Sunday, 31 January 2010

i use the eighty/twenty rule

The Pareto principle, widely known as 80-20 rule, has been used, abused and ridiculed innumerable times. Perhaps the funniest joke involving the rule is this one:
Chicago Driving 80/20 rule: 80% of your waving will be done with 20% of your fingers.
To quote Dilbert and the Way of the Weasel:
Another good utility phrase is “I use the eighty/twenty rule”. Toss it into conversation at any time. This will generate strong agreement because it fits any situation where you have no data. It doesn’t even matter what part is eighty and what is the twenty. It just always sounds right.

For example, if you’re waiting for people to arrive for a meeting you could say, “For any business meeting, eighty percent of the people come on time and twenty percent are late”. That sounds totally reasonable. But if you say it the other way around it sounds just as reasonable: “For any business meeting, twenty percent of the people come on time and the other eighty percent are late”. It’s like magic.
Granted, it may sound reasonable to those who never heard about the Pareto principle, but the business meeting example is not the illustration of the 80-20 rule.

The Pareto principle is a special case of the Pareto distribution. The two numbers do not have to add to 100 because they apply to different things entirely. In the example graph below, “20” correspond to 20% of whatever the horizontal axis stands for, while “80” corresponds to the green area above it which takes 80% of all area.

Back in 1998, Sidney Redner analysed “popularity” of scientific papers in terms of citation. It turns out that there is no such thing as a typical number of citations received by a published paper. He counted the citations for the ISI list of papers published in 1981 (783,339 papers) and found that
most publications are minimally recognized, with ≈47% of the papers in the ISI data set uncited, more than 80% cited 10 times or less, and ≈.01% cited more than 1000 times. The distribution of citations is a rapidly decreasing function of citation count but does not appear to be described by a single function over the entire range of this variable.
Couple of years later, two Brazilian scientists, Constantino Tsallis and Marcio de Albuquerque, analysed the same data set and, contrary to Redner’s conclusion, found that there exists a single power law-type function N(x) along the entire range of the citation number x.

What, if anything, does it tell us? If scientific papers exhibit universality, that is, behave in the same fashion as sand piles or earthquakes or stock markets (and it looks like they do), then there is no way to predict whether a paper will be popular or not. Moreover, this kind of distribution has nothing to do with scientific qualities of a paper. The authors should stop worrying — or boasting — about impact factors and concentrate on important things, like getting a life.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

i ask too many questions

I am getting tired of constant rewriting of my CV. (Not that I did any this year, you understand, but this is besides the point.) But then, I am easily tired of any repetitive useless work. Why don’t they have an analogue of OpenID in the world of CVs? That would save everybody’s time and effort, right? Right. And the answer is: maybe they (whoever “they” are) don’t want to save anybody’s time and effort. That will put all those CV writing agencies out of business, and it’s bad for the economy.

Consider this template for application for employment. The template itself is only six pages, however I guess the complete application should be the size of a short monograph. Here are some highlights (colouring is mine).

The application must be structured as specified by the template below,
or else.
Describe your vision and your plans for the future with respect to both scientific and educational activities, within the framework of the employment sought (maximum one page).
5.1 Description of research activities
(maximum two pages). <...> The description should include an assessment of the applicant’s independence and productivity.
6.1. Self-reflection over the role of teacher

The description of teaching expertise should make clear not only what the applicant has done but also how it has been done, why it was done in just this way, and the results. The applicant is to state his or her fundamental educational principles and the way these are expressed in practice.
What could be the “results” I wonder. “90% of my students became managers”?
The self-reflection is to have a maximum length of five pages when applying for employment as professor or senior lecturer, and a maximum length of one page when applying for employment as postdoctoral research fellow or associate senior lecturer.
You see, even poor research post-docs are not free from writing this nonsense.
The applicant should describe his or her own personality in a manner that makes it possible to assess the ability to work with others, and the suitability for employment as described in the job announcement.
(Isn’t it the job of the evaluation committee to decide on the suitability for employment? Is anyone going to write “I am not suitable for employment” anyway?)

My first reaction was: are they bonkers? I mean, who is going to write all this rubbish? And perhaps more importantly: who is going to read it?

Calm down, I tell myself, there must be some sense in it. I can think of two reasons to insist that the application conforms to this template. First: to reduce the number of applicants. Most people have better things to do and therefore won’t even bother. Second: to pre-select those candidates who are ready to sacrifice a few days of their lives to write a long meaningless document that nobody is going to read. It gives the prospective candidates a taste of things to come. In academic world, it is not reading that counts, it’s writing.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

loose ends

Ten years ago or so, I attended the lecture of Sydney Brenner. And what a treat it was. He managed to keep the audience’s attention for an hour without showing a single slide or using any other prop. I remember his notion that bioinformatics is to theoretical biology as accountancy is to economics. I don’t think it went particularly well with that (sizeable) part of audience which was comprised of bioinformaticians. Including me. Ten or so years later, I tend to agree with Dr Brenner.

