Wednesday, May 27, 2020

New Profs in the Age of COVID19 - @swannegordon

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New Profs in the age of COVID19 - the series:

    - by Swanne Gordon @swannegordon

    - by Yoel Stuart @yestuart

    - by Amy Parachnowitsch @EcoEvoAmy

    - by Jaime Chaves @chavechito76

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When Andrew (Hendry) invited me to contribute to a blog series showcasing how new PI’s were handling their COVID-19 experiences and worries, he also attached a few examples. I struggled initially to think about what else I could add that hadn’t already been eloquently said and was about to decline. I soon realized that even with all the similarities between the previous posts and anything I would write, I could still bring forward a viewpoint that is often not shared. Frankly, because it is a viewpoint that is so rare, and in many ways quite dissimilar from the majority of my peers. The viewpoint I refer to is that of an underrepresented minority in STEM or, specifically, a new black female PI in the field of ecology and evolution.


First, let’s start with the commonalities; where I have similar woes and anxieties as my peers, especially in my field. We should start here because how better to remember this crazy time than with a multitude of examples and representations all reinforcing the same things.

My lab focuses on variation in nature, why it exists and how it is maintained. Under that scope, we use a variety of techniques to examine topics such as color polymorphisms, rapid evolution, and the interaction between sex linkage and adaptation. Our pre-Covid plans for this spring and summer were to expand this research experimentally into three new topics: urban ecology and evolution, the role of behavior in eco-evo dynamics, and a more integrative approach to understanding animal behavior via neurobiology.

The current pandemic started interrupting these plans during what was the end of the big planning phase of our lab’s first field season to Trinidad in March. Our plans were to intensively collect Trinidadian guppies from freshwater streams all across the Northern Range Mountains of Trinidad between two collaborating labs that would become the main foundation of our upcoming experiments. We began hearing more and more about the threat of the virus, and so we adjusted our plans in case we were either not allowed to travel, or got stuck in Trinidad after we had traveled. One of the plan adjustments meant changing our pre-bought tickets so that we staggered the inbound and outbound flights of our four-person team.

I was the last person scheduled to leave; the day before my flight, my University canceled the trip and all international travel for its faculty and staff. The following week was one of mass confusion, anxiety, and long days. I had to shut down my lab including our undergraduate research students who also helped maintain the fish stocks we already had. (Sidebar: I have no graduate students or postdocs yet but will be recruiting into next year if anyone knows of any good candidates). The only other three people who could help with the lab were in the field. This meant I had to care for the stock by myself while trying to get the hard-working field crew back home as safely and as soon as possible. We ended up playing it safe and buying new tickets for the field crew to return early before they closed the borders; they eventually all made it home safely (including the fish populations they had managed to collect).


My current day to day life consists of mainly juggling the following things: 1) trying to motivate myself to write up the many papers I have outstanding from my postdoc ( so much to do, and so little motivation); 2) work and mentoring meetings (so much Zoom); 3) taking care of our rapidly growing stocks in our fish rooms between the four of us who were given special essential status from the University; and 4) the massive amount of work homeschooling two very bored, yet completely resilient and amazing kids (teachers really should be paid more!). All research is currently on hold although the University is now preparing research ramp-up plans across the Departments from 0 to a 30 percent opening in the near future. However, as far as I know, my summer plans to co-build outdoor stream mesocosms (especially needed for my new postdoc starting in August), run some cool experiments, and host six additional summer research students at our University field station are all canceled or postponed until way into the future.

Ok, what I have written above may seem like a lot of complaining. However, I am more than cognizant that my position during this pandemic is actually more privileged that many other people. This is why, in spite of everything, I try to focus on the many reasons I have to be grateful, even during a pandemic. I am fortunate to even be a New PI, to have a good academic job at an institution that has shown itself during this time to truly value its students and staff, when so many of my equally qualified peers are still searching. I am fortunate to have been given a start-up fund from Washington University in St Louis that should cover my research plans for the next couple of years should the funding environment crash post-Covid. I am also fortunate, so far, to be healthy (my family as well), whilst so many are not. I am fortunate to still have a healthy fish population, students eager to return to work with them, and for being given a year and a half off from teaching at the University so that I had the time during the early days of the pandemic to focus solely on my lab and my family. I am also fortunate to have some good colleagues, a supportive co-parent/research partner, and the best and most hard-working lab group. We are small, but mighty (come join us!).

