Archive for the ‘Etiquette’ Category

Response to ACS Nano Editorial on Reporting Misconduct

Wednesday, October 23rd, 2013

ChemBark's Jackie Jaws, the Jaded JACS RefereeYesterday, the entire editorial board of ACS Nano published an editorial on how scientific misconduct should be reported and dealt with. The piece took square aim at chemistry blogs, and I’ve decided to publish my thoughts as an open letter to Paul Weiss, the Editor-in-Chief of the journal:

Dear Professor Weiss,

Yesterday, I read your editorial titled “Be Critical but Fair”, within which you and the other editors of ACS Nano outline an official policy that calls on those who discover suspicious data to report their findings directly to the journal (where they can be scrutinized privately) as opposed to blogs and social media (where the findings will be scrutinized in the open). It is with candid disdain that I write this (public) blog post to explain why I believe your policy is misguided, and ultimately, damaging to the institution it seeks to protect.

Before going further, I want to thank you for the job that you and the rest of the board perform as editors. You are the primary stewards of the chemical literature, and the gravity of this responsibility is immeasurable. I imagine there are times when the extra salary you receive as editors does not adequately compensate you for the hassles of the job. I have no taste for this stress, but I am glad there are scientists among us willing to step up to the plate. Thank you for your service.

It is because of the immense responsibility of your job as a steward of the chemical literature that the community has an interest in analyzing your actions and holding you accountable for them. Everyone makes mistakes—from lowly chemistry bloggers to exalted editors-in-chief of ACS journals—but the true tragedy of any mistake is when we fail to learn from it. Recently, the process of peer review at your journal failed in a most spectacular manner. Similar high-profile cases recently occurred at your sister journals (e.g., Nano Letters and Organic Letters), and these cases of suspected misconduct are slowly working their way through the process of editorial review.

One common vein to this recent rash of suspicious papers is that they were brought to light on chemistry blogs. As you may already know, I am the editor of one of these blogs, ChemBark. I read with particular interest the comments you directed at those who discuss misconduct on blogs and Twitter:

In science, we face a similar problem: the numbers of blogs, twitter messages, etc. in which individuals accuse others of academic fraud are steadily rising. Although one might think that this trend is generally beneficial for the purity of science, there are also obvious risks involved. Thus, in this Editorial, we outline some general behavior guidelines that we believe should be followed in such cases. In general, we need to respect our law, in dubio pro reo, which tells us not to condemn anyone before wrongdoing has been proven. It is easy to tweet a message like “X committed fraud and manipulated data”, but how do we know that this is, in fact, true, and that instead, it was perhaps person Y who sent the tweet who just wanted to damage an unwanted competitor? We are convinced that it is important to “clean” the scientific literature from manipulated data, incorrect statements, plagiarism, etc. However, when these issues arise, they need to be investigated with good scientific conduct. In other words, be critical but fair.

The implication of your last statement is that the coverage of scientific misconduct by ChemBark was unfair, and I take great offense to this postulate. I use this word because you have not cited a single shred of specific evidence in support of your statement. When has a chemistry blogger ever raised serious suspicions about the validity of data in a paper only to be later proven incorrect? If a researcher submitted a manuscript to ACS Nano that did not include even one specific piece of data in support of his conclusions, the journal would reject the manuscript immediately. It is a shame that the editors do not hold their own writing to a similar standard.

You said on Twitter that the journal has a policy never to cite blogs or tweets, as if this represents a valid defense of why you couldn’t provide specific facts in support of your ideas. First, your tweet was absolute rubbish. Stuart Cantrill, chief editor of Nature Chemistry, immediately pointed out you wrote a previous editorial that cited the Retraction Watch blog. Second, why on Earth would you have a blanket policy not to cite blogs or tweets? Is ACS Nano so recalcitrant to changes in the publishing industry that it feels ideas voiced online can be ignored or reapportioned in print without credit? I hope not.