Loose Ends is a collection of columns written by Brenner for Current Biology between 1994 and 1997. I got this book as a gift, back in 1998. Apparently, it is out of print now, which is a shame. It should be made a compulsory reading for every biologist.

Molecular biology has been a great leveller and has made thinking unnecessary in many areas of modern biology. With the disappearance of theory has also come the decline of experimentation, and the practice of science by hypothesis and testing is not known by many students in the field. So powerful are contemporary tools for extracting answers from nature that pausing to think about the results, or asking how one might find out how cells really work, is likely to be seen as a source of irritating delay to the managerial classes, and could even endanger the career of the questioner.
(In Theory)
The best publication list I have ever seen was that of a candidate for some official post who was engaged in defence research. The two first papers were: Landing aeroplanes on aircraft carriers I & II, Restricted circulation. The remaining items, numbered 3 to 9, were labelled “Secret”. I would have been tempted to inflate the list of secret publications to 19.
(Citation matters)
For better or for worse, some of Brenner’s predictions of nineties became reality in the noughties. Mostly for worse, I’m afraid.
Before we develop pseudoscience of citation analysis, we should remind ourselves that what matters absolutely is the scientific content of a paper and that nothing will substitute for either knowing it or reading it.
(Citation matters)
Nowadays, the said pseudoscience is flourishing.
I predict that very soon every grant application will have to include a strategic mission statement and a business plan, as well as an organogram outlining the structure of the laboratory with a clear definition of who reports to whom. Perhaps as time goes on and science gets more difficult to do, the actual research project will come to be a smaller part of the application. Eventually it may disappear all together. This would fulfil the ultimate dream of every manager and administrator, which is simply to have pure management with no content...
(A tiresome business)

Monday, 4 January 2010

debating tenure

In one of Friends episodes, Ross is getting tenure and is very excited about it. (You can tell that the series was drawing to the end.)
“You know what the best part about this is? I can never be fired.”
Here is another thing Ross gets wrong, although he simply repeats a popular myth. But what exactly is tenure? The latest (October/November 2009) issue of Academic Matters is dedicated to this strange creature, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

In words of Michiel Horn,
Tenure is not without drawbacks. But these are the price that has to be paid to protect the innovative, the unconventional, and the unpopular, those whose fields of academic specialization have fallen into disfavour and, most of all, those who do work, sometimes very important work, that takes a long time to complete and leads to no commercially useful results.
On the contrary, Michael Bliss argues that
The claim that tenure is a necessary precondition of academic freedom is inherently and monstrously unjust to non-tenured academics. These are the scholars, often more adventurous and outspoken than the old and established, who most need academic freedom. To them the institution of tenure is as though society offered a guaranteed annual income to everyone but the poor. Words like “hypocrisy” and “dishonesty” come to mind.
The essay of Mark Kingwell is probably the best-written one:
All in all, tenure remains sacrosanct because nobody with any standing has a stake in criticizing it. There is another major factor in tenure’s culture of belief and that is simple psychology, exacerbated by the rampant professional envy of the academic world. The main reason people want tenure is because other people have it. Many academics do not admit this, maybe not even to themselves, because standard arguments about academic freedom are available to them, arguments that make tenure’s critics look crass.
But now try offering a few deeper objections. Who needs academic freedom in a constitutional democracy, where freedom of expression is already guaranteed? Or, more slyly, what possible objection could there be to speaking frankly about topics in which most people have utterly no interest?
In his view, instead of protecting academic freedom, tenure actually stifles it:
Unfortunately, but to nobody’s surprise, the institution of tenure tends to make academic departments conservative. Since tenure decisions are made by senior faculty, all of them tenured themselves, there is a natural tendency to reproduce the status quo. Academics deny this, but their acts betray them.
Sandra Acker investigates whether the tenure is still a gender issue.
The various forms of appraisal and evaluation may incorporate unacknowledged gendered norms. Most of the assessors (senior faculty) are men, and the reward system is biased toward research and publications rather than teaching and service. In one study, the “successful academic” was described in interviews as “someone whose first priority was research, who worked long hours, who defined themselves in terms of their work, who had experienced no break in career, and who had an uninterrupted forward movement in their career profile.”
Pat Finn advocates the abolition of tenure in favour of granting academics the same job security as ejoyed by other professionals.
Academic freedom is special, prized, and to be defended at all costs. Tenure is not.
She acknowledges, however, that her opinion is unlikely to be embraced by academia anytime soon:
So tenure will likely remain unchanged. And academics will continue to defend it when challenged by critics who believe in the myth of “a job for life”.