Poverty outside the Ivory Tower

Beginning 2014 Tenure, She Wrote published a great post about “Poverty inside the Ivory Tower”. I would recommend everyone to go read it and appreciate how difficult it is being poor and part of academia.

How many of my colleagues are looking down on poor people and ‘bad neighborhoods’ has always bothered me. How can you be so dismissive and disrespectful to your follow brothers and sisters only because they are poor and need help?  In the Bay Area I met many academics that bad mouthed about the Tenderloin in SF or West Oakland. Sometimes I wondered if these academics are actual talking about human beings or some kind of more primitive specimen. It hurts hearing these derogative words about your neighbors, fellows and friends. I bet many never talk with anyone living in these neighborhoods.

So here is a small story to tell you how great folks are living in these neighborhoods and the sense of community they embody.

We recently moved from West Oakland to Australia. The last couple of days of our move we were giving away goods we couldn’t move and didn’t need. This included plenty of food, bags of old spare change, towels, and other small household items. Larry and other (homeless) locals would stop by and ask if we have something else to give away. Everyone was happy to be treated with respect and get a little help to get by. Some of the locals greeted my partner and wife at the local store with ‘….thanks for feeding us all’. Great feeling to actually help. So all went well till the last day. My little family already left and I had to hand over the house. Early morning I wanted to go relax a bit going to the gym before a hectic day. Well this didn’t work out as planned. While getting ready I found that two of my bags got stollen that night one including my laptop, missing half of its keyboard, some paperwork and hiking gear for my last California trip with friends of the lab. Of course you can imagine I was pretty pissed and annoyed. How could someone steal from us when we were sharing so much? Off doing several necessary phone calls. At work using a shared computer I was getting the idea to walk through the (neighbor)hood and talk with the locals to get my stuff back. I made some handwritten leaflets with a short description and a phone number. A one-hour walk through the hood ensued and I talked with Larry, the homeless at our playground and half a dozen other folks. I explained everyone that it was annoying that folks stole from us while we gave away plenty. Everyone assured me to get in touch if they found something. Of course I wasn’t really hopeful. But hey was I in for a surprise. Later the day one of the locals gave me a call that he located one of my bags. After having it picked up. He gave me another call that night that he found some more of my stuff. The next morning the guy from our playground called me that he found a bag and inquired if it was mine. Two days later the first guy called again telling me he located nearly all the remaining stuff. Each and everyone that returned something actually needed the goods (e.g. shoes, cloths, bag) more than I did. They could have kept it all, panned or sold it on. They are really in need. But no, the sense of community and respect had bigger value for them. People actually care about you if you show them respect.

So in these situations when my fellow academics badmouth about poor people I hardly ever find the courage to speak up. In most of these situations I feel people nod and agree. Folks don’t appear to appreciate their own privilege of color, race, class and/or gender rather focusing on their own hardship and achievements. But hey everyone fought his/her own struggle and most people never had the opportunities we had.

Respect your brothers and sisters, cause we are actually all in this together.

Preprint at work and at work for preprints

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about our experience getting rejected during the review process, at the R1-R2 stage, for novelty reasons. Another group had submitted and published a competing manuscript after our initial submission. This all happened while we had posted the preprint of our manuscript on biorxiv several months prior.  Our story ended well. After some noise the editors reconsidered and invited us to resubmit. You can read the whole story here.

A couple of months have passed since the graceful turn around of PLoS. We were able to address the remaining reviewer’s concerns. So now our manuscript is improved and finally fully approved be the peer review process. You can read the accepted version of the manuscript here, all previous versions here and a short media snipped here. ///In case you are interested in improving crops be intergenus transfer of immune receptors I recommend these papers in wheat, rice and Arabidopsis.///

….this whole story was only possible with PLoS, who actually cares about the community it serves. Imagine a AAAS or Nature group journal, I bet they would have simply swept us aside.

Enough of the background story….Was it worth all the hassle? Do preprints work in my field (of plant biology)? Would I post a preprint of my work again?

Yes it was worth all the hassle. I truly think we were treated unfairly as it simply isn’t good manners to reject a manuscript due to novelty reasons alone during the review process. The journal already engaged you and asked for more. Now it simply drops you like a hot potato?!? No one wants a dirty potato off the floor! Our preprint simply made our case stronger and public.

Yes it was worth all the hassle. Our preprint got over 1500 visits and 500 pdf downloads before publication with PLoS. Doesn’t sound much to you…well it is well more than none while hidden away in a pile of papers of a busy reviewer.

I think it is (very) early days for preprints in plant biology. Several (senior) PIs told me that it doesn’t work, it isn’t good for your career, it hurts early career researchers, the field is too competitive….well that’s their opinion not mine. Others have written good posts of why to support preprints (here, here, here, here)  so I won’t repeat all that jazz here (yet see below). The plant biology community in particular though can only profit from more openness including preprints, post publication peer review (PPPR), public peer review (PPR) and similar new ways of improving the peer review/publication process. I tend to wonder if many of the high profile retractions (here and here) and falsification accusations (here and here) could have been avoided in a more transparent culture. Impossible to tell in hindsight yet well worth striving for in near future. More transparency and openness is really the only way forward…

Yes of course! Every time I have the chance I will post my manuscript on a pre-print server at time of submission. I deem it ready to go public so no reason to hold back! /// I even hope to  get feedback on a preprint someday./// This decisions of course also depends on my co-authors and our journal choice. ///See (not fully up-to-date) policies here. And no in my experience AAAS does not support preprints./// Also the American Society of Plant Biology (ASPB) wasn’t really supportive of preprints up to very recently. Thankfully this has changed due to lobbying efforts of several of its members (including myself) as you can read here and here. ASPB hasn’t publicly announced this change however I hope they follow in the footsteps of other big societies such as American Phytopathological Society (APS), Amercian Society of Microbiology (ASM), and Genetics Society of America (GSA) to only name a few. It is great to see scientific societies listening to their memberships.

Yes preprints work as long as we work for them. It will be great to see preprints fully take of in (plant) biology including pre-publication reviews such as here.  I can only agree with others that the whole publication experience needs to be improved. Researchers should not feel like ‘beggars can’t be choosers’ when it comes to publication and sharing their knowledge. Hidden away peer review might help improve your manuscript in many, but for sure not all cases. It doesn’t appear to be the best way to decide on accept/reject of your manuscript (see also here) and thereby deciding on your future in academia.