Category Archives: productivity
I’m a big fan of preprints, the posting of papers in public archives prior to peer review. Preprints speed up the scientific dialogue by letting everyone see research as it happens, not 6 months to 2 years later following the sometimes extensive peer review process. They also allow more extensive pre-publication peer review because input can be solicited from the entire community of scientists, not just two or three individuals. You can read more about the value of preprints in our preprint about preprints (yes, really) posted on figshare.
In the spirit of using preprints to facilitate broad pre-publication peer review a group of weecologists have just posted a preprint on how to make it easier to reuse data that is shared publicly. Since PeerJ‘s commenting system isn’t live yet we would like to encourage your to provide feedback about the paper here in the comments. It’s for a special section of Ideas in Ecology and Evolution on data sharing (something else I’m a big fan of) that is being organized by Karthik Ram (someone I’m a big fan of).
Our nine recommendations are:
- Share your data
- Provide metadata
- Provide an unprocessed form of the data
- Use standard data formats (including file formats, table structures, and cell contents)
- Use good null values
- Make it easy to combine your data with other datasets
- Perform basic quality control
- Use an established repository
- Use an established and liberal license
Most of this territory has been covered before by a number of folks in the data sharing world, but if you look at the state of most ecological and evolutionary data it clearly bears repeating. In addition, I think that our unique contribution is three fold: 1) We’ve tried hard to stick to relatively simple things that don’t require a huge time commitment to get right; 2) We’ve tried to minimize the jargon and really communicate with the awesome folks who are collecting great data but don’t have much formal background in the best practices of structuring and sharing data; and 3) We contribute the perspective of folks who spend a lot of time working with other people’s data and have therefore encountered many of the most common issues that crop up in ecological and evolutionary data.
So, if you have the time, energy, and inclination, please read the preprint and let us know what you think and what we can do to improve the paper in the comments section.
UPDATE 2: PeerJ has now enabled commenting on preprints, so comments are welcome directly on our preprint as well (https://peerj.com/preprints/7/).
Over at Dynamic Ecology this morning Jeremy Fox has a post giving advice on how to decide where to submit a paper. It’s the same basic advice that I received when I started grad school almost 15 years ago and as a result I don’t think it considers some rather significant changes that have happened in academic publishing over the last decade and a half. So, I thought it would be constructive for folks to see an alternative viewpoint. Since this is really a response to Jeremy’s post, not a description of my process, I’m going to use his categories in the same order as the original post and offer my more… youthful… perspective.
- Aim as high as you reasonably can. The crux of Jeremy’s point is “if you’d prefer for more people to read and think highly of your paper, you should aim to publish it in a selective, internationally-leading journal.” From a practical perspective journal reputation used to be quite important. In the days before easy electronic access, good search algorithms, and social networking, most folks found papers by reading the table of contents of individual journals. In addition, before there was easy access to paper level citation data, and alt-metrics, if you needed to make a quick judgment on the quality of someones science the journal name was a decent starting point. But none of those things are true anymore. I use searches, filtered RSS feeds, Google Scholar’s recommendations, and social media to identify papers I want to read. I do still subscribe to tables of contents via RSS, but I watch PLOS ONE and PeerJ just as closely as Science and Nature. If I’m evaluating a CV as a member of a search committee or a tenure committee I’m interested in the response to your work, not where it is published, so in addition to looking at some of your papers I use citation data and alt-metrics related to your paper. To be sure, there are lots of folks like Jeremy that focus on where you publish to find papers and evaluate CVs, but it’s certainly not all of us.
- Don’t just go by journal prestige; consider “fit”. Again, this used to mater more before there were better ways to find papers of interest.
- How much will it cost? Definitely a valid concern, though my experience has been that waivers are typically easy to obtain. This is certainly true for PLOS ONE.
- How likely is the journal to send your paper out for external review? This is a strong tradeoff against Jeremy’s point about aiming high since “high impact” journals also typically have high pre-review rejection rates. I agree with Jeremy that wasting time in the review process is something to be avoided, but I’ll go into more detail on that below.
