No, you can’t acknowledge me in your paper without asking!

Most scientific papers have a brief acknowledgements section where people who helped in some small way with the study are mentioned. It used to be the place where the technicians, often female, who might have done all the work were credited. Now these people get authorship.

Perhaps the most usual kind of assistance is reading the paper after it is complete and making comments that improve the paper. A key suggestion or help with a technique might also get someone a mention in the acknowledgements section.

No unauthorized acknowledgements!


The acknowledgements section is also a place to credit funding sources.

Some journals require that everyone mentioned in the acknowledgements section authorize the mention. Even without that requirement, most authors check with the people they are going to mention.

So imagine my surprise when a friend told me I was acknowledged in a recent paper in Nature by Jonathan Pruitt and Charles Goodnight. I said no, it could not be. I had not even read that paper yet and certainly had not seen it before it was published. Moreover, I had seen both authors recently and neither one mentioned it.

But of course my friend was right. This is what the paper says: “J. E. Strassmann and W. P. Carson were invaluable in aiding in the submission of this paper.” What does that even mean? It kind of sounds like I have the secret password to Nature, or that I greased the wheels somehow. I didn’t. Am I being acknowledged for some random conversation about publishing, or for something in this blog? Is putting my name in the acknowledgements some indication that I had an opinion on the paper? I might, but not before I read it, or even know of its existence. I have no idea how W. P. Carson contributed either.

No unauthorized acknowledgements!

I don’t understand why anyone would do this, but it is a really bad idea. Check with the people you acknowledge and be sure they are all right with it. Only acknowledge people who actually have helped with the work.


Posted in Publishing your work, Scientific community, Writing | 11 Comments

Why you won’t learn to write from Steven Pinker’s The sense of style

I think Pinker is just the best. I love his writing. I love his perspective. I love the way he takes on complex and often controversial topics and finds convincing clarity. I think I’ve read all his books. So when I saw he had a new one, The Sense of Style, I bought it. Maybe I could learn to write as effectively as he does if I read it carefully.

It sat on my night table for a few weeks, so I got it on Audible to listen to instead.  I got through a lot of it on a long drive to Fayetteville Arkansas. I loved it.

The first three chapters should be required reading for everyone. The first two make a  case for clear writing. They also show what’s clear and simple and what’s complex and confusing. They poke a bit of fun at the writing bible too, Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. In many ways they are Pinker at his best. He is strong and opinionated but never pedantic. He points to authority as a reason to do things, except when he disagrees. These are themes throughout the book, especially in the more technical later chapters.

The third chapter is something I could just kiss, if I still relied on the paper copy. My reaction to it was similar to that of my then five year old when I told him I was reading a book called “Bad guys don’t have birthdays.” I could have written it myself, if only I could write as well as Pinker does. In this chapter Pinker begs us to think about what our readers know. Give us some background, don’t just launch into a story as if we lived like little parasites inside your brain. Don’t be like the three year old I met decades ago who told me we could play together when I got to his house, the white one in Illinois.

The chapter is called “The curse of knowledge,” and is subtitled “The main cause of incomprehensible prose is the difficulty of imagining what it is like for someone else not to know what you know.” How true. I wish there were a magic drug I could give all my students that would make them step back after writing and think about what they can add to frame the piece. This could be small things like putting their last name first in the file name, so the professor doesn’t get a pile of papers named “Assignment 1.” Or it could be as complicated as an introductory paragraph on what big question their experiment is addressing and what progress they have previously made. But really, taking a reader’s perspective should permeate writing. It should impact every sentence.

These first three chapters are worth the price of the book, but this is no reason to stop reading on page 76. The last chapter is a lot of fun too. I just listened to a read version of Pinker’s long table on incorrect interpretations of words, the place where he says he gets to be a purist. I agree with Pinker on nearly everything. I guess that means we are both Americans of a certain age who probably like to read similar kinds of books. Or maybe it means something more, that this is really the best way to write clearly if you want to reach an educated audience.