Now that we have covered the viewpoint that any researcher or field biologist can see themselves in, let’s go over two places or points where my viewpoint or experience may be different. I think one thing the virus has also accomplished is to shine further light on inequality in America and around the world; in all regions, the virus has continued to disproportionately affect communities of color and the economically disadvantaged.

Even with my privilege of job security during the pandemic, as a black person living in America with two young kids, I live and breathe with anxiety. Threats of racism, police brutality, and inequalities in education, the justice system, health, income, and housing (among other things) plague our communities with no real end in sight. These issues are also worldwide, represented in every single facet of our lives, and will only get worse after this pandemic has weakened. When my husband and I were deciding which Universities to apply, and then which job offer to choose, we had to consider many more important factors than the average scientist. While others focused on the Departmental fit or job offer, we also had to focus on what were the repercussions of this choice for our black children. Would they be welcomed in their schools, in their neighborhood? Could they find representation of other people, or teachers, that looked like them? We were also moving them from Finland, so this was a big priority. Other than just the academic accomplishments of my colleagues (and Department) for future collaborations, I needed to also focus on where on the ‘racism or bias in academia’ scale did my potential colleagues average, and if high, could I handle it for a few years?

Table courtesy of the book, Presumed Incompetent, edited by Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs, Yolanda Flores Niemann, Carmen G. Gonzalez and Angela P. Harris. This book highlights the ‘intersecting roles of race, gender, and class in the working lives of women faculty of color’. However, a quick search on the US Department of Education website for the updated numbers show me the percentages of black faculty across the US has remained quite constant since then (e.g. still only total 3 percent for black women faculty).

With these thoughts in mind and having remained in academia all of these years as someone at the intersection of biases across both gender and race, I also knew my struggles in the time of Covid and post-Covid would look different than my peers’. Seeing all of the past mental and physical extra hoops and obstacles I had to go through throughout my career that my close colleagues did not have to make me worried about the future. I worry about how much more of a struggle it will be after the pandemic when resource limitations in funding, hiring, promotions, publishing, and collaboration will get worse and likely expand the flourishing biases in academia. Historically, underrepresented groups always suffer more of the consequences during these times. Academia, let us band together to change the cycle of this narrative and protect those around us that are most at risk; but, excuse me if I don’t hold my breath.

Finally, I want to mention that although we are all going through a pandemic, there are some among us that are dealing with larger mental loads related to it. I see some colleagues on Twitter who are quick to mention how they are taking this time to catch up on manuscripts and grants that are lagging, and that’s great. However, unlike these colleagues, this pandemic has also seemed to paralyze me. In my case, in the early weeks of the shutdown in St Louis, I had been bombarded by statistics including: 1) that the first few deaths in St Louis and the majority of deaths in big cities involved black people, and, 2) that 38% of black people have died from Coronavirus in Missouri, but black people make up only 12% of that population (numbers not recently updated). Although much of these facts are because black representation in the work force is disproportionately tipped towards frontline, essential, and/or lower income jobs, there are also enough cases I have seen on my Twitter feed that cross socio-economic lines. Given that I need to leave my house many times a week to go into the University to care for the fish populations, it is always such a mental hurdle for me when I get home. A mental battle to quell my fears of a disproportionate risk (whether perceived or actually epidemiological) of myself or family members dying from the virus in order to work relatively care-free on my papers or discuss science with my lab members. On top of this, our four-year-old son has an immune deficiency. I am thinking people with any immune deficiencies or other illnesses have similar if not worse fears. 

Sunday, May 10, 2020

New Profs in the age of COVID19 - @yestuart

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New Profs in the age of COVID19 - the series:

    - by Swanne Gordon @swannegordon

    - by Yoel Stuart @yestuart

    - by Amy Parachnowitsch @EcoEvoAmy

    - by Jaime Chaves @chavechito76

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Yoel Stuart

I started my position at Loyola University Chicago in Fall of 2019 but didn't start teaching undergraduate classes until January 2020. I remember hearing about COVID-19 (then just called a coronavirus, in an unknown-to-me place called Wuhan) during the first week of Spring classes. We discussed it that week. We were primed to pay attention because I had assigned Spillover, by David Quammen, as course reading, and therefore had a stroke of pedagogical (bad) luck to be teaching about emerging infectious diseases during an emerging pandemic. Needless to say, I wish my material wasn't quite so relevant to current events. We read the SARS chapter the week I took my class online. 


