30 April 2013

Tuesday Crustie: Fit in

There is an animal in this picture, though you might not see it at a glance:

A small brachyuran crab from Mexico.

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

29 April 2013

Changing the players, or changing the goals?

A story from Science is making the round on the social media via my fellow scientists. It’s about draft legislation led by Lamar Smith that would affect the National Science Foundation. It starts with a dramatic lede:

The new chair of the House of Representatives science committee has drafted a bill that, in effect, would replace peer review at the National Science Foundation (NSF) with a set of funding criteria chosen by Congress.

The suggestion that scientists would not be picking what science to fund is a surefire way to get the hounds of academic braying like they’re on the scent of blood. Peer review is the defining characteristic of serious academic scholarship. There is no faster way to lose credibility than to mess with peer review. (Case in point: CPRIT in Texas.)

Let’s look past the first sentence to see what is being suggested.

(T)he draft would require the NSF director to post on NSF’s website, prior to any award, a declaration that certifies the research is:

  1. “…in the interests of the United States to advance the national health, prosperity, or welfare, and to secure the national defense by promoting the progress of science;
  2. “… the finest quality, is groundbreaking, and answers questions or solves problems that are of utmost importance to society at large; and
  3. “…not duplicative of other research projects being funded by the Foundation or other Federal science agencies.”

I don’t see that as evidence of getting rid of peer review. It changes what peer reviewers are supposed to be looking for, but there’s certainly no indication that scientists won’t be picking the winners and losers. I was not around when NSF implemented the “broader impacts” criteria, but I don’t recall anyone ever saying that they were subverting peer review. Confusing, maybe. Not taking seriously, perhaps. But never “not peer reviewed.”

Honestly, I could get behind criterion #3. Criteria #1 and #2 are problematic, because they encourage short term thinking. Science is not about turning a next quarter profit, which is where these sorts of directives lead you.

A bigger problem with this proposal is that it encourages micromanagement. This is also why I don’t think it has much of a future. There is just too much work for politicans and their staffers to be making these kinds of decisions on a routine bases. Currently, the American federal funding agencies are able to get a lot of value for money because scientists volunteer to do peer review, because they believe in its importance. If politicians started trying to pick what to fund, maybe they’d learn that the “lazy professor” meme is a myth.

Should politicians have a say in what science gets funded? Well, that’s a motto point. They always have. They always will. NASA was a political creation. So was the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. There are pros and cons to politicians getting involved in funding decisions.

Additional: One possible downside to criterion #3 is that it could be used against research that involves replication. Fair concern, especially given that replication has a hard enough time being published. There is a reasonable discussion to be had about where to draw the line between replication and duplication (i.e., funding five different major labs all trying to track down the same gene in the same model organism).

Additional, 1 May 2013: Slate has a good background piece on this. It highlights something I sort of allude to above: the specific proposals are not as important as the short-term thinking and disdain for research.

(I)t’s difficult for (social scientists) to justify their own funding in a time of severe government cutbacks. ... The new attempts to claw away at research have gone on for months, and the academics haven’t put up a compelling defense beyond one event on the Hill and the yeoman blogging of some professors like John Sides. “Going forward,” Sides wrote after Coburn’s win, “a coordinated lobbying effort is needed not only to roll back the restrictions on political science but to defend the NSF’s core mission as a promoter of scientific research in the public good, broadly defined.”

So far that lobbying effort doesn’t exist. Instead, Republicans are able to challenge NSF funding in order to pursue long-term political goals without too many people noticing.

External links

U.S. Lawmaker Proposes New Criteria for Choosing NSF Grants
Congress tries to reset science grants, wants every one to be “groundbreaking”
Bad laws for science and all growing things

Picture from here.

25 April 2013

Better Exams: a resource request

Scientific training doesn’t include a tremendous amount of formal instruction in instruction. Teachers aren’t always taught much about how to teach, but have to figure it out through teaching assistantships and the like as they go. So it was perhaps no surprise when Labroides tweeted:

Writing better tests is a skill I desperately need to improve and is one of the things I'm looking forward to in my development.