If I so love this book, why don’t I think it will teach you to write more clearly? It is because you can’t learn to write by learning a bunch of rules, or memorizing correct usage of words. Why, you can’t even seem to learn to correct certain consistent writing errors when I correct them directly on your paper. Next time you write for me, there they are again, cropping up like lamb’s quarters in a recently tilled garden. If my comments right on your paper make no difference, how could Pinker’s necessarily much more general book ever reach you? I don’t think it can, unless you are nearly there already and just use it to firm up things you already knew.

Does this mean there is no hope for either teaching writing or learning to write more clearly? No. It just means that the only way to learn to write is to write. And read. Play with your words. Try out different sentences that say the same thing. See what is simple and what is hard. Read your writing out loud. Read everything you can get your hands on. Write every day. Even just half an hour can help.

I suppose if it were Daniel Kahneman writing about writing, he would say that system 1 is largely in charge of writing, while comments on writing address system 2. System 1 is that innate system, the spontaneous response to things we call auto pilot, or knee jerk reactions. We do it without thinking. System 2 is much harder, covers reasoned responses and shuts down when we are tired or stressed. Writing is essentially speech and we just can’t think out every sentence without going crazy.

So the challenge of writing well is to get it into system 1. I think the only way to do that is to write a lot, to read a lot, to have correct language be your default. Reading Pinker should be part of that reading.

Posted in Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Don’t you hate Blackboard for managing courses?

Last September in the same email we got told both that our university had just signed a three-year contract with Blackboard and we got asked what we thought of Blackboard. Doesn’t that seem backward to you? Clearly they don’t really care about our opinion since they signed the contract first.

Frankly, I hate Blackboard. It is clunky, old fashioned, difficult  to manage, and screws up a lot of things really easily. Lots of other universities are switching to a platform called Canvas, which looks a lot more intuitive and easy to use. Why even our own medical campus is trying it out. University of Texas announced the transition to Canvas a couple of years ago. I haven’t tried it, so I don’t know, but I do know Blackboard is a pain.

So why has Wash U stuck with Blackboard, even signing a three year contract as Blackboard falls off the cliff of market share at the best universities? Is there someone at Wash U that wants to force us to stick with it? Some group that has invested in it in some way? I don’t know, but this is really frustrating. Why just look at all these instructions for students to use specific things on Blackboard! Isn’t there something easier?

I would venture to say that any time you get asked your opinion about something they have already signed a three year contract on, you can guess they don’t actually care about your opinion if it is negative. Maybe they are post hoc searching for support. What other old-fashioned ways of doing things are we being forced to stick to without even realizing it?

Posted in Politics, Teaching | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Let need, not ego, matter for allocating research space

Remember your first bench? Was it a place to dump field gear? Was it 6 feet of black magic with shelves above for carefully labeled and dated orange-capped bottles? Did you line up your vortexer with your pipetteman rack? Did you paper it over, or leave it gleaming? When you became a PI how many of those benches did you get in your new space? Did you share? How does space get allocated anyway?

A friend moved his research lab three times in about ten years at the same institution. The moves were to different floors of a huge building and brought him into contact with new neighbors. This intellectual stirring might have its own advantages, but what about the disruptive costs? I recall him telling of some experiments that took months to work after a move. We had similar issues with the more drastic move two states away.

Why did my friend have to move so often? It was because he is in a medical school where space was allocated strictly by grant dollars. Instead of shredding his space into tiny disjunct labs, like a farmer with too many heirs, they moved the whole thing as his funding soared. But dollars per square foot is not the only way to determine space.

Number of people makes a lot of sense as a determiner of space. After all, doesn’t each person need their own bench? Our own department is asking about people as we plan for expanding numbers but not space. But even this is not an unambiguous metric. What if you are at the bench only 20% of your work week? Could you share then?

Some research takes more space. In our lab, for example, we often have every surface covered with Petri plates because stacking them more than three or four changes their characteristics. There are certainly other solutions to this problem, but some research really does take up more space even for a given number of dollars or people.

We could allocate space according to age, or according to power or fame. After all, don’t younger people need more space because they have growing careers and have not yet learned to be efficient? But however we allocate benches and walls, us status sensitive humans will interpret it as an indication of rank. How much less space could we make do with if we could somehow break its connection to power?