The true reason that your editorial did not cite a single instance of a blogger’s leveling false accusations of scientific misconduct in chemistry is that no such instance exists. To imply otherwise is dishonest sophistry that does not befit the editors of a major chemistry journal. In the very rare instances where commenters make weak accusations in the discussion thread of a blog post, the comments are ignored or ridiculed. Despite the fact that the majority of popular chemistry blogs serve as places for civil and thoughtful analysis, your editorial treats blogs as shady underground operations where anonymous bloggers are free to wreak havoc on innocent scientists. Again, I challenge you to find one anonymous chemistry blogger who has broken a story of possible misconduct. I use my real name on ChemBark, and Mitch Garcia blogs under his real name at Chemistry-Blog. Your editorial could have easily cited our work in reporting suspicious papers, but of course, doing so would not have fed into your desired narrative.

Returning to your statement above, you note that “we need to respect our law, in dubio pro reo, which tells us not to condemn anyone before wrongdoing has been proven.” First off, your translation isn’t even correct. A more accurate translation is “when in doubt, favor the accused.” This tenet is why our legal system requires proof “beyond a reasonable doubt”, and the idea has nothing to do with trying cases in public versus private. The fact that you drew on our legal system—which is famous for holding trials that are televised or open to members of the public—to support your policy is ridiculous.

While bloggers who report cases of possible misconduct are indeed accountable to the law, that law is not “in dubio pro reo”. Rather, bloggers are accountable to defamation law. If any chemistry blogger were to raise baseless accusations of misconduct against a scientist, the blogger would open himself to (i) financial ruin from an adverse finding in a civil claim, and (ii) professional ruin in the court of community opinion. Bloggers need to be careful about what papers they choose to highlight regarding scientific misconduct, but this is no different from how newspapers and magazines need to be careful about how they handle their coverage of crime in everyday life. Do we want newspapers to abstain from reporting major crimes until a trial by jury has concluded? No, that’s crazy. There is a public interest served in covering these stories, and news outlets play a valuable role in gathering, distilling, and reporting this information. As both a chemistry blogger and a human being, I need to make sure that the facts I report regarding possible scientific misconduct are accurate and the opinions I voice are rooted in reason. That’s the bottom line, and I am accountable to the very intelligent readership of the blog and to our legal system (should someone have a problem with my coverage). No blogger can expect to level spurious claims of misconduct and get away with it.

Your editorial continues with a statement that peer review is “the best way to avoid potential academic fraud” and correctly notes that the system sometimes fails. When it does, you implore readers who find evidence of misconduct to report it directly to you so you can conduct an investigation in private. You note:

The difference between this formalized accusation investigation and reports in blogs or on Twitter is that, during the investigation, the authors of the article under dispute have a fair chance to explain, and the decisions are made by known experts in the field. After we have made our decision, all are welcome to comment on it in any blog, even if they have different opinions; this is their privilege. We strongly suggest that such comments be made without the cloak of anonymity, using real names and affiliations, so that direct and open discussion of the work can be understood by others.

I hope you can appreciate the irony of how you begin by extolling the virtues of (anonymous) peer review and conclude by haranguing bloggers and commenters to register their opinions “without the cloak of anonymity.” It takes a lot of gall to make those statements in the same line of thought.

Furthermore, the idea that the public should not be free to point out deficiencies of a (publicly) published paper without first receiving clearance from the editorial board of ACS Nano is preposterous. The notion is antithetical to the freedom of inquiry espoused by the academic community and the freedom of speech held sacred by American society. Unless I am mistaken, the “A” in ACS Nano stands for American. In America, it is not a “privilege” to comment publicly on a subject; it is a right.

