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Fungible funding September 3, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, research, science.
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I was reading a discussion the other day on funding sources when it occurred to me that I’ve made a big switch on the topic.  I used to think that industry funded research was *always* bad, *always* biased.


I guess being in engineering has changed my view considerably.  A lot of engineering work is funded by industry, and this is a good thing.  First, it means that the research actually has a chance of getting used.  Second, it is helpful to the majority of researchers that are likely unable to get any funding from large governmental funding agencies.

In engineering, a lot of the conferences I’ve gone to have had large numbers of researchers from industry.  (In a couple sub-fields I’m involved in, *most* of the people come from industry.)  Those fields are the “too applied for NSF” type work that is still rather interesting and useful.  Without companies funding some of their own research, they probably wouldn’t be going anywhere.

Despite my great appreciation of the system we have for government funding, it is still very limited.  And even when things are funded, I’m not sure how many of these concepts actually make it to industry.

Now, looking at science from this engineering-informed background, I’m not as suspicious about industry-funded projects.  Admittedly, science has a different approach than engineering, but I wonder how many areas are being underfunded.  There are far more good ideas and questions to be answered than funding available.  Is it better to let a question sit unanswered or to try to work with an industry partner to do some type of study?  Just about every university will have a conflict-of-interest policy.  While these aren’t bulletproof, I would assume they’re going to hit some of the basics.  And maybe, just maybe, researchers really want to find the answers to their questions no matter how they get the funding.

That isn’t to say we shouldn’t be skeptical when research is funded by industry…but neither should we just write it off as biased.

Rapid reviewing August 12, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, papers, research, work.
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I was on a trip this weekend and forgot that I had agreed to review a conference paper.  Not a problem, though, because once I got the reminder, I figured I’d still have plenty of time.  Except there was a problem: when I got home from my trip, I realized that the review was due at 1 a.m. that morning and not midnight of the next night: it was due 23 hours sooner than I had expected.  I realized this about 2 hours before the review was due.

I am a slow reader, so this immediately put me into panic mode, but rather than wait until morning and send it in late, I decided to see if I could at least get something in before the deadline.

Despite it being a bit stressful, I actually managed to read through the whole thing and get a decent review written up.  In fact, when I looked at it the next morning, I was rather shocked at how long the review was.  I did realize later that there is one minor point I missed, but I think that, overall, I caught some important errors and that my assessment overall wouldn’t have changed.

I have to admit that this was also made easier by the fact that the paper was reasonably well-written.  Reviewing papers and grading have one thing in common: the worse the submission, the longer it takes to review.

Not that I plan to leave all my reviews for the last minute, but it’s a good thing I realized I can do this in less time: two more review requests showed up this morning.

Doing the victory dance…on my own July 14, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, research, work.
Tags: introvert, , success, ,
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Over the past couple months, I’ve been putting insane amounts of time into a project in preparation for some field testing.  Once the widget was deployed, I was fully expecting to feel this great sense of accomplishment.  In particular, this was something that some people were skeptical would work, so getting working widgets out for use is a big deal.  Even some people who advocated for the widget were probably not expecting I’d be able to get it to work as they seemed surprised when I informed them I had finished.

One would think I’d be overjoyed.  I should be waiting for people to pat me on the back.  I should be intensely satisfied that I can tell the doubters, “Told you so!”  I should feel vindicated and totally kick-ass.

Except, I don’t really feel that way.  I just feel a huge sense of relief that the crunch in over and maybe I can actually sit and focus on finishing the never-ending dissertation (aren’t they all?) for a while.  I can disappear for a few days and not have constant distraction.  I don’t have to field questions and phone calls and emails even in my off time.

It’s not that I even want to go on a vacation or do something like that.  I’m okay with working…I just don’t want it to be around other people.

This, friends, is success for an introvert: being left alone for a while.  But I’m dancing on the inside.


I smell a (lab) rat June 25, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, research, work.
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There are times in one’s life when we have to reinvent ourselves.  This has been one of those times for me.

