The 2007 Blogathon is underway!


Stay up late, make a difference: that’s the Blogathon’s slogan and raison d’être. It’s a charity drive that started when, on a whim, founder Cat Connor1 stayed up all night blogging. The next year, she decided to do some good with the idea by inviting others and drumming up some sponsors — hence “blogathon”, by analogy with “walkathon”, “telethon” and so on.
That was 2001, and about a hundred bloggers raised more than $20,000 for 77 different charities. Those numbers roughly doubled in 2002 and again in 2003 (500 bloggers, $100K). Project Blog took over in 2004 while the ‘thon was on hiatus, and long-time blogathon ally Sheana Director stepped up and ran the 2005 event; Cat and Sheana have been running the ‘thon together since then (with the help of an army of volunteers). The 2006 event saw about 300 bloggers raise about $100K, and if the data I’ve been collecting are anything to go by, the ‘thon will be bigger than ever this year:

The mechanics are simple: bloggers sign up to blog for their chosen charity, and sponsors pledge either a lump sum or an amount per hour blogged. The goal is to blog for 24 hours straight, with one post every 30 minutes. The money part is an honor system: sponsors donate directly to the charity. There’s a FAQ file and a forum where noobs can go for further answers and advice. The big day is Saturday, July 28; regular kick-off is 6:00 am Pacific, but if you’re observing Sabbath or have other commitments, you can start at 9:00 pm Pacific.
Signups are now open for bloggers and sponsors — so what are you waiting for?

1My wife. I cannot tell you how proud I am.

Is it ethical to encourage students to go to grad school in science?

Dr Shellie has run the job search gauntlet and — O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay! — has multiple appealing offers from which to choose.  Reflecting on the process, and her years of anxiety leading to this point, she says:

… I think that if your goal is to get a tenure-track job at a research university in a place you want to live, it’s hard to know your chance of success much in advance. Many smart people with excellent records do not get jobs. Which is too bad, since it can take 5-10 years just to get ready to apply — counting the time you spend in a PhD and a postdoc. And how are you supposed to predict your chances then — when you are starting grad school?

How indeed? I don’t think the situation for postdocs has improved since this article appeared in 2002. In biomed research, I would guesstimate that about 10% of postdocs end up with “their own lab”. Worse, this is not simply tough competition — so many personal/political factors enter into the success equation that you might as well roll dice as try to forecast your future as a researcher by any rational method. It’s my blog, so I’ll go ahead and quote myself:

The system is broken: there are too many PhD graduates and not enough real jobs for them. A postdoc is not a real job; even a tenure-track position, one step up the foodchain from a postdoc, is not a real job. A real job will not be yanked out from under you every few years, unless you or your boss can continually win funding — and when you get down to 20% funding levels, between politics and the sheer volume of work dumped on the granting committees, you might as well pick the names out of a hat. A real job does not leave you entirely at the mercy of your superiors, who can demand insane work hours from you, knowing that if you won’t sacrifice your life on the altar of their lab/department/whatever, there are ten other PhDs clamoring for the chance to do so. I’m no fan of the dismal science, but the law of supply and demand does seem to be consistent with observed phenomena here.

Now, that gloomy beginning notwithstanding, this is not another postdoc complaint post. (That one is in the works; I’m saving up links for it here and here.) Right now I want to take a much more positive perspective, inspired by Dr Shellie, who asks:

How should I think about recruiting graduate students, when I am encouraging them to pursue an uncertain career path?

This is a very good question indeed, and the best thing about it is that a newly-minted research professor is asking it! Is it really ethical (anyone? anyone? BuellerFree-Ride?) to encourage students into grad school, given that the standard “career path” is long, tortuous and more than likely to land the weary traveler somewhere other than that fabled destination, the faculty slot?

Another way of looking at this is to ask: is the system so irreparably broken that we should dismantle it — starting by turning away grad students — or can we work with what we have, and fix it?  I’m a meliorist rather than a revolutionary myself.  Further, if you want to be a PI yourself you’re going to have to take on grad students, and more generally if we want research to flourish we, as a community, are going to need grad students. 

So, since we’re going to continue to lure bright-eyed, unsuspecting college kids into the postdoc trap via grad school, what can we do to reduce harm?  Herewith some thoughts:

1. Inform, inform, inform.  Let ’em know upfront what they’re getting themselves into. 

1b. Repeat, repeat, repeat.  They’re young, they’ll think “it won’t happen to me”.  We’re all bulletproof at eighteen.

2. Present alternatives, and treat those alternatives with respect.  Don’t be another type-A asshole in a labcoat who thinks, and acts as though, any deviation from the One True And Shining Path To Glory (why, research of course) represents complete failure as a scientist and as a human being.  Scientists reading this are nodding their heads, the rest of you are probably thinking huh? surely he exaggerates — but I assure you I don’t.  Throughout the community of science, at least in academia where I’ve spent most of my time, there is a powerful and pervasive assumption that research is the pinnacle of human endeavour and that a person would only do something else because they couldn’t make the grade in research.   This is not a conscious belief, it’s a largely unexamined background of feeling, something absorbed by intellectual and emotional osmosis from a peer group of self-involved, highly-focused people who have, given their material situation, a deep investment in believing they are doing something that sets them apart and above.  It is also, of course, utter and unmitigated horseshit.  Don’t perpetuate it.