- Is the journal open access? I won’t get into the arguments for open access here, but it’s worth noting that increasing numbers of us value open access and think that it is important for science. We value open access publications so if you want us to “think highly of your paper” then putting it where it is OA helps. Open access can also be important if you “prefer for more people to read… your paper” because it makes it easier to actually do so. In contrast to Jeremy, I am more likely to read your paper if it is open access than if it is published in a “top” journal, and here’s why: I can do it easily. Yes, my university has access to all of the top journals in my field, but I often don’t read papers while I’m at work. I typically read papers in little bits of spare time while I’m at home in the morning or evenings, or on my phone or tablet while traveling or waiting for a meeting to start. If I click on a link to your paper and I hit a paywall then I have to decide whether it’s worth the extra effort to go to my library’s website, log in, and then find the paper again through that system. At this point unless the paper is obviously really important to my research the activation energy typically becomes too great (or I simply don’t have that extra couple of minutes) and I stop. This is one reason that my group publishes a lot using Reports in Ecology. It’s a nice compromise between being open access and still being in a well regarded journal.
- Does the journal evaluate papers only on technical soundness? The reason that many of us think this approach has some value is simple, it reduces the amount of time and energy spent trying to get perfectly good research published in the most highly ranked journal possible. This can actually be really important for younger researchers in terms of how many papers they produce at certain critical points in the career process. For example, I would estimate that the average amount of time that my group spends getting a paper into a high profile journal is over a year. This is a combination of submitting to multiple, often equivalent caliber, journals until you get the right roll of the dice on reviewers, and the typically extended rounds of review that are necessary to satisfy the reviewers about not only what you’ve done, but satisfying requests for additional analyses that often aren’t critical, and changing how one has described things so that it sits better with reviewers. If you are finishing your PhD then having two or three papers published in a PLOS ONE style journal vs. in review at a journal that filters on “importance” can make a big difference in the prospect of obtaining a postdoc. Having these same papers out for an extra year accumulating citations can make a big difference when applying for faculty positions or going up for tenure if folks who value paper level metrics over journal name are involved in evaluating your packet.
- Is the journal part of a review cascade? I don’t actually know a lot of journals that do this, but I think it’s a good compromise between aiming high and not wasting a lot of time in review. This is why we think that ESA should have a review cascade to Ecosphere.
- Is it a society journal? I agree that this has value and it’s one of the reasons we continue to support American Naturalist and Ecology even though they aren’t quite as open as I would personally prefer.
- Have you had good experiences with the journal in the past? Sure.
- Is there anyone on the editorial board who’d be a good person to handle your paper? Having a sympathetic editor can certainly increase your chances of acceptance, so if you’re aiming high then having a well matched editor or two to recommend is definitely a benefit.
To be clear, there are still plenty of folks out there who approach the literature in exactly the way Jeremy does and I’m not suggesting that you ignore his advice. In fact, when advising my own students about these things I often actively consider and present Jeremy’s perspective. However, there are also an increasing number of folks who think like I do and who have a very different set of perspectives on these sorts of things. That makes life more difficult when strategizing over where to submit, but the truth is that the most important thing is to do the best science possible and publish it somewhere for the world to see. So, go forth, do interesting things, and don’t worry so much about the details.
People find blog posts in different ways. Some visit the website regularly, some subscribe to email updates, and some subscribe using the blog’s feed. Feeds can be a huge time saver for processing the ever increasing amount of information that science generates, by placing much of that information in a single place in a simple, standardized, format. It also lets you consume one piece of information at a time and keeps your inbox relatively free of clutter (for more about why using a feed reader is awesome see this post).
When setting up their feeds bloggers can choose to either provide the entire content of the post, or just a small teaser that contains just the first few sentences of the post. In this post I am going to argue that science bloggers should choose to provide full posts.