Your assertion that commenting on papers is a “privilege” smacks of the elitist, opaque, closed-door, Old-Boys’-Club approach that many lament has become standard operating procedure in too many areas of chemistry. Many young chemists decry that success in our field is not so much about what you do, but whom you know. Blogs are helping to level the playing field by putting users on equal terms and democratizing the flow of information. In order for any self-governing and self-policing body to operate effectively, members of the community must stay informed about important issues they face. There can be nothing more important to chemistry than the integrity of our data; it is the foundation on which our knowledge is built. Private systems of dealing with misconduct do so in a darkness where—even if an investigation takes place on the level—those outside will always have their doubts. The open system afforded by blogs shines a light on problems so all can see, participate, and judge for themselves. While private peer review of papers may make sense to eliminate errors before they’ve been published, once a paper is out in the open, it should be fair game for comment. There is no point in dragging problems back inside only to leave a trail of blood and a multitude of questions behind.

I would like to think that the private system you espouse could also function efficiently, but recent history has proven otherwise. Despite the importance of maintaining the integrity of the scientific record, the chemical community has been routinely kept in the dark about cases of scientific misconduct. Journals, universities, and governments seem to share as little as possible about their investigations. Just look what happened with the Sezen–Sames retractions. The case involved a shocking rampage of deceit and was probably the worst scandal to hit organic chemistry of all-time, but it took a FOIA request from me and C&EN to release the details of the case to the community. How can chemists be expected to learn from and prevent scandals without knowing any of the specific details? It’s ridiculous! Do you pledge to release all of the specific details of your investigations that result in adverse findings against an author?

Journalism—including that provided on chemistry blogs—is one way to address this vacuum of information. The Founding Fathers of the United States protected the freedom of the press in our Bill of Rights because they knew that an informed electorate was essential to the efficient operation of our government and the prevention of tyranny. A (small) part of what I’ve tried to do with ChemBark is to shed light on cases of scientific misconduct in our field such that these cases can be discussed and analyzed by the wider chemical community. It is unfortunate that there exists a need for bloggers to invest some of their time in this effort, but experience has repeatedly shown that chemists cannot rely alone on journals, universities, and governments to keep them informed.

Regardless of how persistent you are in your attempt to intimidate the blog community into keeping silent, bloggers will continue raising these issues. The health of our science is at stake, and the importance of its protection far exceeds the cost of however you and your colleagues decide to punish us for openly analyzing important issues in our field.

In summary, I believe your editorial is unfair and completely misguided. I am dismayed that it represents not only your personal opinion, but the professional opinion of every member of your editorial board (who signed it). You all have perverted an embarrassing, spectacular failure of peer review at your journal into a condemnation of the community that exposed and prevented the proliferation of your error. Chemists should be outraged at your editorial, and I hope they see through this shameless attack on those of us who use blogs and social media to analyze articles rather than the traditional method of grumbling in solitude. In the future, I suggest your effort will be better spent listening to the constructive feedback bloggers and their readers provide rather than attacking them for conducting their analysis in a public forum. Finally, on Twitter yesterday, you mentioned a willingness to engage further in a discussion of the merits of open vs. closed review of problematic published papers. I do not hold grudges and would be happy to participate in whatever forum you deem appropriate. Please keep me informed if you remain interested in hosting such a symposium.

Yours in chemistry,

Doctor? No.

Wednesday, October 16th, 2013

bracher_office_doorI generally like to be respectful of people. Toward this end, I try my best to address people properly. You’ll find that I’m pretty liberal in using “Dr.” when addressing letters and e-mails, because you never know when someone is going to get upset at being called “Mister”. In contrast, few people seem to get upset at being called a doctor when they are not. When I was applying for faculty positions last year, I am certain I conferred Ph.D. degrees on a multitude of unsuspecting departmental staffers whose job it was to assemble the applicants’ files.

On the flip side, I have a personal aversion to signing anything as “Dr.” I always check “Mr.” when filling out forms, and I cannot bear to end an e-mail with “Dr. Bracher.” As I am now a teacher, this has established a weird dynamic where students address their e-mails to “Dr. Bracher” and I return them by signing “Paul.” I know this has got to weird the students out because I remember fretting over how to address professors when I was in college. Do you call them “Professor”, “Doctor”, or by their first name? I am pretty sure I always opted for “Professor.”