Abby Kavner replied:

Someone should do a Better Exams blog in the style of the extremely useful Better Posters blog.

If someone created that blog, I’d read it. There is an idea just waiting for someone to pick it up and run with it. We all have to evaluate students, but surely there is some stuff that people have learned through experience that could be shared.

I know there are blogs about education out there, but focusing on just exams would be very helpful. For instance, Better Posters was successful because it focused on just one thing, even though posters and slide presentations have a lot of similarities. Both are exercises in graphic design, communication, and so on.

Regardless of whether you want to do that particular project of “Better Exams” or not, I would encourage you to think about this if you want to blog:

“How can I help people?”

I talk about this some more in a new article at SpotOn about the Better Posters blog. One of the secrets to its success was that it was something that tried to help solve problems. Academics are trained to be critical, and criticism is good, but often feels like a negative thing. Something that says, “I’m here to help solve your problem” is refreshing.

External links

The underappreciated skill of writing exams

24 April 2013

A true paleo diet: dinosaurs eating fish

There’s been a lot of talk about “paleo diets”, but here we have the real deal. A meal caught in the middle of digestion in a dinosaur.

Microraptor gui was introduced back in 2003, and immediately attracted attention because of the its feathers, particularly lots of long, prominent feathers on its hind legs, so unlike any bird or other flying beast we know of. There is good evidence (though disputed) that it was a glossy, black animal, rather like the grackles that hang around my campus.

But behaviour is one of the trickiest things to pull from fossils. How did these animals live?

Here is the newest fossil to shed light on this question in Microraptor.

Just in front of where the hind legs meet the spine, and below the spine, there is a mass that is a little darker than the surrounding rock. There are close ups of this area in the journal article, but the reproduction is disappointingly low-resolution in the pre-print, and in any case, relatively few would immediately recognize the key feature there.

Fish bones. There is nothing but fish bones in the gut of this dinosaur. Authors Xing and colleagues say, “M. gui was an adept hunter of aquatic prey.”

Still, are there any other indications in the anatomy that Microraptor gui was a habitual fish-eater? After all, all kinds of meat eaters will pick up any meal that’s available. It is at least possible that this one individual M. gui scavenged some leftovers off someone else’s plate, so to speak.

Xing and company say that evidence against this being scavenging is that fish spoils quickly, so the window of opportunity would be small. However, other M. gui fossils have bird and mammals bones, suggesting this species may not be a picky eater.

Microraptor may not be alone in its fish-eating habits. It’s been suggested that much larger dinosaurs were fish-eaters:

When Jurassic Park 3 came out, I snickered a little bit at the use of the Spinosaurus as the “big bad” monster to up the ante over Tyrannosaurus rex. Because a quick visit to wikipedia indicated that people thought this spiny beast ate fish, based on the skull, and backward facing teeth (think of fishhooks to keep the prey in place). In Jurassic Park 3, it was definitely not eating fish. That might have taken a bit of the “scare factor.”

Are there any anatomical features that support M. gui as an “adept aquatic predator”? This fossil gives previously unseen views of the teeth in this species. The only thing that might be related to a possible fish diet is that some of the teeth are not serrated, and some of the very frontmost teeth point forward. Both features are apparently common in fish-eaters.

Given that well-preserved Microraptor fossils seem to emerge regularly, we can probably expect still more insight into how this interesting little beast lived. Not bad for something we didn

It s wonderful to think that ten years ago, we didn’t know Microraptor gui ever existed (the genus was named in 2000, M. gui named in 2003). Now, we know what it looked like and what it ate, putting is well on the way to becoming one of the best “fleshed out” dinosaurs.