Looking for lizards in Florida. You'll see I was into face masks before they were vogue.

The Serenity Prayer:

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can,

And wisdom to know the difference.


Things I cannot change

I cannot change being locked out of my lab and office.

I cannot change cessation of lab data collection.

I cannot change that my technicians are quickly running out of work they can do at home (though see below).

I cannot change that classes are online.

I cannot change the absence of undergraduate students in my lab.

I cannot change daycare being closed.

I cannot change so many things.

I am trying not to worry about them.

Just me and my shadow in Nevada, looking for fossil stickleback. Socially distanced, right?


Things I can change, or rather, control:

I can control my writing. There are revisions and manuscripts to write. I can write for at least 30 minutes per day (and probably more, now that the semester is done).

I can control my grants. I have grants that would benefit from 30 minutes of writing a day.

I can control my data analysis. I have several projects that would benefit from 30 minutes of analysis per day.

I can train my technicians. Now is an opportunity develop their project design and writing skills. I can have them do literature searches for new project ideas and writing for completed projects. I can also help them apply to graduate school.

I can improve my courses. I had many ideas throughout the semester to make my classes better. I improve 30 minutes per day, starting by reaching out to my office of online learning.

I can keep a realistic calendar of things I want to accomplish each week. And then I can set about making those things happen.

I can change the way I approach my day, to reduce my stress levels and make me both a better worker and a better father and husband. COVID-19 means there is time for introspection. I’ve realized that my stress level is lowest if I get 30-60 minutes of writing done first thing in the morning. With two small kids at home, this means waking up at 6am (and forswearing that extra hour of faffing around at night). When I do this, I can be more present with my kids and spouse—a silver lining of the stay at home order. It also makes it easier to steal a few minutes here and there for administration and email later in the day.

I can donate to causes that need help and are important to me. This is a way to keep from feeling completely helpless.

I can count my blessings and acknowledge all the positive things in my life. I have a patient spouse with whom navigating this mess has been more or less smooth. I have two kids that play well together and give us enough time to stay sane. I have amazing co-workers at LUC and have received support at all levels here. Me and mine are safe, healthy, employed. I had great students; I’ll miss our tri-weekly meetings which provided landmarks during days that tend to blend together.

I can be gentle with myself and forgive myself for all the times that I fall short in my work, my parenting, my interactions, my gratitude. As much as one aims for serenity, false serenity is not helpful (Costanza, G., pers. comm.). We all lose it sometimes. That’s okay.

 

My son Lev, after playing "Windstorm" in the basement during COVID. Thank goodness for basements.

The wisdom to tell the difference

Can I safely conduct field work this summer? Can my graduate student safely conduct field work this summer? Can collaborative projects happen safely this summer? I ask the EEEE community for wisdom.

On the one hand, an argument could be made that solo travel to remote field sites is the social distancing. As long as I sleep in the truck, use gloves and masks at gas stations, minimize trips to gather food and supplies, quarantine for the 14 days before I leave, and otherwise, not interact with anyone, the risk of community spread is small. Right?

The counterargument is: the only way to minimize community spread is to stay at home. Full stop. Even gas station stops could be enough to contract and spread. And, were something to happen in the field: flat tire, broken arm, etc., I’d be creating a network of interactions that wasn’t necessary. And possibly taxing to a tired health care system. And, leaving my spouse with two toddlers, no daycare, and her working a fulltime job is not tenable. This means bringing a grandparent into our social circle. Risks there too.

How does one weigh the relative risks? How much responsibility do I have to granting agencies and taxpayers to conduct the research? Do I know the answer in my gut (stay home!) while my head tries to rationalize a field trip? I certainly recognize my conflict of interest. Preliminary data, personal advancement, and tenure are powerful motivators to build an argument that I could travel safely despite COVID having an R0 around 3. And yet… just because I have a conflict of interest doesn’t make safe travel impossible, does it?

What about post-doc collaborators and graduate students? They have careers and futures to secure in a way that I don’t. Does their field work warrant the relatively low risk of community spread in exchange for the very high personal cost of staying home—years of lost work, the end of grant funding with nothing to show for it, a year’s delay in receiving a degree, blank spots on the CV? Can one cap and trade risk? I’ll stay home but facilitate others?