In my undergrad research lab, it was always a big deal for students when the boss started signing his e-mails to you by his first name. It was an unmistakable signal that you had made it and was regarded as a rite of passage in the lab. In contrast, my graduate and postdoc advisors were pretty much known exclusively in the lab by their first names. Of course, the undergrad-professor dynamic is much different from the dynamic with grad students and postdocs, but it’s always interesting to see how these differences manifest themselves.

Some students attempt to solve the e-mail problem by using the non-direct “Hi,” “Hey,” or “Hello there” salutation. Of course, in trying to avoid any awkwardness, this device mostly just draws attention to it. Would you walk up to a professor and address her as “Hey”? Some of my colleagues sign their e-mails to students as “Dr. D” (or similar), which is an interesting compromise between formal and informal. At the same time, it makes me question what I should address these professors when we are in front of students. Can I say “John” (as I normally would), or should I say “Dr. Doe”?

While I don’t especially care what people call me and would never be offended by any of the standard choices, I prefer “Paul”. But after two months in St. Louis, it seems as if I’m going to be “Dr. Bracher” to the vast majority of students. To friends, colleagues, and those online, I will still be “Paul”, while to family at home, I have always been “P.J.” All are fine with me.

Yesterday, I found myself reconsidering whether to sign my e-mails to students as “Dr. Bracher” to make them feel more comfortable. My conclusion was not to change—signing “Dr. Bracher” would probably make me feel just as weird as if they were to address their e-mails to “Paul”. Anyway, the decision of what to call myself has got to be one of the few privileges to which I am entitled in this new job.


Chemistry World and Others on Dodgy Data

Thursday, September 5th, 2013

ed_baseballcap_150Hello, friends. Pardon the radio silence of late. My first semester of teaching just started at SLU and my head is already spinning. I’ll have a full post on that subject soon, but I wanted to weigh in on a few recent pieces regarding the cases of suspicious data that were reported here and elsewhere.

Reporter Patrick Walter wrote a story earlier this week for Chemistry World that examined whether blogs are appropriate venues for policing the chemical literature for misconduct. I was interviewed for—and quoted in—the story, which I feel is thorough, is balanced, and represented my positions accurately. As you might imagine, I argue that blogs are indeed appropriate venues to report suspicious data and to analyze how the community should respond to misconduct.

There are plenty of people who disagree with me—to varying extents—and the article raises their concerns as well. That is fantastic, because this is a discussion that we need to have. I am happy to engage in thoughtful debate on the subject (see posts here and here) in hopes that we, as a community, can arrive at a more efficient system for removing manipulated data from the literature and preventing their publication in the future.

Mitch André Garcia, who runs both Chemistry-Blog and the chemistry subgroup of Reddit, is one of the people who took exception to my post on the manipulated spectra in Organic Letters. Here is what he wrote on Twitter:

I’m left scratching my head here. How do the nanochopsticks he reported qualify as “acceptable to cover” for being “egregiously manipulated and…in a high impact journal” but not the erased impurities in the Anxionnat/Cossy spectra reported here? Seems pretty hypocritical. And if we can’t agree on whether these cases meet his standard for “egregiously manipulated” and “high impact”, how are we supposed to agree on anything?

My view on the matter is that anyone who wants to raise concerns publicly about data may do so, with the full realization that they are putting themselves on the line. If I raise concerns about the integrity of data in a paper, I am accountable to defamation law and the high intelligence and ethical standards of the readership here. I can only bring information to people’s attention. If that information is wrong or doesn’t support my opinions, I will be excoriated in the comments and lose credibility. If what I publish is defamatory, I will probably also be sued. The root cause of the outrage among chemists about these papers cannot be attributed to blogs; the data speak for themselves.