Xing L, Persons WS, Bell PR, Xu X, Zhang J, Miyashita T, Wang F, Currie PJ. 2013. Piscivory in the feathered dinosaur Microraptor. Evolution: in press. DOI:

External links

There’s something fishy about Microraptor (Of course Switek beat me to this!)

Microraptor reconstruction from here.

23 April 2013

Tuesday Crustie: Stand out

A small amphipod, Hyalella azteca, apparently feeling no need to blend into the background. We know a decent amount about this little guy.

Photo by USDAgov on Flickr; used under a Creative Commoncs license.

22 April 2013

The M.D./Ph.D.: why you almost certainly shouldn’t get one

In my roles as both grad program coordinator and participant in many undergraduate research programs, I’ve often heard students (particularly in program interviews) say, “I’m interested in doing an M.D./Ph.D.”

Stop. It sounds good to say that as a goal. It makes you seem all super ambitious. Students who want to do med school often say this when interviewing in undergrad research programs that are preparing students for grad school, because they know “med school” will count against them. But you probably don’t want that degree.

In the last few weeks, I’ve had two independent confirmations of what jobs require an M.D./Ph.D. Here, for your convenience, is that list:

  1. Medical school professor.
  2. Nope, nothing to see here. Go to point number 1.

Seriously, that is it. Unless you want that one specific job, there is no good reason to do that degree. The competition is intense (lots of students who express that idea would not qualify based on their GPA.). It takes a longer time than either of the other degrees.

Every other jjob can be fulfilled with one degree or the other. If you want to do research in a clinical setting, be a physician who works with with other scientists. If you want to do medical research outside of the clinic, get a doctorate.

Now, in fairness, this is not necessarily an easy thing to know. I am so uninvolved with the medical training, I didn’t know what the goal of an M.D./Ph.D. program was. I wasn’t aware of just how narrow and targeted the training was meant to be. A lot more students need to be told this.

20 April 2013

19 April 2013

“Today is that day.”

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

18 April 2013

Whale sharks are even more awesome than I thought

Al Dove spent Tuesday at UTPA as part of the Office of Graduate Studies STEM lecture series. Al is a longtime friend of this blog, and I knew about of his whale shark work. But before the day was out, my vision of whale sharks had been transformed.

I used to think of them as slow moving, placid, sort of dumb beasts. Before the day was half over, my view was more like this.

Whale sharks are scary armoured stalkers.

Whale sharks stalk smaller fish around the ocean, waiting for them to have sex so they can eat all their children. (That is, fish eggs. This is why they aggregate in huge numbers off the coast of Mexico; de la Parra Venegas et al. 2011).

If you bother them, they’ll swat you with their tail, like a horse swatting away a fly with its tail. Only a tap from a whale shark tail is like getting hit with a ping pong table covered in sandpaper.

They have four inches of skin with the grit of sandpaper on their back, the thickest in the animal kingdom. Their skin is so thick that titanium barbs fired at point blank can’t pierce it reliably. Nothing is able to take a bite out of them, not even cookie cutter sharks.

They may look like they are slow swimmers because of their size, but whale sharks swim faster than any diver can keep up with.

Al did a tour of some of the biology labs and met with students in the morning and over lunch. In the afternoon, he met with a few classes where the focus shifted from science to science communication.

Al talked to several classes about his experience in outreach. He was inspired to take his science to the streets, as it were, after seeing Randy Olson’s Flock of Dodos: The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus (available for viewing instantly on Netflix). This led to his involvement with Deep Sea News, and his various Twitter accounts. In addition to his own account, he impersonates a whale shark on Twitter, Domino, and shared his plans for a new account, Whale Shark Watch.

Whale Shark Watch is not ready for prime time yet. The avatar is still just an egg, and there are only a few experimental tweets, and I was follower number 5. The plan is that the account will post location data from tagged whale sharks in near real time. This will give anyone the opportunity to follow along. I can see this being particularly great for students at almost all levels.

The evening came for Al’s keynote address. The room was lively, with about 350 people there, and many of them were K-12 students.

