Saturday, August 22, 2020

Life out of balance and attempting to rebalance

A couple years ago, I wrote a couple posts that were in many respects confessional. They were painful posts to write, as I was in a great deal of pain at the time. With almost two years of hindsight, they hold up. I am not sure that's a good thing, but that's perhaps neither here nor there. In spite of what I think are heroic efforts by a number of individuals and organizations to find some sort of meaningful change, the academic system still seems to reward practices that are far from optimal, and imposes a sort of imbalance between work and the rest of one's life that is equally unhealthy. This is true for early career researchers (grad school, post-doc, assistant professor), as well as for those of us at more senior levels at obscure institutions who are still holding out hopes of moving up a level or two more. To succeed requires powerful allies, many of whom are indifferent to one's dreams or who may themselves (wittingly or unwittingly) harbor ulterior motives. All that is to say that in a position of less privilege, one is at something of a considerable disadvantage. It becomes easier to look the other way if ethical concerns emerge. It becomes easier to sell more and more pieces of one's soul until there is nothing left. One ends up with a name on articles that are supposed to be important, and yet one feels empty inside when re-reading them or seeing others' reactions to them. Friendships and family are abandoned in the pursuit of the almighty h-index. What's left? That's where I found myself in early April 2018. I was in a set of circumstances where if I continued status quo one more day, I would literally be dead. That is not hyperbole. I was burned out, facing a retraction that was entirely justified, and had little to show for a few years of an academic partnership that was supposed to put me where I thought I wanted to be at the time. I had developed some very unhealthy personal habits to cope with the loss, not only of some imagined opportunity, but a real loss of relationships with people I had loved. I developed some very unhealthy personal habits to cope with a situation that was beyond toxic (whether or not the toxicity was intended is beside the point). I may not be a victim, but I am someone figuring out how to survive.

In the interim, I have struggled to figure out a way forward. Professionally, my safe space will inevitably be the classroom. That in and of itself tells me I am in a situation that is ideal for me, and that I should treasure. Needless to say, that's the road I've been traveling. Otherwise, I am at a crossroads still. My identity is largely tied to a specific line of research, and one in which I am a very reluctant expert. I still have some loose ends to tie with regard to that area. My intention is to see that through. I have an encyclopedic chapter out toward the end of the year, and another pass at that meta-analytic database I need to make to put a few things to rest. I am doing so at a much more relaxed pace. I still have another data set or two to work with. Again, no real hurry. I just need to get them written up and see how they land. Beyond that? I am still figuring it out. If I can spot out a pattern that looks odd, I am up to some data sleuthing. That is thankless work, but when I've had some minor part in making my corner of the scientific record a bit better, I feel a sense of relief. That matters. I used to do a lot in the way of professional travel. The current pandemic ended that. My guess is that virtual conferences are how I will roll for the foreseeable future. Otherwise, I am content to grow sunflowers, and tend to my cats. The broken relationships? Those are all works in progress. Some burned bridges can be rebuilt. Others may not. That is now out of my hands.

In many respects, though, I still feel a bit shell-shocked, two or so years later. Some of the habits I developed to cope with a barrage of emailed demands and diatribes in the waning months of 2017 and then once more around April 2018 have been difficult to shake. Long after taking responsibility over whatever went down during that period, I still fret over letting people down. I was triggered again recently, as someone who mentored me many years ago came across a retraction notice. Once again, I've let someone down. I did what I could to make things right back then. At some point, although always part of my history, part of how I came to be who I am now, it is a done deal. Eventually those whom I have had casual contact over the years will need to accept that, email me or DM me to ask whatever questions need addressing, and move on. That would help me a lot. I may not be quite in the dark place I was in when I wrote those posts, but it's not clear I am quite recovering either. I don't like to leave a story on an ambiguous note. Yet here I am. If nothing else, I came to realize that what I had when I came to my current gig in 2010 was where I had needed to be all along. That's helped me get through a very rough patch. I'd advise anyone who gets into the academic life to land someplace, make it meaningful, and simply be grateful for the chance to contribute in some way to bettering a community - especially those communities that welcome you and your family in some significant capacity. I have that. Took me a while to appreciate that. That knowledge is what is keeping me going. In the meantime, my pain is my own. I will sort it. Or not. We'll see.

