04 March 2015

Can civil servants defuse a bomb? An Irish crayfish problem

There are papers you write for your self.

There are papers you write for your colleagues.

I wrote my latest paper for civil servants.

My newest paper on the sale of marbled crayfish is short. I bet that some people reading it might wonder why it’s not just a blog post. I debated with myself a lot whether I should try to get it in a journal. (I assure you, it would have been much easier to blog about it that publish it in a journal.)

It started when I was checking my email, and saw one of my regular alerts for “marbled crayfish.” I don’t think I can recreate the sound I made when I read one of my alerts and saw the link was from Ireland. It was a sort of sharp, squeeky inhaling – probably close to an “Eeep!”

I panicked.

When I describe the situation native European crayfish, the phrase I almost always use is, “horror show.” It was just so obvious to me after I went to the International Association for Astacology conference in 2010 (blogged here). Between introduced crayfish species and crayfish plague, things for native European crayfish species are bad.

Ireland has been an exception. There’s only one native species, the white-clawed crayfish (Austropotamobius pallipes, pictured above). And those Irish crayfish populations are in pretty good shape, relatively speaking, mainly because there aren’t any exotic invasive crayfish species in Ireland.

Ireland and Marmorkrebs – a cloning species that needs only one to start a population, and carries crayfish plague – would be a spectacularly bad combination.

I wanted to get this into a journal because documenting occurrences like this is important for policy and enforcement purposes. Ireland is ostensibly doing everything right. Importing crayfish into Ireland is already illegal. Ireland has public awareness campaigns about crayfish. And yet people are still selling Marmorkrebs publicly.

I hoped that for anyone who had some power to do something about Ireland’s crayfish, a scientific article in a peer reviewed journal might have more clout than a blog post.

After I decided that I wanted to publish this in a journal, it was not smooth sailing. Finding a home for this article was not easy, because it’s not exactly a traditional biology article.

While my article was being reviewed, I panicked again. A scientific society newsletter article scooped mine: it also reported Marmorkrebs were for sale in Ireland. I thought, “There goes my paper’s reason for uniqueness.” But there were enough differences that I thought my paper would still have something new and important to report. More importantly, a couple of sentences in the middle of a society newsletter was still not part of the mainstream literature. Because one goal was to make sure that the sale of exotic crayfish in Ireland was not overlooked, I still believed a paper was necessary.

And I found a third case of Marmorkrebs for sale in Ireland at the page proofs stage. Adding things at this late stage is always tricky, but the editor was cooperative and it went in, so the article became at least a little more substantive than what I initially submitted.

The final challenge was institutional rather than editorial or scientific. I was hoping to have this paper out at the end of 2014, but the article processing fees did not get paid in time. Sigh. Paying a bill should be routine, not be something to celebrate. But I did celebrate when it was paid, so my article wasn’t pushed back a second time.

Now that the article is out, I hope that it will make a few people aware that Ireland has a great resource in its crayfish. And maybe it will act as a slight nudge to stop non-native crayfish, like Marmorkrebs, from getting loose in Ireland’s rivers and lakes and streams.


Faulkes Z. 2015. A bomb set to drop: parthenogenetic Marmorkrebs for sale in Ireland, a European location without non-indigenous crayfish. Management of Biological Invasions 6(1): 111-114. http://dx.doi.org/10.3391/mbi.2015.6.1.09

Top crayfish picture from here.

03 March 2015

Tuesday Crustie: Crabz n the Hood

A new paper by Kim and Christy (2015) gets ace graphic treatment in a BBC summary.


Kim TW, Christy JH. 2015. A mechanism for visual orientation may facilitate courtship in a fiddler crab. Animal Behaviour 101: 61-66.

External links

Crabs build ‘temples of love’

02 March 2015

The “Texas transcript” is a good idea, but won’t solve grade inflation

“Devastating crisis.”






“Still worse is its effect on the souls.”

With language like that, you’d think the author was talking about a terrorist attack, Biblical plague,  or a new Twilight book.

Nope. This is about grade inflation in universities. A C used to be considered average, but now, the most common grade in American universities is an “A.”

The solution being proposed to this scourge? (Sorry, got carried in wanting to match the original article’s over the top descriptions.)

Texas House Bill 1196 [and] Senate Bill 499... would require schools to “place the average or median grade, as applicable, immediately to the right of the student’s individual grade” on official transcripts.

I like this idea. Letter grades alone are not all that informative. I am often asked to write recommendation letters for students, and one of the things I often try to do is to give the reviewer a sense of where that student stood relative to the rest of the class. A student might have an A but be in the bottom half of the class, or might have a B but be in the top ten percent of a class.

