The aftermath of a war for talent

[Enron] epitomized the “talent mindset” approach to management… Demanding Enron employees prove that they were smarter than everyone else inadvertently contributed to a narcissistic culture, with an overrepresentation of employees who were both incredibly smug and driven by deep insecurity to keep showing off. It was a culture that encouraged short-term performance but discouraged long-term learning and growth.

The same point comes through in the postmortem documentary on Enron called, appropriately enough, The Smartest Guys in the Room. During the company’s ascendency, it was a brash and brilliant former McKinsey consultant named Jeff Skilling who was Enron’s CEO. Skilling developed a performance review system for Enron that consisted of grading employees annually and summarily firing the bottom 15 percent. In other words, no matter what your absolute level of performance, if you were weak, relative to others, you got fired. Inside Enron, this practice was known as “rank-and-yank”. Skilling considered it one of the most important strategies his company had. But ultimately, it may have contributed to a work environment that rewarded deception and discouraged integrity.

-Angela Lee Duckworth
Grit
p. 30

Is the current (conscious or subconscious) emphasis on “talent” in academia leading us down this path?

Pascal vs. the Buddha

Pascal’s Wager is sometimes said to be the first formal use of decision theory. Blaise Pascal of the 17th century reasoned thus: if one believes in the Christian God

  • and the belief turns out correct, one is rewarded with an eternity of gain (or, conversely, avoids an eternity in hell);
  • if the belief is wrong, one loses almost nothing.

The thought struck me that the lesser known second part of the Kalama Sutta is also a similar application of decision theory. This is about 2,200 years earlier than Pascal. But it was not as formally laid out, and is also a far more complicated (but therefore more realistic) case.

The Buddha applied it to moral decisions in the context of the extent to which one believes in the cause and effect of one’s actions, or simply put, Kamma/Karma, the full extent of which is necessarily linked to rebirth.

Although how causes, moderated by conditions, lead to their effects is a highly complex matter, they are generally still apparent to us (think physics) and therefore believable… except for the catch that there might not be enough time for all effects to come to fruition within one lifetime. Therefore rebirth completes the idea of Karma by providing opportunity in the future for fruition of effects.

Ordinary people, however, do not have knowledge of their past lives or that of others’, so the idea of rebirth is not as apparent and believable.

According to the Buddha’s reasoning as re-told by the Kalama Sutta, if one acted accordingly to avoid unwholesome deeds and carry out wholesome ones throughout this life:

  • if rebirth were true, one benefits in this life as well as after the end of this life by having a better rebirth;
  • if rebirth were not true, one most probably still benefits by having lived blamelessly and avoided substantial suffering in this life.

I did a quick Google and found out that other people have linked this to Pascal’s Wager before. In fact, some folks online called this the Buddha’s Wager. There is also another scripture that is in the same spirit: the Apannaka Sutta.

The Buddha’s Wager is a far more complex application of decision theory, however, because:

  1. Pay-offs is positive (according to the formulation above; just like Pascal’s Wager, it can be formulated in the negative sense, i.e., living an unwholesome life) in both options, just that one (with afterlife) is on top of the other (this life only). In Pascal’s case, pay-off is usually taken as neutral (=zero) in the worse of the options (but see below).
  2. The degree of uncertainty is different between the two pay-offs. It seems to me that this is a critical part of the Buddha’s version. Cause and effect within this life is more believable (=lower uncertainty) because it is usually observable; rebirth (i.e., continuation of cause and effect after death) on the other hand is usually not observable and therefore highly uncertain. (In Pascal’s case, there is only one non-zero pay-off option so uncertainty is only relevant for that pay-off.)
  3. There is a cost involved, because this case, in contrast to Pascal’s in the context of Christian doctrine, is not just about belief but about taking action. Acting incurs opportunity cost in the process, e.g., effort invested, or “opportunities” missed from not taking advantage of others or not indulging oneself.

The Buddha’s case is therefore pitting a additional pay-out (P1) that has higher uncertainty (U1) together with a basic pay-out (P2) that has lower uncertainty (U2) against the cost of action (C). So one should only take action and incur the cost if one can be sure that the combined expected benefits are high enough:

P1* (1-U1)+ P2* (1-U2) – C > 0

The Buddha’s Wager is not so much of a wager as it is a statement of inequality: that P2* (1-U2) > C so that the value of U1 is irrelevant, i.e., the benefits of a wholesome life are sufficient in itself to justify us taking the trouble, whether or not there is an afterlife. In such a formulation, the Buddha portrays moral behaviour as cost-beneficial regardless of afterlife belief.