A few days ago, John at the blog It’s the Rheo Thing posted some cautionary advice to “activist [bloggers] that are confronting examples of fraud, plagiarism and other publishing infractions in the technical literature”:

What goes around, comes around. Many are pleased to bring the axe down hard on someone’s head, and hold as many people responsible as possible (from ALL the authors to the principal investigator and maybe even beyond that), but we need to keep in mind that publishing scientific research is a human effort and as such, will be imperfect at times even when no harm, deceit or other nefarious activity is intended. Many of the commentators screaming for blood are young professionals you have yet to run a large, established research group, but who think that they will be able to do so flawlessly in the future. Of course that won’t happen. You will have failings and shortcomings and things will go wrong despite your most fervent intent to prevent it. Most people do not have a problem with that.

Most people. But there will be plenty of others wanting your head on the same chopping block and with an added level of glee since you were responsible for bringing so many down yourself. It’s human nature. We can’t change it, this perverse desire to bring down the people bringing down others. Worse yet, these efforts to trap you may be entirely without merit. That won’t matter. “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes” (Mark Twain). Your name and reputation can be placed in the same trash heap as those truly deserving it far more easily than you can ever imagine. Despite your noble intents and purity of heart.

User “juicebokz” on Reddit called John’s post “a letter to ChemBark”, and I feel compelled to weigh in with the following points:

Do you seriously think that the responsibilities of running a modestly popular blog don’t weigh on me? Do you think that I don’t consider whether I am treating the subjects of these sorts of posts fairly? These posts are not aimed at destroying scientists; they are aimed at protecting science. I do not take joy in the downfall of others, but I am not going to let a miscreant’s potential downfall prevent me from discussing a topic that I feel is important. Should any researchers be “brought down” for data fabrication, I will not be the person responsible for bringing them down. They will have been the people responsible for their own downfall.

And I am by no means a perfect person. Everyone makes mistakes and does things of which they are not proud. The point is that you have to pay for your mistakes, then dust yourself off and go about living a productive life. Should anyone gather the motivation to search through my past, or present, they’re going to find stuff that will embarrass me…but they are not going to find any fabrication of data.

As for drawing attention to co-authors who very likely did not actively participate in the fabrication of data, I still stand by the position that authors must share the responsibility for the content of their papers. “Share” does not mean “share equally”, but all authors should at least read through their papers and keep an eye out for things that are obviously wrong. When you are a corresponding author, ensuring the integrity of the data in your papers must be one of your priorities. If you think I’m alone in this view, please go back and read Smith’s editorial in Organic Letters. Any punishment doled out regarding fabricated data in a paper should be proportional to (i) one’s active involvement in the fabrication and (ii) one’s responsibilities as a conscientious scientist and/or manager. These responsibilities should be the subject of more discussion among chemists.

Finally, does anyone really think I am helping my career by reporting on scientific misconduct? Do you have any idea how uncomfortable it is to send e-mails to the editor-in-chief of a high-impact journal in my field asking for comment about how he’s going to deal with manipulated data in a paper written by one of his associate editors? Was it lost on people that Smith’s response to my inquiry was addressed “Dear Bracher”? It’s certainly not the most cordial of salutations. I asked a follow-up question by e-mail and was not given the courtesy of a reply.

I don’t like these sorts of awkward interactions, but asking hard questions is part of doing a thorough job of reporting, so I’ll just bite the bullet. I can only hope these interactions don’t come back to hurt me down the road, but that’s a possibility. At the end of the day, I would love not to have to write about scientific misconduct because (i) chemists have stopped doing it or (ii) universities, journals, and government have created a good system for dealing with it.

Now, how do we make that happen?

Free Food and Germaphobia

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2012

I’ve never thought of myself as a germaphobe, but a recent conversation has made me reconsider. While I have no problems touching doorknobs, shaking hands, or using public restrooms, there has always been one thing that has grossed me out: the trays of free food commonly found at social events in grad school.

