Ten Simple Rules for…

See also:


…Teaching

See Teaching Tech Together for a much longer discussion.

  1. Be kind: all else is details.
  2. Remember that you are not your learners…
  3. …that most people would rather fail than change…
  4. …and that ninety percent of magic consists of knowing one extra thing.
  5. Never teach alone.
  6. Never hesitate to sacrifice truth for clarity.
  7. Make every mistake a lesson.
  8. Remember that no lesson survives first contact with learners…
  9. …that every lesson is too short from the teacher’s point of view and too long from the learner’s…
  10. …and that nobody will be more excited about the lesson than you are.

…Building Open Science Community Organizations

With contributions from Katy Huff, Erin Robinson, Matt Turk, and Belinda Weaver.

1. Do the reading.

People have been writing about their experiences with grassroots organizations for two centuries. Resources we have found particularly useful include Building Powerful Community Organizations and Producing Open Source Software.

2. Join, don’t start.

Many community organizations dedicated to open science already exist, including Hacker Within, ESIP, rOpenSci, the projects sheltered by NumFOCUS, and various professional societies. Before creating a new one, see if there’s one you could join: this will give you a head start and a chance to learn more about how to run things.

3. Make it a democracy.

Sooner or later (usually sooner), every appointed board turns into a mutual agreement society. Giving the community power is messy, but is the only way invented so far to ensure that an organization continues to meet the actual needs of the people it’s supposed to be helping.

4. Make it rewarding.

The community organizer Saul Alinksy said, “If your people aren’t having a ball doing it, there is something very wrong.” Community members shouldn’t expect to enjoy every moment of their work with your organization, but if they don’t enjoy any of it, they won’t stay. Thank them. Everyone likes to be appreciated and communities need to have ways to publicly and privately acknowledge the contributions of their members.

One of the best ways to reward people, particularly for doing administrative and infrastructure work, is to pay them. Volunteer organizations are often hesitant to start doing this, but provided the decision making is transparent, but most members will accept that George Orwell was right: the trick is to do good and get paid, because you can’t work full-time forever without some sort of income.

5. Provide training.

Organizations require committees, meetings, budgets, grant proposals, and dispute resolution. Most researchers are never taught how to do any of this, despite the fact that universities depend on them too. Training people to do these things helps your organization run more smoothly, and gives participants a powerful reason to get and stay involved. If you aren’t large enough to provide training, join an organization that is and take some of theirs. As with Rule 2, it’s always best to learn on someone else’s dime.

6. Communicate.

Nobody’s going to come to a meeting unless they know about it, and nobody’s going to help you raise money if they don’t know how you’re going to spend it. Mailing lists, blogs, and Twitter all give you ways to stay in touch. Use them sparingly so that your audience isn’t overwhelmed, but use them. Marketing for Scientists is a good place to start for guidance.

7. Write down the rules.

As Jo Freeman described in “The Tyranny of Structurelessness”, every organization has a power structure: the only question is whether it’s formal and accountable, or informal and unaccountable. Make yours one of the first kind: write and publish the rules governing everything from who gets to decide when software is ready to release and who’s allowed to use the name and logo to how complaints of inappropriate conduct are handled and what actually constitutes inappropriate conduct. (This model anti-harassment policy is a good start.)

8. Enforce them.

Everyone deserves respect. Communities need to have some moderating force. If you see someone that is not acting in line with your code of conduct or values, privately say something or tell a leader of the community and ask them to privately say something. Bullies that persist in communities have a toxic effect and should not be allowed to linger.

9. Make space for everyone.

If you’re too engaged or too quick on the reply button, people have less opportunity to grow as members and to create horizontal collaborations. The community can continue to be “hub and spoke”, focused around one or two individuals, rather than a highly-connected network in which others feel comfortable participating. “One message per person per thread per day” is a good rule, as is using the three-sticky trick in meetings.

10. Soup, then hymns.

Manifestos are great, but most people join a volunteer community to help and be helped. Focus on things that are immediately useful, e.g., on what can people create that will be used by other community members write away. Once your organization shows that it can actually achieve things—even small things—people will be more confident that it’s worth thinking about bigger issues.


…Being a Good Research Partner

Data scientists often have to bridge the divide between academic research and commercial practice. The ten simple rules listed below may help mitigate the frustration you encounter as you try to o this.

If you are a researcher in academia…

1. Remember that companies work in weeks, not seasons.

Academic semesters are rooted in the seasons of an agricultural era, but practitioners in industry have to work at a more accelerated pace. In the time it takes you to write a grant, a company might develop and release two new versions of their product in order to keep up with their competition. Discuss timescales with your industrial research partners early on, and be realistic about how slowly things will proceed.

