How do you unpoison a sub-field?

Jun 12 2014 Published by under Conduct of Science, Tribe of Science

We all know the signs.

A small group of successful, egotistical scientists who view themselves as being in mortal combat with each other.

A few trainees or hangers-on who have signed on under each warring camp.

A scientific topic of mutual interest.

But then there are the good people. The ones who want to advance the topic and care much less about who gets Ultimate Credit. The ones who think the field should, would and could be much farther along if the Big Folks would just stop their petty infighting and paranoid ravings.

We need the Big Cheeses...they do decent work and they have the ear of Program. They have the reputational chops to pull off ambitious projects. If only they would do so.

So side stepping them altogether is not an option.

But we cannot continue letting them clog things up with their egos and competitions.

So far, all I have is a vague idea of an alliance of the like minded, lower-down decent people in the subfield. But I don't know how to make this work yet.

How do you draw the poison?

27 responses so far

  • dr24hours says:

    Trying to remove ego will never work. I think we need to find a way to make ambition and ego a positive force. I don't pretend to know how. But any endeavor which relies on human nobility and charity will have one of two ends: abandonment, or permanent marginalization.

    Avarice is bigger than intention.

  • Ass(isstant) Prof says:

    This sounds like the field in which I grew up. At the first 'big' meeting (~100 attendees) I went to as a grad student one could certainly sense the ego battles and experience what I found to be unnecessarily contentious Q&A following talks. Big Cheese types who were above the mortal combat fray were also part of the mix, however, perhaps with a moderating effect. My observation now 10-12 years later is that the field grew, and people calmed down. The former combatants now work just as hard to help the younguns (new TT, even competitors' former trainees) develop. It's not without issues and minor conflict, of course, but it seems that it's possible for a field to evolve out of what you described.

  • Jo says:

    I think these kind of things figure themselves out. The more entrenched a field becomes, the more someone can make a name for themselves by showing that the combatants are wrong.

  • drugmonkey says:

    That requires funding in many cases

  • anon says:

    "I think we need to find a way to make ambition and ego a positive force."

    Ambition yes, ego no. Ego is generally a bad thing for science. When I sense it in potential collaborators, I take two steps back. It bothers me when people claim that scientific progress depends on egotistic drives, that nothing gets done without the desire to make a name for oneself. Maybe that's how it works for some people, but it makes the party a drag for everyone else. It may be the way things are in many fields, but it's not the way things have to be.

    I'm paying a lot of attention to institutional structures that support this perspective. We talk about who's "clever" v. who's just "really bright" in faculty meetings; sometimes I think we're talking more about the gestalt of the person than thinking hard about the work that they helped accomplish. Talking about traits like this is overly individualistic and ego-driven, and it leads to wars, camps, pissing contests, paranoia, and misuse of data and funds. The structure of the labor force doesn't help either: we fund and hire names more often than groups.

  • bystander says:


    What you are describing appears like a faithful characterization of what's going on in our society at the economic level. "How do you draw the poison" there?... the "successful", the "good people", the big cheeses"... how to modify the ratios of each group in the subfield and how to empower each group to participate in the 'unpoisoning'. Am afraid to sound pessimistic but a hard look at contemporary history only reveals that the right strategy is yet to be designed and experimented. Maybe you can spell out what you have in mind.

  • Pinko Punko says:

    My field historically has been terrible about this. In this case, since the Nobel prizes have been handed out and people are getting old it has calmed down because they can't fight for that anymore and maybe they are all rich from their companies and they don't care too much. Maybe the fact that they all realize they were fighting for years about stuff where everybody was wrong. So so dumb.

  • Ola says:

    Sounds to me like the young-uns have infighting of their own to deal with. What's needed is for the upstarts to stop chasing glam mag BS and just f'kin publish stuff, ANYWHERE! (yes I said that in capitals for a reason). Provided its on pubmed it'll be seen and then the field can move on. If all the disrupters do is hang around politely waiting for an invitation to court, well king BSD is just gonna keep drinking with his buds and call in the eunuchs or the jester. Sometimes the only way to a party is to crash - even if you show up in a jalopy with a 6 pack of Busch light, the old folks will notice. They may not like it but they'll notice.

  • poke says:

    I'm highly skeptical that no-name young-uns are going to wipe out the BSDs by publishing in non-Glamour mags. Could you spell out a bit more detail on how that's going to work?

  • Jo says:

    Poke: There are plenty of cases where research was published in low impact journals but ended up with very high citation counts because it happened to be right. I have at least two papers that were published in low impact journals (IF ~3) with 300+ citations each. Glamor mag pubs definitely help push the citation count up (and quickly) but they really aren't the only way to get your name out.