I’m turning into a lab rat.

I’m much more comfortable in front of a computer, designing simulations.  I vastly prefer debugging programs to troubleshooting hardware.

ESD jackets look fugly on me.  (Okay…I know they aren’t flattering on anyone, but it’s yet one more annoyance with the whole ‘working in the lab’ thing.)

I hate taking data.

However, whether I like it or not, I’ve been stuck in the lab for the better part of a month.  My student left a month ago, and that leaves me to do a lot of the testing and troubleshooting on the latest project.  I had hoped she’d be here through the end of the month, but she decided a post-graduation job was more important.  (I can’t say I blame her.)

I really miss running simulations.

It’s not a lab coat June 16, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, research, work.
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I’ve been doing some work in the lab, and after I fried something, decided I needed to be a bit more careful.  So out come the blue smocks.

Of course, some people prefer to call them ESD jackets.  I’m one of them, but I absent-mindedly revert to ‘smock’ when I’m not thinking.  I prefer to call them jackets because ‘smock’ evokes images of an granny in a ruffly apron who speaks in a high, squeaky voice (almost as annoying as Karen from Will and Grace).

Come to think of it, they’re about as flattering…

My coworker had a pretty good description: he said we looked like the Bobbsey Twins.  I’d never heard of them, but after seeing this, I think he’s right:

Bobbsey Twins


That’s approximately the correct shade of blue for an ESD smock.  However, I wish my ESD jacket had a ruffled collar.  Or that it was actually purple.

Reviewers say the darndest things June 11, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, engineering, research, work.
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I’m not sure what happened this year, but as the feedback from this past fall’s proposals have come in, I’ve been a bit flabbergasted.  It seemed like last year, the feedback was a lot better.  There were a lot of suggestions for improvement.

This year’s comments were…stupid.  There was nothing constructive about it.  There was nothing that could be used as suggestions for improvement.

Aside from the commentary I mentioned yesterday about my marital status, there were lots of other fun oddities to pick on.

I think the first thing that was frustrating were the contradictory comments.  Reviews like “excellent detail” coming alongside “too technical.”  Some of that is to be expected.

What I wasn’t expecting was a resubmission from the previous year having stellar reviews in comparison with the first year (totally nailed the broader outcomes, which were cited as rather weak the previous year)…yet the ratings didn’t change at all. Huh?

Next there was the reviewer who obviously pasted some of his/her review from another proposal into our review.  Ironically, I think this reviewer also commented on formatting issues in the proposal.  (I apparently didn’t notice that Word puked on a reference.)

Then there was the reviewer who cited some ‘scientifically based’ concerns about a chemical that we were using.  There were supposedly health issues associated with use of this chemical…which had nothing to do with what we were doing.  Worse yet, he was completely wrong.  One only need to look at the CDC website to find toxicity info saying that the claims the reviewer were saying had been “well established for a decade” had never been proven and were probably related to something else.

Finally, I’m really beginning to wonder how many reviewers actually read the proposal at all.  When you’re inundated with questions that were clearly addressed in the proposal (including the above mentioned toxicity issue), you gotta wonder how effective the skimming really is.

Maybe divorce is the answer… June 10, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, engineering, family, feminism, research, science, societal commentary, work.
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I think I am going to change my name.  It’s very annoying.

My last name, anyway.

If I had it to do over again, the one thing I would’ve done when getting married is to keep my maiden name.  Hyphenation was not the best idea by a long shot.

This has been an issue (a lot) because I worked with my husband for so long.  I suspect it will die off as we are no longer coworkers.  However, one of the most bizarre things that has come up is that I recently received some reviews of a proposal that we wrote before he changed jobs.  One of the reviewers noted that as a co-PI, I had the same last name as the PI and so a conflict of interest was a possibility.


My university has a clear and very detailed conflict of interest policy, and I’m not clear how this applies.  As far as I can tell, this has nothing to do with conflict of interest as these policies are almost exclusively focused on outside financial obligations.  I checked with the funding agency, and that was all they had listed for conflict of interest, as well.