More questions than answers. If there were a running header for COVID-19 during the first six months of 2020, I think ‘more questions than answers’ would be it.


Thursday, April 30, 2020

New profs in the age of COVID19 - @EcoEvoAmy

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New Profs in the age of COVID19 - the series:

    - by Swanne Gordon @swannegordon

    - by Yoel Stuart @yestuart

    - by Amy Parachnowitsch @EcoEvoAmy

    - by Jaime Chaves @chavechito76

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Dr. Amy Parachnowitsch is an assistant professor at the University of New Brunswick. She moved her lab there from Uppsala University (Sweden) in the summer of 2018. She studies the evolutionary ecology and chemical ecology of flowers. You can find her on Twitter too often these days @EvoEcoAmy


My daughter’s school has started sending suggested activities and learning goals (all optional thankfully!). One is to keep a journal of your daily activities and feelings. The teachers emphasize the importance of writing about your feelings so you can look back on this time. I really wonder what I will think about the pandemic and how it affected me years from now. I haven’t written a diary for years but since I’ve experiencing writer’s block it seemed like as good of a place to start as any.

Today, like most days, I did some administrative stuff (read: answered emails, always emails), puttered around twitter and read too much bad news, managed my teaching obligations in this time of on-line courses, hung out with my 10 year old, and did a little exercise. I feel mostly fine but easily distracted. I feel overwhelmed yet underwhelmed and bored. I feel sad for all the plans my lab had for the summer that are now cancelled or in jeopardy of being cancelled. I feel relieved that my only child seems to be taking this new reality all in stride (schools have been closed since March 16th here). I feel worried and yet incredibly privileged to be on the tenure track after so many years of temporary employment. I feel unmotivated to science and guilty about all the manuscripts that I thought (pre-pandemic) I would be getting to as my teaching finished up. I feel like the floor has dropped out from under me, just as our research was starting to work. I feel uncertain about everything. Most of all I worry about the uncertainty for the students and post doc in my lab. There are things I can do for them but so much is beyond my control.



Some days I feel more positive than others. Some days my daughter and I bake or get outside for longer walks. The spring is slow this year but we have been able to start on a little gardening which always makes me happy. I go to our university greenhouses every few days to water plants that represent a hope that we will get to collect data from them before they all finish flowering. Sometimes this helps and other times I leave feeling powerless and wanting to cry. My partner and I seem to have punctuated the weeks by reserving the weekends for house renovations which I am sure we will appreciate in the long run. We bought our ~150 year old house last summer and the painting projects are endless, although those bigger renovations that my parents were planning to help with this spring are on hold. Who would have thought the borders between provinces would ever be controlled?



The thing I am not doing is writing. The writing I know I need to do for my career. I need those papers published for my tenure package. I need those papers for my next grant application. More than any of those needs, I would really like our science to get out. I used to like writing but I am not there right now. Despite the pandemic, I keep thinking about how easy I have it. Why aren’t you writing? It isn’t like you have a toddler at home (could be so much worse). Why aren’t you writing? You have a supportive spouse (could be so much worse). Why aren’t you writing? You have plenty of space and your own home office (could be so much worse). Why aren’t you writing? You haven’t lost anyone to COVID-19 (could be so much worse)! Why aren’t you writing? It seems like you’re using this pandemic as an excuse. Why are you so drained by on-line teaching? Why aren’t you taking this opportunity to do the writing that you say you want to? What is your excuse? I wrote all these dark thoughts out not because I think that they are legitimate but rather to be honest about how I’m feeling. Maybe it helps someone else out there struggling with productivity in a pandemic to see they aren’t alone.

I hope as this new rhythm continues, I will get my creativity and focus back. I know all the tricks (I tried one now to help me finally get over my writer’s block for writing this blog post), I know I will do fine eventually. I know I’m not alone in having trouble working. But I am early in my career here at UNB and back in Canada. I do feel like I need to show that my lab can produce new and exciting science. I want to do new and exciting science! And as much as writing up old data that I have from my previous position in Sweden is generally a great thing, I need new work based here to add to my record. As a field ecologist, to get that new data we must get outside or at least get to the greenhouse. We need to touch plants to collect our data.


