Archive for: November, 2017

Looking at Pink Sheets / NIH reviews (part 1)

Nov 13 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

A former trainee, now working with in a medical center/research group/structured environment, asked me to take a look at the reviews for their recently triaged proposal. While I have permission to quote these, I've done everything I can to cover up identities.

There are a number of interesting points worth learning from. In particular, a number of things that were constant across reviews. I have put the reviewer comments in italic to differentiate from my thoughts.  I will  try and organize these into categories.

This is where this post got long, so just one category today:

Category: Obvious things that you should pay attention to ... or ... the reviewers are saying exactly what they mean. This is reviewer 1:

  • Major weaknesses are the dependence of Aim 3 on success in Aims 1 and 2: This is obvious. If you need the results from aim 1 to know what you will do in aim 2, what happens if aim 1 fails? This is a difficult thing, as one is usually trying to build a series of steps. And frequently, what we find in the beginning changes what we find later on. But Aims need to be independent. One way to cope with this is to rearrange what is in each aim so that something you might vary within an aim, becomes the difference between the aims.
  • [major weakness includes]: a lack of scientific rigor. Guys, NIH is serious about this premise and rigor stuff. We were told before and at study section to explicitly mention these words in our reviews. See here. and here. Many of the specific comments in this review are about rigor.
  • Although the clinical need is clear ... the weaknesses outweigh the strengths of the proposal. Ouch. Being clinically relevant is not enough. Being translational is not enough. The proposal must stand on its research merits.
  • For Personnel, I've seen (and written) versions of the following comments over and over. These are all about picking a project that is feasible. Feasible is not an explicit criterion, but it comes up in study section discussion all the time:
    • This team does not have a long history of collaboration
    • The ability of the PI to direct such a large project is not proven.
    • The proposal would be improved by an explicit plan for regular communication and coordination of the efforts in the diverse labs involved.

Here is a list of simple things that should be in every proposal. These are all about rigor of the proposed project. This is reviewer 2:

  • What are controls?
  • Expected results and interpretation are not provided in each aim.
  • Sample sizes are very small. And  the numbers in the human subjects table do not match either those in the research design for Aim 1 or Aim 2. 
  • Sex as a biological variable is not considered.

Which brings us to this reviewer's conclusion for Approach Weaknesses:

  • Thus, scientific rigor and reproducibility are a concern.

Reviewer three continues with this theme. When all three reviewers hit the same point, in this case lack of rigor, one must stop and reconsider the proposal.

The proposal suffers from numerous problems ranging from a lack of clarity, superficial background, and contradictory statements. Details of the actual research are lacking as is identification of who will actually carry out the research

At the end of one of the reviews are the following famous words. Some people see this as a Stock Critique. It can be. But in this case it was the reviewer summarizing why this proposal got "7's" in Approach.

The weaknesses reduce the likelihood that the project will have a sustained, powerful influence in the field.

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Science Nerd Humor

Nov 12 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

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How to do a (paper) review right

Nov 10 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

Ok, first from the editor:

Please note that both reviewers are demanding MAJOR and extensive revisions, so please keep this in mind if you decide to revise and resubmit the paper, as the revised version will be reevaluated by the original reviewers. Please be aware that this invitation does not guarantee eventual acceptance of your manuscript.

Translation: be afraid. be very afraid.

Then, the editor gives a page of logistics/style points/file considerations and demands. blah blah blah.

Let's get to the the reviews. No reviewer three, so reviewer two steps up to the plate:

Reviewer two:

Overall this was a weak manuscript for several reasons. 

Translation: just go die in a corner.

Followed by a page and half of detailed, single spaced criticism of everything.

Translation: don't give up your day job.

Potty: but this *is* my day job.

Reviewer: Find another.

Now on to Reviewer One:

The premise of this study is of great interest. The contribution of the blah blah aspects of the leg nerves to bunny hopping execution is an important question and would make an important contribution to the literature.