If he were supervising me or vice-versa (that is, one of us was a subordinate), such a scenario would violate internal policies to the university.  However, even if he is PI and I’m a co-PI, we both reported to someone else.  Further, a PI isn’t necessarily a supervisory role.  Do faculty members who collaborate on research supervise each other or collaborate?  (My experience says there are very few faculty who view their role as co-PI is that of being supervised by the PI.)

In any case, it’s a completely ridiculous comment to make on a proposal review because we could have been two completely unrelated colleagues who happen to have the same last name.  I can think about some of the areas of research I do, and I know of several groups of researchers, particularly in Asia, where many members of the team do have the same last name.  I never once jumped to the conclusion that there was a problem with this.

Of course, it’s obviously my fault for the name, so I should probably fix it.  Do you suppose it’s cheaper to go through the legal name-change process or to just divorce and quickly get remarried?

Malevolent butterflies in the stomach June 7, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, papers, research.
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I’m sitting at my computer this morning with somewhat bated breath.  I was supposed to be presenting a paper at a conference about now.  Instead, I am at home, and my major accomplishment was getting out of bed and getting dressed.  Oh yeah…and I ate a bagel and a banana without getting sick.

I was on my way to the conference and decided to leave a day early.  I was going to spend the night in Minneapolis with some friends and then continue on the next morning from there.  I was doing great until about a half hour before I got there, and then I started having stomach issues.  The problem with having celiac disease that was undiagnosed for so long is that I’m *always* having stomach issues, and I more or less ignore them now.  “Oh gee.  I must’ve eaten something that didn’t agree with me,” is one of the most common phrases I’ve used over the past five years.

I met my friends for dinner and then went back to their place.  I found that the stomach pain kept getting worse, though it was coming and going intermittently.  After about two hours, I needed to go to the ER because I was in very serious pain along the bottom of my ribcage.  I spent the next couple hours getting checked for gall stones and pancreatitis and losing my dinner and getting lots of drugs.  The doctor’s conclusion is that I either had a bug…or I did eat something that disagreed with me.  The only problem is that I have no idea what it could have been.

Fortunately, a colleague was also attending the conference, and he agreed to give my presentation for me with the consent of the session chair.  I got to come home (which is a long story in and of itself), and rather than worrying about how I was going to do on the presentation, I get to worry about how my colleague will do.

The whole situation is ironic, however.  I’ve always told people that I get sick to my stomach before I have to give a presentation, but I guess this time it was literal.

When is it plagiarism? June 6, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, papers, research, work.
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When I sit down to write a paper, I usually try to start from scratch.  I type up an outline and try to fill it in, and then I begin work on all the different parts of the paper.  While it has been tempting to reuse sections of previous papers, particularly the introductory material, I try not to do that.  If you work in a specialized field, people are going to notice that they’re reading the same thing over.  My writing may be fine, but after the 3rd or 4th time, it’s going to bore even me.

The issue came to the fore as I’ve been reviewing papers for a conference.  While it’s not one I think I will be able to go to (it’s usually in Asia), I have reviewed for this conference the past couple years and really get some interesting things to examine.  However, this year, all of the papers I reviewed has issues with self-plagiarism: that is, they copied verbatim materials from their own previous papers.  Many of the papers I review are now being checked automatically for similarity to other papers, and while the process is supposed to be double-blind (that is, they don’t know I’m reviewing their paper, and I’m not supposed to know that I reviewed theirs), it makes it very easy to figure out who wrote the paper I’m reviewing: it’s the one with huge tracts of text that are identical but never referenced.

As I mentioned, I try to write papers from scratch, but I started to wonder if this was an ethical issue.  After all, if I wrote a paper, shouldn’t I be allowed to copy it?  It turns out that it’s not a good idea.  In particular, most of the papers I’m dealing with will fall under IEEE copyright rules (that is, the authors transfer over copyright of their written materials should the IEEE publish those materials).  Therefore, if you wrote the paper and it was published by IEEE, it’s simply not a matter of copying your own writing but plagiarism of IEEE materials.  In fact, the IEEE communications society has an explicit policy that says,

IEEE Publications has long maintained the policy that verbatim copying of another’s work (plagiarism) is unacceptable author conduct.