I’m trying not to focus on what we cannot do and instead focus on the projects we can progress with. I deleted a whole series of paragraphs on all the stuff we cancelled or put on hold. It was perhaps cathartic to write but probably not particularly interesting for others to read. We’re making back-up plans for the back-up plans if we are able to collect data this summer. It helps. Yet, it doesn’t stop all those worries and anxieties from creeping in. We are lucky though. We do have options and are getting creative for plans to do physically distant science. The safety of the people working for me is more important than any research that will be lost.

I don’t know how things will pan out in the long run, but I do know I am not alone. I know I’m incredibility fortunate to have a stable job and live in a country that is implementing measures to help scientists (e.g. NSERC grant extensions). Science is being disrupted everywhere right now and I’ve landed in a relatively good place for that to be happening.

For now, my lab group has virtual meetings on Monday and Friday mornings to bookend the weeks. We talk about plans, hear everyone’s small stories about weathering staying at home, and occasionally see a pet. I hope seeing everyone is good for them. It is so helpful for my mental state to see them all smiling each week. It makes me optimistic for the future.


Thursday, April 9, 2020

Bob Carroll - tributes and stories

Bob Carroll has passed away after contracting Covid-19. I have seen a number of great stories appearing on social media - and would like to archive them for posterity.

The stories below complement the official obituaries:
And his bio on science.ca

And this short video from CTV News Montreal

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Monday, April 6, 2020

New profs in the age of COVID19 - @chavecito76

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New Profs in the age of COVID19 - the series:

    - by Swanne Gordon @swannegordon

    - by Yoel Stuart @yestuart

    - by Amy Parachnowitsch @EcoEvoAmy

    - by Jaime Chaves @chavechito76

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Jaime says hi from Galapagos. (Pic by Aspen Hendry.)

As a new pre-tenure professor hoping to open my lab to graduate students in the next semester, I am looking at the Fall 2020 semester with uncertainty and it seems to be a complicated year to build up a sound Tenure-Retention-Promotion dossier. Here are some points:

-I have accepted 4 graduate students to start in my lab, of which three live out of state. Not only is the housing market in California very challenging to many full-time students, but now we must consider the present COVID-19 situation which could also possibly hinder students’ relocations efforts. 

-When interviewing the candidates, one of the selling points to join my lab was the nature of the program: 1/3 fieldwork, 1/3 lab work, 1/3 bioinformatics. With the current situation, (i) fieldwork looks like something that might not happen in the near future (international travel bans to Ecuador-Galapagos), (ii) wet lab access could still have strong accessibility restrictions for the near future, and (ii) long delay in data generation (thousands of genomic projects put on hold most likely resuming activities under long queues).

Jaime in Galapagos. (Pic by Aspen Hendry)

-The freezing of research activities will put a dent in my lab's capacity to generate preliminary data, which in turn will be essential for future grant submissions and manuscripts production. Thus, funds to support graduate activities will be impacted and their terminal degrees could face additional challenges.

-Masters’ students are expected to finish their degrees in two years, which is usually the length of external support for this type of program. All my initial graduate students are seeking to obtain such funding so it is very probable that students might take longer than expected given the delays I mentioned. They would likely have to complete the program over a longer span of time which could jeopardize their access to continued funding.

-Seeing as I just started teaching as of the spring 2020 semester, teaching has been the only aspect of the activities expected of pre-tenure professors that I have been able to perform so far. Since moving fully online, the challenges have been to keep students motivated and engaged, and maintaining the impact of the in-person relationships developed earlier in the class. These concerns will be only measurable and examined at the end of the semester when we assess student’s learning outcomes. These unanticipated events could represent poor student evaluations and discontent during times when all faculty have been required to deliver instruction in an online format.


Tuesday, February 11, 2020

#IntegrityAndTrust 5. With Data Editors, Everyone Wins

Maintaining Trust AND Data Integrity - a forum for discussion. INFO HERE.

#IntegrityAndTrust 5. With Data Editors, Everyone Wins.
Trust is everything. If we don’t trust each other, then science ceases to be a creative and fun collaborative endeavor – which is what makes it so wonderful. For me, it all starts and ends with trust, from which the rest follows. Thus, I will NOT now interrogate the data of each student and collaborator for fraud. I will, of course, interrogate it for outliers and data entry mistakes and so on – but NOT for dishonesty. I want every student in my lab knowing they have my complete trust, and I want every collaborator working with me knowing likewise.