The core reason is that we are are doing this to facilitate scientific dialog, and we are all very busy. In addition to the usual academic work load of teaching, doing research, and helping our departments and universities function, we are now dealing with keeping up with a rapidly expanding literature plus a bloom of scientific blogs, tweets, and status updates (and oh yeah, some of us even have personal lives). This means that we are consuming a massive amount of information on a daily basis and we need to be able to do so quickly. I squeeze this in during small windows of time (bus rides home, gaps between meetings, while I’m running my toddler’s bath) and often on a mobile device.
I can do this easily if I have full feeds. I open my feed reader, open the first item, read it, move on to the next one. My brain knows exactly what format to expect, cognitive load is low, and the information is instantly available. If instead I encounter a teaser, I first have to make a conscious decision about whether or not I want to click through to the actual post, then I have to hit the link, wait for the page to load (which can still be a fairly long time on a phone), adjust to a format that varies widely across blogs, often adjust the zoom and rotate my screen (if I’m reading on my phone), read the item, and then return to my reader. This might not seem like a huge deal for a handful of items, but multiply the lost time by a few hundred or a few thousand items a week and it adds up in a hurry. On top of that I store and tag full-text, searchable, copies of posts for all of the blogs I follow in my feed reader so that I can find posts again. This is handy when I remember there is a post I want to either share with someone or link to, but can’t remember who wrote it.
So, if your blog doesn’t provide full feeds this means three things. First, I am less likely to read a post if it’s a teaser. It costs me extra time, so the threshold for how interesting it needs to be goes up. Second, if I do read it I now have less time to do other things. Third, if I want to find your post again to recommend it to someone or link to it, the chances of my doing so successfully are decreased. So, if your goal is science communication, or even just not being disrespectful of your readers’ time, full feeds are the way to go.
This all goes for journal tables of contents as well. As I’ve mentioned before, if the journal feed doesn’t include the abstracts and the full author line, it is just costing the papers readers, and the journal’s readers time, and therefore making the scientific process run more slowly than it could.
So, bloggers and journal editors, for your readers sake, for sciences sake, please turn on full feeds. It will only take you two minutes. It will save science hundreds of hours. It will probably be this most productive thing you do for science all week.
We are pretty excited about what modern technology can do for science and in particular the potential for increasingly rapid sharing of, and collaboration on, data and ideas. It’s the big picture that explains why we like to blog, tweet, publish data and code, and we’ve benefited greatly from others who do the same. So, when we saw this great talk by Michael Nielsen about Open Science, we just had to share.
Some time ago in academia we realized that it didn’t make sense for individual scientists or even entire departments to maintain their own high performance computing resources. Use of these resources by an individual is intensive, but sporadic, and maintenance of the resources is expensive  so the universities soon realized they were better off having centralized high performance computing centers so that computing resources were available when needed and the averaging effects of having large numbers of individuals using the same computers meant that the machines didn’t spend much time sitting idle. This was obviously a smart decision.
So, why haven’t universities been smart enough to centralize an even more valuable computational resource, their computer labs?
As any student of Software Carpentry will tell you, it is far more important to be able to program well than it is to have access to a really large high performance computing center. This means that the most important computational resource a university has is the classes that teach their students how to program, and the computer labs on which they rely.
At my university  all of the computer labs on campus are controlled by either individual departments or individual colleges. This means that if you want to teach a class in one of them you can’t request it as a room through the normal scheduling process, you have to ask the cognizant university fiefdom for permission. This wouldn’t be a huge issue, except that in my experience the answer is typically a resounding no. And it’s not a “no, where really sorry but the classroom is booked solid with our own classes,” it’s “no, that computer lab is ours, good luck” .
And this means that we end up wasting a lot of expensive university resources. For example, last year I taught in a computer lab “owned” by another college . I taught in the second class slot of a four slot afternoon. In the slot before my class there was a class that used the room about four times during the semester (out of 48 class periods). There were no classes in the other two afternoon slots . That means that classes were being taught in the lab only 27% of the time or 2% of the time if I hadn’t been granted an exception to use the lab .