One of the nice things about Al’s talk was that he took to heart that it was a STEM talk, not just biology. He talked about the creation of the Georgia Aquarium, the newest and biggest aquarium in the world, and all the technology and engineering that goes into creating a tank big enough to hold whale sharks. Indeed, some of the technology to make the acrylic viewing panels is still a trade secret.

It’s all the more impressive when you consider that Atlanta is not a city on the coast. They don’t have a ready supply of seawater. Everything is artificial and engineered.

I was also gobsmacked by the amount of science effort that goes into transporting and maintaining the whale sharks. There’s a three month acclimation process before the shark even gets close to a plane to move to Atlanta.

And once they’re on site, maintaining them is another challenge. They taught them to follow a boat. Each boat had a different coloured bucket, and the sharks have learned which colour bucket has their meal and not the other sharks.

I think almost everyone left the talk wanting to visit the aquarium.

Of course, Al also talked about his field work. One of his themes for the day was that even though whale sharks are the biggest fish in the world, we know almost nothing about the very basic biology. How long do they live? Don’t know. How do they reproduce? Don’t know; they’ve never been seen mating or giving birth.

He ended his talk with this picture.

He called it, “two kids having their mind blown.” He said this was the point at which all the technology melted away, and was completely invisible to these kids. All they were doing was simply reacting to the awe of being able to see this amazing animal. This, he said, was a moment where they were open and receptive and you had the opportunity to connect and educate people.

Afterwards, there was a long question and answer session, with a lot of excellent questions. He had lots of people wanting to take picture with him. Because he is a rock star.

Al Dove blew 350 minds at UTPA this week. Including mine.

Related posts

Calling South Texans!
Abandonment issues
The small brain of the biggest shark in the world
SICB Day 2
Passion for evolution

External links

Deep Sea News
Georgia Aquarium
Swimming with whale sharks


de la Parra Venegas R, Hueter R, González Cano J, Tyminski J, Gregorio Remolina J, Maslanka M, Ormos A, Weigt L, Carlson B, Dove A. 2011. An unprecedented aggregation of whale sharks, Rhincodon typus, in Mexican coastal waters of the Caribbean Sea. PLOS ONE 6(4): e18994. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0018994

17 April 2013

“It’s the STEM jobs, stupid”

Anne Glover, Europe’s chief scientist, thinks that science has an “image problem” (video below).

Europe's chief Scientist Anne Glover is spearheading a drive to attract more people into science. First, we need to change the image of scientists, she says.

She tells a story that will be familiar, because it’s been repeated many times: kids think scientists are old bald men. “How many people would be attracted to that as a career?” she asks.

Has anyone done the same experiment with medical physicians? Here is a web page that gives kids instructions on how to draw a doctor: male, bespectacled, white. And yet there is no shortage of students who want to be physicians.

Later, she notes that the thing most kids want to be is a celebrity. But what young kids think about a career may not matter all that much, because they are a long way from making meaningful career decisions. They’ll change their mind multiple times before entering the workforce in a serious way.

Getting more people into science is easy to say: give them a clear pathway to jobs.

People on the ground know this. Last week, I saw a recruiter for graduate program from University of Texas San Antonio. What did she emphasize as a reason why someone should go to graduate school? Increased lifetime earnings was number one. I think low unemployment was second.

Let’s say that again. Recruiters are telling prospective students that you should go into grad school not for the intellectual joy of problem solving, not helping society, not creating the future. They’re telling people to do it for the money.

While this is easy to say, this is hard to do right now. Those lifetime earnings statistics are not enough to give people a lot of confidence. Sure, you may make more money over the course of your lifetime, but you’re still left with career prospects that are incredibly cloudy. You get a doctorate. What job are you going to do after that? Look at the last graph from this article:

It used to be that more than half of biology doctorates got tenure track jobs in universities. Now that figure is closer to 15%. In general, most people who get doctoral degrees are using them in ways related to their work, but a doctoral degree looks less like a pathway to a career and more like a spin of the roulette wheel.

