I didn’t do a ton (but did satisfy basic criteria for co-authorship, especially commenting on manuscripts) and I got buried in Middle-Authorland, and that’s fine with me; it wasn’t HONCO hell I was in. There were a few papers where I played a minor role and it wasn’t clear what other co-authors were contributing, but I was comfortable giving them the benefit of the doubt.

One anti-HONCO solution was on a more recent paper that involved a person who I had heard was a vector of HONCO infection. I stated early on in an email that only one person from their group could be a co-author on the resulting paper, and they could choose who it was and that person would be expected to contribute something beyond basic data. They wrote back agreeing to it and (magnanimously) putting a junior student forward for it, who did help, although they never substantially commented on the manuscript so I was a little disappointed. But in the grand scheme of things, this strategy worked in beating the HONCO bloat. I may have cost myself some political points that may stifle future collaborations with that senior person, but I feel satisfied that I did the right thing under the constraints, and damn the consequences. Containment of HONCO has its attendant risks of course. HONCO-rejects might get honked off. Maybe one has to pick their battles and concede ground sometimes, but how much do the ethics of such concessions weigh?

Another solution I used recently involved my own input on a paper. I was asked to join a “meta-analysis” paper as a co-author but the main work had already been done for it, and conclusions largely reached. I read the draft and saw places where I could help in a meaningful way, so with trepidation I agreed to help and did. But during the review process it became clear that (1) there was too much overlap between this paper and others by the same lead author, which made me uncomfortable; and (2) sections that I had contributed to didn’t really meld well with the main thrust of the paper and so were removed. As a consequence, I felt like a reluctant HONCO and asked to be removed from the paper as a co-author, even though I’d helped write sections of the main text that remained in the paper (but this was more stylistic in my view than deeply intellectual). I ended up in the Acknowledgements and relieved about it. I am comfortable removing myself from papers in which I don’t get a sense of satisfaction that I did something meriting co-author status. But it’s easier for more senior researchers like me to do that, compared to the quandary that sink-or-swim early-career researchers may face.

More broadly in academia, a key matter at stake is the CVs of researchers, especially junior ones, which these days require more and more papers (even minimal publishable units) to be competitive for jobs, awards and funding. Adding HONCOs to papers does strengthen individuals’ CVs, but in a parasitic way from the dilution of co-author contributions. And it’s just unethical, full stop. One solution: It’s thus up to senior people to lead from the front, showing that they don’t accept HONCOs themselves and encouraging more junior researchers to do the same when they can—or even questioning the contributions that potential new staff/students made to past papers, if their CV seems bloated (but such questions probe dangerous territory!). Junior people, however, still need to make a judgement call on how they’ll handle HONCOs with themselves or others. There is the issue of reputation to think about; complicity in the HONCO pandemic at any career level might be looked upon unfavourably by others, and scientists can be as gossipy as any humans, so bad ethics can bite you back.

I try to revisit co-authorship and the criteria involved throughout a project, especially as we begin the writing-up stage, to reduce risks of HONCOs or other maladies. An important aspect of collaboration is to ensure that people that might deserve co-authorship get an early chance to earn it, or else are told that they won’t be on board and why. Then they are not asked for further input unless it is needed, which might shift the balance and put them back on the co-author list. Critically, co-authorship is negotiable and should be a negotiation. One should not take it personally if not on a paper, but should treat others fairly and stay open-minded about co-authorship whenever possible. This has to be balanced against the risk of co-authorship bloat. Sure, so-and-so might add a little to a paper, but each co-author added complicates the project, probably slows it down, and diminishes the credit given to each other co-author. So a line must be drawn at some point. Maybe some co-authors and their contributions are best saved for a future paper, for example. This is a decision that the first, corresponding and senior author(s) should agree on, in consultation with others. But I also feel that undergraduate students and technicians often are the first to get the heave-ho from co-author considerations, which I’ve been trying to avoid lately when I can, as they deserve as much as anyone to have their co-author criteria scrutinized.

The Acknowledgements section of a paper is there for a reason, and it’s nice to show up there when you’ve truly helped a paper out whether as quasi-collaborative colleague, friendly draft-commenter, editor, reviewer or in other capacities. It is a far cry from being a co-author but it also typically implies that those people acknowledged are not to blame if something is wrong with the paper. I see Acknowledgements as “free space” that should be packed with thank-you’s to everyone one can think of that clearly assisted in some way. No one lists Acknowledged status on their CVs or gets other concrete benefits from them normally, but it is good social graces to use it generously. HONCOs’ proper home, at best, is there in the Acknowledgements, safely quarantined.

The Author Contributions section of a paper is something to take very seriously these days. I used to fill it out without much thought, but I’ve now gotten in the habit of scrutinizing it (where feasible) with every paper I’m involved in. Did author X really contribute to data analysis or writing the paper? Did all authors truly check and approve the final manuscript? “No” answers there are worrying. It is good research practice nowadays to put careful detail into this section of every paper, and even to openly discuss it among all authors so everyone agrees. Editors and reviewers should also pay heed to it, and readers of papers might find it increasingly interesting to peruse that section. Why should we care about author contribution lists in papers? Well, sure, it’s interesting to know who did what, that’s the main reason! It can reveal what skills an individual has or lacks, or their true input on the project vs. what the co-author order implies.

But there’s a deeper value to Author Contributions lists that is part of the academic immune system against HONCOs and other fraud. Anyone contributing to a particular part of a paper should be able to prove their contribution if challenged. For example, if a problem was suspected in a section of a paper, any authors listed as contributing to that section would be the first points of contact to check with about that possible problem. In a formal academic misconduct investigation, those contributing authors would need to walk through their contributions and defend (or correct) their work. It would be unpleasant to be asked how one contributed to such work if one didn’t do it, or to find out that someone listed you as contributing when you didn’t, and wouldn’t have accepted it if you had known. Attention to detail can pay off in any part of a research publication.

Ultimately, beating the blight of HONCO bloat will need teamwork from real co-authors, at every career level. Too often these academic dilemmas are broken down into “junior vs. senior” researcher false dichotomies. Yes, there’s a power structure and status quo that we need to be mindful of. Co-authorships, however, require collaboration and thus communication and co-operation.

It’s a long haul before we might see real progress; the fight against HONCOs must proceed paper-by-paper. There are worse problems that science faces, too, but my feeling is that HONCOs have gone far enough and it’s time to push back, and to earn the credit we claim as scientific authors. Honorary co-authorship is a dishonourable practice that is very different from other “honorary” kudos like honorary professorships or awards. Complex and collaborative science can mean longer co-author lists, absolutely, but it doesn’t mean handing out freebies to chums, students needing a boost, or erstwhile allies. It means more care is needed in designing and writing up research. And it also means that science is progressing; a progress we should all feel proud of in the end.

Do you have abhorrent HONCO chronicles of your own (anonymized please; no lynch mobs here!) or from public record? Or ideas for handling HONCO hazards? Please share and discuss.

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