28 August 2013

“I'll be brave after I’m tenured”

“I don’t like doing this, but I need to for tenure. I can’t fight the good fight for change if I don’t have tenure. Once I have tenure, things will be different.”

If you aren't willing to take a stand before tenure, forgive me if I have my doubts that you’re going to take a stand after tenure. That “I need to do this to succeed” reason you gave for doing stuff that you handled like a dead fish (at arm’s length, holding your nose) will morph into “I need to do this for my doctoral and grad students to succeed.” It’ll become “I need to do this for grants." It’ll change to, “I need to do this for my annual merit raise.” It’ll be, “I need to do this for promotion.”

Tenure won’t give automatically you courage. If you’re waiting for when the time is perfect and you’re free to fight without risk, you might wait so long that you miss the fight all together.

If there is something about your department, your university, your branch of academia, that you want to see changed, start working on it now. You might not get any braver after tenure. Look around at the people who have tenure. How many of them use it to fight to make things better?

Additional, 2 September 2013: When I saw you should do something, I am not advising that you should go to war with nukes on every issue. I’m saying you should do something. It’s better than doing nothing.

27 August 2013

26 August 2013

How to get an appointment faster

I get a lot of emails asking for appointments that say, “When can I see you?”

This will make it harder to get your appointment. First, there is no indication of when you are available. Second, faculty are busy, but a lot of our time is unstructured. So I have to send you back a list of days and times, none of which may be a decent time for you, because I have no knowledge of your schedule.

You’re much more likely to get an appointment fast if you list about three different times you could make it. Then, I check my calendar and decide on the spot which of those (if any) works for me.

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

23 August 2013

Using textbooks you wrote in your own class

I have a little e-book that you can buy on Amazon called Presentation Tips. (If you get it through this link, you’ll support my friends at the Science... Sort Of podcast.)

I also teach a class about presentations from time to time: BIOL 4100 Biology Seminar. There’s a lot of demand for it, because it’s a required course for all our majors.

There is nothing to stop me from assigning my own book as a textbook in that seminar class, and requiring all the students buy it. I am willing to bet that this happens routinely, because faculty are given a lot of freedom in choice of learning materials.

That is a conflict of interest. I have a financial gain that I can make by selling my own book as a textbook.

That might not sound so bad. After all, students are expected to buy textbooks. You could make a good case that if a faculty member has written a book on the subject, she wrote it because she thought it would be the best book on the subject out there.

This post started because I received a report that sounded like a professor at another institution was doing something like this. As I understand it, the professor is asking students to pay for a manuscript of a book that is supposed to be published by a small publisher later. The publisher is so small, it’s nowhere to be found through a Google search. The students were instructed to use a PayPal account.

This seemed to me to be very strange and suspicious.

Textbook pricing is notoriously opaque to begin with. And as distribution moves to the digital realm, more and more sorts of shenanigans are possible.

Let’s consider my book for a second. Because it’s an e-book, I could set the price to whatever I wanted. I could gouge each student for $30 instead of $3. (When I talk about it, I say, “The version on Amazon is for people who want something that looks good on their Kindle, but the ideas in are free. You can find them on my blog or a PDF on my website.” But nothing obliges me to do that.)

While a professor might not get rich doing this, a hundreds or maybe even thousands of extra bucks in the pocket is nothing to sneeze at, either. And the amount of money raised isn’t the issue; it’s about the ethics of charging a captive audience.

If a student felt an instructor was abusing her power to choose textbooks, who would provide the checks and balances on textbook selection?

Additional, 26 August 2013: Some people seem to think I am suggesting that no professor should use her own textbook, ever, even if it’s the best or only one available. No, that is not what I am saying.