Ok, fine, that sounds good, but then how do we catch fraud from this position of trust? At the outset, I would suggest that outright fraud is exceptionally rare (I will later write a post on the many “flavors of scientific dishonesty”) – to the point that we can start from a default position of not worrying about it on a daily basis. Moreover, if the science matters, the fraud will eventually be caught by someone and corrected. Afterall, that is what is currently happening. The scientific record is being correct and we will move forward from a better place. (I am not diminishing the harm done to those who have been impacted, nor the incredible work being done to correct it.) This self-correction has happened in the past in several well publicized cases, and also in a few you haven’t heard about. Hence, we definitely should always strive for improved recording and presenting and archiving of data, I do not think that we should enter into any collaboration with the expectation that collaborators will be actively checking each other for fraud.

Moreover, any sort of data fraud checking among collaborators will not catch situations where collaborators are cheating together, and it won’t help for single-authored papers, and it won’t help in cases where only one author (e.g., a bioinformatician) has the requisite knowledge to generate and analyze the data. Afterall, if everyone had the ability to generate, analyze, and interpret the data equally well, then we wouldn’t need collaborations would we. Instead, collaborators tend to be brought together for their complementary, rather than redundant, skills. I certainly won’t be able to effectively check the (for example) genomic data generated by specialist collaborators. Nor should all authors be spending their time on this – they should be focusing their efforts on areas where they have unique skills. Otherwise, why collaborate?

Yet we obviously need a better way to detect the cheaters. I can see one clear solution for detecting fraud before it hits the scientific record while not compromising an atmosphere of trust among collaborators. Consider this: the one place where trust does not currently exist is between journals and authors submitting papers. That is, reviewers/editors at journals don’t “trust” that the authors have chosen the right journal, that experimental design is correct, that their analyses appropriate, and that their interpretation is valid. Instead, reviewers/editors interrogate these aspects of each submitted paper to see if they trust the authors’ work and choice of journal.

Why not then have fraud detection enter in from the journal side of the process. For instance, many journals already run the text of submitted papers through a program that checks for plagiarism. Indeed, I was editor for a paper where plagiarism by a junior lead author was caught by just such a program and the senior author was able to fix it. Why not do the same for data? R packages are being developed to check for common approaches to fraud and can be used to interrogate data by officially-sanctioned and recognized Data Editors. These Data Editors could be acknowledged just like regular editors on the back pages of journals and even on the papers themselves. The Data Editors can put this role on their CVs and be recognized for this contribution. I expect that many scientists – especially those with coding skills with a passion for data integrity – would jump at the opportunity to be an official Data Editor at a journal.

Yes, I hear you saying “That would be a ton of work” – and so here is a suggestion to minimize unnecessary effort. Specifically, the Data Editors kick in only when the paper is already accepted. This would avoid duplication of effort when the same paper is rejected from one journal and then serially submitted to other journals. I suppose a few instances would be detected where the paper passed normal peer review and then was rejected (or corrected) after being examined by a Data Editor – but I expect this would be rare. Also, I am not suggesting Data Editors should be checking code – only the raw data itself. Also, I think they should be EDITORS, not reviewers. That is, the journal would engage 10 or so Data Editor who would then “handle” the data for all accepted papers according to their expertise.

I hope that the scientific community will seriously consider this Data Editor suggestion because it seems to me by far the best (perhaps the only) way to maintain trust and complementarity among collaborators while also improving data integrity. I think also that it would be an opportunity for data enthusiasts, programmers, and coders to get more recognition for their skills and efforts. Everyone wins.

Monday, February 10, 2020

#IntegrityAndTrust 4. Building environments that promote data integrity

Maintaining Trust AND Data Integrity - a forum for discussion. INFO HERE.
#IntegrityAndTrust 4. Building Environments that Promote Data Integrity

By Grant E. Haines with contributions from Charles C.Y. Xu, David A.G.A Hunt, Marc-Olivier Beausoleil, and Winer Daniel Reyes


After reading the accounts by Dan Bolnick and Kate Laskowski of how the issues with Jonathan Pruitt-authored or coauthored papers were detected, our weekly lab group meeting on Thursday was devoted largely to discussion of how similar issues may be avoided, identified, and corrected in the future. Many of the conclusions we came to have been previously articulated in the other recent posts to this blog, those made by Joan Straussman and Alexandra McInturf, and the numerous perspectives bouncing around social media. 

