Thursday, August 23, 2012

Scientific Politics Part II

Scientific progress is built on testing hypotheses and refining our ideas about the world. We test and re-test hypotheses until we are satisfied that they are supported (or not). An inner belief or intuition is not enough to convince any scientist that a particular hypothesis is true. In other words, the words "I believe in evolution" are meaningless. It's the bountiful evidence for evolution that has convinced every biologist that it is a fact. The greatest thing about the majority of scientists is also that they're willing to discard even their most beloved hypotheses in the wake of new evidence.

However, I think it is sometimes easy to get involved in personal rivalry over competing hypotheses. I have seen people at conferences very nearly yelling at each other and even heard stories about death threats! This is not appropriate conduct for anyone, let alone an educated scientist. In my opinion, you should never take a disagreement with your hypothesis (no matter how awesome!) personally. It's not an insult. It is on disagreement that scientific progress is built! Every time a reviewer or fellow conference attendee disagrees with me, I take time to remind myself that they are enabling science to move forward. After all, if each of us stuck with our respective hypotheses and worked only to find support for them, we would not know that the earth revolves around the sun or that the big bang really happened!

But how should we disagree with each other in a productive way? If someone disagrees with you, it is their responsibility to demonstrate convincingly that your hypothesis is not supported and not to call you names (the reverse is also true). Probably the best outlet for debate is in the scientific literature. Firstly, publication avoids name calling and death threats (usually!). It is important to avoid personal slurs in print. This does not reflect on the person you are refuting, only on you. It doesn't do anyone any good to gain a reputation as a whiner. But if you are scientific and careful in presenting your evidence, you will gain a reputation as a respectable scientist. Secondly, publication involves other scientists in the debate. Broadening your audience will always bring unexpected insight.

Most importantly, if it is demonstrated that your beloved hypothesis is not supported, you should discard it. There is no merit in clinging to debunked ideas. Of course, I think the VAST majority of us scientists find new hypotheses exhilarating and are therefore unlikely to marry any particular one. That's what I love about science!!!

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Scientific Politics Part I

I thought I would write about a very touchy subject tonight! That topic is politics. What I include in the term politics are things like authorship, how to deal with disagreements, and what to publish and when (especially when someone disagrees with you or works on a similar or even the same topic). Of course, being a PhD candidate and not a seasoned professor, I am far from an expert but I have some opinions that may or may not be the same ones that others hold.

I'll start with the subject of authorship. Who should be included on your papers, in what order, and why? These are difficult questions, especially when you're a budding scientist. I definitely want to collaborate and share authorship with people that I admire. For me, it has always been a relatively easy process but I usually have a frank discussion with collaborators about who should be included and in what order. It might seem like a subject that is uncomfortable to talk about, especially if you're worried about upsetting someone. But I guarantee that it is less uncomfortable than having a disagreement when it comes time to submit a publication or even after the paper has been published.

It is important to determine what the contributions of individuals will be to the paper. In my opinion, all authors must make an intellectual contribution. Acceptable contributions usually include analyses, writing, or data collection (or all of the above). There are some cases, however, when it is unclear if someone should be included on the paper. For example, if an individual has given you advice or ideas, do you include them on the paper? I think this depends on the gravity of the advice. Did they simply suggest you use a particular analysis? I would not include this person as an author. Did they come up with the idea? I would include this person. Whenever you feel an individual's contribution might merit inclusion on the paper, you should always proceed by asking them if they wish to be. If they decline, then you've done your political duty and made sure that there will be no hurt feelings. If they say yes, the next step is to determine the order of authorship.

For me, author order has always been obvious. The person who writes the paper and does most of the analyses is first author, the person who did some of the analyses or contributed some data is second author and so on. But I have never been involved in a project with more than three or four authors. Once the number of authors starts to grow, I think an explicit agreement should be made prior to any paper submission. Don't leave the discussion until it is too late or until someone is put off. Ask them outright! "Shall I include you as second/third/fourth/fifth author?"

The situation is a bit different when it comes to your supervisor. Different supervisors have different policies when it comes to authorship. Some prefer to be included on all papers and others make this judgement on a case by case basis. Sometimes supervisors prefer to be included as the last author (this is sometimes reserved for the PI) while others are open to any position depending on their contribution. Regardless, when you move on to a new supervisor you should always ask! That way no one will have any excuse to be angry. You'll also avoid pissing off the person that controls your funding!

I have only heard of people having major problems with authorship. I can imagine there have been situations when someone originally agreed to contribute but then failed to uphold their obligation. This can be politically difficult if this person is an office or lab mate but especially if they are a seasoned professor or famous researcher. I can't offer solid advice on this front but if you have made every effort to elicit a contribution, I think you would be justified in excluding them. A well worded email or phone call is likely to smooth things over.

Unfortunately, graduate students are often afraid to have these conversations or exclude authors that haven't contributed. All I can say is that, you're not at the bottom of the ladder. If you're going to put the effort into a project then you should be satisfied with everyone's contribution.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Leaving Ottawa in Ten Days!

I'm officially leaving Ottawa in ten days to study at the University of Wyoming for 9 months! I recently received a Fulbright Scholarship ( if you're interested in applying) to study under Dr. Mark Clementz. I will be investigating isotopic signatures in the hard tissues of pronghorn (Antilocapra americana) from the USA and Canada. I have to say that I am excited.

I applied to Dr. Clementz' and Dr. Rybczynski's labs in 2010 to start a PhD program. It was a difficult decision but I decided to pursue my PhD at Carleton and the Canadian Museum of Nature with Dr. Rybczynski. Now that I have received the Fulbright scholarship it feels like I am getting the best of both worlds. So in a couple of weeks I will be saying a temporary goodbye to Ottawa and will be heading to Laramie, Wyoming.

Laramie is about 2 hours northwest of Denver, Colorado. According to Wikipedia, Laramie is home to only 31,000 people and the University of Wyoming has approximately 14,000 students. At the University of Wyoming I will have access to a stable isotope laboratory, which is something that Carleton does not have. I hope that the experience will broaden my skill set and, let's face it, get me some more publications!

Aside from research, Laramie is located near several national parks and there is ample opportunity for enjoying the great outdoors. There is even a nearby ski hill (although I can't speak for it's quality, yet). I have been missing snowboarding since moving to Ontario. Skiing in the west is significantly better than in the east and I refuse to lower my standards.

It will be a challenge to be away from Canada for so long. It is somewhat difficult to travel into or out of Laramie as the nearest international airport is in Denver. But I am up for the challenge and look forward to interacting with the students in Laramie!

Thursday, August 16, 2012

My new blog is a work in progress

I am (as it says to the right) a current PhD candidate at Carleton University and the Canadian Museum of Nature in beautiful Ottawa, Canada. My dissertation is primarily focused on the effects of climate change on Cenozoic mammals (primarily hoofed mammals). I have traditionally worked in the areas of ungulate dietary morphology and tooth wear but over the last two years or maybe more, I have been dabbling in the areas of macroevolution and phylogenetics. I think my interests are generally broad but I have tended focus on morphology and its effects on macroevolutionary patterns. I'm also interested in the successful combination of fossil and extant animals in studies of both macroevolution and climate change. As with most PhD students, I have a long way to go and want to document the process of discovery!