Quantum Forest

notes in a shoebox

Month: October 2012

Publication incentives

(This post continues discussing issues I described back in January in Academic publication boycott)

Some weeks ago I received a couple of emails the same day: one asking me to submit a paper to an open access journal, diabetes and pregnancy while the other one was inviting me to be the editor of an ‘special issue’ of my choice for another journal. I haven’t heard before about any of the two publications, approved which follow pretty much the same model: submit a paper for $600 and—if they like it—it will be published. However, store the special issue email had this ‘buy your way in’ feeling: find ten contributors (i.e. $6,000) and you get to be an editor. Now, there is nothing wrong per-se with open access journals, some of my favorite ones (e.g. PLoS ONE) follow that model. However, I was surprised by the increasing number of new journals that look at filling the gap for ‘I need to publish soon, somewhere’. Surprised until one remembers the incentives at play in academic environments.

If I, or most academics for that matter, want to apply for academic promotion I have to show that I’m a good guy that has a ‘teaching philosophy’ and that my work is good enough to get published in journals; hopefully in lots of them. The first part is a pain, but most people can write something along the lines ‘I’m passionate about teaching and enjoy creating a challenging environment for students…’ without puking. The second part is trickier because one has to really have the papers in actual journals.

Personally, I would be happier with only having the odd ‘formal’ publication. The first time (OK, few times) I saw my name in a properly typeset paper was very exciting, but it gets old after a while. These days, however, I would prefer to just upload my work to a website, saying here you have some ideas and code, play with it. If you like it great, if not well, next time I hope it’ll be better. Nevertheless, this doesn’t count as proper publication, because it isn’t peer reviewed, independently of the number of comments the post may get. PLoS ONE counts, but it’s still a journal and I (and many other researchers) work in many things that are too small for a paper, but cool enough to share. The problem: there is little or no credit for sharing so Quantum Forest is mostly a ‘labor of love’, which counts bugger all for anything else.

These days as a researcher I often learn more from other people’s blogs and quick idea exchanges (for example through Twitter) than via formal publication. I enjoy sharing analysis, ideas and code in this blog. So what’s the point of so many papers in so many journals? I guess that many times we are just ‘ticking the box’ for promotions purposes. In addition, the idea of facing referees’ or editors’ comments like ‘it would be a good idea that you cite the following papers…’ puts me off. And what about authorship arrangements? We have moved from papers with 2-3 authors to enough authors to have a football team (with reserves and everything). Some research groups also run arrangements where ‘I scratch your back (include you as a coauthor) and you scratch mine (include me in your papers)’. We break ideas into little pieces that count for many papers, etc.

Another related issue is the cost of publication (and the barriers it imposes on readership). You see, we referee papers for journals for free (as in for zero money) and tell ourselves that we are doing a professional service to uphold the high standards of whatever research branch we belong to. Then we spend a fortune from our library budget to subscribe to the same journals for which we reviewed the papers (for free, remember?). It is not a great deal, as many reasonable people have pointed out; I added a few comments in academic publication boycott.

So, what do we need? We need promotion committees to reduce the weight on publication. We need to move away from impact factor. We can and need to communicate in other ways: scientific papers will not go away, but their importance should be reduced.

Some times the way forward is unclear. Incense doesn’t hurt (Photo: Luis).

Making an effort to prepare interesting lectures doesn’t hurt either.
These days it is fairly common editors ‘suggesting’ to include additional references in our manuscripts, which just happen to be to papers in the same journal, hoping to inflate the impact factor of the journal. Referees tend to suggest their own papers (some times useful, many times not). Lame, isn’t it?

PS. 2012-10-19 15:27 NZST. You also have to remember that not because something was published it is actually correct: outrageously funny example (via Arthur Charpentier). Yep, through Twitter.

Overlay of design matrices in genetic analysis

I’ve ignored my quantitative geneticist side of things for a while (at least in this blog) so this time I’ll cover some code I was exchanging with a couple of colleagues who work for other organizations.

It is common to use diallel mating designs in plant and tree breeding, check where a small number of parents acts as both males and females. For example, with 5 parents we can have 25 crosses, including reciprocals and selfing (crossing an individual with itself). Decades ago this mating design was tricky to fit and, considering an experimental layout with randomized complete blocks, one would have something like y = mu + blocks + dads + mums + cross + error. In this model dads and mums were estimating a fraction of the additive genetic variance. With the advent of animal model BLUP, was possible to fit something like y = mu + blocks + individual (using a pedigree) + cross + error. Another less computationally demanding alternative (at least with unrelated parents) is to fit a parental model, overlaying the design matrices for parents with something like this y = mu + blocks + (dad + mum) + cross + error.

The following code simulate data for a a diallel trial with three replicates and runs a parental model with ASReml. Later I expand the analysis building the matrices by hand.

How is the matrix overlay working? We can replicate the calculations used by ASReml by building the matrices from scratch and reusing the variance components, so we avoid the nastiness of writing code for residual maximum likelihood. Once I build the basic matrices I use the code from my How does a linear mixed model look like? post.

The overlay matrix Zparents is double the actual value we should use:

Repeating the analyses ‘by hand’ using Zparents2 to build the Z matrix results in the same overall mean and block effects, but the predicted breeding values for parents when using Zparents are 0.7 of the predicted breeding values for parents when using Zparents2. I may need to refit the model and obtain new variance components for parents when working with the correct overlaid matrix.

Gratuitous picture: walking in Quail Island (Photo: Luis).

Scraping pages and downloading files using R

I have written a few posts discussing descriptive analyses of evaluation of National Standards for New Zealand primary schools.The data for roughly half of the schools was made available by the media, but the full version of the dataset is provided in a single-school basis. In the page for a given school there may be link to a PDF file with the information on standards sent by the school to the Ministry of Education.

I’d like to keep a copy of the PDF reports for all the schools for which I do not have performance information, so I decided to write an R script to download just over 1,000 PDF files. Once I can identify all the schools with missing information I just loop over the list, using the fact that all URL for the school pages start with the same prefix. I download the page, look for the name of the PDF file and then download the PDF file, which is named school_schoolnumber.pdf. And that’s it.

Of course life would be a lot simpler if the Ministry of Education made the information available in a usable form for analysis.

Can you help?

It would be great if you can help me to get the information from the reports. The following link randomly chooses a school, click on the “National Standards” tab and open the PDF file.

Then type the achievement numbers for reading, writing and mathematics in this Google Spreadsheet. No need to worry about different values per sex or ethnicity; the total values will do.

Gratuitous picture: a simple summer lunch (Photo: Luis).

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