Tuesday, November 21, 2017

A simple 10 step method to write an expository paper for school

1) Think about and research what you need to say.
2) Create a logical sequential bullet point outline of what you want to say, with citations.
3) Go back and turn each bullet point into a crystal clear, grammatically correct, SIMPLE declarative sentence.
4) Go back and connect the sentences. You can do this in three ways:
a) Modify each sentence so that each follows from the previous.
b) Combine two adjacent sentences into a compound sentence.
b) Add transitional sentences.
5) Go back and connect the paragraphs, last sentence of previous paragraph to first sentence of the following paragraph usually works.
6) Double check that you have it correct by making sure that no paragraphs or sentences can be reversed in order without screwing up the flow of ideas. Remember that interchangable sentences or paragraphs almost always mean something is wrong.
7) Run your spell/grammar checker and fix your mistakes.
8) Have a friend or colleague proof read it for you and make a change for every problem they notice.
9) Run your spell/grammar checker and fix your mistakes.
10) Either go back to number 8 or declare it finished.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Just a thought on how class privilege in science led to the research grant system

Sometimes it is easy to forget that science started out with only the idle rich could having the time and the money to explore natural phenomena. Perhaps the only notable great exception was De Vinci who rose from poverty on his talents but was still completely dependent on the patronage of the wealthy and defense money to pay for his artistic and scientific endeavors. Today, this academic legacy is most evident in the domination of white males and the middle and upper class members of academia. One of the over looked vestiges that allows this privileged barrier to STEM is the grant system.

Ask yourself this, would a plumber or a builder or any other laboring be expected to come to your house with their own funding to do their jobs?  This is exactly what is asked in any STEM job advertisement requiring an “externally funded research program”.  It is the same old model of an academic community of the privileged classes who can enter only if they can bring their own money and equipment to the society meeting.  More recently in the 20th century, the state has stepped in providing self-funding through NSF or NIH grants, but the academic model for hiring a new assistant professor is still based on the idea that an academic should be professionally wealthy enough to bring their own money and help support the university rather than working for the university. A university STEM job advertisement is not so much an offer of employment as it is a request for at least 7 years of charity work. The job benefits only come later with tenure and then that is not even certain.

The result is that the established funded community who dole out the money has then become the new wealthy social class that is determining who is in and who is out. Indeed, networking, belonging to certain lab groups with the correct linage, speaking the correct language with the accepted ideas are critical parts of belonging the any scientific community. These are the same communities that set the standards and determine who gets the grants. I sometimes wonder if STEM academia has not just replicated a Victorian gentlemen’s academic club, but with women admitted as well. Thus, the research university system is still a system of science that at its core remains designed for competition among members of the moneyed classes.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

How I effectively stopped plagiarism in my classes

Last year, a significant proportion (about 20%) of the my third year genetics class submitted final lab reports that were plagiarized to different degrees (mostly cut and pasted sentences with  and without citations) This past semester I employed several techniques to bring that proportion down to ZERO cases.  I did it by first thinking about why my students plagiarized then implementing policies to directly address those reasons.
I think that students plagiarize because they either do not understand what plagiarism is or they see the risk as being worth the potential reward. The answer then must be to 1) educate them about plagiarism, and 2) shift the risk/reward calculation against deciding to plagiarize. Here are my specific actions and policies targeting these two factors that seemed to work:


1)      I took the time to teach the definition of plagiarism and assessed the students on their understanding of plagiarism. I made a concise clear handout that we went over in the labs followed by a quiz that students had to pass before I would accept any written work (handout and quiz below). I talked one-on-one to students who had any wrong answers and walked them through to the right answer. The most important concept that they had misconceptions about was the general idea that plagiarism is passing off someone else’s work or ideas as your own. Many students thought only in terms of specific acts (i.e. copying and pasting text, putting their name on another person’s paper, copying from a classmate etc.) instead of the general definition which covers all of the different variants.  I also found it helpful to approach it from the perspective of giving credit where credit is due. This more positive approach seemed to create empathy with the person who is not getting credit for their ideas.
2)      I kept a copy of the quizzes and told the students these would be used in academic dishonesty judicial proceedings if necessary. This removes the “I didn’t know” defense, increasing the risk of consequences if caught.
3)      I assigned a lower point presubmission of the most plagiarized section of the assignment. This was a presubmission of the introduction where students have to synthesize existing literature. The motivation to take a chance plagiarizing is lower for assignments worth fewer points resulting in no plagiarism. By doing a low point presubmission the students had a plagiarism free rough draft as a starting point for the high value final submission. This takes the pressure off in terms of points for the first submission and reduces the time pressure for the final submission.
4)      I told them I report all cases of plagiarism where I impose any penalties to the university. This is the number one most important key policy!  Negotiating penalties within your course reinforces the behavior by validating the students risk/benefit calculation. Such negotiations results in plagiarism becoming just another part of the academic game of manipulating the instructor to get the best grade possible.  I am convinced that serial plagiarizers depend upon and factor into their decision the opportunity to negotiate their way out of serious sanctions when caught. Any teacher who deals with plagiarism cases privately within their own class is harming their students and perpetuating a culture of sweeping the problem under the rug. The penalty that really has an effect is having it go on their record outside of your particular class (usually temporarily, at least in my institution). Your students may cry and sometimes fight it in whatever judicial review you have at your university, but this level of sanction alone is the only way to increase the risk to unacceptable in many students' minds. If every instructor did this from year one I am convinced that plagiarism would cease to be a problem by the junior year.

So if you want to stop plagiarism in your classroom, this is what worked for me.  Number four takes some courage and willingness to follow through, but that threat with the other mitigating actions should prevent most students from making the wrong decision. 

The Handout:

Plagiarism Policy

It is my policy to routinely report all cases of plagiarism where I have to enforce a penalty to the Dean of Students. If you decide to plagiarize then it is your decision and my responsibility to report you. You will have only yourself to blame for the consequences. There may be a negotiation on the grade penalty to ensure the advantage you gained is fairly negated relative to students that did not plagiarize, but whether or not to report the case to the university is non-negotiable.

Definition of Plagiarism: passing off someone else’s work and ideas as your own.

1)    Direct copying
a.    Turning in someone else’s work as your own. (from another student, bought essay, copied off the internet)
                                          i.    Blatant and deliberate academic misconduct.
b.    A good indicator: If you are using the “cut and paste” function to put something into your writing you are plagiarizing unless it is a direct quote with a proper citation.
c.    Easiest to catch with software and a bit of Googling.

2)    Rewriting someone else’s work
a.    Rewriting someone else’s work is plagiarism.
                                          i.    No amount of rewording someone else’s sentences or paragraphs is acceptable!!!
Actual case: a student once showed me an original sentence from a published paper and his extensive modifications and asked me if it was changed enough from the original to pass!!  Someone else’s sentence can never be changed enough to not be plagiarized if you are trying to reword someone else’s work to make it pass as yours.
Also see http://sociobiology.wordpress.com/2013/04/20/plagiarism-is-more-common-than-i-thought/  for a good explanation with a concrete example.
                                         ii.    The only way to avoid this is to do it yourself from scratch, with your own outline, then put in the citations later where you refer to or use other’s ideas.

3)    Referencing is not enough.
a.    You cannot take someone else’s writing or Powerpoints or any other work and pass it off as your own by just adding a citation. Otherwise you are just stating from where you plagiarized the material. This is called “cut and paste plagiarism with references” and it will not be tolerated
                                          i.    The criteria is simple:  Have you made it crystal clear to the reader what parts are your work and ideas, and what are the other person’s work and ideas?
                                         ii.    You cannot in anyway imply, directly, indirectly, or by omission that someone else’s work or ideas are yours.


The quiz (answers, 1a, 2e, 3a-e):

Name______________________    Date_________________________________

Plagiarism Quiz, You must get 100% before I grade your written work.

