Friday, February 5, 2016

Introducing scientific dignitaries and charlatans

I find it interesting to listen to the introductions that different seminar speakers get. Sometimes the introduction tells you more about the host than the speaker.

Introductions I don't like may include:

"Sarah has published lots of Nature and Science papers."

Mention of the h-index or number of citations.

Mention of amounts of grant money.

"John has done important work in quantum biology".

"The speaker needs no introduction (so I won't give one)".
I have heard this many times but I did not really know the speaker.

A live dialogue between the host and speaker about the details. e.g., "When did you get your Ph.D with me? So how long have you been at Sydney now?"

"When I Googled him this is what I found out ...."

Recitation from an old university web page. For a few years I sometimes got introduced as someone who does research on the "electrical conductivity of DNA". I finally discovered that this was because if you Googled me the first hit was an old university web page that listed this. I worked on this for a few months before I discovered all the experiments were duds. I eventually got the old page removed and have not had this introduction since.

Glowing accounts of how great the speaker is, when he is a charlatan or mediocre. This either reflects hypocrisy or poor judgement on the part of the host.

Introductions I do like include:

A very brief career history.

A very brief statement of what scientific contribution the speaker is best known for.

Any personal connection between the host and the speaker. e.g. "We were postdocs together at Rice University".


  1. In the past several weeks, I have introduced ~10 seminar speakers we are interviewing for faculty positions. This is one of multiple areas in interviewing that can be subject to inadvertent biases. In an attempt to counter this I use the following formulaic intro:

    "X grew up in city/region/country and completed his/her bachelors degree in field X at the University of X. He/she then completed a PhD at institution Y, working with person Z. He/she then moved on to a postdoc at Institution Z, where he/she is working with person ZZ. (Mention any special awards, fellowships here).

    X has published n first author papers, including papers in journal 1 and journal 2. He/she is also a co-author on an additional m papers.

    It is a pleasure to have X with us today to tell us about their work on title of talk."

    I personally think it is important to distinguish between first author papers and co-author papers, since some candidates come from groups that list many people from the group as authors, leading to long lists of co-authored papers where the actual contributions of each person are unclear.

    Any suggestions on improving this formulaic introduction or comments on how its structure can allow implicit biases to creep in would be welcome.

    1. Hi David,

      I think introducing job candidates (particularly where all faculty will vote on them) is quite different to a general seminar or colloquium. In your situation I think your concern about possible bias is well placed and using a formula is appropriate. But, I still grimace slightly about mentioning numbers of papers and specific journals. However, I do agree that the first author distinction is important. I really hope we can focus on quality and not quantity. I am sure your search committee looks at that carefully. I would be curious if there really is much difference in the number of first author papers between the candidates that make it to interview. I would have thought they would have all be roughly the same, within the noise, (6-12?) and so mentioning it is not that relevant, and may be just promoting this culture of publish, publish, .... (Like pcs below) I would still prefer something like, "John's most significant achievement to date has been to successfully predict that the polymerisation of Y can be speeded up by a factor of Z by using catalyst A."

  2. I learned something from you two; the possibility of bias is indeed important. Thanks.

    Prof. Sholl, I'd add the suggestion of Ross: "X is most well-known for his (method?) work on (material system?)...".
    It adds a flavor to the person besides the reflections of their institutions and advisor. All the rest is "metadata" that does not capture the scientific personality of the candidate.