If we go strictly by the Kalama Sutta, U2 seems to be taken to be zero, which reduces the inequality condition to an even simpler one: P2 C. Herein lies the link back to the rest of the Kalama Sutta, and the difference between Pascal’s Wager and the Buddha’s version.

In Pascal’s Wager, the pay-off in choosing to believe is positive infinite. In such a system, nothing finite can be greater than positive infinite, so the pay-off for disbelief, even if positive and not zero, will never outweigh the pay-off for belief. This means that Pascal’s Wager, while logical, is still a non-falsifiable statement of theistic belief.

On the other hand, the Buddha’s inequality statement is possible to be false, and therefore can be subjected to testing; one just needs to estimate P2 and C. This is why it fits in with the first half of the Kalama Sutta: the Buddha’s exhortation to the Kalamas not to base their actions on the sole basis of belief, but to test it out for themselves and weigh the benefits and costs of their actions for themselves and others.

Rejections based on refusals to review

I was just browsing, and came across this piece in the Write Back section of Frontiers in Ecology & the Environment from 2015 (13:241). An excerpt:

…the shortage of available reviewers has started to push journal editors toward dangerous waters. For example, one possible response to this shortage is… if a large number of reviewers refuse to review a given manuscript beyond what is expected by chance, then that manuscript is of low quality and should not be reviewed.

Followed by an example:

Recently, an editor of a prestigious ecological journal declined to publish a manuscript because 15 potential reviewers in a row had refused to review it. The editor’s argument relied on the fact that for every 10 potential reviewers invited to review a manuscript submitted to this journal, seven typically decline; at the stated 7/10 or 0.7 refusal probability, the probability of consecutive refusal by 15 reviewers is 0.5% (where [0.7]15 = 0.005 or 0.5%). The editor then argued that this probability of refusal was much lower than would occur by chance, which the editor defined as any probability that was less than 5% (or, nine refusals in a row, where [0.7]9 = 0.04 or 4%).

No citation was given for the example, so it might have been a personal experience of the author. One problem in using such a heuristic to reject articles is: why 5%? Or why 0.5%, or any other number? And the author also later argues that refusal to review is dependent on so many factors not related to manuscript quality, and also, reviewer decline rates are temporally variable. Are you going to adjust the cut-off rate according to seasonal patterns in reviewer availability? Are you going to base this year’s cut-off on last year’s reviewer decline rates? Or last x years? Or on a rate projected for this year?

In all, a poor criteria to rely on, however tempting it may be. But interesting to read someone write about it.

The Future of Conservation

An electronic survey came in the email, and as I went through the questions, I found them very thought-provoking.

The infamous New vs. Traditional Conservation debate has been raging on for some time now, and as the survey designers write:

Recent debates about the future of conservation have been dominated by a few high-profile individuals, whose views seem to fit fairly neatly into polarised positions. In this survey, we are exploring the range of views that exist within the conservation movement globally, and how this varies by key demographic characteristics such as age, gender, geography and educational background.

Which really hooked me into answering it.

It’s indeed different to be reading the views of the authors of those back-and-forth pieces while trying to be as objective as possible, and actually having to answer questions that force you to think about where you stand.

The end of the survey even profiles a profile and neat data visualisations to show you where you stand (something that I’ve always wanted to know!).

futureofconservation_results

futureofconservation_interpretation

How to interpret your results
Your position is weakly negative along the people & nature axis and weakly positive along the conservation & capitalism axis.

Your position on the two axes above reflects your survey answers. A move from left to right along the horizontal axis (people/nature) implies a shift from seeing conservation as a means of improving human welfare to conservation for nature’s own sake.

The vertical axis (conservation & capitalism) indicates a spectrum of willingness to embrace markets and capitalism as conservation tools: the higher up the graph your score is, the more pro-markets it is. This places you in the top left quadrant of the graph – a position suggesting your views on these particular dimensions of the debate are most closely related to those of ‘new conservationists’ as set out in the literature.

Your thinking most closely aligns with: New Conservation
Central to the ‘new conservation’ position is a shift towards framing conservation as being about protecting nature in order to improve human wellbeing (especially that of the poor), rather than for biodiversity’s own sake. ‘New conservationists’ believe that win-win situations in which people benefit from conservation can often be achieved by promoting economic growth and partnering with corporations.

Although new conservation advocates have been criticised for doing away with nature’s intrinsic value, key authors within the movement have responded by clarifying that their motive is not so much an ethical as a strategic or pragmatic one. In other words, they claim that conservation needs to emphasise nature’s instrumental value to people because this better promotes support for conservation compared to arguments based solely on species’ rights to exist.

