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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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March 19, 2013

Scientific Snobbery

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Posted by Derek

Here's something that you don't see mentioned very often in science, but it's most certainly real: snobbery:

We all do it. Pressed for time at a meeting, you can only scan the presented abstracts and make snap judgements about what you are going to see. Ideally, these judgements would be based purely on what material is of most scientific interest to you. Instead, we often use other criteria, such as the name of the researchers presenting or their institution. I do it too, passing over abstracts that are more relevant to my work in favour of studies from star universities such as Stanford in California or Harvard in Massachusetts because I assume that these places produce the 'best' science.

As someone who is based at a less well-known institution, the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, I see other scientists doing the same to me and my students. In many cases, this is a loss: to my students and their projects, which could have benefited from the input, and to the investigators who might have missed information that could have been useful in their own work.

It's true. This carries over to industry, too, both in the ways that people look at other's academic backgrounds, and even in terms of industrial pedigrees. Working for a biopharma that's been successful, that everyone's heard of, does a lot more for your reputation than working for one that no one knows anything about. The unspoken supposition is that a really small obscure company must have had to reach lower down the ladder to hire people, even though this might not be the case at all.

I have no idea of what could be done about this, because I think it's sheer human nature. The best we can do, I think, is to realize that it happens and to try to consciously correct for it when we can. It's realistic to assume that some small school doesn't have the resources that a larger one has, or that a professor at one has more trouble attracting students. But beyond that, you have to be careful. Some very smart people have come out of some very obscure backgrounds, and you can't - and shouldn't - assume anything in that line.

Comments (30) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: General Scientific News


1. Lyle Langley on March 19, 2013 11:38 AM writes...

"I do it too, passing over abstracts that are more relevant to my work in favour of studies from star universities such as Stanford in California or Harvard in Massachusetts because I assume that these places produce the 'best' science."

Sorry, the above quote is not really snobbery, it's stupidity. Passing over science relevant to one's work to look at work from "star" universities is just plain dumb.

What would be snobbery is if there were multiple relevant talks and one went to the more well-known.

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2. Chrispy on March 19, 2013 12:19 PM writes...

I have more of a snobbery bell curve. The very "top" institutions appear to produce a lot of big science and headline grabbing stuff, but when it gets right down to it a considerable amount of this typically turns out to be irreproducible hype. Do I sound sick of this? I am. Give me a "lesser" institution any day!

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3. David Formerly Known as a Chemist on March 19, 2013 12:33 PM writes...

This is a topic that turns my stomach and reminds me of my first experience looking for a job out of my postdoc. I didn't get my PhD from a "name brand" institution and I didn't do my postdoctoral work with a "name brand" mentor. Thus my resume landed in the circular file within seconds of being removed from its envelope (that's right, resumes used to be printed on paper). How do I know this? Colleagues who worked in companies that hand delivered my resume to hiring managers (all of whom trained in such star labs) were told by these hiring managers that my credentials looked great, but "...if only he came from a better lab". It seemed all the hiring managers (senior chemists back in those days) all trained in the same 10 labs, and there was plenty of inbreeding and arrogance that spilled over into industry. Once when I actually contacted a hiring manager to ask about the status of my application he told me "well, we received a lot of resumes from the best labs in the country, so...". Nothing about my qualifications or fit for the position, everything about my pedigree. Nothing like being a mutt!

Thanks for opening a painful old wound, Derek! I was bitter about that experience for years.

I learned my lesson though. When I later decided to get an MBA I told myself I would only do it if I could get into a top 5 school, which I fortunately did. Snobbery is not confined to science, it's in every field. The pedigree of one's MBA is just as important (and just as unfair) as the pedigree of your PhD. Like you said, it's just human nature.

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4. Morgan Price on March 19, 2013 12:36 PM writes...

Since measuring quality is difficult, we all play prestige games instead. What a waste.

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5. Hap on March 19, 2013 12:50 PM writes...

Everyone has limited time, and almost unlimited things to read and do, so they have to choose how they can best use that time. People have to triage, and probably based on time, by institution or research group isn't all that bad.

I would have taken snobbery to mean the assumption of a person's or a work's scientific value primarily based on their institution or research group (or disproportionately so), analogous to social snobbery, which isn't just triage but devaluation (as in "Scrape Off Some Attitude"). If I don't have time to read everything, I don't have reason to assume that what I didn't read wasn't any good, or can't be, and just because someone didn't come from BNU doesn't mean they can't do good work.