I have never understood the excitement sparked in chemistry departments by free food. I had friends in grad school who would walk halfway across campus because they heard a rumor that there might be two-hour-old Chinese food up for grabs. I saw labmates in college abscond from parties with entire pizza pies when they could easily have bought a slice for $1.50 at the pizzeria across the street. Yeah, grad students and postdocs aren’t typically paid that well, but my stipend never seemed so small as to merit dropping everything for a plate of cold pad thai only minutes away from being tossed in the garbage. I wish I could feel the same sense of accomplishment as the people who seem to live for free food.

The fact that the food is free is not what turns me off, it’s the presentation. See for yourself. Here is a video from one of the Christmas parties I attended in grad school:

Yes, I exaggerate, but is slopping pigs that far off from what takes place at departmental buffets? In both cases: (i) food is dispensed in massive aluminum troughs, (ii) you can never identify the food in the troughs with certainty, and (iii) people are packed so tightly around the troughs that it is impossible for the food not to become contaminated. It’s also fun when the party is held outdoors and a swarm of insects runs for cover whenever someone picks up the spoon for the baba ghanoush. Yuck.

What brought all of this up? At a recent party, I was criticized by some lab mates for my failure to partake of the free food, and I responded by sharing my thoughts above. I also reminded them of an event at a recent group meeting, where a lab mate of ours (i) ate a handful of Cheetos, (ii) proceeded to clean his hands by sucking the orange gunk off of each finger, then (iii) inserted his hands back in the communal bag for a second helping. As I watched this atrocity unfold over the course of five minutes, I wanted to scream out in horror. I settled for sharing looks of abject disgust with three other people who also had a front-row seat to this sideshow. So, allow me to apologize in advance for being antisocial in not feeding from loosely patrolled communal sources of food. Instead, I will gladly pay $5 to be disappointed by a foot-long B.M.T. from Subway, in peace.

In the wake of this anti-trough debate, I tried to think of other examples that might lend credence to the argument that I am an OCD germaphobe. I came up with one thing that I don’t think is too bad, but is worth sharing since it involves chemistry. When cleaning my bathroom, I insist on using a cleaning product with bleach. I really don’t think that surfactants alone can get the job done—you need a hardcore oxidant to get in the game and annihilate germs. With that said, in the past, I have paid the price for this cleaning preference by ruining a fair number of clothes when they’ve brushed against a surface with residual bleach.

My eventual solution was simple. Everyone knows that you’re not supposed to mix cleaning products that contain bleach with those that contain ammonia because you will produce chlorinated amine gases that are toxic. Taking advantage of these reactions, after wiping down a surface with bleach, I’ll make sure to wipe it down with Windex to quench any residual hypochlorite. Is this routine obsessive? Possibly, but it’s been a long time since I’ve ruined a shirt from my fantastically expensive wardrobe. And the importance of these savings cannot be underestimated. If I’m not going to take advantage of free food, I’ve got to find ways to save money elsewhere.

The Unwritten Rules of Chemistry Seminars

Friday, February 11th, 2011

In the discussion that followed the arsenic-for-lunch post, commenter CR and I got into a spirited debate about the rules of etiquette for scientific presentations.  It was my contention that it is considered socially unacceptable to ask long strings of questions during seminars, while CR insisted that there’s nothing wrong with it.  I think there are many unwritten rules that pertain to seminars, and I promised to get back to the subject in due course.  Earlier this week, a post by The Unlikely Grad Student (TUGS) titled “Notes to Seminar Speakers” reminded me to finish what I started.

I’m going to focus on social norms and questions of etiquette rather than how to prepare and deliver a scientific talk.  This guide on how to give a research presentation is a good start, and I particularly like UIUC chemist Ken Suslick’s seminar on seminars.  Moving on…

There are at least four types of stakeholders in attendance at your typical chemistry seminar: the speaker, the host, the professors in the audience, and the rest of the audience.  Each set of stakeholders has its own responsibilities and expectations.