2. Be open.

Research is of no use to practitioners who cannot easily find it and read it. While Jimmy Wales (the founder of Wikipedia) may not actually have said, “Open information drives out closed,” the principle holds: with so much information freely available on the Internet, any paywall or login barrier put between you and your hoped-for audience will send a large number of people elsewhere.

More importantly, these barriers send a clear signal that you do not care if practitioners read your work or not: as one colleague observed rather sourly, it’s the equivalent of inviting people to your house for dinner and then expecting them to pay for the drinks.

3. Value action over insight.

The goal for practitioners is not to understand the world, but to change it. “We know X” is much less useful to them than “we can do Y”. When presenting your findings, you should therefore focus on how someone might act on it.

One way to do this is to add slides titled, “What Difference Does It Make?” at strategic points in your presentations. If you can’t think of what to write next, you may want to rethink what you’re focused on.

4. Don’t hesitate to sacrifice detail for clarity.

Understanding doesn’t have to be complete in order to be actionable. For example, atoms aren’t actually little colored balls connected by springs, but that’s still a useful model in organic chemistry. You may need to hedge conclusions with qualifiers in order to get your work past Reviewer #3, but those “maybes” and “howevers” can often be omitted if they don’t change what practitioners should try next.

5. Apologize in advance for the state of academic publishing.

Modern academic publishing isn’t actually a conspiracy by a handful of large companies to line their pockets with government money that could and should be used to lift researchers out of penury, but it is functionally indistinguishable from a system that was. The best way to prepare your industry partners for its Kafkaesque production pipelines and interminable delays is to have them watch Gilliam’s Brazil.

If you are a practitioner in industry…

6. Remember that universities work in seasons, not weeks.

The timescale mis-match decribed in Rule #1 is due in part to the fact that academic researchers are almost always multi-tasking, and that many of those tasks are things they’ve never been trained to do. As students, they juggle several courses at once (which effectively means that they answer to several bosses who don’t communicate with each other). Later, they are responsible for teaching, writing grant proposals, and administrative duties.

Collectively, this mean that their “work week” is only a few hours long, and that they will often appear to move at a snail’s pace. Be as sympathetic as you can: they are even less happy with the situation than you are.

7. Remember that academic success is measured in publications, not sales.

University presidents routinely make about the economic value of research, but the only things that truly matter for academic advancement are publication, publication, and publication. Researchers are not given grants or tenure for doing things that are “merely useful”, even if doing so requires a deep understanding of subtle complexities and months of hard work. For all the jokes practitioners make about the ivory tower, academic life is hard, uncertain, and poorly paid. People stay in it for the love of new knowledge; respecting their priorities is essential to building a productive relationship. (That said, practical problems often do unlock the door to genuinely new research topics by pushing researchers out of their comfort zone.)

8. Do the background reading.

H.L. Mencken once wrote that, “There is always a well-known solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and wrong.” Your problem is almost certainly one of those, and is almost certainly more complex than you first realize. While Rule #4 tells researchers to sacrifice detail for clarity, this rule asks practitioners to make an effort to grasp at least some of that detail so that you don’t waste time reinventing wheels and so that your research partner can think, work, and talk at full speed.

9. Don’t overstate what has been learned.

This rule is also a complement to Rule #4. The “maybes” and “howevers” that researchers are so fond of do sometimes matter; if your research partner has found that regular doses of a new drug seems to slow tumor growth in lab rats, do not embarrass them by claiming that they have discovered a cure for cancer.

If you are either…

10. Apologize in advance for the state of your data.

The final rule applies equally to both researchers and practitioners. Files’ names and locations, the meanings of column headers in tables, how those tables relate to one another, how missing values are represented and handles: everything that has made sense to you for years will suddenly seem a little foolish when you have to explain it to someone else. Apologize in advance, and then forgive yourself, because no matter how bad your data is, theirs may well be worse.

An old proverb says, “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.” In my experience, this is wrong: going alone is good for a fast start, but after that, both speed and distance come from having partners. Researchers and practitioners can each do great things on their own, but both are better able to solve big problems—problems that really matter—if they find ways to work together.


…Talking People Into Things

I don’t always exhibit good judgment, but I am pretty good at talking people into things. Here are ten simple rules for doing it that I hope you will only use for good.

