Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Metrics and mental health

I never thought I would write a post linking the two issues in the title.

I have been working on my talk on mental health for the School of Maths and Physics colloquium on friday. Here is the current version of my slides. I welcome any comments.

In my preparation I have become aware of a few more resources. A recent issue of Nature includes several articles, including:

An Editorial, What to do to improve postgraduate mental health.
Four researchers write from their own experience, How to handle the dark days of depression.
There is also A collection of resources.

On the one hand, it is wonderful that Nature is highlighting the issue. On the other hand, it would be nice if they reflected how Nature Publishing Group might actually be part of the problem, as they mindlessly promote metrics and their journals. It is a case of corporate "well-washing."

The link between metrics and mental health is brought out in a report to the Higher Education Funding Council for England: The Metric Tide, Report of the Independent Review of the Role of Metrics in Research Assessment and Management, July 2015. The preface states:
Too often, poorly designed evaluation criteria are dominating minds, distorting behaviour and determining careers. At their worst, metrics can contribute to what Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, calls a “new barbarity” in our universities. 
The tragic case of Stefan Grimm, whose suicide in September 2014 led Imperial College to launch a review of its use of performance metrics, is a jolting reminder that what’s at stake in these debates is more than just the design of effective management systems. 
Metrics hold real power: they are constitutive of values, identities and livelihoods. 



    Mental health in academia is too often a forgotten footnote. That needs to change
    Arnav Chabra

    More academics and students have mental health problems than ever before
    February 22, 2018

  3. Caught in a trap
    The pressures of a scientific career can take their toll on people’s ability to cope.

    There is a table on Page 320 with websites to contact to deal with mental health.

  4. Dear Ross,
    I love your blog and have learned countless useful things from it. Thank you! One thing bothers me in your latest posting. Your write that the Nature Group "mindlessly promote metrics and their journals." I am confused. They are a for-profit business so it is their job to promote their journals. Their papers are highly-cited, thus they skillfully use metrics in that promotion. (Disclosure: the only things I published in Nature were News and Views. I have tried a couple of times to submit my research results but they didn't even make it to the referees. My type of research is technical, not the sort they want. I do not resent this and am happy when I make it to the PRL.)
    When you use the judgmental word "mindlessly," you probably mean that they do not sufficiently reflect upon societal consequences of their self-promotion. But do we have the right to blame them? I am not sure.
    Consider for example clothing manufacturers. They use models selected to resonate with teenagers. As a result, CERTAIN kids judge their peers by the clothes they wear. So what? Should those manufacturers think about the suffering they inflict? In my opinion: no; as far as I am concerned, they should just stay within norms of the law and the Ten Commandments. (Disclosure: I grew up in a communist country where most kids wore similar-looking grey stuff. I am grateful for Tommy Hilfiger.)
    I agree with you that there is a problem related to what you call luxury journals but that problem is on the side of university administration and granting agencies. We have to make sure they do not use metrics mindlessly.
    In my opinion we should be grateful for the luxury journals. They exert pressure on other journals and force them to reform and innovate; for example, the useful site was created as an answer to some features of Nature Group's journals. We should welcome the variety and let a hundred flowers blossom.
    Also, I believe that the obsession of getting published by Science or Nature affects only a small fraction of researchers. Most of the others do not even come close and they still find good jobs; at least I did.

  5. Jeffery Hall last Nobel Prize winner who share with two others left academia in 2008 to settle down in rural Maine. His interview in 2008 to Cell Biology is very honest and revealing.
    Even his Nobel Prize speech is very honest ( A rare personality after the transparent Richard Feynman. Be honest with yourself , the famous Richard Feynman phrase comes to ones mind)
    Some extracts

    You sound especially grumpy about scientific luminaries:

    why? I can't help feel that some of these ‘stars’ have not really earned their status. I wonder whether certain such anointees are ‘famous because they're famous.’ So what? Here's what: they receive massive amounts of support for their research, absorbing funds that might be better used by others. As an example, one would-be star boasted to me that he'd never send a paper from his lab to anywhere but Nature, Cell, or Science. These submissions always get a foot in the door, at least. And they are nearly always published in one of those magazines — where, when you see something you know about, you realize that it's not always so great.

    Celebrity ‘PI's,’ who are no longer Professors, have too much in the way of lavished resources — by which I mean too much money to do good work! They can and do hire very large numbers of workers, but it is at-best difficult closely to interact with and properly to supervise these bloated numbers of personnel. Such Actual Investigators (AIs) cannot easily gain their boss's attention; and the latter is unable to provide the required close, ongoing scrutiny of their research. There is huge pressure on the overworked, anxious AI to bring something ‘great’ to the boss, who wants everything to go to a vanity journal. One outcome of these antics is that some bizarre stuff is salted throughout this overly conspicuous subset of the literature.

    Another problem is with the format of papers in high ranking journals. The graphs are crowded , sometimes fitted as per convenience ( you had posted one in your blog). Too many small plots in one printed page. You have to print,enlarge with photocopying etc to understand . Peter Doherty , a down to earth very egalitarian Nobelist said on one utube videos. " You cannot publish porridge"

  6. the last para in the above post from " Another problem ....."is not in the interview of Jeffery Hall. It is a view expressed. Apologies for this

    after 1.52 mins in the above vidoe Prof PD describes the porridge aspect.
    Three papers , three lessons DNA structure
    Crick and Watson
    The way papers were written esp the language aspect is well explained in the above web site.
    Emeritus Profs should compare Nature journal papers then ( esp from 1953 to 1967) to the ones published presently in luxury journals. There will be a huge difference, but it would be an interesting study, since high number the papers between 1953 to 1967 are reproducible.