Science is a faithless lover

ENGLISH

Photo by Chromatograph on Unsplash.

In a previous life, I was a scientist. I guess I still am but it’s been a couple of years since I prematurely retired and now I do not actively work as a profesional scientist.―I still feel nostalgic for science, though, like one feels nostalgic for a lover that beat you up and stole all your money but was so good in bed.―Anyway, one thing that research scientists do to contribute to the advance of their fields, is peer review and I have reviewed my share of papers since I started doing so. People imagine many things about science and scientists in general, some more accurate than others; for a while, I’ve been thinking of sharing my experiences as a scientist with the general public. There are quite a few writings of this kind out there but they are mostly either public relationship, or scientists writing for less experienced scientists. Anyway, I thought this times of crisis was the perfect opportunity to share some of my insights into the marvelous world of science with all of you. A significant chunk of my happiest and most productive years were spent in or around a laboratory. Figure 1 shows a picture of me as a postdoc, when I was still relatively young and full of hope. 

Figure 1: Working in one of the Cold War era labs in a prestigious national laboratory in the Midwest. The operations had since moved to a new, shinnier and brighter building.

Below are some things that I wrote a couple of years ago while I was working in a lab in some nasty country. It was not going well and I thought I would vent a bit; I was never ready to share my rants with anybody until now. Some of it might still sound confusing at first glance, so feel free to ask questions in the comment section. 

 

I WANT TO HAVE MY SAY

 

I have something to say about things that other people might have talked about extensively before. But nobody talks about the aspects that are most interesting to me―it must be because I am a rather low-ranking nerd. And even in this day and age when the mainstream is starting to understand that geeky is indeed, sexy, I am not a millionaire nor a TV-geek and hence, invisible.―That sounds awfully depressing, so before you start wondering about my self-esteem and whether or not I take medication, let’s move on to something more cheerful.

This is the first entry of my blog about the joys and pains of being a scientist.―Wait! Don’t zone-out just yet. Thirty more seconds, and this might start to sound interesting!―This blog is an authentic behind-the scenes look, not necessarily about the daily life but about the daily peeves and obsessions of a real, bonafide scientist. 

I will debut with a short piece I wrote a while ago about scientific publishing, because academic and other research scientists are constantly preoccupied with scientific publishing. We dream about publishing hundreds of high-impact papers in prestigious journals, we obsess over their number of citations and our h-indexes―the h-index is a rather crappy and misleading attempt at measuring the productivity of researchers and institutions.―Some, like myself, even get palpitations every time they submit a paper to be published. To get a feel for the reasons behind this obsession, just look up the phrase “publish or perish.” Science and its by-product, scientific publication, is a human endeavor and as such, subject to human limitations. This fact is many times misunderstood or misrepresented in popular media, therefore, I thought I ought to do a public service and contribute to clarify this point.

Nah, I just want to have my say. Here we go.

 

PEER REVIEW

 

Let’s start with peer review. Once the experiments, measurements, and calculations are done, the scientific process is not considered complete until the findings are analyzed and the results shared with the broader scientific community in something called a paper. Scientist have their own professional venues, called journals, where they share these papers with others in their fields. But, as with any other aspects of a complicated enterprise, it is not a simple as that. Before the paper is published it has to pass a, (mostly), rigourous examination by a group of recognized leaders in the specific field to which it belongs. This is called peer review. 

A simplified diagram for a typical an early-career scientist publication process is shown in figure 2. If it looks complicated, long and tiresome is because it actually is like that. Don’t worry too much about it and let’s move on. Let’s just agree that it is a bother but so far, it is the best mechanism to keep science relatively honest and causing a good amount of scientists to age prematurely. 

Figure 2: The infinite loop of the typical publication process.

The process of peer review is initiated by the editorial office of the journal to which it has been submitted; the editor sends the paper to a group of recognized scientists within the relevant field to evaluate the validity of the findings. If most of the referees agree, the paper is accepted for publication; if not, it gets kind of complicated but usually the paper is rejected. If a scientist doesn’t publish any articles or not enough articles in recognized journals during a certain period of time, his career stagnates and might even be in serious jeopardy. I could write a lot about this process and I will, but let’s open that can of worms in a future post. Right now I just want to touch on some of the human aspects of this complicated process.

A journal reviewer (referee) can be supportive or hostile and everything in between. Back when I was still reviewing papers I had my own style.

When acting as a journal reviewer, I am really sorry for research people, I sincerely do not like to reject any papers. I understand the plight of the graduate students and post-docs, and I feel for the professors and researchers that have to struggle to establish their careers. That said, there is a minimum quality level that any paper must meet to get published. I don’t care so much if the authors totally agree with me in the science, but the paper must be well and logically-written, systematic, fair and honest in their claims and conclusions, which must be at least partially supported by the data provided, even if the science is not all there yet.―It never is unless the topic is super-old and way over-studied. And even less so for work that is truly new and creative.― When I start reading a paper that I have to review, I am normally looking for reasons to accept the paper as opposed to reasons to reject it. I take detailed notes and I look at the balance of good and dubious to make my decision. Even when there is a lot of things that need to be clarified, if the paper shows promise of meeting the minimum quality criteria for the journal, I’d rather suggest “reconsider after major revision” than outright rejection. Nonetheless, I end up rejecting 70-80% of the papers that I get to review. Even in those cases, I try to make polite―though sometimes tough―suggestions as how to improve the paper, not personal attacks against the authors― which I have seen many a reviewer do. It is not easy to remain professional when one is tired, busy and exasperated by bad writing or seemingly bad science, and yet I force myself to go over my review comments one more time and remove any mean or personal-sounding words before submitting to an editorial office. Maybe one day I will be too important-busy, old, tired or bitter to do all this work, and at that time I will stop accepting papers to review. In the meantime, I aim to remain human and humane.  