1) I read and understand the plagiarism statement.
a) Yes
b) No

2) What is the best definition of plagiarism (pick ONE)
a) Putting your name on someone else’s work and turning it in as your own work.
b) Copy and pasting material without citing the source
c) Copy and pasting material without direct quotes, but citing the source
d) Rewriting a sentence from a source until it passes a plagiarism checker with or without citation
e) Directly or indirectly implying that someone else’s work and/or ideas are your own

3) Which of the actions below will get you reported for plagiarism? (Mark all that apply).
a) Putting your name on someone else’s work and turning it in as your own work.
b) Copy and pasting material without citing the source
c) Copy and pasting material without direct quotes but citing the source
d) Rewriting a sentence from a source until it passes a plagiarism checker with or without citation
e) Directly or indirectly implying that someone else’s work and/or ideas are your own



Saturday, January 28, 2017

Why I am against the tenure system in academia.

I am going out on a limb here as a tenured academic and argue that “tenure” as we know it should be abolished. There is a misperception that tenure means a job for life when in practical terms it actually just means a post-probationary full time job in a very stable and secure organization. Tenured faculty can still be fired for any number of offenses from misconduct, bringing "disrepute" to the university (yes this is in my contract), financial emergencies (frequently open to interpretation), and if you actually read the contract, not doing the job. These are EXACTLY the same reasons anyone outside the ivory towers in a permanent salaried job can be fired. Most people do not consider that universities tend to be more stable than private companies over the long run giving the false impression that it is tenure and not the stability of the institution that results in job security. The fact is that a full time banker, accountant or construction worker is effectively no less tenured  than a university professor after they pass probation.

One of the  most significant differences between tenured academic positions and the real world is the extended probationary period where young faculty are at the mercy of tenured faculty. In how many other jobs does five to six year probation end with a private vote of your full time colleagues on whether you stay or go? A new hire lives with a sword over their head trying not to offend or in any way cross the senior faculty who can fire them for effectively no real reason at the end of the trial period. Junior faculty cannot say no to any favor asked and must be constantly biting their tongues holding back from expressing controversial positions in order to navigate the internal often factionalized politics of the department. In many places, young faculty are expected to publish, get grants, work much harder and be more productive than those with tenure. Junior faculty depend upon a strong chair and hopefully a wise department that will defend and not abuse them. This pre-tenure probationary period is one the most stressful and uncertain times in any academics career, and it usually lasts five to six years with an uncertain outcome at the end.

Any unfair protection from tenure comes from the good ol’boy self-governing university system with senior tenured people colluding to back off to a more humane and reasonable workload after earning tenure. Many back off too enthusiastically practically stopping work thus hurting the university and undermining the original purpose of tenure which was to protect academic freedom. This aptly named deadwood is a drain on departments and is often cited as one of the strongest arguments against tenure. In reality, it is a problem with complicit management that lacks the will to go against tradition and enforce contractual obligations. Before anyone says it’s the union’s fault, I will argue that any manager who uses the union as an excuse is weak and lazy. No union contract ever requires you keep on someone who is able and refuses to work. Competent managers will document the offense and enforce the contract, not hide behind it.

We need to abolish traditional tenure by replacing it with stronger rules protecting academic freedom at all levels. The free expression and evaluation of ideas in academia sometimes requires the ability to publicly both criticize and undermine our pay masters at the university and at the state level. This often includes ideas that many members of the public will find untenable from their moral and religious points of view. Hence, there should be an explicit policy that faculty cannot be sanctioned or fired for bringing political or media pressure on a university for any statements or expression allowed under the 1st amendment. What I mean here is that any expression not outlawed at the federal level is fair game. That represents a huge expansion of free speech rights over what most people working in private companies are allowed.

Faculty also must be protected from sanctions or firing for any threatened or incomplete litigation from students. Only after a court rules should any punitive action be allowed by the university. Policies need to be in place ensuring that the university has the faculty’s backs. Some might argue that this would limit a university’s ability to respond to harassment, but these incidents should not be quietly covered up in the first place.