When a professor makes a decision about textbook use, if she stands to profit if she decides to use her own, that is a conflict of interest, plain and simple. But there are plenty of good ways to manage conflicts of interest. For example:

  • Transparency: Does the professor explain why she adopted this book over all others? Can she demonstrate that the price is in line with the rest of the books on the market? Does the professor recognize that there is a conflict of interest, and invite colleagues to review the decision to ensure that it is fair?
  • Oversight: Does anyone else review the textbook decision? Do students have any mechanism to say, “I don’t like this book, there are ones out there that are better.”

Update, 22 November 2017: This story is the first time I have seen a university take action against instructors for requiring students buy their book. The instructors wrote their own $50 ebook, and the only way students could take many of their exams was through the book.

Requiring students to buy stuff to do assessments is common, but having that book be from the instructors themselves, and not through a publisher? Looks mighty dodgy.

20 August 2013

Tuesday Crustie: Shrouded in secrecy

Guys always wonder why women go to the washroom in groups...

Now we know.

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

19 August 2013

Riding rollercoasters

I blame Foghorn Leghorn.

When I lived in Australia, I visited Movie World. One of their rides is a rollercoaster called the Wild West Falls Adventure Ride. Now, I was not much of one for thrill rides. But near the end of the day, I saw a sign with Foghorn on it, saying something like, “You got to, I say, you got to face your fears, son.” That goaded me into going on the ride. I didn’t rate it as a particularly enjoyable experience.

It wasn't until several years later when I had a little extra time at an SICB meeting in Orlando to visit Walt Disney World with my buddy Suzy Renn. She conned me into going first on to Thunder Mountain, and then Space Mountain. Still didn’t like Thunder Mountain. I was grabbing on to the handrails, hard, all the way through. But Space Mountain? Space Mountain I enjoyed a lot.

The difference was all in the seats. The other rollercoasters I’d been on had quite a bit of wiggle room; indeed, I suspect that a lot of them are designed to be bumpy to be more thrilling. On Space Mountain, though, there was only one seat in a row, and you were in there tight. I didn’t feel at any time like I would shake loose, so I was, for the first time, able to enjoy the ride and was laughing a lot of the way through.

If, about a decade ago, you’d told me that there would be a time when I would seek out rollercoasters, I don’t think I would have believed you. And I certainly wouldn’t have believed that I would voluntarily go on a rollercoaster that did a full 360° loop, taking you upside down (California Screamin’). And not only did I do that last week at Disneyland, I did it twice.

The moral of the story? Not sure. Maybe, it’s that sometimes, things that you think are scary turn out not to be so scary after all. Sometimes, they can even be fun.

Even if my trip on Splash Mountain destroyed my phone. (“You will get wet”? More like “You will be soaked as completely as if you jumped into the lake if you’re sitting in front.”)

California Screamin’ photo by andy castro on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

16 August 2013

Comments for first half of August, 2013

Girls are Geeks has a few things to visit in Japan, if you happen to find yourself there.

Small Pond Science looks at whether you can do research on model organisms successfully while working at a teaching institution. He also looks at where offices and labs should be.

I spent a lot of time in the last couple of weeks actively trying to spread some science about crustacean nociception / “pain” on social media. This was prompted by this blog entry at Nature News, where I commented. Also left some comments at Peaceful Dumpling, which also covered crustacean pain.

Dr. Isis takes on an editorial about peer review.

14 August 2013

What a student learned from a conference: “Go away”

Some time ago, a former student of mine went to a national scientific conference. After returning, over lunch she said to me that she learned two things.

Do not, under any circumstances, do a Ph.D. This was basically advice and the underlying message she got across the board. Nobody should do a Ph.D., because the number of people getting jobs that need a Ph.D. was, according to some estimates she heard at the meeting, 10%.

PIs are horrible people. Didn’t matter what the career stage was. Every grad student and post-doc was unhappy with their supervisor.

I hear this and think... holy crap. How has this all gone so wrong?

13 August 2013

Tuesday Crustie: Summer vacation

Doesn’t this crab just look like it’s relaxing at some holiday spot?

