Jabberwocky Ecology

ESA journals do not allow papers with preprints

Over the weekend I saw this great tweet:

by Philippe Desjardins-Proulx and was pleased to see yet another actively open young scientist. Then I saw his follow up tweet:

At first I was confused. I thought ESA’s policy was that preprints were allowed based on the following text on their website (emphasis mine: still available in Google’s Cache):

A posting of a manuscript or thesis on a personal or institutional homepage or ftp site will generally be considered as a preprint; this will not be grounds for viewing the manuscript as published. Similarly, posting of manuscripts in public preprint archives or in an institution’s public archive of unpublished theses will not be considered grounds for declaring a manuscript published. If a manuscript is available as part of a digital publication such as a journal, technical series or some other entity to which a library can subscribe (especially if that publication has an ISSN or ISBN), we will consider that the manuscript has been published and is thus not eligible for consideration by our journals. A partial test for prior publication is whether the manuscript has appeared in some entity with archival value so that it is permanently available to reasonably diligent scholars. A necessary test for prior publication is whether the author can legally transfer copyright to ESA.

So I asked Philippe to explain his tweet:

This got me a little riled up so I broadcast my displeasure:

And then Jarrett Byrnes questioned where this was coming from given the stated policy:

So I emailed ESA to check and, sure enough, preprints on arXiv and similar preprint servers are considered prior publication and therefore cannot be submitted to ESA journals, despite the fact that this isn’t a problem for a few journals you may have heard of including Science, Nature, PNAS, and PLoS Biology. ESA (to their credit) has now clarified this point on their website (emphasis mine; thanks to Jaime Ashander for the heads up):

A posting of a manuscript or thesis on an authorā€™s personal or home institutionā€™s website or ftp site generally will not be considered previous publication. Similarly posting of a ā€œworking paperā€ in an institutional repository is allowed so long as at least one of the authors is affiliated with that institution. However, if a manuscript is available as part of a digital publication such as a journal, technical series, or some other entity to which a library can subscribe (especially if that publication has an ISSN or ISBN), we will consider that the manuscript has been published and is thus not eligible for consideration by our journals. Likewise, if a manuscript is posted in a citable public archive outside the authorā€™s home institution, then we consider the paper to be self-published and ineligible for submission to ESA journals. Finally, a necessary test for prior publication is whether the author can legally transfer copyright to ESA.

In my opinion the idea that a preprint is “self-published” and therefore represents prior publication is poorly justified* and not in the best interests of science, and I’m not the only one:

So now I’m hoping that Jarrett is right:

and that things might change (and hopefully soon). If you know someone on the ESA board, please point them in the direction of this post.

UPDATE: Just as I was finishing working on this post ESA responded to the tweet stream from the last few days:

I’m very excited that ESA is reviewing their policies in this area. As I should have said in the original post, I have, up until this year, been quite impressed with ESA’s generally open, and certainly pro-science policies. This last year or so has been a bad one, but I’m hoping that’s just a lag in adjusting to the new era in scientific publishing.

UPDATE 2: ESA has announced that they have changed their policy and will now consider articles with preprints.

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*I asked ESA if they wanted to clarify their justification for this policy and haven’t heard back (though it has been less than 2 days). If they get back to me I’ll update or add a new post.
Ā Ā Ā 

Postdoc in Evolutionary Bioinformatics [Jobs]

There is an exciting postdoc opportunity for folks interested in quantitative approaches to studying evolution in Michael Gilchrist’s lab at the University of Tennessee. I knew Mike when we were both in New Mexico. He’s really sharp, a nice guy, and a very patient teacher. He taught me all about likelihood and numerical maximization and opened my mind to a whole new way of modeling biological systems. This will definitely be a great postdoc for the right person, especially since NIMBioS is at UTK as well. Here’s the ad:

Outstanding, motivated candidates are being sought for a post-doctoral position in the Gilchrist lab in the Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. The successful candidate will be supported by a three year NSF grant whose goal is to develop, integrate and test mathematical models of protein translation and sequence evolution using available genomic sequence and expression level datasets. Publications directly related to this work include Gilchrist. M.A. 2007, Molec. Bio. & Evol. (http://www.tinyurl/shahgilchrist11) and Shah, P. and M.A. Gilchrist 2011, PNAS (http://www.tinyurl/gilchrist07a).

The emphasis of the laboratory is focused on using biologically motivated models to analyze complex, heterogeneous datasets to answer biologically motivated questions. The research associated with this position draws upon a wide range of scientiļ¬c disciplines including: cellular biology, evolutionary theory, statistical physics, protein folding, diļ¬€erential equations, and probability. Consequently, the ideal candidate would have a Ph.D. in either biology, mathematics, physics, computer science, engineering, or statistics with a background and interest in at least one of the other areas.