Translation: there is hope for you, yet, kiddo. But don't get cocky. Then follows a page and a half of detailed, single spaced criticism as to what is wrong. In detail. Excruciating detail.  Translation: do not fuck with me, monkey boy.


But why did I title this post "doing it right"? At the end of Rev 1's review was this line, that I missed the first time through (take home message: read the fine print):

I believe the authors are capable of filling in the necessary details to help readers place the significance of these findings into the larger picture of bunny hopping.

Thank you, Reviewer One. Thank you.

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Quote of the Day

Nov 09 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

I discovered that rejections are not altogether a bad thing. They teach a writer to rely on his own judgment and to say in his heart of hearts, 'To hell with you.' -- Saul Bellow

This applies to writing papers, and probably grant proposals, too.

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Get ready for winter: Pandas playing in the snow

Nov 09 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

I too want to roll down the hill.

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Taking responsibility

Nov 08 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

I came across a twitter dialog I had saved from a while back:

followed by:

It made me think about shared responsibilities:

Firstly, advisor responsibilities. Did not the advisor see this coming at least a year in advance and start talking to trainees about it? Did advisor have head in sand and terminal avoidance of bad things disease?

Secondly, student responsibilities. It is entirely possible that advisor (see para above) did not discuss this with student. Did student think to try and talk to advisor about time table? costs of doing experiements? and finishing times?

Thirdly, program responsibilities: there ought (and ought is loaded word here) be a number of programmatic safeguards, fail-safes, hurdles, and regular meetings to ensure that this kind of thing doesn’t happen. Even back in the day, when “mentor” was only a greek half-horse/half-man mythical creature teaching soon to be heroes, my program had a mandatory yearly meeting with someone who didn’t really care but asked the questions about where you were and when you were going to finish.

All of these things fall into the "wouldn't it be nice" basket. But in the end, it is the flip side of "what do you own?" If you own your thesis and your degree, you own them. Period. We can all work towards a better world where every person gets the support they need, but in the end, if you want a degree, you have to make sure it happens and you cannot depend on someone else.

When I was in my PhD program, one day my advisor called us all in (he had about 7 grad students at the time) and said, almost this baldly: I have cancer, its bad, and the median life expectancy is about 5-7 months. Whatever else was true, it was a very effective way of getting students to finish, and finish quickly. There are many things that would have been nice in this situation. Few of them happened. But what was abundantly clear, what was made abundantly clear, was it was our responsibility to get finished.

This is a meta-criterion: take responsibility. From it flows many other paths of action, pieces of advice and guidance on decision making. One may argue about unfair, and being owed, and "shouldn't they..". But in the end, it comes down to "do you want to finish and get this degree". Understand, this is not about what ought to be. Or how things would be best, and what would produce the optimal outcomes and enhance diversity and make unicorns fart rainbows. This is about how things are, and how to work with them. There are ugly choices, and no one (who matters) will think less of you for having made the choice that is right for you. But, in the end one must chose (and chose over and over again).

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NIH: Statement on Article Publication Resulting from NIH Funded Research

Nov 07 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

Notice Number: NOT-OD-18-011

Release Date:  November 3, 2017


Purpose: To protect the credibility of published research, authors are encouraged to publish papers arising from NIH-funded research in reputable journals.


Effective communication of scientific results is an essential part of the scientific process. In support of public access to National Institutes of Health (NIH) funded research, authors are encouraged to publish their results in reputable journals. The NIH has noted an increase in the numbers of papers reported as products of NIH funding which are published in journals or by publishers that do not follow best practices promoted by professional scholarly publishing organizations. These journals and publishers typically can be identified by several attributes, including:

  • misleading pricing (e.g., lack of transparency about article processing charges);
  • failure to disclose information to authors;
  • aggressive tactics to solicit article submissions;
  • inaccurate statements about editorial board membership; and
  • misleading or suspicious peer-review processes.

Publications using such practices may call into question the credibility of the research they report.