If we break the tie between space and status, then we don’t need to worry so much about exactly how it is assigned, because it isn’t handed out at all. One popular solution is the open laboratory, with multiple group leaders sharing contiguous space, adding or subtracting fluidly. This can work if the people working in the shared space are not slobs. It can also be a disaster.

I will be controversial if I say most people can probably do with less space, even much less space. After all, many of our tools are miniature versions of their former selves. We share many core facilities also. Where we think, write, and read should not be in the research lab because that space may be hazardous and is certainly more expensive. Just try to remember that your space is not an indicator of your worth. Innovate by being small, not large!

Posted in Department politics, Life in a biology department, Organization of a scientist | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

How to transform research in your field – does Rockefeller University have the answer?

Imagine you have a decade or so to transform research in your field. What would you do? Would you stop doing whatever you are doing to do things differently? What is a transformation anyway? I am thinking about this because apparently a transformation is what Rockefeller University expects of its faculty. It is a 12 year requirement for junior faculty to become permanent, or so I was told.

I like the idea of a goal like this because it is big and will require that you think hard about central questions, but most of all I like it because it recognizes the social nature of science. If you and your work doesn’t change what other people do, then it is simply not transformative. So don’t find a little niche and work in it if it doesn’t have more general implications. Change the field. Ideas, techniques, and discoveries can change fields. Behavioral ecology was transformed by the discovery of how common it was for monogamous looking songbirds to mate with strangers. Social insect studies were transformed by inclusive fitness theory and by measures of genetic relatedness. Behavioral studies have not been transformed as much as they should have been by the increasing understanding of how much parasites and diseases control behavior. Transformations from techniques are everywhere, from new microscopy to genomes, to better statistics. Well, I could go on about big ideas that entrance me, but the question is how can you do this?

Reading and fiddling around with something you like are great ways to start. There is a feedback between doing something, whether it be in the lab or field, or even with pencil and paper, and reading what others have done. Take advantage of this, even if the fiddling seems to lead nowhere and the reading is overwhelming. Then pick something ambitious and stick with it. Don’t flit from one thing to another, rounding out corners or plucking the elusive low hanging fruit.

How to do these big things is not so mysterious. Take the theory from one area and apply it to another. Become the world expert on one group of organisms, testing all theories that are important to them. Tweak a known technique and scale it up to reach new insights. Collaborate. Develop something new even if it takes years.

Then sell your work. Don’t wait for others to discover it. Write reviews. Give talks. Take on collaborators and help others. Be flexible and change if needed, but always push for the big ideas.

What have I done that is so important? I suppose I began by getting to know two species of wasps extremely well, so I could test theories derived from kin selection. I found a great life-long collaborator which made everything easier and more fun. We did a lot of work with DNA microsatellites to estimate genetic relatedness in wasps and stingless bees. I succeeded in finding lots of variable microsatellite loci because I learned this new technique and scaled up to work with hundreds of loci, easily discarding the difficult ones because I had others. More recently we brought theories of social evolution to the cell and molecular biologists working on social amoebae, particularly Dictyostelium discoideum. Now we are developing this as a lovely and tiny system for studying mutualism, farming, and eukaryote-bacteria interactions. We are redefining what an organism really is. At every step we have had a great set of collaborators. Well, you get the idea. What does your list look like?

The people we met with at Rockefeller University clearly get the transformational challenge. Daniel Kronauer has taken one of the genetically odd ant species that are clonal and yet have key features like other army ants of activity and stasis. He has geared up to  collect data on hundreds of colonies in completely automated ways. Along with new genetic systems and experiments, this could be come the system to look at ant cooperation.

Fernando Nottebohm  is writing about the very biggest ideas and discoveries, a step above his specific work on bird song and why some bird species can always learn new songs and others fixate on the songs of their youth.

Joel Cohen told us about Taylor’s law and how he was curious about how it behaved in mid range, discovering that it had a singularity, not a simple relationship. Interestingly, this could only be seen in simulations if the populations were very large, something an early referee missed.