The Communications Society values the intellectual contributions of its authors, and vigorously enforces the IEEE policy on plagiarism.  As IEEE modifies its publication policies, it is important that authors who submit their work to ComSoc journals and magazines are informed of these changes.

In November 2002, the IEEE Board of Directors approved a new policy on Duplicate Publication and Self-Plagiarism.  This policy is found in the IEEE Policies document, Sections 6.4.1B(f) and 6.4.1B(h).  These two sections are given below.

(f) Plagiarism is unacceptable.  The verbatim copying or reuse of one’s own research (as indicated in paragraph “h” below) is considered another form of plagiarism or self-plagiarism; it is unacceptable.

(h) Except as indicated in Section 6.3.4 (Multiple Publication of Original Technical Material in IEEE Periodicals), authors should only submit original work that has neither appeared elsewhere for publication, nor which is under review for another referred publication.  If authors have used their own previously published work(s) as a basis for a new submission, they are required to cite the previous work(s) and very briefly indicate how the new submission offers substantial novel contributions beyond those of the previously published work(s).

I know people who do this regularly.  All you have to do is read enough of their papers, and it becomes obvious that the intro section is commonly recycled by several authors.  I really don’t like the practice because it also drives up index values for papers that are simply examples of related work while not being foundational.  On the other hand, it is a pain to rewrite those sections every time.

I’m very glad the Com Soc is being very explicit about their policy.  However, other places are not as explicit, and this is honestly something that no one has ever mentioned to me.  It’s something I would like to see delineated more clearly by all publications as I think it would draw more attention to using ethical practices in paper writing and submission.

When reviewing, I can’t be certain that the person writing the paper is aware of the policies on self-citation, if there even is one for a given organization or venue, so I generally mention that it’s a good idea to change the text.  I’m always curious what the editors/session chairs do with this feedback, though.  Do they take it seriously?  Finally, it reinforces to me that it’s never a good idea to reuse previous writing unless it’s properly attributed, even if it is my own.

Indices of usefulness May 28, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, papers, research.
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While tootling around on IEEE Explore, I noticed the metrics tab on many of the articles.  I’d never really looked at it before.  (I’d seen it was there, but never paid much heed.)  I clicked on it and thought,

OMG!  Someone looked at my paper!

That was kind of cool.  I wasn’t sure if that meant that someone just looked at the online page that includes the abstract or read the actual paper.  According to IEEE, “Usage includes PDF downloads and HTML Views.”  Awesome.

Except I noticed something rather disturbing.  I have one paper that has been looked at over 200 times, but hasn’t been cited once.  On the other hand, I have another paper that has a fraction of the views but has been cited several times.  To be perfectly honest, I consider the first paper to be far better than the second one.  Then there’s a third one with several more citations than any of my other papers but barely has been looked at.  And I consider this paper rather…Ugh.

This left me pondering: why do some papers get cited while others don’t.  I don’t think quality is the issue because, as I mentioned, the papers that are cited more are ones that I consider to be some of my less favorite papers.  I don’t think innovation is an issue, either (although for some people it is).

I have noticed that papers with co-authors who travel a lot to conferences get more citations than other, better papers (although these papers are usually cited as examples of particular applications and not so much for foundational material).  And conference papers seem to be cited more than journal papers.  Going on that, I’m starting to wonder how much of citation (at least in my field) tends to be more of an issue of looking for certain authors (particularly ones they’ve seen at conferences) versus doing an in-depth lit review.

Given how I don’t like to travel a whole lot, this does not bode well.  It’s also a bit disconcerting to think that the only thing that matters is actual citations when an uncited work could actually be having a bigger impact and wider readership than a cited work.


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