Friday, August 14, 2020

Uli Schimmack on a decade of replication failures

I am more familiar with Uli Schimmack from the Facebook group he runs (Psychological Methods Discussion Group) and his R-Index handle on Twitter. He also regularly blogs, and I have used some of his posts as supplemental materials in my undergraduate Social Psychology course. Earlier this year, he posted a reflection on the replication crisis that hit Social Psychology especially hard initially (I often say we were ground zero). I recommend the post, which has been updated to reflect the content of an article he published recently. Well worth your time.

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Never do this as a representative of #sciencetwitter

I'm in a different space than the neurosciences, and definitely a different space than those who have been vying to represent the #metoo movement in the sciences. I try to be an ally as best as possible. That's all. I do expect a level of honesty, but I don't think that's too much to ask. A lot of people, especially early career researchers and others who are in tenuous situations use platforms such as Twitter to express concerns of theirs pseudonymously. In and of itself, that doesn't matter much. People share their experiences, they seem to add up, and we figure out how to best support them. That's swell.

Sometimes, we experience something else.

I'll start with something fairly basic: It's hard to be alive in the US right now without directly knowing at least one person who has tested positive for COVID-19. I am personal friends with someone who was eventually diagnosed as COVID-19 positive, and who, after roughly two months, made a complete recovery. Keep in mind that I live in a more remote part of the US, and your mileage may vary.

So imagine that I catch wind that someone I had some vague recollection of is reported to have died from COVID-19, after her institution allegedly kept her in classrooms for several weeks after it was very obvious that the proverbial truth had hit the fan (to borrow from proto-rapper Gylan Kain). Keep in mind that although I had no direct interaction with this particular cyberfiction, as far as I know, the thought of a faculty member being placed in harm's way was one that would concern me for very obvious reasons. Would a US college or university continue to coerce a faculty member to teach seated courses after early to mid-March? The odds are unlikely. In my very Red state of Arkansas, we were given an extra week of spring break starting the second week of March to enable faculty to flip classes to online. My understanding is that Arizona did something very similar.

Here's the thing. The story did not add up. The cyberfiction's alleged university (Arizona State University - I had to make sure that it was not Arkansas State University, which is also referred to as ASU and which has grad programs) had no clue as to who this person was or any indication that one of their own faculty had allegedly died from COVID-19. Turns out those who considered this cyberfiction as personal friends had never met the person. Note that when dealing with pseudonymous bloggers and social media accounts, there may well be a real person. Note too that it is possible to know someone who wrote under a pseudonym who really did die, and that said death could be confirmed independently. Been there. It hurt. A bunch of us mourned. We got on with life. That said, I also have experienced at least once where someone used a sockpuppet to fake a suicide (that was back in Usenet days). Let's just say that did not go over well. A sleuth was able to put two and two together and sort out that perp of the hoax was the alleged victim. Thankfully, the truth came out, and the perp was deservedly roasted.

In the meantime, someone who was once considered the face of #metoostem is facing a lot of inconvenient questions she will likely never answer. I expect nothing less. Cosplaying on Twitter an identity that one would have no way of rightfully identifying creates a lot of collateral damage. For those who actually believed that they were interacting with a real individual, there was an initial sense of a genuine loss, followed by a sense of being duped. For those who had less of a horse in the race, as it were, this episode may reinforce the worst of #metoostem. That latter lesson is one I hope is not reinforced. For every liar, there are a ton of people who have been abused, dismissed, etc. who deserve to be heard. That a privileged White woman may well have faked a relationship that was professional and personal for whatever reason is beyond the pale. That this person may have faked being an indigenous person - and especially one belonging to the LGBTQ community - is beyond the pale.