The Buddha in the forest

The Buddha was born in the forest. Born in the forest, he studied Dhamma in the forest. He taught Dhamma in the forest, beginning with the Discourse on the Turning of the Wheel of Dhamma. He entered Nibbana in the forest.

It’s important for those of us who live in the forest to understand the forest. Living in the forest doesn’t mean that our minds become wild, like those of forest animals. Our minds can become elevated and spiritually noble. This is what the Buddha said. Living in the city we live among distraction and disturbance. In the forest, there is quiet and tranquility. We can contemplate things clearly and develop wisdom. So we take this quiet and tranquility as our friend and helper. Such an environment is conducive to Dhamma practice, so we take it as our dwelling place; we take the mountains and caves for our refuge. Observing natural phenomena, wisdom comes about in such places. We learn from and understand trees and everything else, and it brings about a state of joy. The sounds of nature we hear don’t disturb us. We hear the birds calling, as they will, and it is actually a great enjoyment. We don’t react with any aversion and we aren’t thinking harmful thoughts. We aren’t speaking harshly or acting aggressively towards anyone or anything. Hearing the sounds of the forest gives delight to the mind; even as we are hearing sounds the mind is tranquil.

– Ajahn Chah
Everything Is Teaching Us
p. 69

My year in peer review 2016

It’s been another year of trying to be a useful member of the scientific community.

For the most part of this year, I handled less manuscripts than I did last year. Part of the reason could be that the editorial board of Biodiversity & Conservation underwent a little bit of restructuring. Dirk Schmeller used to be the only Managing Editor helping out Editor-in-Chief David Hawksworth, but now there are six “Senior Editors” including Dirk. All the Senior Editors will sift through received manuscripts according to their areas of expertise before rejecting them directly, handling them on their own or distributing them to the Associate Editors.

Or it could be just that there are periodic lulls in the submission volume. It certainly seems like it now, with increasing frequency of manuscripts coming my way and multiple requests for reviews from other journals.

So far I have completed the handling of four, two of which were rejected before and two after review, so there is no midwifery to crow about yet. It was particularly hard to find reviewers for one of them: on and off the record I approached at least 11 people, probably 13. I can’t remember exactly how many, but it included some contacts with the relevant expertise that I texted or emailed but were too busy (or humble!) to take it up. Finally and suddenly two kind souls agreed and I had three reviewers for the manuscript.

I also signed up for a webinar by the British Ecological Society (BES) on “Becoming an Associate Editor”, not because I was hungry for another role, but because I was curious about the experiences that would be shared by the panel of speakers, who are Associate Editors of BES journals: Luca Borger from Journal of Animal Ecology, Jane Catford of Journal of Ecology, and Stephanie, whose last name I didn’t catch but I am guessing is Januchowski-Hartley because she mentioned she recently wrote an Editor’s Choice and I searched for it, of Journal of Applied Ecology. I am, relatively speaking, a noob and there’s not much opportunity for training, so hearing from others would be as good as it gets.

It was comforting to hear that my 11+ reviewer declines is not that extreme: Jane said that (I think it was) just the week before that she had been turned down some 17 times before getting her second reviewer for a manuscript. Well, not really comforting, because it really tells us how much strain the peer review community is under to process the ever-increasing volumes of manuscripts submitted.

Another interesting takeaway was that manuscript submissions peak twice a year, once just before the northern hemisphere summer, and one just before the year-end festive season. This arises from authors in Europe and North America trying to clear their desk before going away for their holidays. It’s also the most difficult time for editors to get reviewers because the reviewers disappear for holidays too! Sure explains the uptick I’m experiencing now. So if you want your manuscript to be reviewed quicker, try to avoid submitting them during these times.

During the webinar, I asked the panel a question of my own through the chatbox: “One of the functions of peer review is also to provide feedback to authors. In cases of rejecting without going out to review, would you [provide] authors provide some in-depth comments beyond misfit with scope or novelty, etc.?”

I asked this question because I do so myself. If I am disposed to reject a manuscript without review, I provide my own comments from my reading of the manuscript. That way, the authors sort-of get at least one review, without which how else would they know what concrete steps can they take next to get it published elsewhere? Luca replied that he, too, tries to give some comments when he decides a manuscript can’t go out for review. It’s good to know.

It was my first webinar. I set an alarm to wake up at midnight for it, and it was worthwhile.

I still have two manuscripts on hand being processed, but the final decision will almost certainly be in 2017. An interesting thing happened with one of them. As usual, I searched for possible reviewers, found some, did some checks to make sure they didn’t co-author anything within 5 years (my personal guideline), edited the template invitation letter, and sent them out. One declined almost immediately with the following message:

“The last time I submitted something to you, it wasn’t even sent out for review, so I am not inclined to help you out.”