As have others, we came to (mostly) agree on the following, somewhat unsatisfying, understandings: First, that as researchers become increasingly comfortable with the modern computational tools used to conduct scientific analyses, it will simultaneously become easier for them to falsify data and more difficult for others to detect falsified data. Second, that no matter how transparent the documentation of data and code becomes, there will always be some opportunities for those who are savvy enough to manipulate their data in dishonest ways. And third, that collaboration, like other parts of the scientific process, depends on trust. It is thus not advisable to treat every dataset received from a collaborator with heightened skepticism.

None of this is to say, however, that improvements to the way we do our work are not worth pursuing, and we identified several that could both build the integrity of our science and disincentivize the taking of unethical shortcuts. None of these are foolproof, but there are several practices that we think can either reduce the opportunities for data manipulation, facilitate its discovery, or reduce the impact of studies using manipulated data in the scientific record.

First, all data and code should be accessible by multiple people within a lab and among collaborators working on projects using it. This includes all versions of the data and code, either in multiple files or in platforms like GitHub and Labstep that track changes so that previous versions can be recovered. This practice would mean that, unless data is manipulated as it is taken, researchers can verify that the original data has not been unethically altered[1].

Second, when writing a manuscript or protocol that is shared with other labs, methods should be written clearly and completely enough (even in supplementary materials if journal word limits are insufficient) that someone attempting to replicate the study can easily understand them. We have previously heard the perspective of some scientists that this is not the purpose of a methods section, and that it should instead be used more as a rhetorical tool to convince readers that the methods used were appropriate for the study and you know what you’re doing. Because the robustness of scientific ideas is built on multiple lines of evidence, we reject this view in favor of one that facilitates the generation of these multiple lines of evidence, even if in different study systems. This should dilute the impact on the literature of studies that appear to show improbably large effects, and, through replication, enable tests of the claims made in studies which have had doubt cast upon them by accusations of fraud.

Third, authors should include tests that produce statistically insignificant results in supplementary materials. Because of word limits provided by journals, scientists often trim some of the tests they conducted from papers. This practice can facilitate the creation of a coherent narrative around the results, but deprive the scientific record of useful information. This point goes hand-in-hand with the previous recommendation because it makes it more likely that results not supporting strong effects presented by studies with fraudulent data will be available in the literature. It also has the happy byproduct of reducing the frequency with which researchers will pursue hypotheses that other labs have tested and found to be unsupported but not published.

Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, the senior members of a research group (PIs, post-docs, and senior PhD students) should cultivate an environment in which everyone knows the data management expectations for the lab and, I cannot stress this enough, feels comfortable asking questions. People might ask stupid questions. That’s good. Pretend like they aren’t. We all have different blind spots and areas of expertise, and everyone, especially those recording the bulk of the data in most labs (undergrads and more junior Masters and PhD students), sometimes needs help filling those blind spots in. The rest of us should do everything we can to help them do so. The alternative is an environment in which more junior researchers try to find or develop answers on their own, sometimes making serious mistakes in the process. 

A good data management system boils down to having clear and shared goals, both in general, and for specific projects or types of projects. These standards should encompass the “life-cycle” of various research projects: from when a project starts to when it finishes. Recording all of the steps and communicating them within the research group. This becomes especially important in long term studies, throughout the course of which a lab may experience significant turnover. If the protocols are not maintained and communicated with the rest of the lab, it becomes difficult to ensure that the data produced throughout these projects has been systematically collected and analyzed.

These principles can extend beyond individual labs to the influential voices in fields or subfields. The credibility of an entire body of research can benefit or suffer by the practices of these researchers. This influence can be leveraged by highlighting procedures to maintain data integrity in guest lectures or conference presentations to build a culture of careful data management across labs.

This whole series of events that has unfolded over the past few weeks is obviously quite troubling. But perhaps if the scientific process is susceptible to manipulation on this scale, the healthiest response for its practitioners to adopt is not to ignore its weaknesses, but to adapt by creating reliable procedures and research that address these weaknesses head on.




[1] Because of recent attempts by the U.S. EPA to prevent science relating to public health being considered in the development of new environmental regulations under the guise of data transparency, it is important to note that in order to maintain the confidentiality of subjects’ personal information, this practice may not be advisable or possible in all cases.


New Profs in the Age of COVID19 - @swannegordon

- ----------------------------------------------- New Profs in the age of COVID19 - the series:     - by  Swanne Gordon  @swannegordon     -...