Rules for…

…the Speaker 

Give the host a title for your presentation so that people can judge whether they want to attend.  This courtesy is especially important if your research program is littered across many disciplines.  While “TBA” is acceptable if the talk is several months away, you should update the host when you’ve decided what it is you want to talk about.

Actually talk about the subject billed on your seminar flyer.  Don’t change your mind and surprise everyone.

Dress well.  Don’t wear jeans and a t-shirt.  It’s a matter of respect, and people do judge books by their covers.

If you notice a build up of people standing after your seminar starts, consider halting your talk to invite the latecomers to fill vacant seats.

TUGS brings up an excellent point that you should learn the name of your host—particularly if it is a difficult one to pronounce—so you don’t look like an idiot when you thank the person who has kindly spent her day shepherding you around the department.

Find out how long seminars are supposed to last and plan accordingly.  If everyone likes to get out within an hour, that does not mean your talk should last an hour.  You should stop 10 minutes early so that there will be time for questions.  Remember, people have seldom complained that a seminar was too short.

If you say you’ve got one more slide, make sure you have only one more slide.  Don’t go on for five more slides.  Putting up a slide that is titled “Future Directions” or “Conclusions” is the equivalent of saying that the talk is almost over. 

….the Host

Don’t get carried away with your introduction.  People are there to hear the seminar, not you.  Your intro should not take more than 3 minutes.  If you’re reading lines off of the speaker’s CV, you’re doing it wrong.  If you have a funny story to tell, make sure it is actually funny.

Ideally, the host will moderate the question session.  After the audience applauds, you should get up, stand to the side, and formally open the floor to questions.  You should select questioners and identify them by name.

It is the moderator’s job to make sure that question time does not carry on.  Be merciful.  Don’t let question time drag on forever.  Know when to apply the coup de grâce.  The classic line to use is “we can finish this discussion later on, let’s all thank Professor X once again…” 

In uncomfortable situations, such as language barriers between the speaker and questioners, it is your job to attempt to rephrase or translate the question.

If a questioner becomes too aggressive, it is your job to try to diffuse the situation and move past it.  The speaker is a guest of the department and should not be badgered.

…the Audience (in General)

If you enter the lecture hall more than five minutes or so past the start of the talk, find an empty seat towards the back or stand.  Don’t disrupt the talk by climbing through the audience to reach an empty seat, unless the speaker invites you to do so.

If people look at you when you’re talking to the person next to you, you’re speaking too loudly.  Shut up and pass notes instead.

If your boss invited the speaker, you should probably show up to the seminar…even if you’re going to be miserable.

It is perfectly acceptable to read a paper or check your e-mail if the talk stinks, but not in the very front of the lecture hall.  If you plan on multitasking, sit in the wings or at the back of the room.

Don’t ask questions that you know the answers to.  If you believe the speaker is unaware of a particular fact, state the fact outright and immediately follow it with your point.  Seminars are not quiz shows, and you are not Alex Trebek.  (This rule does not apply to professors when grad students are giving talks in their own department)

Don’t ask more than two questions in a row.  Give other people a chance.  Remember, you can always approach the speaker after the meeting has adjourned.

If you are not a professor yet you ask a question at every single seminar, people will think you are a tool.  Yes, this is irrational, but that’s just the way it is.

…the Professors in the Audience

In the event that there is a lull during question time, the responsibility of asking questions falls to the professors present.  That’s just the way it is.  If you are a professor, you need to have a couple of rounds in the chamber by the end of the talk.  A pause of anything more than five seconds is uncomfortable and rude.

Pitiful attendance at a seminar is embarrassing to the speaker and to the department.  If attendence is typically a problem at your seminars, the faculty needs to explore ways to put butts in the seats.

If the lecture hall is routinely less than one-third full for weekly seminars, the seminars should be held in a smaller room.

Try to encourage students to ask questions by not necessarily jumping at the speaker from the very start of question time.  A more timid member of the audience (i.e., everyone) won’t want to be third man in.

While you won’t get punished for breaking any of these rules, you won’t be doing yourself any favors, either.