Preprints and conference tweets

I’m sure the perceived need for speedy science communication and putting everything online can seem a bit shallow. To paraphrase various comments: ‘How self-important can one be? Do I really think that other people can’t wait to read my latest research paper? Do they need to know that I went to @someperson’s talk and it was #great?’ It may seem like this is all vanity. But it’s not.

The answer to this straw man’s questions are obvious, once I’ve thought about my own relationship to the preprint server Biorxiv, from which I read a lot of papers nowadays: I don’t know whether there is anyone out there waiting for my research papers to be released. (And in fact, I doubt it.) But I know for a fact that I, myself, am waiting for other people’s papers. I’ve found that I really like to read what other people in my field are working on, with as little delay as possible, even with potential errors and unclarities that peer review may help iron out.

As for conference tweets, behind the paper blog posts, and Twitter discussions about talks, preprints, and published papers–if you are part of a tight-knit community of researchers, you probably already know what a lot of the other members are working on, and what their opinions are. You already go to the same meetings, occasionally review each others papers, maybe you’re even on terms where you can just ask each other, maybe even send previews of manuscripts to each other.

But preprints and conference tweets expand that circle to include students, researchers in remote places, those new to the field, those who do not dare to ask. It helps keep us in the loop too. Or draw us a little closer to the loop, at any rate. It may all be vanity, but it has some nice side effects.

Various positions

What use is there in keeping a blog if you can’t post your arbitrary idiosyncratic opinions as if you were an authority? Here is a list of opinions about life in the scientific community.

Social media for scientists

People who promote social media for scientists by humblebragging about how they got a glam journal paper because of Twitter should stop. An unknown PhD student from the middle of nowhere must be a lot more likely to get into trouble than get on a paper because of Twitter.

Speaking of that, who thinks that that writing an angry letter to someone’s boss is the appropriate response to disagreeing with someone on Twitter? Please stop with that.

Poster sessions

Poster sessions are a pain. Not only do you suffer the humiliation of not begin cool enough to give a talk, you also get to haul a poster tube to the conference. The trouble is that we can’t do away with poster sessions, because they fulfill the important function of letting a lot of people contribute to the conference so that they have a reason to go there.

Now cue comments of this kind: ”That’s not true! I’ve had some of my best conference conversations at poster sessions. Maybe you just don’t know how to make a poster …” It is true that I don’t know how to make a good poster. Regardless, my ad hoc hypothesis for why people say things like this is that they’re already known and connected enough to have good conversations anywhere at the conference, and that the poster served as a signpost for their colleagues to find them.

How can one make a poster session as good as possible? Try to make lots of space so people won’t have to elbow each other. Try to find a room that won’t be incredibly noisy and full of echos. Try to avoid having some posters hidden behind pillars and in corners.

Also, don’t organize a poster competition unless you also organize a keynote competition.

Theory

There is way way way too little theory in biology education, as far as I can tell. Much like computer programming — a little of which is recognized as a useful skill to have even for empirically minded biologists who are not going to be programming experts — it is very useful to be able to read a paper without skipping the equations, or tell whether a paper is throwing dust when it states that ”[unspecified] Theory predicts …” this or that. But somehow, materials for theory manage to be even more threatening than computer documentation, which is an impressive feat. If you disagree, please post in the comments a reference to an introduction to coalescent theory that is accessible for, say, a biology PhD student who hasn’t taken a probability course in a few years.

Language corrections

That thing when reviewers suggest that a paper be checked by a native English speaker, when they mean that it needs language editing, is rude. Find a way of phrasing it that won’t offend that one native English speaker who invariably is on the paper, but doesn’t have an English enough name and affiliation for you!

@sweden recap

So, a couple of weeks ago I tweeted from the @sweden account. This is a short recap of some things that were said, and a few links that I promised people. Overall I think it went pretty well. I didn’t tweet as much as some other curators, but much much more than I usually do. This also meant I did spend my lunch and coffee breaks looking at my phone. My tweets are collected here, if for some reason you’d care to read them.

Of course, tweeting from a rotating curation account is very different from the way I normally use Twitter. First, I read much more than I write. One of the main purposes of Twitter, for me, is to get a steady stream of links to read. That doesn’t really work on an account that follows much more and entirely different people. A lot of what I wrote was prepared monologue, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. I follow a lot of people on Twitter for their monologues. Also, thankfully, a lot of people asked me questions! Another thing that struck me is that so few people were unpleasant. There were a few extreme right folks who wanted me to retweet their racist tweets, but only a few. Then, a few felt the need to tell me that I’m utterly boring, which is fine. Someone lamented the fact that all curators are uneducated about the proper use of Twitter (it’s probably to build your personal brand or something). Also, a certain Swedish celebrity got put on ignore so I wouldn’t have to see him tagging each tweet with ”@sweden”. But that was pretty much all.

