27 January 2015

I’m a People of Canada!

I’ve taken over the @PeopleOfCanada Twitter account for the week!

I’ll be tweeting about maintaining a Canadian identity while living out of the country, a little science, and a maybe little more personal stuff than I normally get to at my usual Twitter account.

Join me for the week!

External links


Week 126: Expat Zen in Texas, USA

26 January 2015

Maybe the UTRGV mascot should be the zombie, because the debate won’t die

Just when thought we had finished with the whole Vaqueros controversy, it’s back in the news. Texas lawmaker Terry Canales has made good on his threat.... er, promise... to introduce legislation that would almost certainly get rid of the “Vaquero” as mascot.

The bill, from my point of view, is... problematic. It reads:

The university shall include on the ballot:
  1. the “Broncs”;
  2. the “Ocelots”; and
  3. any other options the university chooses, including nicknames nominated by students and approved by the university.

This is a rigged ballot for a single outcome: to get the Bronc back. It was clear in the discussion leading up to this that people affiliated with UTPA students favoured the Bronc, and everyone not affiliated with UTPA were “Anything but the Bronc.” Nobody was strongly arguing for the Ocelots.

There is no doubt that if there was a student vote held now, UTPA students would overwhelmingly vote for the Bronc.

I get that “majority rules” is very popular option... when you’re in the majority. It completely sucks to be given a message that what you have to say is not even worth listening to when you’re in the minority.

Let me give you a little “Zen predicts” on this bill: it will never come up for a vote, for two reasons.

First, legislators from the rest of the Texas will not see the value in interfering with a decision that was done above board and according to Hoyle. It was always Guy Bailey’s decision, and while his decision was unpopular, it was his to make.

Second, the UT System, and other Valley legislators from outside the Edinburg area, will lobby against this bill and stop it before it hits the legislative floor for a vote. The representatives of the UT System will resent what they see as political second-guessing and micromanagement. Other legislators will resent that the bill silences their constituents.

Additional, 27 January 2015: What also bugs me about the wording of this bill is that it removes the voice of any stakeholders other than current students. I’m faculty member, and I have a stake in this institution and am affected by mascot decisions (as much a students, at least). Why would I not get a say under HB901?

Maybe if the wording of the bill was “Vaqueros, yes or no?” I could get behind this bill, as it would address legitimate concerns about that particular mascot; that is, issues around cultural sensitivity, inclusion of men and women, and so on. But the point of this bill is to not to get passed. The point of this bill is for Representative Canales to be seen to be doing something.

External links

HB901
Bill seeks election for UT-RGV nickname
Proposed bill to leave UTRGV nickname up to students

22 January 2015

A step back for UTRGV grad programs

Well, this is frustrating.

Currently, both The University of Texas-Pan American and University of Texas Brownsville handle graduate applications using a externally provided specialty system called Embark. Having used it for a few years, I can say it works well.

I learned yesterday that the new University of Texas Rio Grande Valley will use a completely new system for processing student applications to graduate programs. Actually, it’s already in place. It’s called ApplyTexas. It was intended to let students apply to any public university in Texas. Its sounds like a nice, simple idea: one system for students to deal with instead of many.

So, existing system that universities already have replaces subscription service, money saved, what’s the problem?

The problem is that ApplyTexas was designed to handle undergraduate admissions. It does not support attachments like personal statements or recommendation letters. To deal with this, it looks like applicants will have to go to ApplyTexas to enter their demographic data, then go to another website to upload documents, and then a third website to deal with recommendations. So instead of one common site, grad applicants will actually be interacting with three. The, they are “hoping” that all of the documents generated in these three systems can be combined into a single document.

And this decision was made after some UTRGV graduate programs had already started taking applicants.

It’s a mess.

Who decided this? The University of Texas System. Thanks a bunch, people.

20 January 2015

Who paid for my open access articles?



A recurring concern from some researchers about open access is the cost to authors. This is an area of persistent misconceptions and a lot of fear. It’s a legitimate question of whether article processing charges create a Matthew effect, with labs with grants gaining an unfair advantage over those without grants. Or, worse, shutting out contributors entirely.

This interests me, because by most standards, I am a scientific “have not.” And yet, I’ve published many of my articles open access for some years now. I did not have stand alone research grants in that time. How did I do it?

It’s a mix.

The most common situation was that the journal did not levy an article processing charge. In other words, these papers were free to me. (In fairness, one was a limited time “free to publish” offer; they normally do charge a fee.)


While I personally did not have grant support, our institution has had undergraduate training grants (notably HHMI). Those external grants picked up the tabs for a couple of papers with undergraduate co-authors:


Lately, I’ve been fortunate to have my chair agree to support article processing charges of a couple of papers from departmental funds.


I paid the costs of a couple of papers out of my own pocket.

  • Feria TP, Faulkes Z. 2011. Forecasting the distribution of Marmorkrebs, a parthenogenetic crayfish with high invasive potential, in Madagascar, Europe, and North America. Aquatic Invasions 6(1): 55-67. http://dx.doi.org/10.3391/ai.2011.6.1.07
  • Faulkes Z. 2010. The spread of the parthenogenetic marbled crayfish, Marmorkrebs (Procambarus sp.), in the North American pet trade. Aquatic Invasions 5(4): 447-450. http://dx.doi.org/10.3391/ai.2010.5.4.16

Finally, I don’t know how the article processing fee my most recent paper was paid. My co-authors looked after it.


Looking at this list, I’m willing to bet that some researchers will say, “But Zen, even if you didn’t have traditional research grants to pick up the tab, you’ve still had a lot of support to pay for open access.” True. It’s hard to say if the number of open access papers would have been much different if, say, my department declined to pay for papers. I might have tried other journals, might have dipped into my pocket again, might have tried to find other pots of money.

