Monday, February 22, 2016

This is how I will use preprints. How would you use them?

As usual there is some fierce debate going on on Twitter and this time it's about about preprints (non-peer-reviewed manuscripts made publicly available) and how they will save or completely doom biomedical research. Lately I have been thinking a lot about how I would use preprints, as I am writing a couple of papers. Here are my 2 cents.

Pre-prints are NOT peer-reviewed publications and should not be treated as such, but I consider them full fledged scientific output, i.e. items which could legally reside in an NIH biosketch. If you are at the point in a project where you have a fully formed manuscript with figures and stuff, kudos to you! Getting to that stage in a project is an achievement and a preprint in my book is a 1,000 times better than a manuscript listed "in preparation" in your CV. If I am on a faculty search committee or on a grant review panel and you list papers "in prep", that means nothing to me since I have no idea of when those projects will be done, nor what their scope is. I had papers in prep on my CV that never saw the light of I know better. So as a reviewer or committee member I would be delighted to read your preprints. It would allow me to actually take a look at your work.

This brings me to a point that baffles me, that preprints will doom biomedical research because without peer review, how will we judge? If preprints count for grants and job applications, will we not get flooded with crap? Wait, are we suddenly unable to read a paper? Despite all the people screaming to the top of their lungs that peer review is broken, I have always had a great experience as a peer reviewer and a peer reviewee (apart from Nature, reviewers for Nature are crazy, but this is a story from another post). Reviewers of my papers AND my grants have (almost) always had constructive and interesting comments which have led to a greatly improved product. As a relatively new reviewer, I always go read all the other reviewers' comments. In general I find that we agree, and that sometimes they bring up some really smart points is hadn't thought about or I didn't want to raise (I'm usually glad they did). All this to say that as someone who can write and review a paper, I can read a preprint and decide whether it's good or not....and so can most scientists. As long as we agree that a preprint is a manuscript that must be taken with a grain of salt, I think we'll do just fine.

How do I plan to use preprints in my own lab? Judiciously and with caution. Posting a preprint is still a very scary thing for a new investigator. I know there are other groups working on my genes of interest and I know they have some of the reagents/animals I have. They may not quite have the same expertise/ideas we have, but I've been surprised before by papers coming out of left field. Will the preprint of a particularly interesting finding generate wide interest and get multiple groups to actually publish before we do? Am I putting my career in jeopardy?

Some academics think of this attitude as blasphemy, but I look at my lab as it was a business. My products are papers, my earnings are grants. I peddle my goods at conferences and talks, find supporters and collaborators. I was trained to always share openly. If you don't put your product out there, who's going to buy it? It has served me well in the past: I have found my best collaborators by talking openly at conferences and sharing has saved me from getting scooped a couple of times. So I tend to lean towards preprints as just another product. I guess posting one is like beta testing. When I do I will be terrified and anxious, like when I occasionally share my inner fears and insecurities on my blog. But I'll start with baby steps after thorough discussion with my trainees and how this could help/hurt them. Let's just hope my papers don't stay in beta as long as Gmail!

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Best advice I ever received was to never scrub a toilet again

Note. Since I've been accused on not being fair and thinking of other people as less worthy by asking them to do chores for me, which is definitely NOT my intention, I have made a few edits to clarify things. I just hire people to do jobs that they are already doing and I pay them fairly with the money I have available.

When I was a grad student, I attended a luncheon with a very successful female scientist. When asked if she had any particular advice for us young women starting out, she said to learn to maximize our time and to never ever waste it with tasks that don't push your career forward, like cleaning the bathroom. She told us to just hire people to do these types of things because our careers would become more and more busy, family obligations would fill every free moment and scrubbing a toilet was not worth our time. Over and over again this type of advice was repeated by successful scientists at "women in science meeting": "Find the right housekeeper and pay them their weight in gold" "Find the right people to help you manage your life".
In grad school I had friends who paid for a monthly cleaning service, but I felt I should still do all my housework myself. I didn't hire a cleaning person until my postdoc and I could only pay for her to come once every two months, but I was hooked. That was around the time the "outsourcing your life" craziness exploded on magazines. If you missed it, these are some articles from The Daily Beast and The Huffington Post. The idea is that time is money and you want to spend your time on things you want to do, on things that enrich you personally, emotionally or financially, and everything else should be taken care of by someone else. Apart from hiring a personal assistant in India, which I've been dying to do for years, but which would require giving someone access to may banking and financial information, I pretty much tried everything.

I have repeated multiple times that as you rise in the academic ladder, the amount of things you have to do continues to increase and you just become a better juggler or weightlifter, so things begin to take a toll. I am that person whose unread email count always had to be 0 and I used to be as obsessive at getting my mail. Nowadays, if I pull my mail out once a week or twice a month, it's good. My cable box broke maybe 10, maybe 14 weeks ago, I have no idea, but the people I need to talk to leave at 9pm and if I do get home before 9pm, I'm usually too exhausted to pick up the phone and deal with stupid Comcast (I should probably call them right now instead of writing this, but I hate Comcast). Most of the time, I feel my life outside the lab is kept together by a thread, but that thread consists of multiple lovely people who do all the things that do not require my Social Security Number.

1) I don't clean. That is a bit of a lie, as everyone who has a cleaning crew knows, all surfaces must be free and clothes must be put away when they come, as a courtesy so that they only have to do the deep cleaning and don't spend one hour puttin away you stuff. But apart from one hour on the morning before they come when I madly put things away, I don't clean. They clean, they wash my sheets and change my bed, they throw my moldy food out of the fridge. Like my mother, if I leave stuff out, they put it away in random places...but that was my fault for leaving stuff out. When I come home on cleaning day, my place smells awesome, everything is shiny and it takes around 10 days before it reverts to chaos, so they come twice a month (I know, no kids, very un-messy cat, always traveling...and I cannot afford them to come weekly).