Meanwhile, law schools are freaking out “just” 56% of law school graduates have “stable jobs in law.”

Can you imagine the howls if only 15% of students who went into medical school became practising physicians? I went looking for how many medical school graduates ended up not being physicians, but couldn’t find any data.

This suggests that other professional programs are doing a better job of delivering on putting students in their profession than science is. The data I present are from the US, not the EU, but I haven’t seen much evidence the situations are all that different in the two.

Glover, like many high level types, talks like there is a scientist shortage. Instead, there is significant evidence that there is a scientist oversupply.

(Aside: Remember, when people talk about the “need” for STEM students, they mostly mean computing. With a little bit of engineering.)

Now, that said, Glover is not alone in saying that science’s image isn’t as good as it could be. This is why people create “Rock stars of science” and “Science cheerleaders” and “Science: it’s a girl thing” and “This is what a scientist looks like” and “50 sexy scientists” projects. Some of these work; some don’t. Almost all are controversial.

Me, I think science’s image has never been better. The geeks have inherited the earth.

But image, while possibly solvable, is trivial. If there are well paying science jobs, and people know how to get them, you won’t be able to beat people off with a stick.

Glover herself seems to have an idyllic scientific experience. At 20:30 in the video above, she talks about “a morning in the life of a scientist.”

If I’m a laboratory scientist, I go into my lab, I go into my lab with my head full of ideas, and I have in front of me every possible facility to allow me to test those ideas, to look at the output of ideas, talk about those ideas. It’s the most amazing thing to do, and every day is different.

If Glover has always had everything she’s every need to answer any question she’s ever wanted to ask, and has never done the same thing over and over (What are her samples sizes? Has the woman never replicated experiments?), then her experience is unusual.

At about 32 minutes in, she talks about how to improve science recruitment for no money. “Just train young scientists to communicate better.” While I’m all for communicating (blogging for a decade here), it’s astonishing to hear someone to underplay how important a role funding plays in science, including science recruitment. Make it easy for people to get jobs, and they’ll study science.

Update, 18 April 2013: Rxnm has a post up on training doctoral students. His suggestion – let people pay for their own doctorates – is aimed at the American funding structure, but might be transferable to other countries. I think there is a larger problem that needs to be addressed, which I may do in another post later: Why do high level officials keep insisting there are scientist shortages?

Anne Glover pic from here.

Related posts

Science cheerleaders
Good idea, bad idea: Rock Stars of Science

External links

Let’s drop the caricature to close the skills gap
The Ph.D Bust: America's Awful Market for Young Scientists—in 7 Charts
Once more, with feeling: computer science job growth dwarfs all others
“Science: It’s a Girl Thing”: Lab Barbie, Extra Lipstick
So crazy it just might work

16 April 2013

Tuesday Crustie: Clarity

Last week, the science news world was all a-flutter about a new technique to clear brains described in the paper, “Structural and molecular interrogation of intact biological systems.” (Argh, what a title. Would you have guessed what they did from that title?)

We in the invertebrate neuroscience community have been clearing brains for decades. Here are some examples from my own work.

Assembled in the dying days of straight edges and Letraset and photographing photographs, here are leg motor neurons from spiny sand crabs (Blepharipoda occidentalis; Faulkes and Paul 1996). The nerve to the leg splits into two branches. A shows the neurons in the combined nerve, B shows the neurons just from the front branch of the nerve, and C shows the neurons in the back branch of the nerve.

Here are homologous neurons from the legs of slipper lobsters (Faulkes 2012), presented here in colour for the first time. There is the equivalent to part A in the composite above. This one is darker than some of the others because it has gone through a process called intensification.

Same species (Ibacus peronii) but this time we have neurons in the tail. These are abdominal fast flexor motor neurons that power the big tasty muscles that everyone likes to eat (Faulkes 2004).

