Cumulative advantage and the Hall of Fame

Glamdouchery (often conflated with OA, which…let’s just not discuss it) is hot this week, getting some attention over at Drugmonkey and on the Twittings. Yesterday, everyone’s favorite BSD punching bag, @mbeisen, took some jabs from all us chicken-shit pseuds on stuff like glam, pedigree, and their advantages in jobs, grants, and tenure. I’ll preface this with: @mbeisen is awesome. As far as I know he’s a good at some kind of genetics, and without a doubt he’s a great advocate in the community and a founder of PLOS, which just did a great site redesign. Despite his undeniable privilege and loftitude, he is far more vocal and willing to engage on a range of issues than most BSD types, who, if they use it at all, use Twitter for personal press releases and digital self-fluffing. Most importantly, he’s funny, which is all that matters in the end.

But…everyone piled on @mbeisen’s claims that glamour pubs and pedigree become less important over time, e.g. at tenure it’s not a big deal. Especially, pedigree:




This feels wrong. You take the average CV of some BSD or HHMI or young gun assistant prof at an ILAF and check it out. You’ll see something like R1 hot shit lab for PhD and an F31, HHWF postdoc with a Nobeldouche, glam pubs from both. Cranking out PIs 10 years out. Wow! And: acronyms!

But then, consider this: the winner of a 1024 person bracket coin-tossing tournament is someone who just won 10 coin tosses in a row! WHAT ARE THE FUCKING CHANCES?! Wow! In a system designed to pick big winners, we shouldn’t be surprised the big winners are those who got picked.

Then, there’s the self-reportage of folks on the study sections and the search and P&T committees. “We look at the whole candidate. Glam and pedigree, whatever.. .we are serious people and we can see through the fluff and and identify who is a great fit and has lots of potential.” Allow me to suggest that committee members are the last people on earth we should be asking for objective commentary about what “counts” on these committees. We are scientists. How many implicit bias studies do we have to see before we start questioning our own rationalizations for how we make judgments about other people and their work? How did these people end up in your long list or TT in your department in the first place? What helped them land the grant that paid for the work you’re admiring*? So, sure, listen to the oldz tell you what they think mattered to them, then look at the short lists they make.

Fun fact: height is a terrible predictor of who gets into the NBA Hall of Fame. Ergo, height isn’t important in basketball?

My advice to my fellow trainees… if you have a shot at getting a glam publication with the work you’re doing, go for it. Why the fuck not? You’ll get a desk reject from Nature in a shorter amount of time than it takes PLOS One to assign an AE. And if you go for review, your chances actually aren’t that bad compared to wherever else you were going to send it, and it certainly won’t be more scientifically rigorous. And don’t let anyone give you shit or tell you YOU are the one perpetuating glamdouchery. You know that scientifically everything from (e.g.) JNeuro “up” is the same, but the obstacles on the ground ahead of you are not all about science.

Note: I am not saying choose what you do scientifically to try to and produce something you think a glam editor will like or will get you interviewed on Radiolab: 1. You’ll almost certainly fail, 2. You’re a tool.

But: when we’re in a position to judge others, let’s do what we can to dismantle the cult of celebrity and edifice of pedigree glam bullshit this past generation has spent their careers building. Start soon: when you get a BSD paper to review, the instinct is to trust them, to see how their new amazing shit fits into and extends their past amazing shit. They know how to sell their shit. You want to like them and you want the editor to like you and the editor and the BSD have been cozy for years. Maybe their shit inspired you to join the field in the first place! Who knows, but put on your grown up pants and tear them apart like you would your best friend in lab meeting.

*Being a Serious Person, you are of course admiring it completely independently of its publication venue.


7 Comments on “Cumulative advantage and the Hall of Fame”

  1. I really can only wish, Michael Eisen is right. I just fear, he might not be.

    He published in ‘low impact open access’ as soon as the format appeared, which is pretty cool. But in his publication list you will find him publishing PNAS and higher, including nature and science before, which probably made his transition into tenure track, uhm, somewhat easier. Thus, although I appreciate that he did not go for glam later, he already established himself with traditional high IF before. Which I think still echoed when transitioning into tenure.