Author Tom Lindsay says we would need a “wait and see” if this approach curbs grade inflation. But he claims:

At the least, the larger culture would be alerted to those schools and majors that have maintained standards and those that have not.

The transcript described can’t inform “the larger culture” about universities and majors. All it does is provide information about the classes one student took. An employer, review committee, parent, or even the student still has no way of knowing how one major or one university stacks up to any other.

More seriously, the “larger culture” has deep, preconceived notions about “standards.” And people will tell their own narratives that fit their preconceived ideas.

Remember a couple of recent papers that showed that the graduates of “elite” universities locked up a disproportionate number of tenure-track academic positions? I saw a discussion of that paper on Facebook, and people immediately leaped to the hypothesis that the reason for this was that the graduates from those universities were better. People made arguments like:

Highly selective admission leads to better candidates.
Guess what schools don’t have to admit “warm bodies?” The elite schools get plenty of top notch applicants.
Higher profile or elite schools have wealthier alumni, and more resources, so that may lead to slightly stronger portfolios, giving grads an advantage.
Top-tier schools have more resources for research support.

People jumped to a “fair world” argument even though the authors of one paper (Clauset and colleagues) explicitly wrote that this hypothesis was highly unlikely:

Under a meritocracy, the observed placement rates would imply that faculty with doctorates from the top 10 units are inherently two to six times more productive than faculty with doctorates from the third 10 units. The magnitude of these differences makes a pure meritocracy seem implausible, suggesting the influence of nonmeritocratic factors like social status.

People will certainly start applying the same sorts of “just so” stories to explain differences in grades across institutions. They will say, “Well, of course students from Elite University get lots of As, because that one only takes the smartest! That’s not grade inflation, that’s just proof they are the best, and provide the best training to students!”

On the other hand, if a student gets low grades from an Elite University, people will say, “Well, of course Elite University has the most rigorous academic standards! A C from Elite University is equivalent to an A from Run-of-the-Mill University!”

So showing people the averages on transcripts seems unlikely to inform the “larger culture” about grade inflation in any meaningful way. And students at less prestigious institutions will continue to be shortchanged.

(Aside: For a long time, I didn’t understand why university administrators cared so much so much about university rankings and spent huge amounts of effort gaming the system to get their universities to be seen as “top tier.” The longer I stay in academia, the more I understand it. A lot rides on public perception of academic prestige and rigor, far more than actual rigor. It’s disappointing, but that’s the reality of the situation.)

The only way that you can demonstrate rigor across majors and institutions is by taking a bunch of students, and giving them all the same, standardized assessments. Sound familiar? It’s an approach that is rampant in K-12. It’s also an approach that has been widely criticized for not taking into account external influences like poverty and other socioeconomic factors. Do you expect a university that enrolls lots of first generation minority students from an economically disadvantaged background to have the same outcomes as a university that mostly enrolls majority students raised by professional parents?

What do “standards” and “rigor” mean to those two populations? I’m not sure they will mean the same thing, or that they should.

Linday also claims:

(T)he bill avoids seeking to micromanage the state’s institutions of higher education. It does not require them to do anything differently(.)

That’s got to be a little simplistic. While institutions have all that data, computing it, and then putting it on transcripts is probably a trivial thing, because transcripts are still stuck in the ninetheeth century. You would have to add columns, explanations, change all the typesetting, and so on. That means every university in Texas would have to retool their transcripts from scratch.

Related posts

What grades should look like 
Their grades were too... high?
Remaking the transcript
Why grade inflation is good for the GRE 

External links

The Texas Legislature looks to lift college grading standards

01 March 2015

Comments for second half of February 2015

The Molecular Ecologist has a some nifty survey results about how scientists pick which journal to publish in. Surprise! That intangible perfume of “prestige” and Impact Factor are two of the three biggest factors.

Bethany Brookshire introduces the lovely word parthenogenesis.

DrugMonkey asks readers in graduate programs about their entry requirements.

I make a cameo in an important post on scientists paying expenses out of pocket.

16 February 2015

The Journal of Funding Agency

An argument in scientific publishing is, “Who pays?” For many journals run by traditional, for-profit publishers, usually the library pays. For many open access online journals, the author pays.

Scientists don’t want to pay out of pocket. This is a legitimate concern, because the article processing charges can be thousands of dollars (though not all are). Many have argued that funding agencies should ultimately be the ones who pay, because they are sponsoring the research, and they have a vested interest in seeing the research published as widely as possible.

Many agencies have taken up this cause, and have polices that require open access publication.

Still... this seems a long and needlessly complicated path for the money to take. Researchers have to write grants, budget for an unknown number of papers, which then have to go to the journal.

Why don’t funding agencies start their own open access journals?

The rule would be simple: If you have research supported by the funding agency, it’s free to publish open access in that agency’s journal.