I propose that we replace the current tenure track with policy that all academics, from the day they are hired, be given safe haven as described above for free-expression and academic freedom. This is effectively granting the protection of "tenure" to new hires as well. The probationary period needs to have very clear written unambiguous  objective criteria of what must be done in that period (number of papers, grant amount, minimum teaching scores for example) to remove subjective personal biases. Passing probation should be a simple, independently verifiable box ticking exercise not up for a vote by department members but rather doable by someone outside the department. Only this way can a new hire freely contribute ideas to the department and university. After probation, we should be required to actually do the job we are paid to do throughout our careers. Publicly presenting peer reviewed scholarly work of the specified kind at the specified rate, teaching the required hours, and midrange student feedback scores should be all that is necessary and sufficient for continued employment. As in any other profession, not hitting these criteria should have paycheck ramifications with the possibility of termination in extreme cases. Finally,we really need to either start calling every permanent job tenured or drop the word entirely given the negative connotations it has acquired by its abuse in academia.

Friday, January 20, 2017

My Guest Blog for Wiki Edu



I don’t usually do guest blogs for the simple reason that I have too much trouble trying to post regularly here but sometime the invitation is too important. I recently did a presentation on my experience implementing writing for Wikipedia in my fourth year Cell Biology Class. It is available here (http://digitalcommons.plattsburgh.edu/feinberg_events/1/). Wiki Edu really liked it and invited me to write a blog entry for them, so I did. The focus is on the first part of my talk and is really as much about higher education finding it’s purpose as it is about how a
Wikipedia writing assignment works towards that goal. The Wiki Ed blog post is herehttps://wikiedu.org/blog/2017/01/20/rediscovering-the-higher-in-higher-education-with-a-wikipedia-writing-assignment/

Sunday, January 1, 2017

New Year's resolution: schedule writing and no email until after 9am


It’s a new year and my number one New Year’s resolution is to write more and more regularly. The trouble is how to steal back the time to do it.  I have tried scheduling writing, and journal reading, but something always comes up. I seem to lack the backbone or selfish heart to tell students and fellow faculty with urgent problems to go away and leave me alone during my reading and writing times. So here is my solution that I hope does not get me into too much trouble. I am going to write first thing in the morning at home, or at school with my office door firmly shut first thing every morning, and not read any email until after 9am in the morning. That last part has me a bit worried as I have a 9am genetics lecture this semester so I will essentially not be contactable until after 10am MWF.  This is also going to require some discipline to make sure I don't have any other anticipated urgent business to do before lecture. Unfortunately I see no way around this. The morning is my best time intellectually and I have noticed that the only things I can be 100% certain of doing happen before I open my email in the morning. So let’s see how it goes and maybe I can revive this blog in the process!

Friday, November 25, 2016

Some Advice on Teaching Group Assignments.

Working in groups, and leadership in particular, are always in the top two skills that employers are looking for. To help my students get that experience requires making group assignments. Recently, I feel like I have finally figured out how to do this right. Here is what works for me and my students.

1) Explain to the students why group work is important and unavoidable. I point out that if you run into someone in dark alley it is much less scary if you have five of your biggest and best friends with you. In life, numbers matter. A working group will ALWAYS beat an individual and there are some tasks only groups are capable of accomplishing. They will be working in groups for the rest of their lives so they need to learn how to do it. From a teaching perspective this means one of the worse mistakes one can make is to turn an individual assignment into a group assignment. The task must genuinely need to be done by a group. 

2) Teach your students how to work in a group. Many teachers seem to think they can just turn students loose on a group project and they will magically figure out how to make it work. The number one lesson of group work is what we evolutionary biologists call division of labor. That means people doing different tasks, ideally with each person doing the task that they are best at. The point is for the group to be better than the sum of the parts. You have to explain that they need to meet, pick a leader, set ground rules and expectations, get to know each other’s talents and abilities, and most importantly figure out how to allocate tasks so that each task is done by the best person for that task. With debate teams for example, I tell them to allocate the most argumentative and forceful personality to cross examination and the clever but shy people to library work and prepping arguments, and the arty types to make the slides. Competitive team debates may be the best type of assignment to teach group behavior because it unifies groups to be challenged by outsiders and provides a great example of how important working together is because going it alone against a team would be futile.