2: Wouldn't that be a reason to almost completely avoid glamour mags, or at least not to depend on them for anything other than entertainment or not to look dumb? Of course, there are other reasons to triage journals or references (if the peer review process is so transparent and functionless that you can almost see the drink stains or the check signers' imprint on the manuscript).

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6. Hap on March 19, 2013 1:02 PM writes...

4: What should we be doing then? People can't quickly (or sometimes even slowly) assess quality. Following people or groups you trust only works if you know lots of people or are in a narrow research field, and can still fail badly. People highlight research for lots of reasons, some innocent and some not, and even then, you are trusting to someone else's judgment. Trusting to journals is a more refined version of that game. It seems that any way you triage is going to miss something good, probably, and waste time on something bad. Do you have a way that doesn't?

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7. zDNA on March 19, 2013 1:57 PM writes...

A few ideas:

1) We go back to the old, old days of publishing under a pseudonym, usually using the name of a Greek god.

2)Since everything is electronic nowadays anyway, strip out author's names and institutional affiliations from publications completely, but allow for double-blind communication between authors and those with questions.

3) Stop believing your superior mind landed you your post at BigSwingingD!ck University and pay attention to the fact that randomness plays a much larger role in success than you'd care to admit to the tenure committee.

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8. Henning Makholm on March 19, 2013 1:58 PM writes...

Is it really universities that are selected for, or is it just people?

When I attend conferences (which I these days do more to keep in touch in general than to bring anything specific with me home -- this is in computer science not chemistry, by the way), I'll totally go out of my way to hear a talk by someone who's known for giving good presentations -- that is, entertaining, inspiring, thought-provoking ones. Such people will often be employed by well-regarded universities -- or are they perhaps well-regarded in the field exactly because that brilliant and inspiring person works there? Flocking towards smart people is not meaningfully "snobbery", I think.

Similarly, when selecting which talks to go to, of course it will influence my choice it work with an otherwise unassuming title/abstract is done by people in a research group that I already know for attacking interesting problems with clever techniques. Why shouldn't it? I'm predicting which talks will be interesting based on the limited information available to me, but why shouldn't I use all the information I have?

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9. watcher on March 19, 2013 1:59 PM writes...

Some of the best hires I ever made were folks who had not been at high-powered programs, as these people tended to be willing to be in the lab, to come in every day and work hard, to try to adapt & learn. People from the Ivy's, and comparable places tended to want out of the lab from day 1, often were hard to manage in an industrial setting, and sometimes knew everything already, so did not need to learn about other part of drug R&D.

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10. CMCguy on March 19, 2013 2:04 PM writes...

I have seen this in action so many times, especially at Big Pharma and have to agree with #1 LL, it amounts to stupidity. While it can be true Big Name Schools/Groups can offer a few advantages (Networking, Recruiters, more frequent higher caliber seminars, funding/equipment) they don't necessarily produce more effective scientists. In fact having to succeed in a smaller less resource rich environment can often spawn greater innovation an persistence that are part of most research. Even if recognize and attempt to compensate for human nature it is difficult to over come when it is now so ingrained with definite probability of good candidates getting screened out because do not have top-tier markers, particularly in these days of computer sifted CVs. It is hard to quantify however I wonder if all the inbreeding has been partly responsible for the dearth of Pharma innovation because group managers cloned themselves rather than bringing in counter-culture type to push to boundaries as is commonly required for a "break-through".

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11. newnickname on March 19, 2013 2:45 PM writes...

I don't have time to read all the science blogs so I only read the best, most interesting ones.

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12. DrFreddy on March 19, 2013 3:20 PM writes...

I think it's part of being human. I'm fairly convinced I landed my first job primarily because I graduated from the right school, in the Swedish pond.

Thank God I can never be a snob. Per definition that is, if you believe popular etymology that snob is short for "sans noblesse."

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13. Mike P on March 19, 2013 3:22 PM writes...

There are some academics who simply produce better science and/or more worthwhile publications than others - no one will argue against that. When I look at those scientists whose research consistently interests me or even impresses me, I find that they disproportionately (to a great degree) are conducting their research at "big name" universities.

There are always exceptions to the rule, of course, but it's not pure snobbery to recognize the pattern and invest your resources and time accordingly.

However, when it comes to the quality of individual scientists trained by particular academics, I don't see a similar obvious trend. The best graduates are not disproportionately from the "top schools" or trained by the "top scientists".

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14. NP Maker on March 19, 2013 4:46 PM writes...