If your research is supported by other agencies, you’d pay an article fee.

I wonder if funding agencies might actually save money by having their own publishing arms. They wouldn’t have to worry about the budgeting for the publication fees. It would simplify both the writing and review of grant proposals.

Most funding agencies already have the infrastructure to publish stuff. After all, they publish reports and calls for proposal and so on all the time. They have connections to peer reviewers, because they use them to review grant proposals.

Some government agencies have had their own journals for a long time. Canada’s NRC Research Press is one example. I don’t know those journals payment system, although I think most are using the “library pays” subscription model. It might have the potential to be “house publisher” for scientists with Canadian federal funding.

HHMI, The Wellcome Trust, and the Max Planck Institute got into the publishing end of things with eLife. But they are just “supporting” the journal, rather than it being in house. There may be advantages to this, mainly editorial independence.

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

13 February 2015

The academic hierarchy has more snakes than ladders

It’s kind of been a disheartening week for data on faculty career hiring. In less than a week, a paper by Clauset and colleagues showed that in computer science, business, history, school prestige is a very good predictor of faculty hiring.

(O)nly 9 to 14% of faculty are placed at institutions more prestigious than their doctorate(.)

A few days later, similar data came out for the study of English.

Of the graduates who get tenure-track jobs, most end up at universities ranked lower than the ones they attended. Virtually no one moves up.

It’s not quite the Matthew effect, but it’s close.

Of course, when the school prestige carries so much clout, it is not surprising that the perceived “top” schools have a lot of their graduates take the few faculty jobs out there.

25% of institutions producing 71 to 86% of all tenure-track faculty(.)

Of course, I am sure that some will argue that this is fair, and that the most prestigious schools have that prestige way because they are the best. Maybe they are, but I am not convinced that they are that much better. Neither are Clauset and colleagues:

Under a meritocracy, the observed placement rates would imply that faculty with doctorates from the top 10 units are inherently two to six times more productive than faculty with doctorates from the third 10 units. The magnitude of these differences makes a pure meritocracy seem implausible, suggesting the influence of nonmeritocratic factors like social status.

It’s disheartening on so many levels. It means that programs in lower ranked schools, and students in them, are engaged in busy work, and not making meaningful contributions to academia.

It suggests that there are probably similar prestige effects happening at the lower levels of education: so they way you get into a top doctoral program, you might have to get into a top undergraduate program, and so on. So higher education, instead of being a leveler, is reinforcing hierarchies.

External links

Where Do English Ph.D.’s Get Jobs? It Depends on Where They Studied.

Clauset A, Arbesman S, Larremore DB. 2015. Systematic inequality and hierarchy in faculty hiring networks. Science Advances 1(1): e1400005. http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.1400005

Some figures on prestige bias in academia

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

09 February 2015

Analyzing the UTRGV Vaqueros logo, or: Who was that tanned man?

The UTRGV mascot was unveiled... at 4:00 pm on Friday afternoon. I do not think the timing of this release was accidental. After the uproar that followed the announcement of the “Vaqueros” name, I think someone hoped that late Friday afternoon would provide a “soft launch” for the logo.


I like the look of the logo overall. The horse and rider look dynamic and distinctive. It reads well from a distance.

There is one thing I absolutely love about this logo. It's a little Easter egg that shows a very sharp, professional graphic designer did this. There is a map of Texas hidden in the negative space of the horse’s front and back legs. That is just a detail that delights.


In the full colour version of the logo, the rider looks like he’s had a spray on tanning mishap. Sort of like Ross in the Friends episode, “The One with Ross’s Tan.”

Our female athletes got ignored. We have dozens of alternate logos, and there are no Vaqueras. Not even a team name in any of the zillion logo variants.

Our friends at Brownsville got short changed. Again. Most seriously, several of the logo variants have the outline of the state of Texas, and a single star in the Valley... pretty much right on Edinburg, where UTPA is. Either there should be a star for each campus, or no stars.

On a minor note, the UTRGV colours are supposed to be orange, green (UTPA’s heritage colour) and blue (UTB’s heritage colour). But in the full colour logo, the navy blue it so dark that it doesn’t read as blue.

Some people have said there are some similarities with the Texas Tech Mascot, the Red Raiders. Both have a man on horseback.

I personally don’t see this as a big problem. The colours, poses, letters... There is no way the two would ever be confused.

The lettering looks very similar to the type used for the current UTPA athletics workdmark, and to other institutions. Both have big chunky slab type, with a spikey bit emerging from the top left.

Overall, the logo is sharp, but it’s a shame that it doesn’t show awareness of the criticisms of the Vaqueros name, and the regional tensions that have been brewing because of it.