 

DISCRIMINATION AND BIASES

 

Ever wondered what a world class athlete would do if, let’s say, she is told she has qualified for the 100-meter race in the Olympics, but her starting line will be twenty meters behind all other athletes? Or how will a pole vaulter feel if he is told that his jump was not good enough not because of the height he jumped, but because he was wearing a non-sponsored brand of athletic gear? (Nothing wrong or illegal about the gear, it is just not from our sponsors.) How about a Nascar driver told he was disqualified from the race because the color of his car was too ugly?  

How about if I tell you that I have no clue that any of the above has ever happened in the civilized world, but that I know of a place where the equivalent happens constantly? No kidding, it even has a name “unconscious bias”, and there are a number of studies in the subject. But I don’t want to talk directly about unconscious bias, there are people that can say more interesting things than I―check them out (some links and references at the end of the post.)―However, I have come up with something that I called the six-fold handicap and I wanted to say what it is. Now I will do so, or at least, I will try. 

The six-fold handicap is a concept that I invented to summarize all the ways that scientists from non-traditional backgrounds can generate unconscious bias against themselves. OK, OK, first, what is a “non-traditional background” and second, how can an innocent scientist generate unconscious bias against himself? Easy; the answer to the first part of the question,  non-traditional background means: non- anglo-white, non-male, non-middle class or higher, non-western, non-famous institution, not-old. The answer to the second part of the question is: no way in hell, but people with unconscious bias will swear that it is not them that are biased. The bias must come from somewhere, ergo…

So, an example: “Studies has shown that Black Americans are systematically undertreated for pain relative to white Americans.” In the specific environment of academic science, where most fundamental discoveries are made, “A survey of more than 6,000 faculty members, across a range of disciplines, has found that when prospective graduate students reach out for guidance, white males are the most likely to get attention.” So if you are John Smith you are OK but if you are Jane Smith there is a chance that that will play against you; if you are Juanita Sánchez you are much less likely to be paid attention to, and poor Yie Zhang has it worst than anybody else.There is a caveat though, because in the world of academic science you have your equivalents of royalty and being a faithful servant to the royals; if you are Juanita Sánchez from the Lab of Big Honcho Shriver in Harvard your still don’t matter much, but B. H. Shriver is the equivalent of God in your field, so you will probably be OK.―J. Sánchezes from B.H. Shriver’s group-please correct me if I am wrong. Are you doing OK? Of course it is because you are good, otherwise you wouldn’t have made into Prof. Honcho’s group! That is  not the point. The point is, as good as you are, if you did not go to Harvard, you would have gotten many more points off your credential’s card.―We can deepen the level of complexity and it can be fun. Imagine now that you meet Juanita Jackson-Sánchez, from the Colegio Politécnico de Chiloé―kudos to you if you know where Chiloé, is and that the politécnico is, in fact, something of my invention―at a scientific conference. Ms. Jackson-Sánchez looks nervous, a little pale beneath the lively shades of her ebony skin, and so young! She must be no older than forty, so of course, she must be nervous. 

We can go on and on with this little stories but I bet that, if I have any readers still carrying on with this post, they are smart and persistent and they already understand what the handicap is, multiple characteristics for which the person that you are can be discriminated. So well, and why do I care about it? First, because I like to complain―who that has ever felt disempowered does not like that?―and second, because, hello!, I am one of the Juanita Sánchezes out there. Except that I am white which does not really matter because people always think that I must be either brown (because of my name), or non-hispanic because of my skin color.―That is, until I open my mouth and the accent comes pouring out.―I know because several individuals in three different continents has graciously shared their views with me regarding this. 

By now, you either agree with me or not about that handicap term that I invented.―I must add that I am a little bit disappointed; I found out that the right term for this is multiple marginality and other people had been thinking about it for a while. The most I can claim is having arrived at a similar conclusion independently. 

Now comes the good part, because the one thing that I love more than complaining is proposing solutions to the problems that are bothering me, proactive creature that I am. I’ve been told that the holiest and sanest of us still have the little nasty habit of unconscious bias. So what will I do to try to overcome my own unconscious biases? And since I am a scientist, I am talking in the context of science and that pesky peer review thing that we talked about before:

1. I will not mistake brand for quality. (I will not automatically assume that coming from MIT is better than coming from Poli-Chiloé, unless it actually is.)

2. I will not patronize or insult any other scientists regardless of whether they agree with me (freakishly smart) or disagree with me (obviously mistaken). 

3. I will take the time to carefully read each paper that comes to me as a reviewer. If I do not have the time to give at least one thorough and fair reading to the paper, I will not accept the review assignment. 

4. I will not equate expensive equipment with careful experimental design or vice versa.  Corollary: Who cares it they McGyver it, as long as it is well done, the evidence is well presented and logical, and they honestly describe the strengths and weaknesses of their method? Corollary: Who cares if they used the latest technology that cost the government 1.5 billion dollars, if their data is incomplete, it does not support their claims, and they have ignored most of the relevant scientific literature to arrive at a dubious conclusion?

In summary, science, my faithless lover, has many quirks. Or maybe it doesn’t have them anymore; we’ve been parted for more than two years now, who knows what it is up to these days. But even with all its faults, I am still partial to its glories, still miss it a lot, still gonna talk trash about it now that I have escaped its clutches! And still think it is the best thing since sliced bread.

Did you like this post? Then you may like: A Particle in a Box. 


Interesting links:
  1. About unsconscious bias, article in The Guardian.
  2. Scientific paper: Racial bias in pain assesment and treatment recommendations, etc.
  3. About professors’ responses to diverse students in Inside Higer Ed.