Thought of the Day

May 13 2016 Published by under Conduct of Science, Ponder, Tribe of Science

I think I have made incremental progress in understanding you all "complete story" muppets and in understanding the source of our disagreement.

There are broader arcs of stories in scientific investigation. On this I think we all agree.

We would like to read the entire arc. On this, I think, we all agree.

The critical difference is this.

Is your main motivation that you want to read that story and find out where it goes?

Or is your main motivation that you want to be the one to discover, create and/or tell that story, all by your lonesome, so you get as much credit for it as possible?

While certainly subject to scientific ego, I conclude that I lean much more toward wanting to know the story than you "complete story" people do.

Conversely, I conclude that you "shows mechanism", "complete story" people lean towards your own ego burnishing for participation in telling the story than you do towards wanting to know how it all turns out as quickly as possible.

35 responses so far

  • Mm hmm. Additional problem to wrestle with is that it is not just a philosophical difference-- the "complete story" advocates include program officers and fund raisers who need high profile stories to do their jobs (not to mention journal business offices). Thought of your discussion and the fund raising appeal of the approach when I read this: https://www.broadinstitute.org/news/8189

  • drugmonkey says:

    And those entities are now wringing their hands over reliability and reproducibility, which is related to these leans.

  • dr_mho says:

    DM, do you publish multiple figure papers? Why? Why not simply dump each figure, on its lonesome, into PlosOne? That should be your incremental LPU.

  • Yeah, yeah. We know. You're an egoless moral paragon of true science, and everyone else is a craven greedy egotistical self-promoter. Blah, blah, blah...

  • drugmonkey says:

    The P in LPU stands for Publishable.

    A Short Communication in some respectable enough journals in my field does limit authors to 1 or 2 figures.

    I have indeed published Short Communications before.

    They appear to be cited about as well as other related/similar work that stretches to 7 +/- 2 Figures.

  • drugmonkey says:

    You're an egoless moral paragon of true science, and everyone else is a craven greedy egotistical self-promoter.

    I used the term "lean" for a reason PP.

  • dr_mho says:

    My point is, why not send every one out as a 1-2 figure paper, if you really think LPU is the *best* way to go.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Because 1) I am subject to career realities just like everyone else and 2) the fact that 1-2 figures can be a LPU doesn't mean that 1-2 figures is always a LPU.

  • dsks says:

    Can you believe Albert squeezed out that prematurely loose stool on relativity without first firming it up into a more satisfying and weighty “complete story” via a thorough reconciliation with quantum theory?

    SALAMI SCIENzE!!!!!AIIIEEEEEIEEE!!!!

  • Grumble says:

    Here's what happened.

    Once upon a time, when a field like neuroscience was small enough for everyone in it to keep track of the whole field, the currency on which your worth as a scientist was judged was the elegance of your experiments. If you dreamed up a creative experiment with convincing controls, people called it elegant and it got into a good journal. It did not have to be a complete story - it just had to test a corner of your main hypothesis and do it thoroughly and very, very well.

    Then, the field got huge and good journals became overwhelmed with submissions. They saw 50 papers competing for the same 8 pages. Many of those experiments were elegant and meaningful, just like in the good old days, but there had to be some basis for selection. Gradually, the selection basis became how close the paper came to the Platonic Ideal of the Complete Story With Mechanism (PICSWM). The currency with which you are now judged is your rate of production of high-profile journal papers, many/most of which are PICSWMs these days.

    What kind of scientist is able to regularly deposit PICSWMs into the glams? Those who are so ruthlessly driven by the approbation of others that they slavishly produce whatever currency is currently used to judge worth. These are people with enormous egos.

    Those of us who just want to know the truth don't give much of a fig about where it's published.

  • Established PI says:

    Interesting to read Sol Snyder's take on "complete stories" - "the process has gone awry":
    http://www.pnas.org/content/110/7/2428.full

  • dr_mho says:

    obviously, you (at least DM) gives a fig where it's published, being "subject to career realities".

  • drugmonkey says:

    obviously, you (at least DM) gives a fig where it's published, being "subject to career realities".

    It isn't that I care about where data are published per se. It is that this issue affects my career, those of my trainees and the jobs of my staff. As with much of life, one's decisions are a balance of factors.

    This has exactly zero to do with what is good for the progress of science or of the validity of claims to complete stories, mechanism or whatever. Grumble's analysis is a good one here.

  • baltogirl says:

    It used to be that you could easily publish a story before you knew all of the underlying mechanism, i.e. when it had reached a logical point of maturity which included one or two quantum advances in knowledge. And you could ALSO take into consideration that the person doing most of the experiments might be leaving the lab and needed to publish as a first author at that point. That is now impossible to do in any high impact journal.

    Personally I would rather publish in lower impact journals and get the students and postdocs their pubs than wait four or more years for a high impact paper. (On the other hand, I was recently dinged for precisely this at study section, so don't emulate me.)