2) I don't own a car so I don't do big grocery trips. I pick up my produce at the farmers' market next to work or at Whole Foods on the way home, but if I can't carry it in a couple of bags, I don't carry it. The cat litter, the gallons of water for the fish, the biweekly supply of Coke Zero, all the rest comes with Google Express or Instacart. You pick the store, pick what you want and...boom, you have it. Burnt our lightbulb, aquarium filters, Costco run. All those errands that would have taken half a day are done over 5 minutes at lunch, and the stuff is waiting for you when you get home (FOR $5!!!!). You don't have these services nearby...Amazon Pantry.

3) I don't go to the dry cleaner's. I like doing laundry, so I do my own, but I had friends who dropped everything off and had it done. There is a dry cleaning service that picks up a bag from my building and returns the clothes 2 days later. You can put torn clothes or broken shoes in the bag with a note and they will repair...they even have an option you can check where they will automatically repair any tear they find without asking you. Most cities have services like these and they don't cost much more than the regular dry cleaner.

4) I don't really wait for more than 10 minutes for the bus. Ok, this is princessy, but if the bus/subway is more than 10 minutes away, if I'm cold or tired, Uber comes to pick me up. Yes, yes, they're awful and exploitative and maybe Lyft is better. I constantly try to have serious conversation with them on whether they feel the company is using them, and they all seem pretty happy to me. In any case, a car is never more than 2 minutes away. When I'm in lab past 9pm in the winter, I just call it from my office and it's waiting for me at the door. I don't own a car and the monthly cost is way less than car payments and insurance.

And then, TaskRabbit can take care of anything else. TaskRabbit is a service in multiple cities or online where you give people tasks and they do it. I used it the last time I moved. I gave my tasker my move inventory and a list of companies and she returned a spreadsheet with quotes and contacts after making all the calls in my place. They will organize your closet, pick up your stuff, drive you to the airport, wake you up on time, do market research for you, etc, etc.

The convenience of having all these people do stuff for you is amazing and done judiciously, not terribly expensive. At the end it's determining what your time is worth to you. I like doing laundry, I like washing dishes. Some people stress clean and like going on errands. Some people like driving to work with NPR on. It may just be nice to know of all the options out there and figure out a plan for making things easier on yourself.

PS: I read this interesting article on the pros and cons of outsourcing (here) where they list "loss of community" as one of the cons. Interestingly for me it's the opposite. I'm doing a stressful job, alone in a big city where I know very few people and where I have to take care of everything. The cleaning lady, the petsitter, the concierge, the Uber drivers end up being a big part of my community and are there for me...I am very grateful to them for all their help and do my best to show it whenever I can.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Not all R01s are created equal. When should you let a project go?

The second R01 is done and it was very different from the first one.

The first one was very hard to write, in the sense that the choice of what was going to be in it, what the flow of the experiments was going to be, and how to properly balance the aims was difficult. I took into account opinions from many readers, mostly on the Specific Aims, and worked it and reworked it for almost four months. Some thoughts here. It was discussed, scored poorly. Comments from everyone were very positive about the structure of the grant, but not the writing and the feasibility. My lab is working on all feasibility issues and the proposal will go in again as soon as we are ready.

The second one was not too hard to write, the flow is simple and logical, because the flow of that project has always been simple. However, putting it all together was a nightmare that took months and months of coaxing collaborators to provide preliminary data and information, getting permissions and accesses to patients, and just coordinating multiple moving pieces. It was the first time I had to delegate a part of the writing to other people. The structure was laid out as early as February of last year, but by October we were still not there. Since most of the writing was done over the holiday break and at the beginning of the semester nobody apart from my lab and my collaborators read it, so I had no external feedback. I based my tone and amount of detail in the approach based on the comments I had for R01 #1, but this will go to a different institute and a different study section. To a study section I don't know and with whom nobody I know has anything to do. It's like aiming a dart in the dark. An enormous amount of work had been done to polish and aim the first grant to a specific study section, but then the Center for Scientific Review decided to change things up completely and put it elsewhere. I thought, why bother? Make it as clear as possible for a variety of scientists, put as much detail as possible, as much big picture as possible, and hope this little Frankenstein finds someone to love him....if it doesn't, I'm not sure I can do this again. Which brings me to the question in the title. When should you let a project go?

I started the project for R01 #1 almost 10 years ago. It took us 2 years to just figure out where the darn protein was. My postdoctoral advisor told me to drop it at 6 month intervals, I replied I had a hunch. Halfway through, I decided to drop it because I hated the darn protein with all my heart, my K99 was awarded and I was bound to it for 5 more years. The first paper was published after 8 years! The second paper after 9.5. We have 3 papers in the pipeline for year 10 and my current data is the most beautiful data I have ever seen in my entire life. It was like this nasty poisonous caterpillar finally turned into a stunning ethereal butterfly. AFTER 10 YEARS!

Project for R01 #2 started around the same time and yielded a paper/year very consistently and several grants, but recently it has come to a screeching halt. I cannot find the right people to staff it, I cannot control it, and I am keeping it going out of sheer willpower, as I generate 90% of the data myself and coordinate all the parts. Putting together this grant was utterly exhausting and as my career advances I cannot just will it into existence like a golem! So, part of me wonders whether I should let it go....forget the years of networking, the emotional and financial expense.

Maybe, it's just the let down following R01 submission, but it is a tricky question to answer and I believe that it's a question many new investigators (probably, investigators period) face all the time. Will this pay off or am I banging my head against a rock wall? How do I know I am not driving my lab into a ditch? Ah, fun times! Maybe one day I'll write a book like this one...