    Let’s be realistic, yes he is probably pretty good (I have little clue of genetics, I apologize) and got tenure without glam publications during his tenure track. But would people have read his OA papers thoroughly and with positive baseline attitude if he had not had the glam sci past? I can’t tell!

    I saw some of the twitter discussion and I totally see his point, that making yourself visible, gathering positive social and scientific reputation in the community, is very important (and Michael Eisen is very good at it, I not so much). But, maybe I have been surrounded by the ‘wrong crowd’, I can’t help but think that journal names still count. Let alone that he co-founded PLOS which, this is again guessing, should have helped his academic career, too, AND would make people be more ‘forgiving’ (sorry, no better word came to my mind) for publishing in low IF OA journals.

    I personally hate to have to think political and with career strategies (other than what technique I should learn and what knowledge I need to acquire to be able to do my science and who works on my topics). I don’t like how it appears that making decisions other than scientific ones would affect my scientific career and thus my life so fundamentally. This whole ‘game playing’ and competition for ‘IF points’ opposes my character. It would be great if I wasn’t made to think about these things.

    I am not a faithfull person. I can’t just tell myself to believe what I want to believe, and my little experience doesn’t help me become confident about anything at this point.

    I am just a 3rd year postdoc, I am still to even get to the point at which to apply for tenure track some day. So why do I find this so important to me? Because Eisen’s postdocs during his tenure track published low IF open access, too, and got somewhere…

  2. neuromusic says:

    however, “making yourself visible, gathering positive social and scientific reputation in the community” is MUCH easier with a good pedigree.

  3. drugmonkey says:

    anyone who thinks that the effects of low IF open access pubs and even open science on Michael Eisen’s postdocs is the same as on anyone else’s postdocs is insane.

  4. Dennis says:

    thanks for clarifying, guys

  5. I did my postdoc in a BSD HHMI lab where people published in range of journals, but were definitely aiming for glam. My PI certainly tacitly understood himself, as did many of us, that this was not a metric of quality or even importance. Yet, one could certainly get a different impression from his behavior and attitude when it came to publishing, particularly if you are an Impressionable Student.

    When IS came around to looking for a postdoc position, the PI suggested and many of us agreed, that ze should take a close look at Bad Ass Neuroscientist. IS did some Pubmed searches and later lamented: “It looks like BAN publishes a lot in Non Glam Journals, so I don’t about hir.”

    Our jaws dropped. BAN was and is a total BA, is prolific in getting hir postdocs sweet TT jobs, and I might add publishes NGJ papers with decreased frequency these days. I think my PI realized that he had created a monster (IS is much more mature now) by not being clear that glam and badassedness are two minimally related things.

    My point is that I’m not sure the solution is to boycott glam, but it is very important that we change the way we think, and more importantly talk about glam. Relentlessly humping glam at every turn just perpetuates the impression that some journal hierarchy maps onto a scala natura of scientific value. The most important thing we can do is train people who recognize that isn’t true.

  6. brembs says:

    Anything can compensate for anything else, in this silly game. If you got peidgree and some Glam to show for, of course you can afford to publish lo-IF OA. If you ain’t got pedigree, but plenty of Glam and hence grants, sure you can go for lo-IF OA. With no Glam nor pedigree, you can still survive in fields that usually don’t get Glam, but positions are of course fewer. It’s a oligovariate system where your overall score is determined by an aggregate of a few scores. Which scores varies by field and country.

    Here in Germany, for instance, there has traditionally been little difference between universities, so no basis for pedigree. It thus virtually doesn’t exist as a factor, so Glam is much more relevant. It helps coming from a lab with a reputation, obviously, but location doesn’t imply much, if anything.

    No matter where you are, though, the system universally selects for marketing, rather then science, that’s for sure (and both @mbeisen @rxnm and commenters here seem to agree). Given that journal rank only correlates with ‘importance’ and attention (citations) positively and with virtually all other metrics negatively or not at all:
    tells you something about who is currently in charge after a generation of such selection pressure.

  7. Dave says:

    Quality post. Too many good comments to single them out and you are right on the money throughout here.

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