Here are the homologous cells in a spiny lobster (Panulirus argus; Espinoza et al. 2006). This is a composite “stack” of images compiled with Helicon Focus. That’s why this one is prettier than the others; more of the neurons are in focus.

Now compare the two above to this one from crayfish (Procambarus clarkii; another Helicon Focus composite, previously seen in the 2011 J.B. Johnston Club calendar). Notice how there are seven in the pictures above but eight in the one below (two on the left are overlapping)? It’s because the species above lack a specialized giant motor neuron that crayfish have related to escape tailflips.

The technique create these images is called cobalt backfilling, developed in the 1970s (Tyrer and Altman 1974; Bacon and Altman 1977; Altman and Tyrer 1980). I think the clearing of neural tissue was developed at this time. All the water in the neural tissue is removed and replaced with absolute alchohol. The tissue is cleared in methyl salicylate.


Altman JS, Tyrer NM. 1980. Filling selected neurons with cobalt through cut axons. In: NJ Strausfeld, TA Miller (eds.), Neuroanatomical Techniques, pp. 373-402. Springer-Verlag: Berlin.

Bacon JP, Altman JS. 1977. A silver intensification method for cobalt filled neurons in wholemount preparations. Brain Research 138(2): 359-363. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/0006-8993(77)90753-3

Chung K, Wallace J, Kim S-Y, Kalyanasundaram S, Andalman AS, Davidson TJ, Mirzabekov JJ, Zalocusky KA, Mattis J, Denisin AK, Pak S, Bernstein H, Ramakrishnan C, Grosenick L, Gradinaru V, Deisseroth K. 2013. Structural and molecular interrogation of intact biological systems. Nature: in press. http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nature12107

Espinoza SY, Breen L, Varghese N, Faulkes Z. 2006. Loss of escape-related giant neurons in a spiny lobster, Panulirus argus. The Biological Bulletin 211(3): 223-231. Abstract and reprint

Faulkes Z. 2004. Loss of escape responses and giant neurons in the tailflipping circuits of slipper lobsters, Ibacus spp. (Decapoda, Palinura, Scyllaridae). Arthropod Structure & Development 33(2): 113-123. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.asd.2003.12.003

Faulkes Z. 2012. The distal leg motor neurons of slipper lobsters, Ibacus spp. (Decapoda, Scyllaridae). NeuroDojo (blog): http://neurodojo.blogspot.com/2012/09/Ibacus.html

Faulkes Z, Paul DH. 1997. A map of the distal leg motor neurons in the thoracic ganglia of four decapod crustacean species. Brain, Behavior and Evolution 49(3): 162-178. http://dx.doi.org/10.1159/000112990

Tyrer NM, Altman JS. 1974. Motor and sensory flight neurones in a locust demonstrated using cobalt chloride. The Journal of Comparative Neurology 157(2): 117-138. http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/cne.901570203

Related posts

A virtual camera lucida
Tuesday Crustie: Neural

External links

See through brains clarify connections
Getting better views of brains by turning them invisible

Comments for first half of April, 2013

SciCurious takes apart the double standard in academic dress.

Girls are Geeks look at the BRAIN Initiative.

Mike Taylor examines fake journals.

Haters gotta hate. And Pro-Like Substance is a hater of numbered references.

Dr. Dr. A. at Blue Lab Coats examines how journal impact factors are used.

Benchfly asks if grad school is broken.

Texas state representative Bill Zedler has revived a pointless intelligent design protection bill.

15 April 2013

Lab dreams

Imagine this movie synopsis:

This documentary follows two inner-city Chicago residents, Ally A. and Bill G., as they follow their dreams of becoming science superstars. Beginning at the start of their high school years, and ending almost 5 years later, as they start university, we watch the boys and girls mature into men and women, still retaining their “Lab Dreams.” Both are recruited into the same elite high school as their idol, astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Only one survives the first year; the other must return to a high school closer to his home. Along the way, there is much tragedy, some joy, a great wealth of information about inner city life, and the suspense of not knowing what will occur next. This is not a “by-the-numbers” film.

