This Week’s Good Reads: Staff Scientists, Gender Bias, Open Access, and Peer Review’s Repeat Referees

1) One of the most popular posts on this blog was when I wrote about how little we know about ecology career paths after the PhD and suggested a population biology model for studying it. Far from limited to ecology, most post-PhD careers are not understood or tracked. A new survey through Science Careers is now tackling this question with an opt-in survey: Help Solve the Mystery of the Disappearing PhD’s, Science Careers, Beryl Lieff Benderly.

2) In last week’s good reads, I mentioned an article with good data graphics showing the post-doc pile-up and asking readers what to do about it. The results of the poll are in: Wanted: Staff-scientist positions for postdocs, Nature, Kendall Powell.

3) A new study about women in science concluded that female applicants for tenure-track jobs are preferred 2 to 1. Needless to say, it has sparked some controversy. (Read Nature News‘s summary of the study: Leading Scientists Favour Women in Tenure-Track Hiring Test, Nature, Boer Deng). For a thorough criticism of the study, check out: The Myth About Women in Science? Bias in the Study of Gender Inequality in STEM, The Other Sociologist, Zuleyka Zevallos

4) I recently blogged about one of Paige Jarreau’s results in her doctoral study of science blogging practices. Now, her full dissertation is up and ready for reading. In it, she reviews the literature on science blogging and then unpacks her results on why science bloggers blog, how they choose what to write about, who they are, whose blogs are read the most, and who is paid versus not. Check it out: All the Science That Is Fit to Blog: An Analysis of Science Blogging Practices, Dissertation, Paige Brown Jarreau.

4) NSF is requiring research the agency funds be open access, much like NIH: US Agencies Fall in Line on Public Access, Science, Jocelyn Kaiser.

5)  FYI: Rejected mss often get the same referees when resubmitted to a different journal, Dynamic Ecology, Jeremy Fox.

6) New Opportunities at the Interface of Ecology and Statistics, Methods in Ecology and Evolution, David Warton. (Full article paywalled) The new issue of Methods in Ecology and Evolution came out this week, and focuses on statistical methods ecologists should be aware of. Many of the papers focus on novel methods for understanding species distributions, especially to deal with common limitations in ecological data.

7) Cool study and video on hummingbird flight in high winds: Putting Hummingbirds to the Test, Smithsonian, Erin Blakemore.

And in other news:

This Week’s Good Reads: Closed-access Ebola Research, Good Allergies, Deaf Whales, and Bronto Embargoes.

1) Yes We Were Warned About Ebola, NY Times, Bernice Dahn, Vera Mussah, & Cameron Nutt. A closed-access paper in a scientific journal warned about the presence of endemic Ebola in the population in Liberia… in the 1980s. Sure would’ve been nice if healthcare workers in Africa could’ve accessed it, say the authors.

2) Maps in a new study show where the U.S. needs to prioritize conservation, by comparing diversity of endemic amphibians, fish, reptiles, and mammals to areas already protected. Buzzfeed‘s Peter Aldous made some cool interactive versions of the maps. Jason Goldman gave a good report in Conservation Magazine on the 9 areas that the map comparison highlights as priorities for conservation.

3) The Future of the Postdoc, Nature, Kendall Powell. Article on the pile-up of postdocs, with interesting data and a poll on what to do about it. I thought the poll was unhelpful–it’s too complex a problem to be solved by one multiple choice question.

4) Are Allergies Good for Us?, Mosaic, Carl Zimmer. Maybe we have allergies because there is an evolutionary benefit to having them. Goes against the widely held belief that allergies are fighting harmless entities that the immune system mistakenly sees as harmful. Early results look like promising support for the new (actually old) hypothesis. More experiments in progress. My thought: The two hypotheses are not necessarily mutually exclusive, since there are lots of different kinds of allergies. Maybe there’s truth in both?

5) African Hub Set Up to Boost Research Autonomy, Nature, Linda Nordling. Much-needed attention on new international funding agency to encourage domestic scientific research in Africa.

6) Two stories revealed the importance of sound communication in underwater fauna. One was a nighttime soundscape from an underwater cave that shows just how diverse the sounds fish make can be. (At Night, Fish Communicate With Special Calls, Whistles and Grunts, Smithsonian, Marissa Fessenden). The other is a story on a US federal court ruling that a Navy training approved in 2013 that included high-intensity sonar and subsurface detonations caused many marine mammals to go deaf–and thus die–and therefore should never have been approved. (Court Rules Navy Noise Causes Too Much Harm to Marine Mammals, Smithsonian, Samantha Larson).

7) The Brontosaurus was reinstated as a genus. Nick Stockton gives an even-handed account in Wired of what is and is not important about the taxonomic study. Perhaps even more interesting–at least to journalists and communicators–is the debate that was spawned when PeerJ broke its own embargo to make the Bronto announcement. Ultimately, PeerJ said they wouldn’t do it again.

8) A Higher Profile, Inside Higher Ed, Paul Fain. I know a lot of people in journalism who use the digital skills training service And it just got bought by LinkedIn.

9) How Do We Engage With Popular Messengers Who Exploit Fears?, Discover, Keith Kloor. Don’t expect answers here, but rather a good summary around the conversation about Food Babe and Dr. Oz, relating it to wider public health communications. Some clear tips on what NOT to do, but no answers of actually how to engage, as the title suggests. Rather, the question is well framed.