"I have no idea of what could be done about this, because I think it's sheer human nature"

I don't really think that it is so deeply in our nature. I think that the global system we grow up teaches us, since primary school, to be the best all the time. And everything is made (media, prices...) to highlight the best and neglect the rest. Looking for the best University or best lab become then a conditioned behavior more than a natural one. And so on with the recognition. It is more elitism than snobbery (even if they are often paired)

Concerning the congress and choice of conferences, I think it is natural to select what we want to see according to our interest or our field of research. We cannot be full of passion for everything. This is human.

For my part, I like to assist to any kind of presentation, I care more about the subject and its implication than the place it has been realized. And I already assisted to not so interesting "High Class" professors presentations. But during congresses, I admit that I focus mainly on presentations concerning my field or connected to it. But I take time also to see other researches. This choice is subjective (and the Choice in general).

However if the criteria of selection is based only on the "quality" of labs or is only directed by the "Impact Factor" of the researcher, we fall again in elitism. This is dangerous for our profession but unfortunately this is the actual force driving it (along with economy).

Things that we can do to thwart this way of thinking is to teach our students and colleagues that we are fighting for progress and keeping our mind open is the best weapon to win.

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15. Corky Ramirez on March 19, 2013 5:23 PM writes...

There is another compelling part of Keith Weaver's article, in which he describes a situation where a larger and more prestigious lab fails to cite work from his lab at USD.

Weaver rightfully laments the negative effects of such skullduggery on his advancement and funding trajectory.

Even though this sort of thing is a low probability event, it is the worst type of snobbery (in my view) because the history of fields become rewritten by resource-rich latecomers who have everything except the original idea.

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16. Hap on March 19, 2013 5:37 PM writes...

That's not snobbery, that's plagiarism (at least, that's what the large numbers of university academic integrity policies that the power that is Google unearthed). If it weren't, it would be closer to old-school bullying ("I'm going to take your idea because I'm bigger than you.")

I wonder how Old Dude would react if one of his students cited his prior art after getting caught plagiarizing. I'm guessing "do as I say, not as I do" would be a good summary.

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17. Bleedin' Obvious on March 19, 2013 5:50 PM writes...

To link to CORANTE's previous post but one (AZ Site closings - and openings), if you have a French Aristocrat and Greek God running the show putting your latest footprint on the roof of King's College Chapel is clearly where you'll end up three years down the line (or not, as the future may reveal).

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18. Secondaire on March 19, 2013 9:09 PM writes...

Thanks, Derek, for saying what we've all been thinking. It was incredibly refreshing and uplifting to read this and the comments (for once).

I work for arguably one of the biggest names in my field at a tier 1 research institution. Nonetheless, I'm a public school/state university kid from a non-traditional background - NOT part of the "Harvard Elite" in other words, and it absolutely disgusts me to no end that people think of our group and my institution as scientific "second-class" citizens, when *extremely* good work, actual marketed drugs, and a whole lot of money have come out of our lab. Nonetheless, someone actually told one of my colleagues who was interviewing for an academic job (and I paraphrase) "unless you're from Stanford or MIT, I don't want anything to do with you." This guy had started his own company, for crying out loud. This #@$% has to stop...

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19. LighterFluid on March 19, 2013 11:26 PM writes...

The more I work in the sciences, the more I realize how much of this 'rational' work gets colored by human biases, just as in any other field of human endeavor. Financial markets and scientific 'markets' are just as fraught with bubbles and irrationality as one another.

I suspect the currently discussed irrational behavior arises through confirmation bias (good work comes out of good universities, therefore if it comes out of a good university, it must be good [also substitute journal for university]), some over-confidence bias, a dash of inferiority complex, and general crowd-following patterns of behavior.

In terms of hiring only from the best labs, I'm convinced this is once again due to the same motivation as pretty much every management decision ever made:
"Worldly wisdom teaches that it is better for reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally."

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20. Jan on March 19, 2013 11:44 PM writes...

I'm wondering how widespread this bias towards only hiring from certain groups is outside the US? Any insights about that?

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21. CP on March 20, 2013 12:25 AM writes...

Interesting, and very true. I'm starting up on my Ph.D. in the fall, and I've been told to "get the best name you can on your terminal degree." There is a lot of truth to it, although sort of unfortunate that there can be so much emphasis placed on name alone.

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22. Anonymous on March 20, 2013 6:27 AM writes...

As someone who did an undergrad REU at a second-tier department and grad school at a top one, learning how to do science on a limited budget turned out to be very useful to me in real life where I work at a small company. I wonder how many of my grad school classmates found that they didn't know what to do at some small employer with no NMR, AFM, XPS, etc.