1. Don’t.

If you have to talk someone into something, odds are that they don’t really want to do it. Respect that: it’s almost always better in the long run to leave some particular thing undone than to use guilt or any underhanded psychological tricks that will only engender resentment.

2. Be kind.

I don’t know if there actually is a book called “Secret Tricks of the Ninja Sales Masters”, but if there is, it probably tells readers that doing something for a potential customer creates a sense of obligation, which in turn increases the odds of a sale. That may work, but (a) it only works once and (b) it’s a skeezy thing to do. If, on the other hand, you are genuinely kind, and help other people because it’s what good people do, you just might inspire them to be good people too.

3. Appeal to the greater good.

If you open by talking about what’s in it for them, you are signalling that they should think of their interaction with you as a commercial exchange of value to be bargained over. Instead, start by explaining how whatever you want them to help with is going to make the world a better place, and mean it. (If what you’re proposing isn’t going to make the world a better place, propose something better.)

4. Start small.

Most people are understandably reluctant to dive into things head-first, so give them a chance to test the waters and to get to know you and everyone else involved in whatever it is you want help with. Don’t be surprised or disappointed if that’s where things end: everyone is busy or tired or has projects of their own, or maybe just has a different mental model of how collaboration is supposed to work. Remember the 90-9-1 rule (90% of people will watch, 9% will speak up, and 1% will actually do things) and set your expectations accordingly.

5. Don’t build a project: build a community.

I used to belong to a baseball team that never actually played baseball: our “games” were just an excuse for us to hang out and enjoy each other’s company. If you actually want to accomplish something, you probably don’t want to go quite that far, but sharing a cup of tea with someone or celebrating the birth of their first grandchild can get you things that no reasonable amount of money can.

6. Establish a point of connection.

“I was speaking to X” or “we met at Y” gives them context, which in turn makes them more comfortable. This must be specific: spammers and cold-callers have trained us all to ignore anything that starts, “I recently came across your website”.

7. Be specific about what you are asking for.

People need to know this so that they can figure out whether the time and skills they have are a match for what you need. Being realistic up front is also a sign of respect: if you tell people you need a hand moving a few boxes when you’re actually packing up an entire house, they’re probably not going to come back.

8. Establish your credibility.

Mention your backers, your size, how long your group has been around, or something that you’ve accomplished in the past so that they’ll believe you’re worth taking seriously.

9. Create a slight sense of urgency.

“We’re hoping to launch this in the spring” is more likely to get a positive response than “We’d eventually like to launch this.” However, the word “slight” is also important: if your request is urgent, most people will assume you’re disorganized or that something has gone wrong, and may then err on the side of prudence.

10. Take a hint.

If the first person you ask for help says “no”, ask someone else. If the fifth or the tenth person says “no”, as yourself if what you’re trying to do makes sense and is worth doing.


…Handing Over and Moving On

This advice is for founders who are handing on their projects; see my CarpentryCon 2018 talk for more detail.

1. Be sure you mean it.

Letting go will be hard on you, but not letting go will be even harder on your successors, so be sure you’re actually going to let go.

2. Do it when other people think you should.

Just as you are the last person to realize when you’re too tired to be coding, you will often be the last person to realize that you ought to be moving on, so ask people and pay attention to what they say.

3. Be open about what, when, and why.

Tell people that you’re leaving and what the succession plan is as soon as possible (which in practice means “as soon as you think you won’t have to revise what you have said publicly”).

4. Leave for something.

People who start things usually aren’t good with idleness, and idleness tends not to be good for them, so when you leave, leave for something, even if it’s something small.

5. Don’t choose your successor on your own.

You may have strong opinions about who should succeed you, but you should still check those opinions with someone more objective.

6. Train your successor.

Share tasks with your successor for a few days or weeks: they will get to see how things actually work, and you’ll discover things you would otherwise forget to tell them. Go on holiday for a week and leave your successor temporarily in charge. You’ll discover even more things you would otherwise forget to pass on.

7. Celebrate.

Many people are uncomfortable being praised, but give the organization a chance to celebrate what you accomplished and thank you for it.

8. Leave.

It may be tempting to continue to have a role in the organization, but that usually leads to confusion, since people are used to looking to you for answers. It will be easier for your successor, particularly if they weren’t a founder as well, but the best thing you can do to help them is to find something else to do for a year.

9. Learn from your mistakes.

Whatever you have left will almost certainly not be the last thing you ever do. Take some time to think about what you could have done differently, write it down, and then move on: obsessing over only-ifs and might-have-beens won’t help anyone.

10. Do something before you go.

Everything comes to an end, but you have time before then to do something. What are you waiting for?