  • poke says:


    That's undoubtedly true.

    But in terms of overhauling a field and fixing the problem DM posed, I don't see it, because the non-glam path to becoming a PI is arduous. A recent analysis in current biology suggests that people who get their own lab without chasing glamour publish twice as many papers as glam-induced PIs! That's a fair amount of extra time and work!

    So, I agree that publishing everywhere and changing a field from the bottom up can be successful. But for new investigators, it's a risky strategy, because they might wind up unemployed before they publish enough to make an impact on the field.

    I guess a hybrid approach is the best answer.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Poke: publishing a single Glamour pub takes much more time and effort than a monGlamour pub.

  • poke says:

    DM: Rest assured, I'm painfully and personally acquainted with that fact.

    But publishing a non-glamour mag that ends up getting cited a bunch and changes an entire field isn't trivial either.

  • anonymous postdoc (shrewshrew) says:

    Income equality. I think the only ammunition a small-town-grocer has is during review. Actively enhance the reviews of good actors and question the value of the BSD, bad egg work.

    I think that people who are drawn to some of these highly contentious areas are often deeply insecure. Their sense of the worth of a research question seems not to be influenced by any underlying interest in the behavior, molecule, neuron subtype, disease, whatever. Someone told them it was the most important question, in the most important brain area, and they believed it and wanted to be important too. Looking at hippocampal learning and memory here, but there are plenty of others.

    Anyway, those people aren't going to get over themselves until they get more secure, which comes after either all the awards are handed out, or never. The solution is to try to get more power in the hands of people who aren't as hungry for it and will therefore use it in more interesting ways than consolidating their position. Since power comes in the form of money and publications, the solution is to use the platform of review to hold bad actors to task and enhance the outcomes of less egotistic people you would like to see funded/published.

    I would like to note that I do not use review this way. My primary fields are not particularly toxic and I do not feel the need to punish or reward people. However, I think that review often works the opposite way, rewarding the egotistical for how effective their branding has been and devaluing those who aren't a "name", even though if you were choosing colleagues you might make the opposite choice.

  • bystander says:

    Very well said AP. The question is: what kind of platform review would you use to " to hold bad actors to task and enhance the outcomes of less egotistic people you would like to see funded/published". For the past 10 years, the slogan and the intention has been to have a "fair review that allows the best science to get funded". And yet the feelings of the community expressed in multiple forums is that it is not happening. What needs to be done in the review process to hold the bad actors back and empower less egotistic people?.

  • drugmonkey says:

    What needs to be done in the review process to hold the bad actors back and empower less egotistic people?.

    It isn't a complete solution but I favor some changes in the selection of reviewers. I'd like to see more assistant professors and more people who do not yet have funding.

    There is also a sense that some study sections have a broad mission and some have a very narrow focus. I think the former, to the extent it can be done, insulate against cronyism which does help.

  • The study section I serve on is probably the broadest in the IRG, and having served on much narrower ones, there is no doubt DoucheMonkey is correct.

  • bystander says:

    Mine is not as broad as the IRG and I also concur with DM

  • bystander says:

    Oops, it should say not as broad as that of CPP. Missing my glasses.

  • rxnm says:

    Peer review and funerals.

  • bystander says:

    Or Peer Review and Happy Birthday BSD!

  • rxnm says:

    The idea that BSDs will change the behavior or system that got them where they are one iota is absurd. I'm so sick of the internet slow-clap that ensues every time one of them writes a puff piece about "fixing peer review" or whatever briefly ruffled their feathers the previous Tuesday.

    All we can do is reward the behaviors we like and punish those we don't when we are in positions to do so. And DM is right, the first step has to be getting more early-mid career scientists into those positions. It starts at the it can be a good thing for Collins' advisory committee to average over 60 years old is beyond me.

  • bystander says:

    yes rxnm. happy birthday, as far as I see, stands for happy terminal sabbatical and happy new life BSD. And yes, it is unacceptable the adolescent composition of collins advisory commitee.

  • rxnm says:

    I got ya, bystander, responding in general with respect to likelihood of top down change in anything ever, not birthday thing.

  • bystander says:


    I don't know the answer. All I know is that COI needs be resolved in an effective way. Particularly, in some fields of knowledge and medical practice. Because there are fields in which where advances are, so far, zero in terms of helping the patient. The only noticeable effect is that the patient becomes dependent on drugs forever and their mental health remains stagnant.

  • Alfred Wallace says:

    What stands BSD again for?

  • drugmonkey says:

    Brahmin Sciencer Dude(tte)

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