Winrich Freiwald pulled out his computer and showed us how neurons in the brain fired for faces and not other things, some for frontal, others for profiles. I wonder how long it will be before we know what every neuron in the brain does, just as we know the origin of every cell in some nematodes.

Alexander Tomasz flattered us by printing out our CVs and searching for common ground, finding it most strongly in a paper he wrote nearly 50 years ago on the importance of bacterial cell concentration and cell competence (their ability to take up DNA from the environment). I was also interested in his more recent work on infectivity of specific cells in a lineage.

Last in our line up was Cori Bargmann who enticed us by asking for help designing an experiment. It was no surprise she knew exactly what she was doing, though she considered the experiment outside her main area.

Many of these people had nice views of the East River, not really a river, of course. Was it Winrich or Joel that pointed out that the direction of flow was about to change with the tide?

The group was clearly enriched for multinationality and for left-handedness, but these are not the only ways to get to creative fearlessness. We met with grad students and post-docs, talking more about the process of science than their specific results. Be brave and outrageous, I told them, imagining that they are the best of the best, with no need to worry so much about dismal hiring rates. After all, I imagine this innovative place, lacking the petty divisions of departments, will help them blossom into coveted young professors.

So think big, be transformative, and keep your eyes open for the unspecified area job ads for positions at Rockefeller.

Posted in Creativity, Managing an academic career, New ideas, Scientific community | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Curious about the legendary Winter Animal Behavior Conference, WABC, held each year in Steamboat Springs, Colorado?

DSC02925       Imagine skiing on world-class tree trails and well-groomed pistes through Colorado’s legendary powder. Consider afternoons and evenings with intense academic talks and post-talk discussions, perhaps involving exotic cocktails and recently legalized um… relaxants that made some people giggle, perhaps even relinquishing their roles as moderators. Now dream of doing this with some of the brightest in the next generation along with your animal behavior heroes, people who have formed the discipline and cross the bridges between countries, or between biology and psychology. It is no wonder that this meeting is dreamed about.

You may think WABC is a secretive club, almost an animal behavior cabal where big things are decided and you are excluded. Are you right? Here as much as I understand, I’ll tell the story, since I was finally lucky enough to have been invited to attend. If you know me, you know I’m generally in favor of openness, though I do understand sometimes there are closed meetings. Why Dave and I ourselves are running a small one-time closed meeting on what it takes to be an organism in a few months. But what should we think about a meeting that has been happening for 37 continuous years and has been closed that entire time? Here I’ll give you a short history of the meeting, a description of how closed it is, how to get in, and a taste of what I learned this year.IMG_4913

First, it is easy to discover how the meeting started because Jeff Galef writes about it in his autobiographical chapter in a book of animal behavior greats. Here is the Google Scholar page with the link to the preprint.
As I read it, he had been to a brain meeting at a ski resort and loved it. The next year he was turned down for attendance and was very disappointed, so he thought about simply running his own one time meeting at the same place with the 28 people he most wanted to see. So he booked the rooms at Jackson Hole and in 1978 convinced his dream group to come, paying their own way. With this meeting he began WABC. There are 27 signatures on that first page and it was in a big book, so perhaps Jeff already dreamed of continuing the meeting.IMG_4898

That first page from January 1979 is from Jackson Hole and is represented here. It is the only page I was allowed to photograph, though I did look through the rest and saw many interesting people. If you think this meeting is a bit secretive, you are right.

But it is really important to understand that this is an independent meeting. It has no affiliation with the Animal Behavior Society, or anything else. It has no funds. IDSC02973t has no leadership committee. I don’t even think it has a written set of rules, though there are clearly unwritten rules. There was no business meeting, no discussion of where the meeting is going, what its goals are, or even whom to invite next year.

There is an organizer, this year David White from Wilfred Laurier University. He set up the reservation with The Ranch at Steamboat. They have a great shuttle, a bunch of condos, and a fairly small room for the meeting. They let the group bring their own wine, beer, and soft drinks, which the organizer has to do. This time David even had to drive 5 hours to replace the recalcitrant projector. He did a ton of work to run the meeting. The snacks were excellent, cooked by a friendly woman at the Ranch.