    A good discussion of this issue is at http://www.pnas.org/content/112/44/13439.full.pdf (Vale paper) which includes a faux rejection letter from Nature telling Watson and Crick to keep working...

  • Grumble says:

    "obviously, you (at least DM) gives a fig where it's published, being "subject to career realities"."

    I (Grumble) also have to give some sort of fragment of a fig, for the sake of my own career and that of my trainees. However, I generally do not hold scientists who regularly publish PICSWMs in higher regard that those who produce work I consider solid and reliable. People who really care about science, and not so much about prestige, tend to feel the same way.

  • dnadrinker says:

    Interesting that Watson/Crick's Nature paper is used as an example. At the time when it was published, 1953, pretty much nobody cared or heard about it. Even a few years after it wasn't a big deal.

    The Watson/Crick paper only became a big deal after "The Greatest Experiment" was published by Meselson/Stahl in 1958.

    David Baltimore explains this in his caltech oral history: http://oralhistories.library.caltech.edu/168/1/Baltimore%2CD._OHO.pdf

  • SciNY says:

    The functional definition of LPU is the key variable. Darwin didn't get off his a$$ to write until he heard there was competition. The result was Origin of the Species. Would evolutionary science be more convincing or acceptable to the masses if Darwin instead posted each page of his notebook to Instagram or live-streamed his perambulations on the Galapagos to Periscope? It seems like that's where we should go if sharing our experiences is valued over and above the opportunity to mull over the data, consider subsidiary hypotheses, and put these to another test. This is no different then the historian or novelist who writes a book over years, rather than posting each chapter on her blog or selling it as a standalone item. Synthesis is part of scholarship, isn't it?

  • qaz says:

    SciNY - The key is that there are two parts to synthesis. There is the step-by-step "piece of the story" building of the bricks that are part of the structure. Importantly, if scientist X publishes one part of the story, scientist Y can then build on it. This is the non-zero-sum integration of the scientific process. There is also the synthesis of theoretical integration that takes all of these bricks and points out how they fit together to build a tower. (These used to be called "review" or "theory" papers.)

    Darwin did lots and lots of work before publishing Origin of the Species. His intermediate published work (on barnacles, for example) was very much the equivalent of steps published in a small non-glamour journal. It is true that he rushed Origin out once Wallace showed up, but he had been working on it and revising it for years. He could have published it long before then, but was worried about its implications.

  • Zb says:

    Also, who was paying Darwin? Part of the reason I don't think a scientist can sit on a story until they are ready to release a magnum opus like origin is that we (taxpayers, founders, . . ) pay them.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Science and novels are the same process? Are you mad?

  • ecologist says:

    The comments invoking Darwin are strange, because he was in fact a (self-imposed) victim of the desire to get the complete story. He was enormously productive in the decades before the publication of The Origin (1859). A massive report and a scientific book on the expedition of the Beagle. Three books on geology (coral reefs, volcanic geology). A massive monograph on barnacle systematics. Then in 1858 he got almost scooped on natural selection by Wallace. But he had been writing on it for many years, but had not published it because he was working to get the "complete story" finished. The Origin was only an abstract of that bigger work, which included what later became the Descent of Man and another huge book worth of material (the "big book" that he referred to) that was only published in 1987 (some 700 pages worth).

    Oh, and then he kept on producing books, at a rate of one every couple of years, for the rest of his life, and revising the Origin something like six times. And he didn't even have a lab!

  • Traveler says:

    DM. Science is an art and it shares features with the art of writing. Dont you think? Oops . Have to board now

  • Jonathan Badger says:

    @ecologist
    Darwin was also extremely wealthy by inheritance and never had to apply for funding or even have a paying position. Science was his full-time hobby without the professional time-sinks most of us have to deal with.

    In terms of LPUs vs huge multi-figure papers, there's always Watson & Crick's strategy -- the "It has not escaped our notice" section on DNA replication to prevent somebody from writing a quick low-hanging fruit paper on it.

  • jmz4 says:

    This is an interesting question. I have a colleague who talks solely in terms of data points. He wants to show things to be true, without trying to really contextualize or frame them. He wants to show this or that, without stopping to about why the result is important, or even sparing to much thought on the interpretation.
    I do not think this is a productive way to do science, with limited resources, buy it does sort of have a purity to it.

    As for myself, I'll admit that several factors lead me to wanting the complete story. One, it makes it easier to publish, because there are fewer loose threads for reviewers to pick at and the scope is more clearly defined. Two, I often want to put an interpretation of the larger significance of the work in the discussion (because of ego). This is difficult to do without a the data presented being a closed loop. Finally. Yes ego.

    I want credit for explaining something, not just showing it (as opposed to my colleague).