3) Rationally design the groups for maximum diversity. Never, ever, ever, ever (can I emphasize this anymore?) let students self-sort or you will end up with a superstar group and many struggling groups that are total disasters. On top of this they will inevitably end up racially segregated. I use every bit of knowledge I can glean ahead of time including consultation with TA’s to construct groups. We first separate the top performing students to date to designate each group. Next, we allocate diverse talents and types to make groups that should be as functional as possible. Sometimes we have to resort to random allocations but that is still better than letting the students pick their own groups. Finally, we allocate the problem students, essentially handicapping the groups as evenly as possible. This measure will save a tremendous amount of time and energy later once you learn how to do this. It also means putting off group projects as late in the semester as possible to get to know the students.  If the students balk at not being able to pick their groups and partners, I remind them that they cannot chose their coworkers or families so just get on with it. Never let them argue their way into being grouped with their first choices. In fact, I deliberately avoid pairings that students ask for ahead of time. We also have to avoid problematic combinations. There will be racists, misogynists and other people who for whatever reason should not be paired with other races or sexes or individuals who they have bad histories with. 

4) No opting out! I have sat kids down on presentation day when they showed up with slides in hand the night before expecting to just add them to whatever the group did without interacting with their group. Tell them this upfront from the beginning that there is no opting out of working with their group. You need to make it crystal clear that going it alone is not an option. There are two ways to do this. First, as said before, make the assignment too big for one person to do. Second, assess how the individual preforms in a group with peer review of group members. I always make it clear from the beginning that their group members will be solicited to comment on each individual’s contribution and that no one will be allowed to do the assignment alone, period.

5) Keep an eye on the groups and respond to problems immediately. After the project is done is not the time to discover that Robert was AWOL the whole time. Usually about a third of the way along a group assignment I email or ask the class how it is going and if they are satisfied with everyone’s participation. If they are not question the task allocation then talk to the offending member. Don’t jump to conclusions here. Nontraditional students can have family obligations that 18 year olds have no concept of. The only option for the worse type of slacker may be giving them a zero and freeing the group of having to deal with them. Next talk to the one who complained because turning on group member is poor group work behavior. Groups need to have each other’s backs. The proper response for dealing with a poor group member is to help them so that they can contribute as much as possible, and to cover for their weakness so the group does not suffer. Turning on the weak link only serves to bring the whole group down with them. Tell your students this after you ask for the member feedback the first time.  I have also had occasion to move a group member because of irresolvable differences. Again this is always fluid and dependent on specific student interactions. The rule is that there is no rule except to make an effort to keep on top of group problems.

6) I grade them as a group. They need to know that it is all for one and one for all like in real life. This can be hard for the over achiever students who gravitate to the leader role. I point out that getting the best out of others is part of the assignment and if they failed at that then their grade should reflect it. If someone thinks one student pulled down the group ask why they did not support and help that student. Why didn’t they allocate or reallocate the workload more appropriately? This is the whole point of the exercise and what defines good teamwork and good leadership, hence their grade needs to reflect that.

I hope this helps as I have found following these guidelines to yield very good results with happy students and high levels of accomplishment.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

When should a moderator call out lies in a formal debate?

The recent controversy in the news about whether or not debate moderators should point out lies struck a nerve with me after my classroom debates last semester. I have been doing organized and competitive team debates at the end of my third year Genetics and my third year Biology of Aging classes. These debates are on controversial social topics and have proven very popular. I would have to count it as one of my most effective assignments as it does seem to get students thinking and fired up like very few other activities. The team element also has proven an excellent way to teach group work by emphasizing the need to divide the labor based on individual student strengths. The problem I ran into head on last year was a very charismatic and persuasive student who cleverly argued a falsehood from a very weak internet source. The student is clearly a very talented debater so I want to be clear that I am not criticizing him at all. In fact it was a great performance on his part in that he could take such a weak piece of evidence and convince the room that it was true. Kudos to him for pulling it off! The problem is how to handle this in a teaching situation where the need to teach the truth may conflict with it being the other team’s responsibility to shoot down and point out the weaknesses in the argument.