Picture by location: unknown on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

12 August 2013

Pain and politics

James Taranto accuses Popular Science magazine of having an agenda in a tweet that expanded into a longer article in the Wall Street Journal. This is relevant to me, because one of the two articles that he mentions is the Popular Science article in which this blog is mentioned.

When Popular Science published the post covering the Nature News article on crustacean pain, around the same time they published an article about the debate over fetal pain.

Elwood “concludes that crustaceans should be protected from the kind of ‘extreme procedures’ they are currently subjected to – things we wouldn’t do to mice, such as lobsters having their legs removed while still alive or crabs being kept tightly bound for days before being sold.”

But McDonough insists no such precautions are due in the case of unborn human beings. Do you think maybe the guys at Popular Science have an agenda?

On the crustacean pain piece, Taranto says the evidence “sounds highly equivocal.” I agree with this. (This is why I like the Popular Science piece: because it does put in caveats like “probably” in the title. I like nuanced reporting.)

The research on crustacean pain is about five years old, and research takes time. If you look at any scientific debate five years in (especially in fields with few labs tackling the problem), it’s likely to sound equivocal.

In contrast, Taranto does not criticize the science reported in the fetal pain piece. I wager that the study of human development, including pain, has been going on considerably longer than five years, and there is probably more confidence about fetal pain than crustacean nociception. Rather than addressing any of the evidence in the piece, Taranto questions the credibility of the author, calling her a “feminist polemicist.” He suggests the magazine has an unspecified “agenda.” The suggestion of an “agenda” is strange given that the two articles are by two different authors.

An alternate hypothesis is that the people at Popular Science accurately reported the current state of the science in two distantly related scientific fields. Even if the author lacked credibility and the magazine did have an agenda, that does not automatically make the evidence presented in the articles wrong. 

External links

Shot to the heart
Fetal pain and neuroscience
Fetal Pain Is A Lie: How Phony Science Took Over The Abortion Debate

09 August 2013

Immortality... sort of

I appear on the Science... Sort Of podcast, episode #178, “Wetter is Better.” I (mostly) talk about the “lobsters are immortal” meme.

I had a ton of fun doing this podcast. I hope everyone who listens has as much fun hearing it as I did recording it.

At one point in the podcast, I mention that even bacteria might age. The paper I was trying to remember was this one: “Aging and death in an organism that reproduces by morphologically symmetric division” in PLOS Biology.

I also mentioned that crustaceans don’t get cancer. That’s based on this paper: “How to minimize formation and growth of tumours: Potential benefits of decapod crustaceans for cancer research” in International Journal of Cancer.

You can support the podcast, and your scholar, by buying the Kindle edition of Presentation Tips through this link.

Related posts

All lobsters are mortal

External links

Episode 178 - Wetter is Better


Ackermann M, Stearns SC, Jenal U. 2003. Senescence in a bacterium with asymmetric division. Science 300(5627): 1920. DOI: 10.1126/science.1083532

Stewart EJ, Madden R, Paul G, Taddei F. 2005. Aging and death in an organism that reproduces by morphologically symmetric division. PLoS Biol 3(2): e45. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.0030045

Vogt G. 2008. How to minimize formation and growth of tumours: Potential benefits of decapod crustaceans for cancer research. International Journal of Cancer 123(12): 2727-2734. DOI: 10.1002/ijc.23947

07 August 2013

Crustacean pain is still a complicated issue, despite the headlines

The Nature News blog reports on a recent presentation by Robert Elwood given to the Behaviour 2013 conference about crustacean pain. The headline, as is often the case with headlines, paints a simple picture:

Experiments reveal that crabs and lobsters feel pain

So. We’re done here? Well, no. When you go to the text, you find a more nuanced comment from Elwood:

“Assessing pain is difficult, even within humans,” Elwood told the Newcastle meeting. But there is a “clear, long term motivational change [in these experiments] that is entirely consistent with the idea of pain”.