Oooh. That was harsh.

Some snooping around in the editorial system revealed that, indeed, two manuscripts submitted by this person in the past were rejected without review. We’ve all been on the receiving end of such editorial decisions, so I can sympathise, but there was obvious lack of grace on this persons’ part here.

It’s tough. The strain caused by multiple rounds of reviews in different journals is the key reason for rejections without review. If an editor finds that a manuscript probably wouldn’t survive peer reviewer comments, i.e., it would most probably get rejected, then there’s no reason to burden reviewers with it, is there? Like the one that I had problem finding reviewers for: when the reviews came back and I read the manuscript in detail, I kinda regretted sending it out for review and “wasting” the time of three reviewers–if I had examined its Tables in detail before sending it out, I would have realized the fatal flaws immediately. Although again, part of the service of peer-review is to provide feedback and in this sense all reviewer comments were delivered to authors with my own so there is no waste to speak of.

As an author myself, it’s been almost a full year of rejections as well, right until the last one month when finally two manuscripts came through with good news. (More on them next time.)

The idea was to take advantage of this Fellowship to write papers like a madman, and for the first few months it almost worked like that.

Then the rejections started coming in, and every rejection set you back at least a few weeks to deal with reformatting. If there were reviews, you had to deal with the comments the best you could before resubmitting. Every round of reformatting consumed precious pockets of your best productivity time-slots and knocks your next manuscript back.

It’s not just my own first-authored manuscripts, but also all those that I was co-author of. I’ve had to console/encourage a graduate student from the old lab who led two manuscripts with multiple rejections, with and without review.

I’ve been rejected twice by PLoS ONE without review! Whoever gets rejected by PLoS ONE without review??

That said, I’m now glad I’ve broken my two year drought of having no ISI-listed first-author papers. The ones just accepted won’t make it to a print issue until next year, so 2015 and 2016 are the drought.

But I’m optimistic for 2017. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush; an accepted paper is worth ten that’s “in review”, but a manuscript in review is worth ten that’s “in prep”, and a draft in prep is worth ten that’s not. As long as there’s a draft, there’s hope; eventually it will get published somewhere.

So here’s to more drafts in prep!

A new journal-ranking metric

A new journal-metrics kid is on the block: CiteScore.

It looks easy to use, is free for anyone to access, and has some tweaks that make it different from the Impact Factor (IF) metric: (1) it uses three years to calculate, not two; (2) it includes all types of articles published in the denominator, which means that magazine portions of journals like Science and Nature get counted as potentially citable articles. It seems fair if the citations get accrued to the numerator, the article should be counted in the denominator too. Of course, these articles are not really meant to be cited in the first place, which therefore disadvantages journals with this type of content.

But the main thing is that it is easy to use to compare between journals, and covers more titles. The score seems more or less on the same scale as the IF, so it doesn’t cause any cognitive dissonance for most journals.

For example, I could search a few journal titles, let’s say the journals that I often consider for publishing the type of plant community ecology research I usually do. You can add them quickly to form a table.

citescore_plantecology

Each journal is also classified under a subject category. So you could search for that subject category–sub-categories are also available, it seems–and you can browse through all the titles in that category.

The categorisation seems finer and more intuitive than Thomson-Reuter’s IF, which is clunky.

Also surprising is how high some journals now rank, e.g., Forest Ecology & Management above, and Landscape & Urban Planning below compared against other  conservation journals. Both titles are published by Elsevier which owns CiteScore. But then so is Biological Conservation, which is ranked lower (but still higher than Conservation Biology published by Wiley).

citescore_natureconservation

It would be nice, though, if there is some way to display information on all the categories a journal is listed in, because some journals are cross-listed across categories.

Writing better narrative reviews

Was alerted to a useful paper on how to peer-review a literature review, specifically the “traditional” or narrative type (as opposed to systematic reviews and meta-analyses).

In summary,

  1. Even a literature review should have a clearly defined objective and scope. The scope should not overlap substantially with that of an earlier review if that review is relatively recent and well done.
  2. Even a narrative literature review should have an approach that is somewhat replicable, e.g., search terms, databases, and criteria for inclusion should be clearly stated.
  3. The litmus test is whether it is a useful summary for someone looking to enter the field. As a result, some synthetic effort, critical evaluation, and tables/figures would be useful.

Although written as advice to peer-reviewers, it can just as easily be advice on how to write better literature reviews. Especially useful for postgraduates, since usually one chapter in the thesis would be a literature review of some sort.