This is not a real movie. That is actually a slightly edited version of the plot summary of Hoop Dreams.

Last Friday, I attended a planning meeting for graduate program that our university is participating in. During a break, I overheard one of the other participants talking. He noted that a young person who shows some talent at sports will often be brought to the attention of scouts. The job of the scouts is to identify talent. And there is the potential to gain rewards in the near (university sports scholarships) and long term (professional sports). People know this and pursue it, hard.

After the official meeting was over, I ran into him again. He talked to me about how important it had been to him that someone in school had told him that he had potential. That he could code, do computing, engineering, those sorts of things.

That brings up a few points. First, there aren’t very many venues where prospective scientists can show their skills. Science fairs, maybe. Science fairs are a little limited, though, in that they tend to be annual events, and they aren't terribly close to the way professional scientists work. Student athletes have consistent venues to show their skills: games where the players are constrained to play using the same rules as professional athletes. That’s important.

Second, recruiting for science is radically different than sports. It seems that most attempts at science recruitment are just widely cast nets to encourage people in general to enter university programs in science. Sports recruiting is very targeted to find individuals.

Of course, if you've seen another sports movie, Moneyball, you know that sports recruiters don't always get it right. A major plot element of that film is that Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt) is recruited at an early age into a sports career that just doesn't pan out.

Additional, 16 April 2013: Science fairs are often seen as potential recruitment tools. This post makes some excellent points about how science fairs might just show off the Matthew Effect (the rich get richer).

There is no equity of access to lab facilities and equipment or access to scientific mentors, meaning some students are disadvantaged from the start. Projects done in the lab or with the help of a scientist mentor are inherently more impressive. While a kid who investigates pollution in a local watershed and a kid who looks at the effects of a chemotherapeutic drug on different cancer cells may be equals in the rigor of their scientific method, the kid with the lab-based project simply stands out more. So, unfortunately, the students who win these science fairs will often be the ones with the best access.

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

14 April 2013

Leadership as the family business

The election of Justin Trudeau to the leadership of the Canadian Liberal Party gives me pause. (Note to those not familiar with Canadian politics: his father, Pierre Trudeau, was Prime Minister in the late 1960s and 1970s.) Former Prime Minster Paul Martin's father was also a highly successful politician, though never Prime Minister.

In the United States, the presidencies of the Bush family, and the prospect of a second Clinton presidency, give me similar pause.

Passing leadership of a nation within a family was the defining property of monarchies, not democracies.

13 April 2013

Scene from Roman Holiday.

11 April 2013

A field guide to exporting citations

I use a reference manager (currently, EndNote X5). A lot. And while importing a bunch of articles over the weekend, I got frustrated playing hunt and click trying to find the button to put a reference into my reference manager.

For one thing, there’s not consistency in what the websites are asking you to do. Half think you want to “export” the citation, and the other half think you wan to “download” the citation. It’s split right down the middle.

Here is the result of my comparative study so far. First, I life ScienceDirect: it puts the button in the first place you look, up in the upper left, following the Cosmo principle.

Science doesn’t put it at the top, but it’s on the left.

Nature does the same, though not in a sidebar.

But... not all journals from Nature Publishing Group follow the same layout and format as the flagship. This is odd.

One of the other big publishers, Wiley, puts the button halfway down on the right hand side.

Middle right is probably the most common location for the export citation buttons, exemplified by another one of the big academic publishers, Springer. (By the way, Springer, when will be be able to export the article abstract along with the citation again?)

The Royal Society journals (which has one of the most explicitly described links)...


... and BioOne.

Even JoVE puts their export citation link, though the link is way down the page and may be offscreen in some views.

Very few journal websites put their link in the bottom middle of the page. Inter-Research is one.

Taylor & Francis is another.

