Sunday, April 17, 2005

Discussion Questions

New Balance has been heavily advertising some questions about sports so I'd thought I would give my own discussion questions about academics.
  • You've been working hard on a research problem and someone else solves it. Does that make you feel happy or sad?
  • Three people in an office. Two of them bounce ideas back and forth to prove a new theorem while the third just tries to keep up. Should the third person be a co-author?
  • You are reviewing a paper and see an easy but major improvement to the paper's main result. What do you do?
  • Your friend is applying to your university and you see that one of his recommenders wrote a weak letter. Do you tell your friend?
  • Your advisor of the opposite sex has two tickets to a concert you really want to see and invites you to join him/her. Would you go?
  • You discover a student wrote something strongly negative about a colleague on their weblog. What would you do, if anything?
  • Would you still be a scientist if you could do research but all your work had to be published anonymously?
Go forth and discuss.


  1. (1) Happy if I already gave up, sad otherwise.
    (2) No.
    (3) Wait until after the paper is public, then do whatever I'd do if I weren't reviewing it.
    (4) Only if I thought the letter was deeply unjustified.
    (5) Sure.
    (6) Talk it over with the student.
    (7) No.

  2. 1. Happy if I'd been working on it for a long time (Done! I'll look at something else now).
    2. No.
    3. Write a combined paper.
    4. I think so.
    5. Why not!
    6. Nothing.
    7. Sure - that's the ideal time. It's anonymous, so it doesn't matter what I publish and research is most interesting if you remove the pressure to publish.

  3. What's wrong with going out with your advisor ?

    Let me add another question:

    (8) Your advisor of the opposite sex, who's extremely attractive, asks you to go with her/him to a weekend in the bahamas. Do you go ?

  4. Advisor of the appropriate sex. Please.

  5. (1) Happy for them, angry at myself.
    (2) No. The third person may make a contribution later, but just being there is not enough.
    (3) Suggest it in the review, see if the authors incorporate it. If they do, great (and do not ask for coauthorship). If not, write a follow-on paper.
    (4) No. I would, however, likely contribute a contrary positive letter to the committee if I could.
    (5) If it fit with the relationship I'd had with the advisor so far.
    (6) Things I have done in such situations...a) reminded the student that everyone can read the weblog without mentioning the comment specifically. In a different situation b) pointed out the comment to the colleague.
    (7) Yes. In fact, there is a tradition on the sci.crypt newsgroup and cryptography mailing list of posters that make substantial technical contributions while posting via anonymous remailers. If you go further afield to computer security, it's not unusual to see citations of work by pseudonyms.

  6. (1) Depends on whether I missed something obvious. If the solution was very elegant, I'd be happy for them, if, on the other hand I had been very close to proving it, I'd be really angry at myself.
    (2) Which goes to show that we need a better method of attribution than sole authorship. I've heard that a journal in the biological sciences was considering "movie style" credits.
    (3) Let the paper appear, and then publish followup work.
    (4) No. Absolutely not.
    (5) Sure, if it is clear that it's just hanging out and nothing else.
    (6) I would tell the colleague. The information is public, hence the student should live with the consequences (good or bad).
    (7) Absolutely. In fact, any scientist who's worked in or with industry and/or defense has likely discovered something that has never seen the light of day.

  7. This is not a response to the set of questions but (IMO) a related note. When I was a graduate student, my office mate who was doing his Ph.D under a young aggressive professor, told me that whenever the professor gets a paper for review with some good ideas, he would delay the review of the paper and ask his students to work on the idea and publish quickly.

  8. An interesting question set... let's see:
    (1) Probably happy that the problem got solved (but that could depend on specifics such as how close I was).
    (2) The third should have the decency to waive coauthorship, but the other two should give him/her the option.
    (3) Suggest it in the review. From the receiving end, I might ask the editor to contact the referee on joining as a coauthor.
    (4) A hard one. If the letter caused damage I would drop a hint to the friend so he/she can try to avoid the "recommender" on future occasions.
    (5) As a supervisor I would not put a student in such a dillema. As the question was posed it depends on my assessment of what is the supervisor's motivation.
    (6) If it is also factually incorrect I would put my comment on the weblog. I would alert the colleague if the post could be damaging (not just rantful).
    (7) I assume this is about total identity loss, not just a pseudonym or something similar. I would still be a scientist, but probably enjoy it less.

  9. Irit Dinur has a short, self-contained proof of the PCP theorem up on the ECCC right now. It's an extremely important and impressive result that will likely lead to a lot of new work (not the least of which is cutting down the onerous investment time needed to get into the area).

    I'm hoping the only reason that Lance hasn't mentioned it yet is that he is busy digesting the paper....

    Congratulations Irit!!!

  10. (1) Happy to see that the problem has solution, unhappy because I couldn't find it myself.
    (2) No.
    (3) Suggest it in the review. Hopefully, the authors should see it is major improvement and contact the editor offering co-authorship to the referee.
    (4) Depends on how week was the letter and how high is my consideration by my friend.
    (5) Yep!
    (6) Ignore it.
    (7) Yep!