Since computing skills are increasingly critical to many areas of science (and everything else for that matter) this territoriality with respect to computer labs means that they proliferate across campus. The departments/colleges of Computer Science, Engineering, Social Sciences, Natural Resources and Biology  all end up creating and maintaining their own computer labs, and those labs end up sitting empty (or being used by students to send email) most of the time. This is horrifyingly inefficient in an era where funds for higher education are increasingly hard to come by and where technology turns over at an ever increasing rate. Which  brings me to the title of this post. The solution to this problem is for universities to stop allowing computer labs to be controlled by individual colleges/departments in exactly the same way that most classrooms are not controlled by colleges/departments. Most universities have a central unit that schedules classrooms and classes are fit into the available spaces. There is of course a highly justified bias to putting classes in the buildings of the cognizant department, but large classes in particular may very well not be in the department’s building. It works this way because if it didn’t then the university would be wasting huge amounts of space having one or more lecture halls in every department, even if they were only needed a few hours a week. The same issue applies to computer labs, only they are also packed full of expensive electronics. So please universities, for the love of all that is good and right and simply fiscally sound in the world, start treating computer labs like what they are: really valuable and expensive classrooms.
 Think of a single scientist who keeps 10 expensive computers, only uses them a total of 1-2 months per year, but when he does the 10 computers aren’t really enough so he has to wait a long time to finish the analysis.
 And I think the point I’m about to make is generally true; at least it has been at several other universities I’ve worked over the years.
 Or in some cases something more like “Frak you. You fraking biologists have no fraking right to teach anyone a fraking thing about fraking computers.” Needless to say, the individual in question wasn’t actually saying frak, but this is a family blog.
 As a result of a personal favor done for one administrator by another administrator.
 I know because I took advantage of this to hold my office hours in the computer lab following class.
 To be fair it should be noted that this and other computer labs are often used by students for doing homework (along with other less educationally oriented activities) when classes are not using the rooms, but in this case the classroom was a small part of a much larger lab and since I never witnessed the non-classroom portion of the lab being filled to capacity, the argument stands.
 etc., etc., etc.
There is an excellent post on open science, prestige economies, and the social web over at Marciovm’s posterous*. For those of you who aren’t insanely nerdy** GitHub is… well… let’s just call it a very impressive collaborative tool for developing and sharing software***. But don’t worry, you don’t need to spend your days tied to a computer or have any interest in writing your own software to enjoy gems like:
Evangelists for Open Science should focus on promoting new, post-publication prestige metrics that will properly incentivize scientists to focus on the utility of their work, which will allow them to start worrying less about publishing in the right journals.
*A blog I’d never heard of before, but I subscribed to it’s RSS feed before I’d even finished the entire post.
**As far as biologists go. And, yes, when I say “insanely nerdy” I do mean it as a complement.
A while ago there was a bit of discussion around the academic blogosphere recently regarding the importance of developing a digital presence and what the best form of that presence might be. Recently as I’ve been looking around at academics’ websites as part of faculty, postdoc and graduate student searchers going on in my department/lab I’ve been reminded of the importance of having a digital presence.
It seems pretty clear to me that the web is the primary source of information acquisition for most academics, at least up through the young associate professors. There are no doubt some senior folk who would still rather have a paper copy of a journal sent to them via snail mail and who rarely open their currently installed copy of Internet Explorer 6, but I would be very surprised if most folks who are evaluating graduate student, postdoctoral and faculty job candidates aren’t dropping the name of the applicant into their favorite search engines and seeing what comes up. They aren’t looking around for dirt like all those scary news stories that were meant to stop college students from posting drunken photos of themselves on social networking sites. They’re just
procrastinating looking for more information to get a clearer picture of you as a scientist/academic. I also do a quick web search when I meet someone interesting at a conference, get a paper/grant to review with authors I haven’t heard of before, read an interesting study by someone I don’t know, etc. Many folks who apply to join my lab for graduate school find me through the web.
When folks go looking around for you on the web you want them to find something (not finding anything is the digital equivalent of “being a nobody”), and better yet you want them to find something that puts your best foot forward. But what should this be? Should you Tweet, Buzz, be LinkedIn, start a Blog, have a Wiki*, or maybe just get freaked out by all of this technology and move to the wilderness somewhere and never speak to anyone ever again.