The researcher will collaborate closely with the PIs (Drs. Michael Gilchrist and Russell Zaretzki) on this project but potentiall have time to collaborate on other research projects with the PIs. In addition, the researcher will have opportunties to interact with other faculty members in the Division of Biology as well as researchers at the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis (http://www.nimbios.org).

Review of applications begins immediately and will continue until the position is filled. To apply, please submit curriculum vitae including three references, a brief statement of research background and interests, and 1-3 relevant manuscripts to mikeg[at]utk[dot]edu.

Why computer labs should never be controlled by individual colleges/departments

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 [1] 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 [2] 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 theĀ cognizant universityĀ 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” [3].

And this means that we end up wasting a lotĀ of expensive university resources.Ā For example, last year I taught in a computer lab “owned” by another college [4]. 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 [5]. 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 [6].

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 [7] 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 [8] brings me to the title of this post. The solution to this problem is for universities to stop allowingĀ 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.

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[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.”Ā Needless to say, the individual in question wasn’t actually saying frak, but this is a family blog.

[4] As a result of a personal favor done for one administrator by another administrator.

[5] I know because I took advantage of this to hold my office hours in the computer lab following class.

[6] 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.

[7]Ā etc., etc., etc.

[8] finally…

Postdoc position in Jim Brown’s group studying the major patterns of biodiversity

There is a new postdoctoral research position available in Jim Brown’s lab at the University of New Mexico to study some of the major patterns of biodiversity. We know a bit about the research and it’s going to be an awesome project with a bunch of incredibly bright people involved. Jim’s lab is also one of the most intellectually stimulating and supportive environments that you could possibly work in. Seriously, if you are even remotely qualified then you should apply for this position. We’re both thinking about applying and we already have faculty positions :). Here’s the full ad:

The Department of Biology at the University of New Mexico is seeking applications for a post-doc position in ecology/biodiversity. The post doc will be expected to play a major role in a multi-investigator, multi- institutional project supported by a four-year NSF Macrosystems Ecology grant. The research will focus on metabolic processes underlying the major patterns of biodiversity, especially in pervasive temperature dependence and requires a demonstrated working knowledge of theory, mathematical and computer
modeling skills.

Applicants must have a Ph.D. in ecology or a related discipline.

Review begins with the first applications and continues until the position is filled. Applicants must submit a cover letter and a curriculum vitae along with at least three phone numbers of references, three letters of recommendation and PDFā€™s of relevant preprints and publications to be sent directly to ecohire@unm.edu attn: James Brown. Application materials must be received by July 25, 2011, for best consideration.

Questions related to this posting may be directed to Dr. James Brown at ecohire@unm.edu or to Katherine Thannisch at kthannis@unm.edu.

The University of New Mexico is an Equal Opportunity/Affirmative Action Employer and Educator. Women and underrepresented minorities are encouraged to apply.

Oikos has a blog? [Blogrolling]

Thanks to an email from Jeremy Fox I just found out that Oikos has started a blog. It clearly isn’t on most folks radars (I represent 50% of its Google Reader subscribers), and Jeremy has been putting up some really interesting posts over there so I thought it was worth a mention. According to Jeremy:

I view the Oikos blog as a place where the Oikos editors can try to do the sort of wonderful armchair ecology that John [Lawton] used to do in his ‘View From the Park’ column. I say ‘try’ because I doubt any of us could live up to John’s high standard (I’m sure I don’t!). I’m going to try to do posts that will be thought-provoking for students in particular. Oikos used to be the place to go with interesting, provocative ideas that were well worth publishing even if they were a bit off the wall or not totally correct. It’s our hope (well, my hope anyway) that this blog will become one way for Oikos to reclaim that niche.

I think they’re doing a pretty good job of accomplishing their goal, so go check out recent posts on the importance of hand waving and synthesizing ecology, and then think about subscribing to keep up on the new provocative things they’re up to.

Learning to program like a professional using Software Carpentry

An increasingly large number of folks doing research in ecology and other biological disciplines spend a substantial portion of their time writing computer programs to analyze data and simulate the outcomes of biological models. However, most ecologists have little formal training in software developmentĀ¹. A recent survey suggests that we are not only; with 96% of scientists reporting that they are mostly self-taught when it comes to writing code. This makes senseĀ because there are only so many hours in the day, and scientists are typically more interested in answering important questions in their field than in sitting through a bachelors degree worth of computer science classes. But, it also means that we spend longer than necessary writing our software, it contains more bugs, and it is less useful to other scientists than it could beĀ².

Software Carpentry to the Rescue

Fortunately you don’t need to go back college and get another degree to substantially improve your knowledge and abilities when it comes to scientific programming, because with a few weeks of hard work Software Carpentry will whip you into shape. Software Carpentry was started back in 1997 to teachĀ scientists “the concepts, skills, and tools they need to use and build software more productively” and it does a great job. The newest version of the course is composed of a combination of video lectures and exercises, and provides quick and to the point information on such critical things as:

along with lots of treatment of best practices for writing code that is clear and easy to read both for other people and for yourself a year from now when you sit down and try to figure out exactly what you didĀ³.