  11. 1) If I miss a minor point then really angry else happy that it has been solved.

    2) Third should show the decency and deny co-authorship.

    3) Tell the authors about the improvement. It isn't my problem, so I should NOT get any co-authorship. Also if the question doesn't interest me I will not later on publish related work even if I get any major result. I will still get back to the authors.

    4) If freind is close I will let him/her know it and ask her to not take the reco from the same recommender later on.

    5) Depends on our previous interactions. If it fits in, fine.

    6) Hint to the student that his views will be read by everybody.

    7) Actually, I will hate to be a student when I read papers whose authors I don't know. I wouldn't know whom to ask if I wish to follow up some work. And it would be very very confusing for me as a student. And who would ever be a scientist if he/she was never a student at first place.

  12. (1) A bit of both but, I would try to see if I could take advantage of the new results.

    (2) Depends. I would not want to damage a relationship over an authorship. One suggestion I have seen is that the person who made less contributions should write the paper, check the proofs, do experiments and other "grunt work." So the "slacking author" should try to figure a way to contribute and withdraw otherwise and the "leading authors" should offer them a co-authorship and accept if they decline. It all depends on trust and respect.

    (3) If publishable separately I would finish the review and work on my improvement and submit it. Otherwise I would just notify them.

    (4) NO. I think the privacy of the recommendation process is important.

    (5) No problem. I am not sure I would turn it down even if I thought it was not "strictly professional!" Yes, its PROBABLY not a good idea to date your advisor, but I don't think I could completely rule it out. People have done and are happy. But EXTREME CAUTION is called for.

    (6) Say nothing. Sometimes it is better to not get involved.

    (7) Yes, I would still do it. I would miss the ego and the gratification aspect but I would still enjoy the problem solving, the cameraderie, the "life of the mind" etc.

  13. 1. I would mostly feel stupid.
    2. It's up to that third person.
    3. A trivial improvement belongs in the referee report.
    4. No. (I guess the answer is likely to eliminate the problem, leaving me with no friends.)
    5. Annoyingly, I have never faced this problem, though my past advisor keeps asking me to go sailing on his yacht. It's been quite some time since I graduated, and we are not of opposite sexes, so this doesn't seem to count.
    6. Nothing.
    7. Yes, assuming that I could still make a living without a list of publications. (This is the long version of no.)

  14. 1. Either stupid or awed depending on the difficulty.

    2. No. If we make co-authors of everybody who happens to be in the room then we make it much more likley that people will keep their research discussions private. Doing so would be much worse for the research climate. (If on the other hand the 3rd person interacted meaningfully but had no direct role in the final outcome then they should be a co-author.

    3. It depends. For journal submission I have contacted the authors directly with permission from the editor. For a conference submission if I am not so interested in the area I just write it in the comments to authors. Otherwise I would wait, ask for a copy of the paper and then mention it before their final version is due.

    4. Making a direct comment would be unethical unless there is something unjustified. I might try to steer them subtly, however, without revealing anything.

    5. If my advisor already had a hint that I might be interested then I would have no problem. If it came completely out of the blue I would think twice.

    6. If I've discovered it then probably lots of other people will. If I think it is unfair and I had some contact with the student (possibly via a 3rd party) then I would first suggest that the student fix it. If they don't fix it or if I don't have an avenue to contact the student then I would say something to the colleague.

    7. Probably not even if I still got paid the same.

  15. 1. Happy that the problem has been solved by someone, but most likely sad and dejected for having invested so much time and failed to do it.

    2. It still depends. Was all the work done in the office, or also individually between meetings? Or was the whole theorem proved in one sole session in that office? If individually, did the third person contribute anything? Did he pair with one of the other two and his work was presented in one single block at one of the meetings?

    3. Tell the authors about it, probably. But a difficult one.

    4. I might tell him after the decision was made.

    5. I don't quite understand the sexual emphasis. Is it unethical to date your adviser? What about students married to teachers, or athletes married to their coaches? On the other hand, are sexual relationships the only considered 'dangerous' ? What if you and your adviser share a strictly non-sexual relationship and still have a habit of going out together to play cards or go to a bar? That said, the adviser's offer could have nothing to do with that kind of move. Answering 'Yes' or 'No' adamantly on this one is ignoring too many cases where there is nothing wrong.

    6. Another one where some questions have to be made. Is the student aware of the visibility of his weblog?
    If the student was unaware, then I'd urge him to remove the comment as soon as possible to avoid damage to his image resulting from innocence or immaturity.
    If he was and did it on purpose, the best thing is to warn him that resentments could be the result, and bad relationships might harm his career in the future. I find that as a teacher, and a more mature person, I'd have that obligation. But, if after that, the student decided to keep the message up, then by all means, it was his clear and deliberate intention to do so, so say no more about the subject.

    7. Yes if there would still be some group where I could be recognized as author, for instance, if someone paid me to do it. If not, then there would be no point in doing a thing for which you would never be recognized and, as consequence, where you could never advance.
    If everybody else in the world were in the same conditions, of publishing anonymously, it would be bad for cooperation for it wouldn't even be known who were the other scientists in the same field, their preferences and level of competence.