  • SciNY says:

    @DM -- I did not say that science and writing other genres are the same process. What I said is that everyone who publishes has to conceptualize and defend their "story" (your word, in fact, which I think is quite telling and accurate). There is a narrative that you want your reader to follow, and ultimately to enlighten and persuade. More to the point, I don't disagree that the focus on the "complete story" is often excessive and counterproductive. At the same time, it's an entirely predicable consequence of scarcity and selection pressures, and thus it is rational (not "mad") for individuals to seek to maximize their survival accordingly. I also question your stated dichotomy between those who want to "read the story" and those who want to "discover, create, and tell the story all by their lonesome." I don't know anyone purely in either camp. I for one want to find out how major questions are resolved and what emerges next AND to make a significant and lasting contribution to both objective.. You can and should dispute the tactics for achieving these goals, but I'm really not getting why these considerations (which are bog-standard in academia) are glibly dismissed as ego-burnishing. Authorship, citations, and peer assessments of "impact" are the coin of the realm in our business. We can wish otherwise, but that's been the norm for some time, and in my opinion seems unlikely to change anytime soon.

  • Grumble says:

    "but I'm really not getting why these considerations (which are bog-standard in academia) are glibly dismissed as ego-burnishing. "

    Consider a scientist who spends her career swinging from one question to the next. Every paper is on a different topic, answering a different biological question with the latest Amazing Technique.

    No consider the scientist down the hall, who has spent his career obsessing about a question, attacking the problem from all sorts of different possible angles.

    Which one of these is more likely to get a regular stream of glammy Complete Story papers? Which one is more likely to be driven be ego? Which one is more likely to be driven by curiosity and passion?

  • Lurkette says:

    "Which one of these is more likely to get a regular stream of glammy Complete Story papers? Which one is more likely to be driven be ego? Which one is more likely to be driven by curiosity and passion?"

    Implicit in the last questions is the suggestion that the thematically "swinging" scientist is likelier to be driven by ego rather than curiosity and passion. Why is long-term focus on a biological question seen as more pure than the alternative? One might just as well argue that the scientist down the hall is going through the motions/risk averse and fearful/out of ideas, or funding to deviate from a set path.

    I know excellent and highly respected, successful scientists that study the same topic throughout their careers. And I know others, no less successful, who could never do it and sacrifice any chance at a Nobel (I mean that somewhat tongue in cheek) by pursuing a large number of separate line of inquiry.

    There is more than one way to science well. Temperament and attention span have as much (or more) to do with this as ego and the desire to succeed.

  • SciNY says:

    @ Lurkette -- indeed, the biggest ego in my field has been working on the same complex for 30 years, which this investigator regards as their personal ticket to Stockholm. A lot of the work has been glammy, but still shows considerable creativity and passion. Why does it have to be either/or? People are complex, with multiple motivations for what they do. I don't think it's feasible to be 100% unmotivated by ego, particularly in endeavors where one is leading a group and competing with others. So while I can feel virtuous as I point my finger at the ego-driven person in my field, someone else can point a finger at me, and so on, until we reach someone who wants to "know the truth" but refuses to discover, create, or tell any stories on principle. Since this isn't an option for practicing scientists, we are left with the need to tune our research programs to balance many different agendas (personal curiosity/passion being one, but not the only one!). Glam-chasing is counterproductive for many reasons, but using it as a Rorschach test that can be used to deduce one's primary motives to do science seems like a lot of woo.

  • Grumble says:

    "Why is long-term focus on a biological question seen as more pure than the alternative? One might just as well argue that the scientist down the hall is going through the motions/risk averse and fearful/out of ideas, or funding to deviate from a set path."

    It's not that long-term focus is "more pure." It is that long term focus is evidence for a serious and abiding curiosity, whereas topic-jumping for glams is evidence for wanting to publish in glams. That means neither that topic-jumpers have no curiosity or creativity, nor that long-term focus types have no egos invested in their work. I wrote, "Which one of these is more likely..." for a reason.

  • Dusanbe says:

    Long term focus is also evidence for empire building, fiefdom staking ego-driven BSDness. Topic jumping can also be evidence for pure, childlike curiosity for the most inexplicably bizarre, un-glam questions. It can go either way.

  • Cashmoney says:

    "Serious and abiding curiosity" is better known as a "lack of imagination".

  • Grumble says:

    Or as OCD.

  • Namnezia says:

    I like eLife's model, where once you publish a paper you or anyone else can publish follow-ups as research advances. Thus the story is being built in one place.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Namnezia-

    that smacks of the sort of story monopolization which has reinforced the tendency of Glam to demand more and more and more data that only ends up as Supplemental Materials. Do not like.

  • AcademicLurker says:

    I like eLife's model, where once you publish a paper you or anyone else can publish follow-ups as research advances. Thus the story is being built in one place.

    "Update: 10/21/2017: We just discovered that we can't reproduce any of this crap. Please ignore."

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