3. Give a damn.  Your students are not fungible data-production units, they’re people with lives outside the lab, hopes, dreams, and all that crap.  You don’t have to get all touchy-feely if that’s not your style — just understand that some of your students will find that they don’t want your job after all — and that’s OK.  Some will even start out with other destinations in mind — and that’s a good thing.  Wouldn’t you like to see more people with solid research experience go into teaching, journalism, policy development, marketing, law, medicine and a dozen other vital professions?  Wouldn’t you like to see an ecologist become US President right about now?  Don’t take it as a personal affront if someone doesn’t make emulating you their sole ambition; take the time to consider what might be best for them.

I’m sure there’s more — comments, please!  For one thing, I am clinging still to the last forlorn threads of hope that I might be taking on students myself one day, and those putative students will need all the help I can get.

Finally, to Dr Shellie, an answer of sorts: if you’re asking yourself at this early stage whether it’s ethical even to take on students, then you are probably just the sort of PI who should be taking on students, and who will provide them with solid lab experience with which they can do whatever they want — even research.


Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more: the dreaded Free Is Not Open argument rears its ugly head again. I’ve made my position (indeed free != Open, and the distinction matters) clear elsewhere, and was gratified recently to find PMR agreeing; now it seems that the Open Medicine editorial team takes the same position:

The Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) has just published:

Here is our response:
Although the endorsement by CMAJ‘s editors of open access medical publishing is welcome, we would like to take this opportunity to clarify several points raised in their commentary.1 First, there is an important distinction between open versus free-access publication. Open Medicine has not only adopted the principle of free access, that is, making content fully available online, but endorses the definition of open access publication drafted by the Bethesda Meeting on Open Access Publishing. This definition stipulates that the copyright holder grants to all users a free, irrevocable, worldwide, perpetual right of access to, and a license to copy, use, distribute, transmit and display the work publicly and to make and distribute works derived from the original work, in any digital medium for any responsible purpose, subject to proper attribution of authorship. Given that CMAJ holds copyright and charges reprint and permission fees, it is not in fact an open access journal.
In comparison, Open Medicine does not assume the copyright of our authors’ work. We believe that it is only fair and just that authors retain the ownership of their work; as such, Open Medicine does not charge reprint or permission fees, and our work is available for reproduction for educational and teaching purposes without copyright limitations or charges.  We use a Creative Commons Copyright License that also ensures derivative works are available through an open access forum. It is through this creative and unlimited use of published material, with due attribution, that we believe scientific discourse can flourish. This truly open access forum also has a contribution to make to a journal’s integrity, independence, and freedom.   […]

Chris Surridge of PLoS also agrees, and supplies an excellent analogy:

Free Access to scientific research is great, and all publishers who make their content free to read should be praised for doing so. But this is not Open Access. It is like giving a child a Lego car and telling them that they can look at it, perhaps touch it, but certainly not take it apart and make an aeroplane from it. The full potential of the work cannot be realised.

Where the OM team refer to Bethesda, Chris links to Berlin and goes on to enumerate

…the four unmistakable marks by which you may know, wheresoever you go, the warranted genuine Open Access publication:
1. Content is made freely and immediately accessible to all.
This basically means that you can get it on the internet without paying anything in addition to what it costs you to access the internet.
2. Authors retain the rights of attribution.
So the work is the authors [‘ property]. The author doesn’t sign over the copyright to the publisher or anyone else. Rather the author allows the publisher to publish the work under licence. A licence which also ensures that:
3. Content can be distributed and reused without restriction.
So I or anyone else can take Open Access content and use it, in whole or in part, for any purpose including purposes that have not yet been dreamt of as long as I don’t infringe the Authors rights of attribution.
4. Papers are deposited in a public online archive such as PubMed Central.
This ensures, as best as anyone can, that the above three conditions continue to apply to the Open Access content in perpetuity.

It’s been my contention that in the absence of explicit, conspicous and machine-readable Open licensing, condition 3 is violated because in this litigious age, the conscientious and the risk-averse will not download and derive without explicit permission. I got “explicit and conspicious” from Peter Suber:

The newer definitions [of OA] recognize one further element: an explicit and conspicuous label that an open-access work is open access. Readers should be told when a work is free of price and permission barriers. They might be reading a copy forwarded from a friend and not know whether the publisher would like to charge for access. They might want to forward a copy to a friend and not know whether this kind of redistribution is permitted. When an article has no label, then conscientious users will seek permission for any copying that exceeds fair use. But this kind of delay and detour, with non-use as the consequence of a non-answer, are just the kinds of obstacles that open access seeks to eliminate. A good label will save users time and grief, prevent conscientious users from erring on the side of non-use, and eliminate a frustration that might nudge conscientious users into becoming less conscientious.

and “machine-readable” from Peter Murray-Rust:

For me, if my robots cannot read the articles then as a human I have no interest at all in reading the “fulltext”.

Peter MR is not saying that free access for humans is useless, but that to realize the full potential of text- and data-mining, OA materials need to be machine-readable, which includes letting the machines know what they are allowed to have.
I must confess that finding my thoughts echoed by such leading OA proponents makes me feel better about being, on this issue, at odds with Stevan Harnad. I simply cannot agree that Open “comes with” Free, and the distinction bothers me. It should be relatively easy to convert Free to Open — simply add a Creative Commons or similar license — but I think it would be better to do that proactively. If we gloss over the difference between Free and Open at this relatively early stage of OA, we risk creating a (potentially enormous) body of Free text that must be updated to include complete, useful permissions when at last we realize that Free Is Not Open. (The game’s afoot: / Follow your robots, and upon this license / Cry “Free is not Open”!)