The Opposing Thumb

An opinionated digit leafs through the biological literature
Media Roundup

140 Character Problem

I’ve been both reading & participating in many interesting and enlightening Twitter discussions on science and science policy. Unlike my mostly negative experience on Facebook, the tone is almost always respectful, and when it veers towards sarcasm, it is rarely mean. Also the community structure seems to work a lot better, there is much less spam, cat videos etc… Most importantly, no one’s idiot cousin or high school friend has interjected with racist, misogynist or just plain stupid commentary. Being Brazilian in Portugal, reliably a relative or acquaintance of a FB ‘friend’ would show up making xenophobic comments.

Twitter also forces you to be concise- though no doubt in many cases at the expense of complexity and depth of argument. My most common expression of frustration is “I don’t know how to put this 140 characters!”

Most recently I internalized this sentiment (that is, I did not tweet it yet again) in a discussion with Toronto’s Jim Johnson– a discussion, I should say that I butted into, as I originally caught it when @JimJohnsonSci jumped into a thread started by ‏@pjacock (I’m still working on what is the proper etiquette to attribute Tweet credit in other media). The topic was: should there be strict publication requirements for the conclusion of a PhD degree? I’m not going to get into the pragmatic arguments, where I would mostly agree with Dr Johnson. In the past I had long discussions on this, in my role as head of our Graduate Program. Though that chalice has since passed from me to my friend Elio Sucena, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that he would agree with the broad strokes of what follows below.

The most important thing is that we need to have very high standards in what we expect of our graduate students (and must offer them the corresponding support and means). As many have remarked, the PhD is, in effect, the license to practice science (the many examples of great scientists without one notwithstanding). The candidate must demonstrate sound background knowledge, the ability to identify a relevant problem, and a tractable approach to this problem, whether experimental, theoretical or both. The candidate needs to execute this research program and arrive somewhere, presenting something novel to his/her peers.

All of this we can, and should, demand of our candidates. These things they are expected to master, control, perform. Sure, the unexpected will happen. The infection in the mouse colony. The -80 that thaws. Getting scooped. Receiving the wrong plasmid, mislabeled primers, inactive enzymes. The candidates are also expected to overcome these things. We should demand of them that they buck up and carry on. In one memorable occasion when I was a grad student, an airport shipping container flattened cages of mice we had waited some time to receive. Too bad (for the Jax Lab immigrants in particular, of course).

Publication is a different animal entirely. Too much is out of the student’s control. I’ve seen excellent papers take 2 years to get published, for no reason other than a pigheaded referee, bad journal organization, and requests for stupid, timely and laborious additional experiments. This should not delay anyone’s life, thesis defense, postdoc. Too many cases these days produce delays that in no way reflect on the quality of the candidate’s work (or the quality of the candidate). The thesis committee/jury may, more reasonably, require that a submission-ready manuscript be produced*. This too we can expect of the candidate. Publication itself, that is out of the candidate’s control, and they should not be expected to await in transit while editors and referees do their thing- particularly considering that many (most?) papers are submitted to more than one journal before finding their final resting place. This measures no quality or output of the candidate, and thus surely can not be a rigid criterium for degree completion.

*Though I would argue that here too there are important exceptions, with risky projects or truly new approaches that led to negative results, but with sterling scientific practices and sound conclusions. Strict publication requirements encourage low risk, unoriginal research.

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