To get this year’s meeting going, the organizer emailed people on the list, asking if they would come. I think the list is very long but I have not seen it. I don’t know how long one stays on the list if one does not come. After that group decided whether or not to come, the organizer emailed the new suggestions from the previous year to see if they wanted to come. David Queller and I were on that list. We decided to go. Then it was a matter of making our own reservation with The Ranch, the airlines, the shuttles, the lift ticIMG_4928kets, and the ski rentals. Knowing how ski resorts fill at all levels, I did all reservations immediately, in October, flights, lodging, lift tickets, skis, shuttle from airport to Steamboat.

Surprisingly, a good number of people do not ski. They use the day as quiet time to work, or dabble at the lovely Strawberry Park hotsprings, or stress themselves with cross country on the golf course. This attests to the academic importance of the meeting, though there was nothing shabby about us skiers and our chairlift and lunchtime discussions.IMG_4937

How do you get on that magic list? It is easy. Someone suggests you. We got little pieces of paper at the banquet on Wednesday and could write a name on it and then that person will be notified after the people on the older list have made up their minds. Usually, it is harder to fill the meeting than to decide whom to invite. So if you want to go, just find someone that has been, and ask to be suggested. There was no discussion of people. Bill Wright is organizing the meeting for 2016. I hope I can go.

So, the meeting is self-pay, always at Steamboat, with talks from 4pm to 10pm, beginning with a half hour reception, and an hour and a half for dinner. You may be amazed, but there is also socializing and science after dinner. If you wonder what exactly it cost, for me and Dave, the grand total was $3778.14 not including the couple hundred on food we bought and cooked. That broke down as $713.41 for the double room in a shared condo, $898.40 for two flights from St. Louis, and $560.00 for two registrations, generously covering the banquet, reception, pizza the last night, and tons of wine and snacks at other times. In addition to that, ski rental, top quality, was $573.67, and lift tickets, bought at discount early were $918 for 6 days for two. Was it worDSC02974th it? I would say yes for reasons that might come clear below.

Who was there this year? We had 32 people, apparently 10 Canadians, and about that number of psychologists. There were 4 people from University of California Davis, 3 from Wash U, 3 from McMaster, and 3 from Western Ontario. I would guess that Jeff Galef and Mike Ryan had the most former students also attending. We had one excellent Brazilian, but overall this is not a diverse meeting. Ten of 32 were women. It is impossible to complain about diversity or gender issues since it is self pay from a large list that is not too hard to get on. If that list had few women and diverse candidates, I would complain, but I haven’t seen the list. With this system, there is no way to balance any given meeting except by begging certain people to come. Maybe that is a problem in and of itself.

Here is an organismal breakdown of the talks: 12 birds, 8 mammals, 4 other vertebrates, 5 invertebrates, 1 microbe (me), and 2 theory talks. Those color image figures of brains were common. So were robots, models, decoys, and fakes, of cowbird eggs, túngara frogs, sage grouse, darters, and loons. I think of these models kind of like gene knockouts and replacements.IMG_4946

Multimodality in signaling had caught people’s attention, from ripples on water to female behavior to spider and darter behavior. Disease and its relationship to behavior infected a couple of talks on trematodes and one on song sparrows and migration. The most popular organism was the cowbird with 4 talks, most heart rending was the one on mate separation and longing calls to absent or distant mates.

Both theory talks were fascinating, one a clear demonstration of the flaws with Nowak’s attack on inclusive fitness and the other on the intersection of prisoner’s dilemma and dictator games in structured environments.IMG_6222

We heard a lot about animals in the wild, including haunting loons, white-crowned sparrows, song sparrows, Danish whales, Panamanian crabs, darters (a fish), Brazilian grassquits, and pronghorn antelope on the Bison Range.

Some important topics were under-represented to my taste. There were no social insects and little talk of social conflict or evolution. Phylogenetics and genomics were only slightly present. But everyone assured me that topics change a lot from meeting to meeting.

Did I learn enough to go again? Probably. Was the skiing wonderful? Yes, but we could have used more snow. What was the opportunity cost? Would I have rather spent the week in the rainforests of Ecuador or Peru? Possibly, but that wouldn’t have happened.

