Wednesday, August 26, 2015

finalizing the OZ experience

It's been very quiet here lately, which is usually a sign that the offline life is busier than usual. My offline life has been super busy and will be even more in the upcoming couple of months. My current project is running out and I was able to secure new funding at a new university in a new country. After Australia it will be Europe this time. This is all very exciting, but brings a very long to do list with it. Finalizing up all my projects, handing over equipment, finishing code, getting my students in a state from which they can run on their own. This is my current business and this will continue until I move. 
And with this my OZ experience is over and as this blog was devoted to my time here, this space will be closed as well - or at least it will not be continued. Thank you very much, dear readers, for checking this sphere once in a while and leaving an occasional comment. It was great to have this space to share my thoughts. I might get a new online presence at some point.
So long and cheers mates!

Friday, February 27, 2015

what is confidential?

A few days ago I was on the bus to uni and the bus was packed with people. Close to me was a lady standing and reading - a paper manuscript, which had in big, fat letters "CONFIDENTIAL" written all over it. One might say, that nobody cares what the other random people on the bus read - and in most cases that is certainly true. But on the other hand most of us certainly expect that their non-published awesome ideas and findings get treated with a bit of mindfulness. But what is a good spot to read a confidential manuscript? How do researchers deal with all the confidentiality that lands in their inbox every day. For academics having an office on their own there is no obvious issue, but all of us post-docs, who have to share offices, are in principle in a bit of a dilemma. A shared office is not a good environment for reading a confidential paper, neither is my favorite coffee shop or the library. In session the whole campus is so crowded that it's difficult to not be surrounded by people at all times. So, do I have to take this part of my work home with me? Or read it on the loo? In reality, I rely very much on the "who cares" aspect. I wouldn't read a confidential manuscript ion the bus or subway, but I do read them in my shared office. My office colleagues work in different fields than I do, so even if they would want to snitch research ideas, my desk would not be a good source for them. However, I do put the print-outs in the shredder when I don't need them anymore. For the peace of mind.

Friday, December 26, 2014

finding a sparring partner

These days everything is slow - at least that is how it feels. Days pass by and sometimes I wonder if something happened earlier today or already yesterday. It is somehow disturbing. From this blurriness a thought about work and how to improve my output came up. I've by far missed my goals for this year and I'm very disappointed of myself. Even though there are a lot of external factors involved in why I missed my goals. But it is not all external factors to blame. Often I just can't find this additional bit of motivation to do something right now. Especially with writing papers I seem to waste a lot of time on side tracks or it takes me a day to write five proper lines. 
When I was a teenager I could easily motivate myself for a lot of stuff. My schedule was full of sports and social events and I usually not only participated, but took over some organizational roles. I LOVED doing all that stuff and my parents sometimes had to stop me and keep my duties to a reasonable amount. While I think it is a teenager thing to be easily motivated (maybe not for school, but for a lot of other stuff) and to be emotionally involved in everything, I was wondering how I could get closer again to this base level of passion. 
The word that crossed my mind was: competition. Not super serious job competition, more like in a low level sports match. Or like the hidden competition when you try to match the speed of another runner in the park. I love playing sports, I love the temporal rivalry and I love to win. So maybe it would help if I'd have a secret sparring partner, an "enemy" team, someone on a similar level but with currently better performance to increase my day-to-day motivation. Trying to match his/her speed, then close the gap, then overtake.
But how to measure performance? H-factor is the first measure that comes to mind, but it depends on so much more than my own direct performance, like: are my collaborators productive and put me on their papers, are my collaborators people how are often cited,... . 
H-factor only of first-author publications might be an option, or - similar - how many first-author publications contribute to the overall h-factor. But then I'm already on a level where my students publish and I'm not first author anymore, but not necessarily last one as well. And the next level people are on the junior professor levels. So there the ratio first-author to non-first-author publications gets even "worse" and performance comparison with a sparring partner on that level would be even more difficult. And do I want to exclude all the other time consuming work I'm doing? Supervision? Teaching? It would get really messy if I'd want to include them.
Maybe I keep it very simple. The weak point in my CV is my low number of first author publications. This is what I want to increase. So I'll look for an "enemy" team (maybe even several people) on a similar level to mine and I'll try to match their number of first author publications. Time-frame depends on how many publications they are ahead of me. A long term goal will be to match their h-factor and the number of first-author publications contributing to it. 
Finding a proper sparring partner is a nice task for the last days of the year.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Dear fellow researchers... (this is a rant!)

... it is quite normal that after spending hours/days/months in the lab/in front of the computer/scribbling notes and equations on paper, we have the desire to show the world the results of all our hard work (and of course because the next funding agency we apply to needs to be impressed was well). And of course we are all busy and writing a publication can be a tedious task.
But if you think it is good style to toss all your data of all the 38 systems you've found in your drawer in one confusing graph, that it is enough to describe details of these graphs that can't actually be seen in the text and base your conclusions on them without providing proper evidence and that this huge mess will then be published, you just missed a very important point. You should not be writing to increase the length of your publication list! Surprised? You should be writing to make your research progress available to the public or at least to the science audience. You should write in a way that the story of your research is easy to grasp for the reader. He should not be forced to decipher from 20 different data sets presented as black lines, which one is the double dash dot one. Nor should it be necessary to read up 5 other publications to be able to follow your conclusions. Trying to wrap up your research in a concise and maybe even (gasp!) interesting way is certainly a skill that needs to be practiced, but it is as well a courtesy to your audience to at least try. And in general it is always a good idea to have a good think about the reviewer comments, before you reply something along the line that you don't give a shit. I dearly hope you will not be able to find reviewers who let you publish this mess!
Rant: stop!

Thursday, November 13, 2014

one experiment "too much"

In the process of writing up a paper I often come to the point where my data is not sufficient to proof or disproof the theory I have in mind. There are two options what to do. Either speculate on the basis of the data at hand and maybe the concepts available in the literature. Or going back to the lab and do an experiment that clarifies the topic. The last is certainly the better option from a scientific point of view. However, there is the risk that the experiment does not show what I expect. This might mean that I have to adjust my theory a bit and then the paper is good to go. But it can as well mean that my work turns out to have a bigger flaw and I have to chuck the paper, chuck the data and probably several weeks or months of work. From a scientific point of view it is certainly better to find out if the approach/methodology/sample is flawed before anything goes into publication. From the publish or perish point of view it can break your neck! Especially for early career researchers who don't have ten students working on different topics, it is crucial that the publication stream is steady and continuously growing. So from the science perspective there can't be enough experiments done. From the surviving-in-academia perspective it often seems to be necessary to publish first and then maybe do the additional experiment. Or to just move on to the next topic.
I had quite a few good discussions about the view that one can't publish negative data. Even though negative data would certainly help others to avoid mistakes and safe them a lot of time, money and nerves. But science is all about breakthroughs and world changing discoveries. At least it has to sound like that. In reality the breakthroughs are rare and mostly scientific progress is done in small steps. Digging into a topic until you own it takes time and mental space. The pressure to publish both high quality and a lot is counterproductive and certainly leads often enough to going for the speculative paper instead of risking to have to chuck the work.
This is a very big flaw in the scientific system: publish positive results or perish!