Theorist for Hire

Jan 18 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

My work is theoretical/computational in nature. In addition to the projects that my group does independently, I collaborate extensively with experimentalists.

An email exchange that happened today reminded me that my experimental collaborators can roughly be divided  into two categories: (1) those who treat me as a fellow scientists and a real collaborator, and (2) those who treat me as hired help (without actually paying me).

Let's start with the non-douchey kind: some of my favorite, long-term collaborators treat me with respect and consider me a fellow scientist whose expertise is an integral part of a project. We brainstorm new ideas together, discuss each project -- both experimental and theoretical parts -- from inception to execution, theory and experiment inform and improve one another, we seek funding together, we write papers together.

Then there is the other kind: those who do experiments on their own and only want me to do theory for them as an afterthought. Usually it goes something like this:
(1) "Our data really sucks or we have no clue what do with it and we fear it's unpublishable without some sort of explanation";
(2) "Our data is good and we want to go for GlamourMag (or tried but failed), so now we want to add theory (or improve the theory we had) to make the paper stronger and more complete and shoot for  GlamourMag"  (N.B. In my field, it is virtually a must to have both experiment and theory if going for a journal like Nature)
(3) "We were going to work with another theory group, but they were slow/unresponsive/whatever so we are desperate to publish and now we come to you"

In each one of these cases, I am expected to produce a theoretical model for their data ASAP (because they are anxious to publish) and of course nobody wonders who on my side is going to do the work, and that perhaps whoever does it may need some ramp-up time, and that during that time they need to eat and pay tuition... Am I supposed to just move a student from another well-funded project in order to do stuff for you last minute? Keep paying the student as I have, while they do something that benefits you not the project that pays them? This violates federal funding requirements.  (In all fairness, a small percentage of people who ask me to do stuff for them offer to support a student, at least in part, while the student does this new side project; this I respect and I try to honor these requests.)

But these pesky funding concerns are irrelevant because I am a magical theory fairy: I effortlessly just look at your graphs and pop a theory model, together with accompanying derivations, code, figures, you name it. Perhaps I should put the following in the header of my research group website:

"GMP Group: Improving the Impact Factor of Your Publications Since 2004"

As I hinted above, what prompted this post is an email I received today. About a year ago, a collaborator from another institution and I agreed that he would do certain experiments and my group would do theory; I had some discretionary funds I was willing to invest in this project so we started working on our part and shared the data as it came in, all the while trying to get some response about what was going on at his end, but he was completely unresponsive. About 6 months ago I said screw it and we (postdoc and I) decided we would just publish the theory on our own. The paper is in final draft stages and we are ready to submit in the coming weeks. Today comes the email basically saying the collaborator was hedging his bets -- he actually was planning the entire time to go with the theory of another group, but they weren't coming through (student graduated and got a job and is MIA) so now he's got all this data and wants to publish, like, tomorrow -- and can we jump on it right away and how soon can we get it done because he's now in a hurry!

I am as blinded by the sheen of GlamourMagz as anybody else, so it would be disingenuous to say I never take part in these "afterthought collaborations" -- I do, if I think the science is worth it, if we can get high impact publications out, and the new problem doesn't take away too much from the student's original funded project. But, for goodness sake, people, please treat your theorist colleagues with respect and courtesy.

12 responses so far

  • Alex says:

    I would say that we theorists should unionize to demand better treatment, but then priority on collaborations would go by seniority and that would suck for us early career folks. I think Phil Anderson has quite enough citations already.

    So, let's Occupy The Physics Building. We'll sit there and write papers and refuse to leave until our demands are met.

    What's that? Oh, sorry, we already have people who spend all their time in the Physics Building writing theory papers. They're called postdocs.

    Um, what's Plan C?

  • Polytrope says:

    After I arrived at my current institute, my husband had a T-shirt made for me that read 'Theory whore - will do math for money'. Enough said.

    • GMP says:

      🙂 On a related note, my PhD advisor used to say "All scientists wear fishnet stockings," referring to the gymnastics involved in getting funding from certain agencies.

  • drugmonkey says:

    The old saw about first respecting yourself seems somewhat applicable here.....

  • feMOMhist says:

    so did you tell the latter day group to eff themself?

  • I am curious why this doesn't go the other way? That is, why aren't you--when you come up with a new cooleasse theory--finding some experimentalist to do *your* dirty work for *you*, and end up as a collaborator on *your* glamour pub?

    • GMP says:

      Actually, I do that a lot -- work on a cool theory project and usually go to one or more of my trusted experimental collaborators with ideas for experiments. However, experiments in my field are very expensive, difficult to perform, and time consuming, so usually it takes quite a bit of time (several years) before we have all ducks in a row for a joint Glamour Mag. So what generally happens in these cases is that I publish theory alone when it's ready and then the experiment+theory in a high-impact journal later, but usually with experiment as the lead even if it's theory-motivated; that seems to be the norm in the field -- people want to see experiment backed by theory in Glamour Magz.

  • Alex says:

    Yeah, the problem is that everybody knows it's impossible to go to an experimentalist and say "I need this RIGHT NOW!!!11!" Experiments take time. So we theorists don't do that.

    But experimentalists seem to think that theorists have infinite speed and flexibility.

  • Theoreticians have it easier than bioinformaticians, as you can publish theory with no data, but for bioinformatics you must have real data from real experiments. I have had collaborations that took 7 years for the experiments to be done. On others, the experimentalists schedule things at their own convenience, expecting super-fast turnaround on data analysis, then taking 2 or 3 years before scheduling the week of followup experiments needed to confirm the analysis. Just switching contexts to re-read all the notes and remember a project last worked on a year or more ago is a huge overhead.

    None of my collaborations with experimentalists have resulted in any funding for me. I still do them, since the essence of bioinformatics is analysis of the data, but I can't "assign a student" to the collaboration since I have no funding for students. The more collaborations I do, the more I end up working alone.

  • Confounding says:

    This sounds…more than a little familiar.

    I've heard, more than once, that "mathematical modeling doesn't cost money" from observational folks. I think because, from their perspective it just *happens* from their perspective, there's no costs in terms of either people or capital.

    Apparently, the computers and the students materialize out of thin air.

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