Recommendations to identify credible journals

To help protect the credibility of papers arising from its research investment, NIH encourages its stakeholders, including grantees, contractors, intramural researchers, and librarians, to help authors:

  • Adhere to the principles of research integrity and publication ethics;
  • Identify journals that follow best practices promoted by professional scholarly publishing organizations; and
  • Avoid publishing in journals that do not have a clearly stated and rigorous peer review process.

Existing resources can assist in this process.  Guidance for researchers include:
Think Check Submit, a publishing industry resource; and
Academics and scientists: Beware of predatory journal publishers,” information from the Federal Trade Commission.

The National Library of Medicine, the NIH entity that maintains PubMed and PubMed Central, encourages publishers to follow established industry best practices including:


Please direct all inquiries to:

Office of Extramural Research

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Professional Development at SfN 2017

Nov 07 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

The following professional development events at Neuroscience 2017 provide exceptional learning and networking opportunities for neuroscientists at all career stages. Add one or more of these events to your itinerary when browsing the Neuroscience Meeting Planner or mobile app.

  • Career Development Topics: A Networking Eventwill be held Saturday, November 11 from 7:30–9:30 p.m. in the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, Hall E. The event features 26 tables dedicated to topics such as “Choosing a Postdoctoral Position,” “Publishing a Peer-Reviewed Article,” and “Applying for Career Development Awards (e.g., K Grants),” among others. Two experts will be stationed at each table to answer questions. For a full list of table topics and participating experts, view the Career Development Topics program.
  • Professional Development Workshopswill be offered between Saturday, November 11 and Monday, November 13 in the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, Rooms 207A and 207B. Workshops are organized into Career Paths, Career Skills, Funding, and Teaching and Program Development tracks. Topics include:
    • Careers in Translational Drug Discovery
    • Global Approaches for Collaboration & Networking
    • Incorporating Public Engagement Into Your Professional Portfolio: A Practical Guide
    • News You Can Use in Writing Grant Application: Updates from NIH
    • How to Be Successful in a Career in Academia
    • Research Mentor Training for Neuroscience Faculty (Advanced registration required at
    • Navigating Career Transitions in Neuroscience
    • FAIR Data, Metadata, and Data Sharing in Neurotrauma
    • Funding Opportunities to Build Interdisciplinary Neuroscience Research for the Future
    • A Practical Guide to Science Communication
    • Addressing Issues Facing Women in the Early Stages of Their Scientific Career
    • Neuroscience Departments and Programs Workshop: Trends in Neuroscience Training: A Discussion of the SfN NDP Survey Results
    • Evidence-Based Approaches to Teaching Neuroscience
    • The Power of Effective Storytelling: Communicating the Value of Brain Research
    • Improving Your Science: Sample-Size Planning, Pre-Registration, and Reproducible Data Analysis

To ask questions and to learn more about professional development opportunities at Neuroscience 2017, contact

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quote of the day: Jorge Luis Borges edition

Nov 03 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

I am not sure that I exist, actually. I am all the writers that I have read, all the people that I have met, all the women that I have loved; all the cities I have visited. --Jorge Luis Borges


Any life is made up of a single moment, the moment in which a man finds out, once and for all, who he is. --Jorge Luis Borges


Time is the substance from which I am made. Time is a river which carries me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger that devours me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire that consumes me, but I am the fire. -- Jorge Luis Borges


My mortality rides heavy on my shoulders today.

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A Brief thought on Choosing a Program

Nov 03 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

There are lots of concerns about choosing a PhD program, the least of which is choosing to do a PhD. But I saw an advert, on twitter, to go work in an "exciting" lab. Yes, the lab is exciting, and in many ways, including the science.

But, I know the PI. Somewhere between "know of" and "talked with".  And I don't have first hand info, there certainly have been concerns swirling around this person for a while. He (yes, its a he) is one of those that women warn other women about. "Nothing actionable" they say "but, be careful, and don't ..."

Which raises the point, do your due diligence. Talk to people. Ask the questions: how long does it take to get a degree in this lab, who gets to be first author, how many people leave this lab? Ask the people in the lab, and ask the people NOT in the lab, but in the program.

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