Producers vs. Consumers, don’t be a consumer (UPDATED)

A colleague of mine likes to share a saying passed down from a very famous neuroscientist who used to give this advice to all his trainees. “In science there are producers and there are consumers, don’t be a consumer!” What exactly does this mean? Well, consumers are those that pour over the literature endlessly, reading voraciously and going into excruciating detail on all papers they read (obviously a caricature, but you get the point). Producers are those who know the literature but prefer to experiment, trusting their own work rather than relying too heavily on what has been shown before.

Why do I bring this up? Three major reasons, creativity and interpretations of negative data (which are linked) and time management. But before we get to those, let’s begin with a bit of an ode to consumers.

In my humble opinion, there is a time to be a consumer. This is when you get into grad school and are trying to get a grasp of your field. At this point you need to get into the lit in detail. Learn about the relevant methods and what they are good for. Look carefully for the limitations in interpretative power that come with these methods. This is also the time to learn about the history of your soon to be area. What were the major milestones and advances and how did they occur. Finally, an excellent grasp of the literature can reveal what the major current problems are. Finding those gaps in knowledge are key to understanding how to plan out your Ph.D. studies. They are also key to grasping where and what to do for a postdoc, especially if you want to stay in the same area.

But, with all of this consuming comes a grave danger: talking yourself out of creativity. All too often this is linked to negative data in published manuscripts (at least that is my opinion). You know how it goes, so and so shows nicely that X is involved in some effect and a single experiment shows that Y “does not play a role”. I, for one, cannot stand that crap (especially when it creeps into the title of a manuscript — a pervasive problem in my area). Now, don’t get me wrong, there are papers out there which rigorously rule out a given hypothesis; however, there are all too many that do so with an overly cavalier attitude toward their single experiment. We all know how difficult it can be to demonstrate that a given effect occurs, how much weight do you really think should be given to an experiment which does not show an effect? Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence!

Another potential trap in being a consumer is getting bogged down in the minutiae of the literature. All too often this can lead to the illusion that small problems are actually big problems. Groups A and B cannot figure out why something occurs, we should go after the solution. If you are thinking on grand scales, this can be an appropriate approach. However, be careful. First off, this can place you into a bad situation in terms of funding. Two groups are already doing this, the problem will need to be a big one in order to convince a funding agency to throw more money at the issue. Second, this approach can distract you from the creativity of your own work. In my opinion it is always dangerous to think about trying to solve the problems of another research group. The appropriate response is what does their problem tell you about your work and how might a solution that you dream up lead you in a new direction for your interests?

Creativity is a funny thing and it can come from a variety of sources. While I have little question that it can come from a careful reading of the literature I think that experimentation is a much better source. There is no replacement for doing an experiment. All too often (at least in my experience) trainees allocate an inordinate amount of time to reading manuscripts and it subtracts from their experiment time. This is not a GoodThing. Planning meaningful experiments requires a good deal of time and there is no substitute for experiments that have interpretative power. Performing those experiments is also time consuming and those items combined can frequently add up to a full day of work. My advice, learn to fit your literature perusals into the downtime but don’t dedicate time to reading the lit that subtracts from experiment time. Produce, produce and produce.

So all of this makes it seem like I must pay next to no attention to the literature. Not true. I think it is the case that most producers that progress through scientific training eventually gain the ability to read papers by looking a figures. I generally don’t read an entire paper (unless I am reviewing). As a general rule I read abstracts and then glance through the figures. A rather funny thing has happened to me in this regard. In general, I find myself writing the paper in my mind based on what I see in the figures. From time to time I will read a discussion to see if my interpretation matches up with what the authors write. Usually it doesn’t, but I have a different perspective based on the biases of my interests. You see how this can work to your advantage, I have avoided the bias of the authors in preference of how I would interpret the data. I find that this keeps my creative juices flowing quite nicely.

Enough for now, time to get back to producing an R01 application.

UPDATE:
Welcome all you folks from Genome-Technology.com! Apparently, from the comments, some are interpreting this post to mean that I have some sort of disdain for reading the lit or that I want hands and not brains in the lab. Neither of these are true.

1) As I stated above, at the start of training (or the start of a new project) one’s focus must be tilted toward consuming the lit. You’ve got to know what happened before and where the gaps in knowledge are to make an impact through your work. My concern is more with open mindedness and creativity rather than some sort of enforced ignorance of the literature. Perhaps I did not outline that clearly enough.