The great thing about Software Carpentry is that it skips over all of the theory and detail that you’d get when taking the relevant courses in computer science and gets straight to crux –Ā how to use the available tools most effectively to conduct scientific research. This means that in about 40 hours of lecture and 100-200 hours of practice you can be a much, much, better programmer who rights code more quickly, with fewer bugs, that be easily reused. I think of it asĀ boot campĀ for scientific software development. You won’t be an expert marksman or a black belt in Jiu-Jitsu when you’re finished, but you will know how to fire a gun and throw a punch.

I can say without hesitation that taking this course is one of the most important things I’ve done in terms of tool development in my entire scientific career. If you are going to write more than 100 lines of code per year for your research then you need to either take this course or find someone to offer something equivalent at your university. Watch the lectures, do the exercises, and it will save you time and energy on programming; giving you more of both to dedicate to asking and answering important scientific questions.

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Ā¹I took 3 computer science courses in college and I get the impression that that is about 2-3 more courses than most ecologists have taken.

Ā²I don’t know of any data on this, but my impression is that over 90% of code written by ecologists is written by a single individual and never read or used by anyone else. This is in part because we have no culture of writing code in such a way that other people can understand what we’ve done and therefore modify it for their own use.

Ā³I know that I’ve decided that it was easier to “just start from scratch” rather than reusing my own code on more than one occasion. That won’t be happening to me again thanks to Software Carpentry

Thoughts on developing a digital presence

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 publicationsā€ , 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,Ā you can get a static .html based template and then add your own content to it.Ā 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.Ā 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.
ā€ 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).

Fighting the snake [Things you should read]

As I’ve mentioned before I’m not a big fan of the configuration of most comprehensive exams, but my post on the matter keeps languishing on my out of control To Do list. So, I was really pleased when a friend of mine passed along something that a student had sent him*. The piece is actually about a portion of thesis defenses, but I think it applies most appropriately to comprehensive exams (just substitute writtens for thesis, and add the fact that the guy who picks the snakes is hard of hearing). Regardless, it is short, hilarious and just the sort of thing stressed out students, postdocs, and faculty need to get a little chuckle as they finish up the semester. Go read it.

*Thanks to Joanna Hsu and Peter Adler for passing this along.

Courting controversy & academic ponzi schemes [Things you should read]

Anyone who has been around the halls of academia for a while has heard some well meaning soul talk about how we produce too many PhD students for the number of faculty positions, that this is unfair, and that therefore we should take fewer students. The most recent version of this idea on the web goes so far as calling the academic enterprise a Ponzi scheme. I’ve never personally found this argument very convincing. No other area of employment has a degree the guarantees its recipients their preferred job and I think that thinning the pool of potential talent from the scientific fields before it’s really possible to tell who the important thinkers of the next generation might be is bad for science (and all of the things that benefit from it). I’ve never taken the time to really expand on these thoughts, but thankfully James Keirstead over at Academic Productivity has an interesting post up responding to the ideas in the first link. Go check it out.

Explaining life as a graduate student

As a graduate student, explaining what your day to day life is like to your non-academic friends can sometimes be a little difficult. In this enjoyable piece from The Science Creative Quarterly Daven Tai takes a unique approach to this challenge:

Working to get your PhD is like training to become a Jedi Knight,ā€ I started. ā€œYou follow a Master; you live a life of sacrifice; you must develop rational thought and patienceā€¦

If you’re looking for five minutes of academically oriented fun go check out the whole article.

Drug Monkey on comprehensive exams

I have never been a big fan of comprehensive exams. In my opinion being able to perform on a test (of whatever form) has very little to do with what it takes to be successful as a scientist and most of the exam systems that I am familiar with have serious structural problems above and beyond this basic objection. I started a post on the problems with the comprehensive exam system at my university some time ago and will hopefully finish it one of these days, but for the time being I thought I’d point you over to Drug Monkey for his recent thoughts on the matter. The crux of his argument is:

Maturing through the career arc, I care less for this [the ability of the exam to protect the university’s reputation by preventing the graduation of incompetent hacks]. Mostly because I’ve come to realize nobody that is judging me now gives a rat’s patootie what University or Department of -ology appears on my doctorate. They care about the papers I have published. Period. Full freaking stop.

So if I were dictating a graduate program, I’d be looking to enhance the ability of the students to publish papers. This would pretty much rule out the examination approach.

While you’re over at his pad I’d recommend browsing around a bit. He and co-blogger Physio Prof aren’t ecologists but they are very sharp thinkers when it comes to life in academia. Plus, they introduced us to this, so what more can you ask for.