“Consistent with” is not “revealing.” There can be any large number of hypotheses that can be “consistent with” available evidence, especially when evidence is incomplete or in early stages. If you just had your everyday experience to go by, the sun rising in the East and setting in the West is “consistent with” the Sun going around the Earth (which it doesn’t). It’s also “consistent with” the Earth going around the Sun, and rotating on its axis all the while (which it does).

Elwood appears to have given a review talk of his existing papers on the subject. There are no new data or papers mentioned in the news article. This means that I don’t have to update my previous post on what we know, and don’t know, about crustacean pain. It’s a tricky, tricky subject, and I think it is far too early to call this one definitively yet. Yes, crustaceans may feel pain, but they might not.

This sort of press could have substantial implications for for policy:

Robert Hubrecht, deputy director of the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare (UFAW) and the organizer of the session at which Elwood gave his talk, says that the data for crustaceans appear equivalent to the kind of data that are used to give mice the benefit of the doubt, and thus award them protection from possible pain under the law.

I wonder if Hubrecht has seen any other data besides those generated by Elwood and colleagues. Has there been independent replications of many of these results?

It’s also worth thinking about the consequences if all crustaceans given the same protection as mice. Well, crustaceans are a far more diverse group of animals than mice. Daphnia and Artemia are crustaceans. Daphnia, for example, are barely visible to the naked eye and are used in huge numbers for water quality testing. Some crustacean researchers I’ve talked to dread the effects on those sorts of environmental monitoring efforts if suddenly, a blanket change on regulation to crustaceans were to drop in.

For that matter, why single out crustaceans as special concern? Why not insects, which have as good or better evidence for experiencing pain?

Full disclosure: I have co-authored research in the field of crustacean nociception, which was unable to replicate some early findings.

Additional: See also this post from Magnus Johnson, commenting on the paper that prompted my “What we know (and don’t)” post. I like this piece of writing:

I stand by my feeling that whether animals feel pain or not is irrelevant. To damage or stress a living organisms for no reason other than to enjoy their struggling and suffering is like taking a hammer to a Ferrari or slashing the Mona Lisa. It is an act of pure mindless vandalism.

More additional: Popular Science has picked up this story. This blog makes a cameo appearance in the article.

Additional, 8 August 2013: The Canadian edition of The Huffington Post picks up the story.

More additional, 8 August 2013: I looked at the abstract book for the Behaviour 2013 meeting that Elwood presented his talk at. It’s interesting only one that out of many symposium talks is getting coverage. In the abstract, Elwood puts forward a paper on prawns that was not replicated using three other decapod crustacean species.

Softpedia covers this story as being “as cited in Nature,” which kind of leaves out that this was a conference presentation, not a new paper in the journal.

ZME Science also reports on this Nature News piece.

Additional, 9 August 2013: Nature World News also covers this story. It’s a mash-up the Nature News article and a few other online essays and articles.

Related posts

What we know and don’t know about crustacean pain
Crustacean nociception: The worry
Ignorance may not be bliss, but perhaps it is painless
Do octopuses feel pain as deeply as mammals?
Squished squid, or: noci-ceph-tion

External links

Experiments reveal that crabs and lobsters feel pain
Do crabs feel pain?
Crabs And Lobsters Probably Do Feel Pain, According To New Experiments

06 August 2013

Tuesday Crustie: No!

In 1922, Sweden was considering prohibition. Artist Albert Engström created this poster rejecting it. A historian (Swahn, 2004) would later write:

Probably no Swedish artist produced more work featuring crayfish than Albert Engström. Most famous is his emphatic “No!” Poster for the Swedish prohibition referendum in 1922: “Crayfish require these drinks!” Prohibitionist posters, with their starving children and battered wives of drunkards, stood little chance against Engström’s simple but pungent slogan. And so it came about that the crayfish, for the first and perhaps last time ever, had a hand - well, claw - in the making of Swedish history.


Swahn J-Ö. 2004. The cultural history of crayfish. Bulletin Francais de la Peche et de la Pisciculture 372-373: 243-251.

