Last night was Halloween. Taking my daughters and their friends Trick or Treating is pretty amusing. Since one of the couples from my Lab didn’t have plans, I asked if they wanted to join us in the 2-hour pillage of the neighborhood. The woman showed up as a pink fluffy unicorn and her husband (a graduate student) showed up . . . as me.
This reminded me of grad student days. Even though I didn’t meet much with my advisor, I was really impacted by him. Not so much by how he did research (those days were past), but more by the way he viewed the world and the way he said things to me. Small example: When I was applying for jobs, he asked for a list of schools where I’d like to apply. When I showed up with my Top 30 list, he could have easily said, "Be realistic or “Are you smoking crack again?” Instead, he said, “Let’s cast the net wider.” A subtle choice of words, but things like this must have made a difference.
Here's a case in point. A couple years after I miraculously graduated, one of my buddies visited me in New Hampshire for a long weekend. While visiting, he asked why I had replaced my broken-down grad school car with a different type that was just about as old. I said, “Because I specifically liked the way this other one looks.” He then said, “Didn’t your advisor have the exact same car in that exact same color of white.” Yes, he did. Hmmm . . .
For Junior Faculty, it’s easy to develop tunnel vision that's only focused on your research. By doing so, we can overlook the legacy or long-term impact we will have on advisees, grad students, and teaching assistants. You can leave these students with a real gift, or you can leave them with a lump of coal. They may not remember the details of your theories, but they may remember how hopeful or excited you were about them or about the field. They might not remember any paper you published, but they may remember how you treated them when you were clearly distracted and stressed about something else.
For Grad Students, you’ll never become the Mini-Me version of your advisor, but you might be influenced more by them than you realize. Fortunately, you can partly control this. First, you can have some control over who you have as an advisor or mentor. It might take some work to switch away from an abusive or disinterested advisor, but it can be done. Second, you can also choose what it is from those encounters that you want to focus on, repeat to others, and replay over and over in your mind.
Last night was spooky Halloween. Today is saintly All Saints Day. No advisor or mentor is all spooky or all saintly. Fortunately, you can choose what you focus on. Choose carefully. You might end up with the same car they had.
Two years ago, I had no real idea what a "retracted" journal article was. I had never thought of it, or known anyone who had had one. If someone would have asked me, I would have probably said, "There must be something about it that was wrong."
Two years later, I've had a some journals ask me to rerun analyses and to show original paper-and-pencil surveys from as far back as 2000. When we haven't been able to do so (didn't save the hard-copy surveys or can't track down the coauthor who did the analysis), some of the papers have been retracted because they can't be fully validated.
Since then a few people have asked me if they can believe Article X or Y because they were retracted. I absolutely believe in these articles. The general conclusions are the same, and even if the original hard-copy surveys and original analyses done a number of years ago can't be found, new reanalyses (often done with different statisticians) generate similar conclusions.
On Monday, one of my coauthors pointed out an insightful article that Dr. Stephen Holden had written for The Conversation website titled, "Retraction of a Journal Article Doesn't Make It's Findings False."
One of his many points is that “Retractions may be important signals of reduced confidence in a finding, but they do not prove a finding false. This requires replication.” Social science moves forward because of replication and not rereanalyses.
The Gold Standard of science is when independent researchers can run about the same study and come up with similar conclusions. This is why I wish I had published more detail in the method sections of some of my papers. Instead, when the editor said “Cut out 1000 words,” we cut it out of the methodology section or the references and stayed focused on the idea. Today, you can include all of the methodological detail and post on an online appendix if there isn’t room in the paper.
Looking back, I’d also archive all of the analyses of my coauthors instead of assuming they’ll always have them on their computer or assuming they’ll never be needed. Coauthors can lose laptops, change computers, or leave academia.
As for saving the original pencil-and-paper copy of surveys and coding sheets . . . do so if you have your own warehouse (the photo above was taken in 2005 in Illinois in what was supposed to be my garage). Otherwise you can collect it in a retrievable electronic form (if you think electronic collection won’t affect the results).
Academics is an incredibly enriching calling. As you move forward in a happy career, I hope this is the only time you have to read about a retraction.
A week ago a writer for the Atlantic asked me if I had any advice for young scholars. I have lots and lots of advice, but here’s an expansion on three quick points I shared.
1) Being a scholar and an academic is an unbelievably great calling. It is totally enriching, and you can't let some of the bumpy times that you see me going through dissuade you from a great career.
2) No paper’s perfect, and you need to find the right balance between perfection and completion -- between perfecting something versus completing it. There's tons of "perfect" dissertations that have never been completed. There's tons of "perfect" papers that have never been submitted. You want to balance off polishing the perfect paper for 20 years with trying to make sure that if there were any errors they probably wouldn't change the basic conclusion.
3) You can do research to impress other academics, or you can do research to solve problems. Doing it for academics is more prestigious, but doing it to solve real problems in the real world is very gratifying — very enriching. Having someone say, “I do something differently because of your research, and it works for me” takes away some of the the sting of embarrassing mistakes.
For 30 years I have hoped my research would make people healthier and happier. That's been my specific mission, and it's very motivating. If your research is pointed at a mission that's important to you, it can be incredibly motivating , , , even in bumpy times.