I talked quite a bit about my research. I spent more or less a full day on the chicken comb as a sexual ornament and genetics of comb mass. We discussed domestication as an evolutionary process, tonic immobility, and how to measure gene expression for eQTL mapping. I also wrote about Kauai feral chickens … And what I actually do in a day nowadays, that is: writing R code.

I got a question about what to say to your creationist friend. I think this depends on what the creationist friend believes and what their objections to evolution are. Unfortunately, I don’t think there is a simple knock-down argument against all forms of creationism, except that evolution works really well and has a lot of evidence going for it. I certainly don’t think it will do to rely on methodological naturalism and say that ”creation would be a supernatural event and outside the scope of science”. First, because I don’t think that is how science works. Say if unicorns, miraculous healing, and species popping into existence without relation to other species were actually part of the world, wouldn’t we want to study that? Second, that will never convince anyone, except of the irrelevance of science to their worldview.

But I think there are a handful of things that creationists often take issue with. First, some don’t believe in sequence variants creating new functions. This is often described with slogans about information, and how it cannot be created by random mutation. I don’t think ”sequence information” is a particularly useful concept, and would much prefer to talk about function and adaptation. That is what is important, after all, organisms acquiring new adaptations. It turns out, new functions arising can be observed, particularly in microorganisms. Some really fun and well-studied example occur in the Long Term Evolution Experiment; see Richard Lenski’s blog which has explanatory posts and links to papers.

Second, the formation of species come up a lot in these discussions. This is a bit tricky, because it’s not always clear what constitutes different species. The definition most people have heard is probably that individuals belong to different species if they cannot have fertile offspring. But just think of asexually reproducing organisms. There, individuals belong to different species if they’re sufficiently different. So we already have what is needed to understand the formation of species in the evolution of new functions. When it comes to sexually reproducing organisms, there are examples of the evolution of reproductive isolation — cases where it seems to be ongoing or to have happened recently. (See for instance this paper on hybrid incompatibility in Mimulus guttatus; I have blogged about it, but only in Swedish)

Third, there is the question of relatedness between species. In particular, some creationists really hate the idea that humans are apes. I think it is important to emphasize a couple of things that evolution does not say about humans and other apes. By the way, this isn’t just confusing for creationists, but for everyone. Evolution does not mean that humans descend from extant apes. Look at this phylogenetic tree from Perelman & al 2011. This is just like a family tree, but of populations: we see how chimps and humans have a recent common ancestor population. This is different than claiming that we would descend from extant chimps. Of course, chimps have also changed since the common ancestor, although not in the same ways as humans. (Again, I’ve written about this before in Swedish.)

journal.pgen.1001342.g001

Speaking of unicorns, I of course celebrated unicorn Friday:

Someone asked whether you can keep fruit flies for amateur genetics at home. That should be quite possible, and I don’t see any real problems with it either. The fruit fly community has really strong culture of classical genetics with crosses and stocks. I don’t know if stock centres would deliver to private customers, but I don’t see why they wouldn’t — except for transgenic flies. It turned out, however, that transgenic flies was actually what the person asking was after. And of course, I can’t recommend that. I must say, I have mixed feelings about do-it-yourself biotechnology. On the one hand, some home molecular biology should be possible and rewarding. On the other hand, a lot of things routinely used in molecular labs are actually really dangerous if misused, and not just for the user. For example, when making any type of construct in transgenic bacteria, antibiotics and antibiotic resistance genes are the standard screening markers. They are used to pick out the bacteria that have incorporated the piece of DNA you care about. This is not the kind of stuff you want to use without proper containment. So, in the fly example, you would not only have to handle the flies, but also transgenic antibiotic resistant bacteria safely and legally. Then again, a lot of the genetics I care about does not involve any of that, and could very well be done in a basement.

The @sweden account caught me under a teaching week; otherwise, all of my photos would’ve been my computer, my pen and my coffee mug. Now I got to walk the followers through agarose gel electrophoresis and a little transformation of bacteria:

And, finally, Swedish spring:

Morning coffee: @sweden

This week, I’m tweeting from the @sweden account. It is a rotating account with a new Swede every week. I honestly have no idea who could have nominated me, but I’m flattered and happy. So far I think it’s going well. As I wrote on curatorsofsweden.com:

I’m unlikely to present any great insights about the nature and meaning of Swedishness, but I hope I may be able to give you a new appreciation for the chicken comb.

I think I could probably just keep the week going by answering questions and comments, because there have been many good ones! We’ve been talking about domestication (of course), programming languages for data analysis, the bright but possibly distant future when quantitative genetics and systems biology come together, common misconceptions about genetics, what to say to your creationist friend etc.