05 August 2013

News you can’t use: deflating a penis size study

Over on Facebook, I became aware of a press release that is making the rounds concerning penis size. It annoys me because it is prurient linkbait disguised as science.

Based on sales of sized condoms, the condom distributor has produced a ranked list of penis sizes for the American states and certain American cities. Oh no, Texas is thirty-fifth, putting the lie to “Everything is bigger in Texas.” (Cue snickering. No, I can’t resist the cheap joke.)

The problems are that there is no actual data anywhere that I can find, and that the rankings are meaningless.

The implication of this press release is that men in some places are better endowed on average than others, and that this is a real difference. But basic statistics says samples vary. I went to Random.org and asked it to generate 1,000 numbers following a normal distribution (bell curve) with a mean of 5.5 and a standard deviation of one. Then, I sampled 100 numbers from that list, ten times, and averaged them. These are the means.


And there you have a ranking (with one duplicate). But the ranks are meaningless because there is no difference in the population the samples were taken from. The average of the population is 5.5, always.

That the list is probably just noise is shown by the fact that the list of top states and the list of top cites don’t have much in common. The top state, New Hampshire, doesn’t have a single city in the top 10 list (though this may have to do with how they defined “city”). New Orleans is the top ranked city, but the state is listed seventh.

In short, you can’t draw any firm conclusions from this publicity stunt hiding itself as science.

Related posts

Friday Weird Science: Will this spoil the surprise?

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

02 August 2013

How to cheer up a neurobiologist: listen to spikes on the speaker

Last couple of days haven't been good. August means that I have to tell myself, “Classes start this month.” And that means my annual merit folder will be due. I started looking at what I have generated this last year, and... there’s been less stuff out than I’d like. Then, I had a long talk yesterday with a colleague about some data that left me worried that data I thought would be usable... wasn’t. All in all, I felt a twinge of the ol’ imposter syndrome settling in.

But then I managed to get this recording of spikes, the best in a long while.

Made me feel a teensy bit better. A good signal to noise ratio, and hearing spikes pop on speakers, always cheers me up.

01 August 2013

Why write an editorial calling for more of the same, but better?

I’m disappointed with a new editorial in Journal of Neurophysiology on peer-review. It talks about innovations like post-publication review, transparency in reviewers’ identities, removing the asymmetry between reviewers and authors... and dismisses all of them.

There are lots of other innovative things that could be done with peer review that are not addressed in the editorial. Why not a dynamic conversation between reviewers and authors, as Frontiers journals do? Why not publish reviews along with the paper? Why not provide easier mechanisms to track post-publication discussion?

The editorial’s solution to peer review woes? “Hey, you reviewers, try harder to play nice.”

That’s worth an editorial? A bland defense of the status quo?

Additional, 10 August 2013: Dr. Isis has read this editorial, too. A snippet:

I find it interesting that Raff and Brown begin by drawing such a dichotomy. The alternative to pre-publication peer review is the lawless, wild west-style world of open access, post-publication peer review. Post-publication peer review happens necessarily at the elimination of pre-publication review and the opposite of peer review is 4chan. I find this to be disingenuous.


Raff H, Brown D. 2013. Civil, sensible and constructive peer review in APS journals. Journal of Neurophysiology: in press. DOI:

Comments for second half of July 2013

Here’s the bi-weekly collection of blog posts worth talking about!

Small Pond Science looks at the paucity of grant applicants who are trying to reach under-represented minorities. Also, how is NSF reviewing pre-proposals?

Prof-Like Substance asks if tenure committees live in the real world of declining federal funding.

The Singular Scientist looks at predatory publishers.

At Arthropod Ecology, I make a cameo in a presentation about academic publishing, with my example of publishing a paper here on my blog.

Matthew MacManes looks at his experiences in looking for a tenure-track job.

Dynamic Ecology wants to know if you ever spend your own money on research.

The National Science Foundation releases some data on awards and proposals.