“Plants have feelings too, you know…”

When Nature and Science both choose to review the same book, furthermore in the same week, there’s got to be something interesting about it.

According to the Science review, the book The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben “became a surprise best seller in Germany and is now being released in English.” Book reviewer Gabriel Popkin tries to be gentle:

“…his anthropomorphizing may irritate those seeking to understand trees on their own terms.”

And irritated was exactly what Richard Fortey at Nature felt:

“…I have problems with Wohlleben’s narrative approach. He describes trees as if they possessed consciousness. During times of drought they make “cries of thirst” or “might be screaming out a dire warning to their colleagues”. They experience “rising panic”. A seedling’s growth is portrayed as fratricide as it sees off its siblings… After a while, the urge to attribute motivation to the behaviour of trees becomes irksome.”

Popkin’s review also mentions an older (and very long) article in The New Yorker about a predecessor book from the 70’s, The Secret Life of Plants, which was chockful of quack experiments that

…has been discredited. But the book had made its mark on the culture. Americans began talking to their plants and playing Mozart for them, and no doubt many still do. This might seem harmless enough… But in the view of many plant scientists “The Secret Life of Plants” has done lasting damage to their field.

But there may be a positive side to anthropomorphizing plants yet. In an essay (published in Conservation Biology and covered by Mongabay.com), Balding and Williams suggests that it may help to counter the tendency of people to ignore plants and build more awareness and support for plant conservation.

 

Australia: 10 months

Time flies.

I just passed my 10-month mark two days ago.

I think I can tell that we’re starting to move on from late winter now towards early spring. Although Brisbane winters are mild, I had to learn how to cope. Nonetheless, give me winter over an Australian summer any time, especially in a house without air-conditioning (nor with a heater for that matter).

When I first arrived, I was sort of counting down to my next trip back to Singapore (which has been rather frequent, I must say). Six months in, however, I felt more-or-less adapted. Now, I enjoy every day I spend here.

There’s plenty of time to ruminate and reflect here, and the mindset change happened when I decided that I can’t spend all my life counting down to the next life stage.

When I was in primary school, I couldn’t wait to be taking the nine subjects in secondary school, including the cool stuff like history and geography, instead of the boring old four.

When I was in secondary school, I couldn’t wait to be sitting in junior college lectures, as a refreshing change from the usual classes in classrooms.

When serving National Service, everyone counts down to the last day.

For the first couple of my undergraduate years, I was counting down the semesters to graduating. In fact, I mentally divided them into half-semesters so that they would seem to pass by more quickly. I wanted to get out of school to start working.

In grad school, who doesn’t count down to the day when you hand in your thesis?

And I was counting down to the wedding mostly because I had forcibly stuffed my anxiety of organising such huge events into a corner of my mind, and keeping anxiety stuffed is mentally draining.

Imagine it going on: counting down to the day your child gets born; counting down to them growing out of their terrible twos and threes and angsty teens, to them graduating and getting a job; counting down to retiring… So I’ve told myself: this counting down has to stop.

If nothing fatally unfortunate happens, I can expect to live to 70 at minimum. The Economist recently ran an article saying that many of us would probably live to 120. Nonetheless, it’s a finite number of years. I’m already 33; to wish away the days of my life, just so I can escape the things I don’t like about today, would be foolish.

Whenever I’m in Brisbane, I have ample time and leisure to reflect about life… Something that in recent years I haven’t been able to do properly.

What is important to me? What are my priorities? What do I want to be when I am lying on my deathbed?

This overseas fellowship was supposed to get me to network with other researchers, come up with new ideas, learn new skills, etc. I’m actually surprised that in 10 months I really managed to do some of all of that.

But I think far more consequentially is that I have learnt to truly live on my own (e.g., cook real meals), and also had the space and time to contemplate, not just about science but also other things. I’ve regularized my life: meditation practice, work patterns, etc. These are not the things that my fellowship programme cared about, but I know they will be the things that really matter.

I had been reluctant to leave my secondary school and junior college. I found my National Service to be a fulfilling time, when I was serving others instead of serving myself (as a student). Towards the later half of my undergraduate life, I was no longer counting down; if I did, I wouldn’t have signed up for postgraduate studies.

These days, I am no longer so jubilant before my short trips back that I find it hard to concentrate at work, and also don’t feel quite so reluctant to leave Singapore because there’s the upside of getting back to quiet times in Brisbane.

When some folks heard I was going to Australia for two years, they made the jokes about not wanting to come back. I pooh-poohed them.

I still look forward to going back to Singapore, come October 2017. Just that I also know that I would miss this phase of life when it’s over, as I did with the others.

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