Now things get a bit more tricky.

BMC journals drive me bonkers. Every other publisher calls the thing you are saving a “citation.” BMC alone calls them “references.” I can’t count the number of times I’ve started blankly at a BMC article, trying to figure out what to click (“I don’t want the references in this article, I want this article!”), until I remember this.

PLOS journals recently redesigned their websites, and in doing so, hid the citation button and asks for multiple clicks to get to it. First, you have to click “Download.”

Only then do you see an option for the citation. For the same screen real estate, PLOS could show three buttons, making it easier to find and saving us a click.

PNAS is one of the other websites that makes me crazy every time I want to save a citation. They have their link in the industry standard location, in the right margin. When I click...

... I get a drop down menu. A drop down menu with only one choice. Why are you making me click again?! You’re not giving me a choice, so just let me get the citation already! Life is a finite number of mouse clicks, and I don’t want to use any more of them than I have to!

Physics Today not only follows PLOS and PNAS in making you click multiple times, it is more cryptic, hiding the link under the mysteriously named “Tools.”

Clicking “Tools” then give you options, including citation export.

The “Hall of shame” award in this category, however, goes to JSTOR. JStor’s page doesn’t look so bad, with the link in the right side.

It gets the raspberry because you can only see the “Export citation” link if you have an institutional login. Seriously?! Is a citation so valuable that it must be password protected? For crying out loud, every other publisher gives you the ability to export the basic bibliographic information for free. For shame, JStor! Shame on you!

10 April 2013

The emergence of a fake quote?

While reading an article on Brain Pickings inspired by the question of authorship of Shakespeare’s work, I noticed this quote:

A theory should not attempt to explain all the facts, because some of the facts are wrong.

It was attributed to Francis Crick, one third of the Nobel prize winners for work on DNA structure. The publication of the famous Watson and Crick Nature paper is celebrating its sixtieth anniversary this month. It was published 25 April 1953.

I love the idea encapsulated in the quote. I immediately typed it into Google to see if I could find a more exact source.

Nothing. Not in Wikiquotes, either. (I added it as an “unsourced” quote.)

I put it in quotation marks, forcing Google to look for the exact phrase. The first few pages (I went down seven pages deep before quitting) give me the exact same list on the Brain Pickings site. You can tell this at a glance because the words immediately before the alleged Crick quote begins are, “(Arthur Conan Doyle),” the author of the quote preceding the alleged Crick one.

They all seem to emerge from the AKA Shakespeare website in one way or another. This makes me extremely suspicious of the Crick quote. Quotations have a funny way of being conjured out of thin air and attaching themselves to names we know.

For instance, this made its way onto a Facebook page I co-moderate:

The problem is, there are no records of this quote before 2004 – about 49 years after Einstein’s death. And I’ve already given examples of quotes misatrributed to Charles Darwin.

A challenge, hivemind! Can anyone find the original source of the Crick quote? Or can someone who met Crick confirm that this was something that he said? I mean, other than in the AKA Shakespeare book itself, or its derivatives?

(And yes, the irony of suggesting that there is an unsourced, or unverified, or misattributed, or possibly fake, quote in a book about the authorship of Shakespeare’s work has not escaped me.)

Maybe Abe Lincoln said it best:

Update, 1 December 2014: I may have found the source of the quote, and it’s not so much a quote as a paraphrase.

A review of Francis Crick’s book What Mad Pursuit includes this excerpt from the book:

Jim was a little more brash, stating that no good model ever accounted for all the facts since some data was bound to be misleading if not plain wrong.

I need to check, but I am guessing that “Jim” is none other than James Watson. It’s interesting to see how not only the source changed, but the wording becomes shorter. Quotes become sound bites.

Related posts

This Darwin Day, please stop using quotes that Darwin never wrote

External links

AKA Shakespeare
Was Shakespeare Shakespeare? 11 Rules for Critical Thinking

Lincoln meme from here; Einstein from here.