2) I have no interest in having sets of hands in the lab with no minds attached. I want to see creativity and originality in the thinking of my trainees and I want to help cultivate those properties into successful careers. If I wanted someone to just do what I say all the time I would build a robot.

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16 responses to “Producers vs. Consumers, don’t be a consumer (UPDATED)

  1. Hmmm….Interesting take. How to reconcile this with that other great maxim, “Two weeks in the lab can save you an hour in the library”?

  2. I’ve never heard that one before and frankly I cannot imagine what it might mean… Does anyone go to a library anymore :-)

  3. Well, ok, “library” is metonymous here….but it was always held up as the reason to GO to the library and read some papers rather than spending a lot of time redoing experiments that are already in the literature.

  4. This was a very thought provoking post. At the very least I now have an excuse for being to lazy to keep read up.

    I find that this:
    I have avoided the bias of the authors in preference of how I would interpret the data. I find that this keeps my creative juices flowing quite nicely.

    is how I approach many papers as well. Not all, just many. And I wonder if you do indeed keep up with the literature more than you think. You just keep up with the data contained therein, not with the hypotheses and hand waving.

  5. but it was always held up as the reason to GO to the library and read some papers rather than spending a lot of time redoing experiments that are already in the literature

    Okay, I get it now. Yes, you obviously don’t want to do this. That is why you should spend time consuming prior to getting started on a project. This is also, likely, a field specific thing. My area is generally rather tightly tied to therapeutic approaches and new compound testing so it’s relatively easy to avoid repeating someone else’s experiment.

  6. is how I approach many papers as well. Not all, just many.

    This describes me fairly well too. There are obviously ones that need to be read in detail but these are generally papers on new concepts or from my direct competitors.

    And I wonder if you do indeed keep up with the literature more than you think.

    This is true too. I am a voracious consumer of abstracts :-)

  7. I started a response here, but it went overboard, so I posted one at my blog [and shouldn’t am I wrong or is there no trackback here? Yeah, I’m kinda new at this if ya didn’t notice!)

  8. Well, it does breed redundancy at work. It might be true that one should work more and read less (I can see the fine print of the out come, especially if you are juniorpof, you need data for your next project). But a balance of both is essential. The thing that I don’t like in this discussion is, I can see a tilt in the balance towards working at bench. If that is the case, then what I presume is you just need another set of hands and not minds. Reading should provoke some one to come up with a new idea. And different brains deliver different ideas and that is how a research area is developed.

  9. Rick, you’re seeing a tilt that isn’t there. I would never tell a trainee to stay away from the lit in favor of being “tied to the bench”. There obviously has to be a balance. I’m just trying to point out that it may be advantageous for your career to move your balance more toward experiment rather than spending too much time obsessing with the details of the literature.

  10. In my experience, 25 years, the opposite has been true, that is I find trainees spending most of their time at the bench and not enough time with the literature. There obviously has to be a happy middle ground, but without the reading, failure is imminent.

  11. Once you are relatively familiar with a field, you should be able to get what you need out of a published paper in five minutes or less.

  12. AHA! You totally followed the link vomitus here PP! Busted!

    and I gotta say , not everyone has their brain overclocked like you my man!

  13. So proud to be a piece of your vomit DM :-)

  14. I may have to revise my earlier post a little, as I’ve recently been interacting with someone who in my opinion puts too much weight on previously published results, even when those results more broadly are still unsettled.

    So, this person could do the experiment to answer the question, but would seemingly rather show me papers that support his hypothesis (and this is a crucial point for his work, which if he’s wrong on, then the rest of the results are near impossible to interpret definitively). His credulity with regards to the literature is baffling to me. Doesn’t he want to really see the result himself? Maybe that’s the difference between a producer and a consumer.

  15. Nat,
    Exactly!! There are 2 types in my opinion. 1) Those who would rather build the evidence based on the lit than do the experiment (as you describe) and 2) those that talk themselves out of everything based on the lit.

    Interestingly, I fell into class 1 for some time. I eventually broke free of it and did the experiments and it got me a nice paper and a nice job. The hold-up, at least for me, was fear. What if I was wrong about this great hypothesis that I had built up over many years of pouring over the lit to learn about something I had no formal training in. A colleague, and not the post doc advisor, eventually got me out of the rut. I will be forever grateful to her.

  16. Hey that you simply very much for that write-up, it absolutely was very and useful examine! I will be back afterwards for confident.

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