This same issue is raising its head in the presidential debates where journalists whose job should be informing the public on the facts are being picked to moderate debates which need to be fair competitions. This puts the journalist moderators in a very similar type of conflict of interest. Should they be fair and not be expected to do the other side’s work for them or should they stick to their moral duty as journalists? The solution in this case is simple, we need to stop asking journalists to mediate these debates and instead ask retired judges or some other neutral party schooled in debating. It should also be explicitly stated in the rules that it is never the moderator’s role to identify the facts or misrepresentations.

In the class situation above I simply could not let the falsehood go so I did tell the class about the one off experiment, the online shenanigans and that the point was wrong, but only after the debate was over and the outcome decided. I also asked the class to consider the rhetorical techniques that our super debater skillfully employed to persuade them. Unfortunately I was still taken to task by one student in the end of semester surveys for “calling out” the star debater to the class. I don't know what else I could have done. Sometimes you just can’t win.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Cesspool of Online Plagiarism

While running a plagiarism check I entered two sentences into Google resulting in what appears to be a dozen cases of cut and past plagiarism. I can not even discern where the original came from. The first two from major universities are identical throughout and I would assume from a Nature Publishing press release with Nature's permission. Is it plagiarism to use material this way implying it is from the posting institution without citation if the original author says it is okay? To me, that seems to be exactly the definition of plagiarism, taking credit for someone else's work. At least Sciencedaily says "based on" at the bottom and implies that that means copied from.

It is very difficult to teach undergrads to not plagiarize with such bad examples out there. The reuse of the material by the two universities with permission is probably legal in the real world and neither are likely to go after Sciencedaily for republishing it, but this would be classified and prosecuted as plagiarism if a student did it because of the implied authorship.

Science writers of all types really need to be better attributing their sources. And Kudos to cytoplan.co.uk for putting it in quotes as it should be. As for others who copied . . .

To see for yourself, copy and paste into Google: “While a child’s genes are inherited directly from their parents, how these genes are expressed is controlled through ‘epigenetic’ modifications to the DNA. One such modification involves tagging gene regions with chemical compounds called methyl groups and results in silencing the genes. The addition of these compounds requires key nutrients including folate, vitamins B2, B6 and B12, choline and methionine.”






The above screen shots were taken December 10, 2014.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Safety and the Law

There was a time whenever I had to deal with anything labeled Health and Safety at work that I would want to jump up and down and scream at the complete irrationality of it all. It took a single epiphany to make me understand how to cope with this frustrating topic even though I still want to scream a bit. The key insight was that occupational health and safety is actually the combination of two unrelated topics, preventing accidents and preventing lawsuits.

I used to naively believe these two were somehow related since you can’t have a lawsuit without something bad happening. That is certainly true, but there are two other truths that breakdown the correlation of lawsuit prevention and safety, 1) accidents will happen no matter what (the shit happens principle) and 2) what prevents lawsuits (documentation, blind unthinking adherence to “safety” procedures, ticking off paperwork and overly general safety training) usually does not prevent accidents but can actually create more dangerous ways of working.

Separating the law aspect from the safety aspect of lab work can really help to understand how to make a better and safer workplace. First and foremost, if we ignore the legal for a minute, safety always comes down to how well each worker is trained in good habits and how well they understand what they are doing and what the real risks are. That means, knowing that big bottles of common acids, bases and organics are much more dangerous than minute amounts of potential mutagens and radioactivity, it means knowing what to do when you inevitably spill something, it means knowing that anything sealed and frozen or under pressure could explode in your face.  Most importantly, in science it means understanding what you are doing, what your lab mates are doing, and having a true realistic assessment of the risks with your SPECIFIC experiments.