I think the answer here is simple: start with a website. This is the simplest way to present yourself to the outside world and you can (and should) start one as soon as you begin graduate school. The website can be very simple. All you need is a homepage of some kind, a page providing more detailed descriptions of your research interests, a CV, a page listing your publications†, and a page with your contact information. Keep this updated and looking decent and you’ll have as good an online presence as most academics.
While putting together your own website might seem a little intimidating it’s actually very easy these days. The simplest approach is to use one of the really easy hosted solutions out there. These include things like Google Sites, which are specifically designed to let you make websites; or you can easily turn a hosted blogging system into a website (WordPress.com is often used for this). There are lots of other good options out there (let us know about your favorites in the comments). In addition many universities have some sort of system set up for letting you easily make websites, just ask around. Alternatively, you can get a static .html based template and then add your own content to it. Open Source Web Design is the best place I’ve found for templates. You can either open up the actual html files or you can use a WYSIWYG editor to replace the sample text with your own content. SeaMonkey is a good option for a WYSIWYG editor. Just ask your IT folks how to get these files up on the web when you’re done.
So, setting up a website is easy, but should you be doing other things as well and if so what. At the moment I would say that if you’re interested in trying out a new mode of academic communication then you should pick one that sounds like fun to you and give it a try; but this is by no means a necessity as an academic at the moment. If you do try to do some of these other things, then do them in moderation. It’s easy to get caught up in the rapid rewards of finishing a blog post or posting a tweet on Twitter, not to mention keeping up with others blogs and tweets, but this stuff can rapidly eat up your day and for the foreseeable future you won’t be getting a job based on your awesome stream of 140 character or less insights.*Yep, that’s right, it’s a link to the Wikipedia page on Wiki’s. †And links to copies of them if you are comfortable flaunting the absurd copyright/licensing policies of many of the academic publishers (or if you only published in open access journals).
I just restumbled over the Daily Routines blog. The blog is about “how writers, artists, and other interesting people organize their days” and is basically just excerpts from interviews with famous creative folks. The blog appears to be “on hold” pending an upcoming book, but I definitely recommend pulling it up some lazy afternoon and working your way through how some of the most creative people around structure their days.
The Ecological Database Toolkit
Large amounts of ecological and environmental data are becoming increasingly available due to initiatives sponsoring the collection of large-scale data and efforts to increase the publication of already collected datasets. As a result, ecology is entering an era where progress will be increasingly limited by the speed at which we can organize and analyze data. To help improve ecologists’ ability to quickly access and analyze data we have been developing software that designs database structures for ecological datasets and then downloads the data, processes it, and installs it into several major database management systems (at the moment we support Microsoft Access, MySQL, PostgreSQL, and SQLite). The database toolkit system can substantially reduce hurdles to scientists using new databases, and save time and reduce import errors for more experienced users.
The database toolkit can download and install small datasets in seconds and large datasets in minutes. Imagine being able to download and import the newest version of the Breeding Bird Survey of North America (a database with 4 major tables and over 5 million records in the main table) in less than five minutes. Instead of spending an afternoon setting up the newest version of the dataset and checking your import for errors you could spend that afternoon working on your research. This is possible right now and we are working on making this possible for as many major public/semi-public ecological databases as possible. The automation of this process reduces the time for a user to get most large datasets up and running by hours, and in some cases days. We hope that this will make it much more likely that scientists will use multiple datasets in their analyses; allowing them to gain more rapid insight into the generality of the pattern/process they are studying.
We need your help
We have done quite a bit of testing on this system including building in automated tests based on manual imports of most of the currently available databases, but there are always bugs and imperfections in code that cannot be identified until the software is used in real world situations. That’s why we’re looking for folks to come try out the Database Toolkit and let us know what works and what doesn’t, what they’d like to see added or taken away, and if/when the system fails to work properly. So if you’ve got a few minutes to have half a dozen ecological databases automatically installed on your computer for you stop by the Database Toolkit page at EcologicalData.org, give it a try, and let us know what you think.