From this perspective, the issue that might stop some researchers (retirees and amateurs, say) from publishing open access would not be “lack of grants,” but being disconnected from larger institutions. Being part of an institution  brings a lot of infrastructure, and diverse resources that go way beyond who has external grants.

All of that said, several of my articles in “traditional” subscription-based journals also had page charges (one journal asked me for $320 for its 2.75 year publication process). It’s interesting to me that people don’t very often bring up those page charges as barriers to publication.

Related posts

Waiving publication fees
The journal ecosystem

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

Tuesday crustie: Buy garlic

“Those aren’t fangs...


“They’re claws!”

Geosesarma hagen is a new species dubbed a “vampire crab” in a new paper by Ng and colleagues (2015), and you can see why.

This interesting paper has details even more new and very colourful crab species. Another one is cream and bright violet. Several of these species were showing up in the pet trade well before this paper appeared, with completely unknown provenance. It’s a little scary to see how often collectors start pushing things into the pet trade even before we have a decent species description.

Another notable thing in the species names is that the crab Geosesarma dennerle, which the authors write:

The new species is named after the German company Dennerle, who kindly supported the third author’s study in Java.

It’s sort of weird, because first, it’s an aquarium company. This would seem to be a potential conflict of interest, which isn’t declared. Second, this funding source isn’t acknowledged anywhere in the acknowledgements at the end, which is the normal place you’d look for something like this.

Related posts

Tuesday crustie: I vant a cape!

Reference

Ng PKL, Schubart CD & Lukhaup C. 2015. New species of “vampire crabs” (Geosesarma De Man, 1892) from central Java, Indonesia, and the identity of Sesarma (Geosesarma) nodulifera De Man, 1892 (Crustacea, Brachyura, Thoracotremata, Sesarmidae). Raffles Bulletin of Zoology 63: 3-13. http://zoobank.org/urn:lsid:zoobank.org:pub:9F76CF88-A3DD-4F0E-B348-EEB9558DBBC4

13 January 2015

Tuesday Crustie: Now, a little to the left...



I’m working up a storm to get a crayfish paper done before classes start next week, so I wanted to feature crayfish in this spot today. And I like this combination of critter and camera.

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

09 January 2015

New rule for medical research headlines

Dear science journalists—

I propose this simple rule for all headlines about medical research:

All headlines must include the species the research was carried out in.

I’ve suggested this a few times here and there on social media, but the latest case was the title of this Telegraph article:

Has Stanford University found a cure for Alzheimer’s disease?

My reaction might be summed up thus:


The problem is so obvious it doesn’t need a spoiler alert. The study was done in mice. Yeah. There have been a lot of studies on lab mice that suggested a cure for something or other was on the horizon. They often vanish without a trace.

Even after animal studies suggest that a treatment will be safe and effective, more than 80% of potential therapeutics fail when tested in people.

While “But if you read the rest of the article...” is a handy out for science writers, it doesn’t change that headlines are 90% of communication effort. If we’re going to improve science communication, headlines would be the place to start.

Imagine the difference in people’s response between the headline that was used and this:

Has Stanford University found a cure for Alzheimer’s disease in mice?

This provides people with a much more realistic idea of how far along the research is in that “bench to bedside” pathway,

External links

Betteridge’s Law

07 January 2015

A cog in a teaching machine

In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Leonard Cassuto asked:

That phrase – “my own work” – has bugged me for my entire career. It’s always used to distinguish research from teaching, but how does teaching not qualify as “my own work”?

Teaching qualifies less as “my own work” because institutions clearly signal that I am a replaceable cog in their teaching mission.

Take introductory biology, for example. There are a bunch of textbooks out there. They all follow the same topics in the same order: Organic chemistry, macromolecules, cell structure, cellular respiration, photosynthesis, cell division, Mendelian genetics, DNA structure, replication, and protein synthesis.

My job in teaching is not to set the curriculum. Other people have done that. There is a very standardized introductory curriculum across North America, partly homogenized by the efforts of textbook publishers and the efforts of lawmakers. My job is to get up there and talk about the content that other people have decided I should teach.

Further, in my institution, there are multiple sections of introductory biology, each taught by different instructor. Since this is nominally the same class, the sections I teach must be broadly comparable in content, and to some degree delivery.

There are many lab sections, scheduled by a single lab coordinator, with topics selected to align with the expected lectures.

It should be no surprise that I don’t feel like teaching is “my” work, particularly at the introductory levels. I did not have much creative input into the content of the class, and I am very constrained in how I teach it.

If you want more evidence that institutions consider the real life instructor almost superfluous, have a look at this story of a class where one professor, the instructor of record, is acting as a commentator to a series of video recordings. A similar thread runs through all the interest with MOOCs and the Khan Academy: the face-to-face interaction with a human instructor is downplayed.

At higher level courses, things can be a little different. I have greater freedom in deciding what content to teach. But even then, there are few cases where I think that what I have to offer in a class is unique. I teach a neurobiology class where I had complete creative control. That’s great. But at the end of the day, there are neurobiology and neuroscience classes all over the country, and “I took neurobiology at university X with instructor Y” is not that indicative of a unique experience.

But research? There are not other people doing the studies I do. There are not other people writing the papers I write. My research remains hand crafted, not mass produced. Research is entirely my own work in a way that teaching rarely is.

Additional, 8 January 2015: Siobhan O'Dwyer riffs off this post: "Artisanal academia."

External links

Teach while you’re at it
When a flipped-classroom pioneer hands off his video lectures, this is what happens