On the other hand time wasting chemical safety classes on transport and disposal regulations that no one but safety officers need can cause workers to focus on the wrong issues and miss-evaluate their true risks. In my opinion, some rules for handling and concentrating mildly dangerous chemicals can actually increase the risk of spills making for a more unsafe work environment. A classic example was a class that suggested handling small containers of the radio-isotope P32 with forceps. This is insane as it greatly increases the probability of dropping the container when there is as negligible risk from the small amount of radioactivity that this procedure was being recommended for. Such measures come from the nuclear industry where much larger amounts of radioactivity are being handled. We frequently encounter the same over-kill rules with hazardous material rules written for handling large drums of chemicals instead of small vials containing minute amounts of material.  Another example is risking burns and wasting time and money autoclaving material that could be safely thrown in the trash at home.  I will go so far as to say that in decades of working at university labs I have never had a single safety training course worth the time spent in it with one exception: an outdoor first aid class for a field course. This was useful because of the real life role playing exercises focusing on real life scenarios. I should say that is not the fault of university administrators, but of federal and state regulators with the hopeless mandate to come up with uniform safety procedures and policies that can be applied across all types of organizations.

Real lab safety training only comes from your direct supervisors’ and lab coworkers’ one-on-one instruction in the lab. The most important and indispensable piece of safety equipment in the lab is your brain. Unfortunately human brains are very bad at assessing risk and will always focus on risks within their own experience. This is good for the individual worker in their own lab, if they have the good sense to stay vigilant and to develop good habits (the fading of attention to risk is the biggest safety problem).  However, this also means that someone else’s outside opinion from another field (“safety officers”) will always be less correct than your own, or a peer’s assessment. You are responsible for your own safety and those around you, and as a principle investigator you have to make sure that that one-on-one training is done and done well. But remember that accidents will always happen even if you do the right practical training and work correctly.  Without the paperwork, the useless required training courses, and following the legally required procedures to cover yourself, you will be the one with legal liability no matter how poorly or well you train your people.

This is a very important point, the really annoying and time wasting safety procedures are almost always about the law and not real life safety, but that does not mean they can be ignored. There is no use arguing with these rules and training requirements over whether they actually improve safety or not because that is not their function. Their function is to shift liability. The fact is that we PIs are personally responsible and can be held financially and criminally liable for accidents in our labs. If someone in your lab gets hurt and files a lawsuit, what do you think you university’s first move will be, 1) to provide you with legal help or 2) cover their own backsides?  All of that paper work and mandatory “safety training” is basically our way of dodging legal exposure. Remember that the same thing that works for our administrators is also our only legal strategy so we must make sure our workers and students are ticking the boxes too or else.

The trick to real occupational health and safety is to first figure out the legal requirements, then work to come up with practices complying with the rules and regulations while minimizing the negative effects these have on safety and productivity. The most dangerous trap is to believe that just because your organization is ticking all of the legal boxes your organization has actually done anything to improve safety. In my experience, blind box ticking degrades safety both directly by misapplying rules and practices, and indirectly by creating a general anti-safety attitude due the sheer stupidity and inane paper work that such rules generate. To improve safety the answer is not about thinking up clever rules or procedures, but motivating direct supervisors and lab workers towards a safe work culture and environment. Why not require each PI to put together his or her own lab safety training session once a year and peer review that training plan with the department? Even though this would be infinitely more effective, it cannot work because each lab will leave something different out and as soon as an accident happens that falls outside the training the lawyers will be called in and demand some sort of uniform watered down cookie cutter coverage. It is like playing whack a-mole with a new rule for each odd rare accident until the common sense stuff is lost in the noise.  It seems the best we can do practically is to remind each other to only do that in the hood, or to put on your eye protection, or to not leave that out on the bench, or show everyone the correct way to poor and carry corrosives and so on.  Only this sort of mentorship through habitually demonstrating good behavior will lower the frequency of accidents. What horrifies me is the real possibility that one can be free of liability by making sure their workers have checked the right legal boxes, without actually being sure they know how to work safely. Imagine the uproar if such box ticking avoidance of responsibility was applied to preventing sexual assault on campus. Oh, for HAVEN’s sake did I really accidentally mention that!