Mentors behaving badly

Two senior scientists, married,  were recently recruited away from here to even bigger deal leadership positions elsewhere.  Their move was a surprise to some because this power couple had recently negotiated quite the retention package from our dean– huge new lab space,, independent institute and money to populate it with additional faculty.  I don’t fault them for finding a bigger better deal.  But what they did to the people left in their labs left many here shaking their heads.


The downtime that comes with such a transition is unsettling to over-achieving scientists, and these two came up with a creative solution to the down-time problem.  They decided to keep their lab here going and to make their exact departure date somewhat vague as they set up their new labs.  They invited many members of their lab to move to a new time zone, but not surprisingly many chose to stay here.

Well, funny story, it turns out that HR here cannot help find a new position without an end-date given to you by your current boss.  So despite knowing their positions were going away, they were prevented from looking for new jobs within the university.  Their long-time administrative assistant retired earlier than she had wanted, and thesis defense dates were dragged out.

Instead of helping their students get their thesis defenses scheduled for before their departure, these PI’s told their students that they needed to keep working.  Without one more “big paper,” they would not get a good recommendation or a plumb post-doc position. Many of those on their thesis committees felt this tactic was harmful, not helpful to the careers of these students.

I’m sure the departing scientists thought they were doing right by their people.  In their, “go big or stay home” glamour psychology, respectable productivity is not really worth much.  These folks would have a lot of sympathy for Scott Kern’s “Where’s the Passion?” piece from a few years back… (Recently discovered and refuted via my friend Dr. Isis and partner in crime, Drugmonkey:

I realize writing this that it’s easy for me to throw stones at the behavior of these more senior scientists.  But it got me thinking about my own mentorship, and I’m thinking I need to up my own game.  I spend a lot of time these days writing grants, running from meeting to meeting, and driving my kids to different activities.  Often times the people in my lab get the short end of the stick.  Maybe I’m not behaving “badly,” but I could definitely be a more engaged mentor myself.  It seems like deadlines, big papers and prestige demand time and attention…but in the end, it’s who remembers us, our mentees, that define our legacy.

The Glam is Dead! Long Live the Glam!

Perhaps I know something about Michael Eisen that you don’t know, that makes me very sympathetic to his Open Access (OA) cause. Michael Eisen is one of the founders of the Public Library of Science (PLoS) and is a staunch proponent of full OA.  In an interview I saw, he described the experience of sitting by his mother [Corrected:] Michael’s brother Jonathan described the experience of sitting by his wife when she was sick and realizing that a large amount of information regarding her illness, which he knew to have been generated using public funds, was behind paywalls, inaccessible to doctors and scientists that might use the data to help. Eisen feels strongly that authors have a responsibility to eschew closed access journals.  He has rational philosophic reasons for his opinions, but at the base of it all is the sentiment, which I share, that the scientific publishers make money by withholding data from people who need it most.

The OA debate heated up over the past month when my friend Isis tweeted that she was preparing a manuscript for submission. Michael Eisen asked her if she was submitting to an Open Access (OA) journal, she said, no, actually, she was submitting to a glamour journal.  A…um… “spirited debate” ensued.  You may be surprised to learn that discussion on the interwebz became a little tense and personal.  Beyond the OA versus Glam debate, there was also added a dimension of privilege versus struggling junior investigators.


The high profile science magazines use sexy science to sell themselves.

What’s interesting to me is watching the history of the OA movement crash into some new blood. Isis encapsulated her views in a widely read blog post.  Her central premise was that as a junior investigator not yet tenured, she was not going to sacrifice an opportunity to further her career based on edicts from the privileged class. In her view, Eisen and the OA enthusiasts seemed to be asking underrepresented minority scientists to make risky career choices.  To make matters worse, so sure of his beliefs, Eisen failed to inquire about the experiences of the groups he was preaching to.

My thoughts on this OA debate (also see #glamgame on Twitter and PubStyleScience)

1.  I support the Open Access movement.  Why?  I became something of a zealot, I must admit, after a particularly painful journal rejection. I chased after SCN journals for many years, but my desire to publish in glamour magazines is now gone. As tenured faculty, I am privileged to be able to say, “I don’t need this,” and move on.

While I have a number of glamour publications on my CV, nearly all of these came from working with a high-profile research group with dozens of scientists and millions of dollars in NIH funding. As a middle author on those papers, it was long my dream to eventually ascend to first or senior author position on one of the group’s SCN papers.  Some of my colleagues got their wish, and I’m happy for them. But it seemed that the path to success in the group was to be a “yes man.” That’s a role I do not play well.  My research ideas were off the central theme of the group, and were never taken up by the leadership. When I realized that my patience would not be rewarded, I amicably departed from the group.  And put aside my glamour dreams.

Where to submit manuscripts in my lab is done with consent and discussion of the first-author, and if they want to submit to a closed journal, I support them. I make suggestions based on their career goals.  The decision about where to send one’s work is not entirely rational  in my experience and is based on anecdotes and impact factors – measures I don’t trust.

2.  As @DNLee said, “The most important thing a minority scientist can do to inspire others is to stay employed.”  I agree.  And I support Isis’ decision to take her data to a high-profile journal where publication could elevate her career to a new level. The old guard should be asked to move to OA. A glamour publication for a junior investigator like Isis will allow her to thrive as a successful role model.

3.  Glamour journals are a substitute for thinking. And unfortunately, there will always be a market for such tools.  I hope that with more OA, more scientists will evaluate the literature critically for themselves, but for many many busy professionals, looking at how glossy the magazine is a surrogate for analyzing the data carefully.

4.  What about the jobs?  The OA movement seems to relish the idea of completely dismantling the for-profit scientific publishing economy.  It is disconcerting that the hundreds of people employed by this industry do not seem to factor into the OA world view.  Dismantling an economy is easier than building one, and the prolonged recession has made clear that earlier cavalier attitudes toward tech job creation were misguided.  For OA to grow, it needs to have an economic framework that it currently lacks: one that not only supports publication of the journal itself, but ideally also includes support for those currently employed by closed journals. This may require government support, for example, which is not currently on the horizon.  (After writing this, I heard Eisen describe the thriving economy of OA here)

I’m looking forward to a world where OA is a central part of the scientific publishing landscape.  But to dismantle the glamour system just as a young generation is aspiring to gain access seems cruel.  I want the old farts with tenure and tons of grant funding to move out of publishing in glamour journals. I admire Isis for her focus on advancing her career, but it stinks to see full professors acting selfishly.   Junior investigators need to demonstrate their hard work and determination. A hard-core work ethic is essential for success, and selfishness is required to build a CV that will satisfy a tenure committee.  Full professors and tenured faculty  could acknowledge they have attained positions of privilege. And they have a duty to recognize that, in addition to their own genius, they have succeeded in no small part through the support of their communities. After climbing to high peaks, they have a responsibility to give back, to help others up.  OA is one way to do that.

Some Open Access movement links:

In January 2012 mathematician Tim Gowers proposed boycotting Elsevier journals (one of the leaders of for-profit scientific journal publishing).  This grew into a “Cost of Knowledge” movement and gained wide attention.