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23. newnickname on March 20, 2013 8:58 AM writes...

As this topic seems to have transcended the original institutional snobbery, I'll just butt in with more observations about snobbery and selection.

1. When I entered grad school I noticed that some 1st years had already been "selected". (I was selected against although I didn't know it at the time.) They could do no wrong and nothing can be allowed to hold them back in their meteoric rise to success. Not even poorly done research and incorrect results. They were usually from Big Time undergrad institutions with research experience in Big Name labs thereat.

2. In Big Pharma, there also seems to be a pre-selection process. Regardless of knowledge, skill, etc., there are a few Golden Boys or Girls from prestigious places and people who become the thought leaders and project leaders. Damn the chem / pharm facts, full speed ahead.

3. I think I've previously mentioned here the philosophy of Negroponte (MIT Media Lab, Wired Magazine, etc.) who is extremely influential in computer science, internet and other non-Pharma fields. He says that he invests in the PERSON, not the technology or science they are touting. How many of us in chem / pharma / biotech have witnessed the bubbly, optimistic presentations of
such selected PERSONs turn into quagmires, loss of investment or even the destruction of companies?

Sorry ... I'm a snob about "good science", even if the results are bad.

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24. NH_chem on March 20, 2013 9:02 AM writes...

I worked at a respected company in Cambridge, MA where it was very clear that you had to have come from a few schools with the proper pedigree or you would never be considered or respected.

This was annoying since I saw myself making compounds that required superior technical bench skills that were lacking in my co-workers even though they had the better post-docs or went to the more prestigious grad schools. They could make esters though.......

No matter. If you can look past the politics of chemistry, you can have a good career. Not all people are hung up on names and places. If they are, you don't want to work there anyway!!

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25. Iridium on March 20, 2013 9:30 AM writes...

"I do it too, passing over abstracts that are more relevant to my work in favour of studies from star universities such as Stanford in California or Harvard in Massachusetts because I assume that these places produce the 'best' science."

I abslotuley desagree.

Sometimes it is exactly the opposite. A small group publishing in e.g. JACS or ACIE, has most likely to produce much better results than a famous one in order to publish in the same journal.

Regarding jobs applications and careers it is slightly different.
An applicant, that studied in a small university possibly working in less challenging projects and less hot subjects, has bigger need to complement his/her education by having other experience in
other companies/universities.

To work in both small/big istitutions, in friendly/competitive groups, alone/team projects prepares much better for the future challanges.

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26. MDA Student on March 20, 2013 9:31 AM writes...

I can't count how many times I've tried to figure out a way to sort my Pubmed searches based on impact factor. You can't (and for good reason), but sometimes you are in a rush to pull something that you feel is more likely to be the "best".

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27. Anon on March 20, 2013 10:46 AM writes...

Off topic -- the comments in the blog are great. But the writing isn't. How about writing some good, clear english sentences, folks?

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28. lynn on March 20, 2013 11:53 AM writes...

Is there a difference between biologists and chemists on this score? In terms of meetings and journals - I prioritize by interest in the subject matter - by title and abstract. In terms of labs or companies...I seem to approach everyone with similar skepticism. I end up meeting lots of interesting people [although at my age I seem to be rapidly forgetting them; hence I use LinkedIn to remind me]. I have preconceptions, of course, about the quality of work that might be found - but I think I do pretty well in looking for substance first. Same thing I try to do in reviewing journal articles and grants. I've seen both terrible and great stuff from both large and small labs.

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29. JBosch on March 20, 2013 7:47 PM writes...

The best time spent at a meeting is actually the registration day, when you get the paper copy of the abstract book. Depending on the meeting size, it might take me a couple of hours to prioritize on the abstract to which talks & posters I want to go. I prioritize by subject close to our research, then I go by techniques that might be interesting to me in the future and then there is the random-walk-approach. I always look at every poster, I might not stop at every poster but frequently I catch something that looks more interesting than the abstract suggested and then I stick around. Most of the stuff that is presented as a talk you will anyhow find published soon after the meeting, so one can read it then. I value undergraduates, graduate students, postdocs and professors presenting their research. And you will probably still find me in 20 years presenting a poster, as the interactions are simply different then giving a lecture.

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30. PilotA on March 21, 2013 4:08 PM writes...

How about medicinal chemistry then? Don't people always pick the ones that have assumed "good" property and reject the ones that are "poor"?

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