Would the meeting endure if it lost its exclusivity, if it lost its “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” feeling? I don’t know.DSC02934

Posted in behavioral ecology, Scientific meetings | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Can you believe we submitted a fake NSF panel summary?

Just when you should be relaxed and gradually easing back into work from the winter break, NSF preproposals are fast coming due. It is hard to work on them and yet exhilarating to get your ideas down and your best plans for testing them. So how about a little NSF humor?

It was 1989. We had been hard at workFake Panel Summary processing proposals on the 12-14 April panel. It was a different time, 25 years ago. We had a couple of computers in the corner and otherwise sat around a table with stacks of paper proposals. Some things were the same as today. Three people were in charge of each proposal. There was a leader who wrote the panel summary which the whole panel approved. Our NSF leaders were Mark Courtney and Steve Threlkeld. They would receive our summaries and read them out for approval when four or five had accumulated. Then we would all stop for a bit and listen and comment on the summaries.

Could we get Mark or Steve to read a fake panel summary? We imagined we could. I had three partners in crime, but I don’t quite dare name them, for two of their signatures are not legible, and memory might not serve. You see we were annoyed because we had just had one of those interruptions when the upper echelons of NSF come in the room and pretend to want to hear from us, but really just want to tell us how it is. I remember this person too, but will not name her. What she wanted us to know was that this was the time for big science. The kind of single investigator curiosity driven work we were evaluating was over. We needed big questions that required big teams. So all these great proposals we were attending to that sunny day in April were pointless? What? Well, it wasn’t that strong, of course, but we felt aggrieved.

Of course this was not the fault of Mark or Steve, but they were the ones we could reach. Besides, it had been a long day and we needed some fun. by the computers we colluded on a fictitious summary and I typed it up. We put the fake panel summary in the pile with the real ones and waited.

Mark was reading. He read through a couple of summaries and put the proposals at the suggested place on the board. Then he got to ours. We were dispersed in the room, at our places, no longer huddled over the computer in the back. Mark read. I suppose a PI named Standing is possible. The university was I O University. The division then was BSR and the panel, population biology and physiological ecology, I think because they were avoiding coming right out and saying evolution.

Mark Courtney I remember as tall and blond. He was laconic and very fair. He had a way of delivering the worst news in a manner that somehow made it seem right and inevitable. I don’t know if he handled the first proposal I got funded, but he did handle one later that did not get funded right when I needed one to get funded for tenure. I was devastated. He was comfortable with silence on the phone. I had better fortune later, of course, and really grew to like Mark. I respected his judgement even when it went against me. Steve, by the way, was a rotator, so I knew him less well, but liked him also.

Mark began to read, “I. P. Standing and his group propose to study the sociobiology of egg-carrying behavior within assemblages of pinnipeds. The research involves very high-tech molecular probes, RFLPs, Southern and Northern blots, not to mention Eastern and Western blots. This panel is the appropriate body to review this proposal in view of its expertise in egg-related activities and of its stated mission…”

At this point Mark paused. He looked around. He looked right at me. I have no idea why.  Then he read another sentence: “…towit “I am the egg-man, you are the egg-man, I am the walrus, koo-koo, ka choo.” He stopped and asked who wrote this. But by then everyone wanted to hear the rest, so if memory serves, Mark read it. I hope you can read it too in the photo attached. It broke up the work and we went back to reading reviews and writing summaries.

This is a story that anyone who knows me is likely to have heard. But I did not lay eyes on the original document until I gave a talk a year or so ago at Ole Miss, academic home of Steve Threlkeld. There on his wall was a framed copy of our famous summary, signed by all. We had a good laugh. Today of course we would have emailed it around, put it on Facebook, or a least snapped a photo with our phones. Back then, one person got it and it had a chance to hide.

If you see a name on there we did not identify, let me know.

So, where has science gone since then? Have the single investigators gone the way of the walrus? I hope not, for studies of creativity still indicate the power of the single human brain.

Posted in Grant proposals, Humor, NSF | 2 Comments