10) How Common Is “p-hacking”? Neuroskeptic Interviews Megan Head, PLOS, @Neuroskeptic. A conversation with the author of a recent PLOS Biology study showing how widespread p-hacking (the bias toward p-values under 0.05) is. They talk about what it means for science and how to help scientists understand and not exacerbate this biased behavior.

11) Unlike a Rolling Stone: Is Science Really Better Than Journalism at Self-Correction?, The Conversation, Ivan Oransky. Why the argument that journalists should be like scientists–one circulating after the release of the report about Rolling Stone‘s rape-story gone wrong–is not a very good one. Scientists also do not self-correct well, Oransky contends, and holding up hypothesis testing as the holy grail of truth needs to stop, when it still is susceptible to confirmation bias.

12) Science By Authority Is a Poor Model for Communication, Galileo’s Pendulum, @DrMRFrancis. A critique of the essay by Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg in The Guardian on the best science books for nonscientists. Francis talks about why these aren’t the best science books for nonscientists, and the pitfalls that befell Weinberg’s writing style.


Journalists Should Act Like Journalists, Not Like Scientists

A couple of days ago, Christie Aschwanden blogged on The Last Word on Nothing about the recent misreported rape story in Rolling Stone. She makes some good points about the case, most notably that it seems the reporters approached their sources with a story in mind that they never fully questioned. I agree with that point, but I was disturbed by the main bent of Aschwanden’s post. It is titled “Journalists Should Act More Like Scientists,” and her thesis seems to rest around her statement: “When a scientific theory comes face to face with new facts, scientists adjust the theory accordingly, and journalists should do the same. It’s OK to go into reporting with a hypothesis, but like a good scientist, a rigorous journalist should work hard to disprove it. (If you fail, that’s evidence that your hunch might be true.)”

As someone who has been a scientist and then a journalist, I immediately had two reactions: (1) There is a great deal of evidence that scientists’ conclusions and publications are often swayed by the story they think is true, too. (2) Scientists are good at data-driven scientific research like hypothesis testing, but when it comes to assessing social problems or history, we can just as easily jump to conclusions without understanding the process a journalist, social scientist, or historian might go through to parse out truths. I wasn’t the only one with this reaction, it turns out. As I wrote this blog post, Ivan Oransky was plugging away at this one, which adds some good context about the origin of Aschwanden’s thesis, as well as stats backing up the idea that scientists are equally fallible. It is especially apt in light of the ongoing debate about how to deal with apparent p-hacking in science–the bias toward p-values under the cut-off for statistical significance of 0.05–which has flared up most recently after the publication of a PLOS Biology study that showed a spike in p-values just under 0.05. This spike demonstrates that, like it or not, that bias exists–even when there is a nice hypothesis tested with a well-designed experiment. American Scientist recently published a column summarizing the problem of p-hacking and potential solutions.

Scientists and journalists are some of the smartest, most inquisitive people I know–people remarkably willing to question their own assumptions and biases and admit when they got something wrong. Although I don’t want to excuse the authors of the Rolling Stone story, let’s also not forget that we are all fallible and have our blindspots, especially when those blindspots are incentivized. I caution against presenting scientists as authority figures that journalists should seek out to learn about their own trade. Scientists know about science, not journalism, and both fields present important processes for truth-seeking.

Morels Are Popping Up, According to a Map of Sightings



For avid mushroom hunters, morel season is the beginning of six months (or more) of fresh and fleeting culinary delights. For those in Piedmont North Carolina, like me, morel season just arrived, according to this citizen science sightings map. You can add to the map if you see some (and don’t worry, you won’t have to give away your secret spot–just the nearest town). Watch their progression northward–Virginia and West Virginia, they’re on the way!

Are Science Blogs Passé? (No.)

Brown, Paige (2014): MySciBlog Survey - Top Read SciBlogs by SciBloggers. figshare.

Brown, Paige (2014): MySciBlog Survey – Top Read SciBlogs by SciBloggers. figshare.

Last week, Dynamic Ecology blogger Jeremy Fox wrote a post about the state of science blogging and raised an interesting question: Despite a saturated blogs market, why are there so few ecology blogs? In it, he notes that blogs peaked in 2009, but science blogs written by academics are doing pretty well. Still, an active blogosphere for and by ecologists does not exist–in contrast to some other fields, like economics. My ears perked up immediately. The UnderStory, whose audience has been growing steadily, still has room to grow further! Paige Jarreau, who studies science blogging, was even more positive in a response post–she contends that Fox is wrong when he says blogging is dead. Rather, she says, it’s evolving.

But, I think Fox missed a point about why ecologists are not blogging much, and I did not even see it mentioned in the many comments responding to the post: Ecologists have ample opportunities to do outreach for free. Most ecologists I know volunteer in some outreach capacity on top of all they do for their research. In a perpetually underfunded field, ecologists are some of the busiest scientists I know. They may just not have time and not see enough definitive benefits to parcel out some of that precious time.

For those who are interested in launching or improving their ecology-themed blog, if there’s one blog to turn to as an example, it’s Dynamic Ecology. In a recent analysis of science blogs by Jarreau, Fox’s blog was the ecology-themed one most often read by other science bloggers. But there were several others in the web that also showed high amounts of interconnectedness, including Small Pond Science and Southern Fried Science. Blog on.