In the meantime, #metoostem deserves new and diverse voices. The one person who was most vocal may not have been much of an ally.

Following are some Twitter threads and articles to provide some much needed context.

Here's some sleuthing from Aspiring Leftist Academic, and Keiko has a good thread summarizing this situation as it unfolds. More sleuthing by Isabel Ott.

Here's an article from Buzzfeed.

Gizmodo weighs in.

Heavy had its own deep dive into this particular saga.

Daily Beast had its own article, which did include a brief interview with BethAnn McLaughlin.

Science Magazine has its own coverage, noting that the apparently faked account in question (what I refer to as a cyberfiction), @sciencing_bi and @mclneuro are both suspended under Twitter's rules. Twitter has also restricted the @MeTooStem account due to unusual activity.

And yes, this story has made its way to Inside Higher Ed, as does Chronicle of Higher Ed (note Chronicle article is paywalled)

Since this was a situation that initially appeared to have some connection to Arizona State University, it is reasonable to expect that AZcentral would cover it.

Note that depending on the media outlet, McLaughlin has varied in her willingness to respond. Her responses themselves are troubling - including an admission that she had access to the @sciencing_bi account. I suspect that the media outlets own reporting was aided considerably by various sleuthing efforts on Twitter (@endlesswarrio, @mbeisen, @isabelott, and probably others I am forgetting at the moment), who dug up inconsistencies, as well as dug up stock photos that were passed off as authentic events, including alleged meetups between @sciencing_bi and @mclneuro, as well as the supposed trip to Yosemite that turned out to just be @mclneuro and her daughter.

There are some questions that have been circulating for a while about whether or not BethAnn McLaughlin was involved in some data image manipulation/duplication. That's above my pay grade, but certainly worth a look.

In the meantime, my sympathy and empathy to anyone who got hurt during this debacle. I expected more out of Science Twitter than a bunch of wannabe authors of really bad fanfic. Yet here we are. This is a cautionary tale. I really hope that those who are genuinely under-represented as scholars - not only on Twitter but within our various disciplines writ large - were not unduly harmed here, and that their voices get heard and respected.

Note that I have added some new links to this post as I become aware of them.This post was last updated on August 4.

One last update for this post: Bethann McLaughlin finally admits it (through her lawyer), as reported in the NYT. Make of her apology what you will. Not sure if it is sincere, or more of a move to avoid being held accountable. I am not intending on commenting further on the matter unless there is some blowback that is relevant to those who work hard to make the sciences more inclusive. Otherwise, we're done here as of August 4.

Last update as of August 6: This article from ArsTechnica slipped through the cracks. It's useful for describing how a fake account could be seen as a plausible real person, and how @Sciencing_Bi would have fooled a lot of otherwise skeptical people. Also included are plenty of screen shots. The fallout is still to be determined. I am guessing this will make it easier for trolls to attack pseudonymous Twitter users who have legitimate reasons to not be identified by name, as well as add more ammo to push back against the Me Too Movement more broadly, as well as those who are marginalized to begin with. Okay. We're done here.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Where things stand

I decided a couple years ago that trying to pretend to be even an R-2 researcher was unrealistic, and that the basics that I do, and have done since 2000, are good enough. Some years I mentor undergrad students. Some years I don't. I still have some occasional collaborators, but thankfully we work based one each others' life circumstances. Over the last couple years, my line of "my primary project is our side project" has meant something. I work primarily in a classroom - physically or virtually (the latter especially in the era of COVID-19). My service is primarily to my students obtaining degrees and me somehow managing to serve my campus community. The rest is gravy. In the meantime, I am grateful to the extent that my state manages to keep enough of us employed. How long that lasts is an unknown. I may well be teaching English in Thailand before all is said and done.

We'll just have to see how well that the Federal Government supports states and localities. If that happens, I have very little to worry about, and the likelihood of me expatriating in a completely different capacity are minimal. Time will tell.