On being quoted in the NYT, Preprints, and Beer (and Tacos)

At the ASAPbio meeting, I talked about the importance of building a lab culture as a junior faculty member. Two of the most important things about the culture we are trying to build in the Fraser lab are: 1) we have high scientific standards and 2) we enjoy communicating our results. Preprints help us with both. We set a high standard by showing the world our results when we are ready by posting a preprint, not after weeks or months in review. We also do this because we hope that other scientists will give us feedback and build on our work. We celebrate posting the preprint (which we do simultaneously upon submitting to a journal, but more on that later) because we want to congratulate each other on the hard work that went into the paper. Preprints return the control over both of these important aspects of culture to us, the scientists.

In articulating these aspects of our lab culture, I also mentioned our lab motto: Beer and Tacos. Now that this phrase has made the New York Times, I thought I might explain the history of “Beer and Tacos”. My attraction to this phrase has its origin, like many of my scientific interests, in baseball statistics. In 2003 (when I was an undergraduate at McGill), Dayn Perry used the “Beer and Tacos” analogy in describing the false dichotomy between data driven analytics (sabermetrics/statistical analysis) and observational scouting (which is more qualitative). Perry’s story was in part motivated by a grumpy article written by my hometown baseball writer Richard Griffin. Although I’ve never actually confronted Griffin about it, I think I may have played a small part in Griffin’s motivation for writing the article. A few days before his article appeared, I was on the field at the SkyDome prior to a Blue Jays game filming a brief segment for the Discovery Channel Canada on baseball statistics (unfortunately, I can’t find the video online!). Griffin walked by, shook his head, and continued on his way. Griffin hated analytics and loved scouting.

At the time this was a bit of a holy war. It is dramatized in the movie Moneyball, based on the excellent book by Michael Lewis. In recent years, the value of analytics has been proven time and time again not only in baseball, but also in other sports and even in finance, marketing, etc. However, part of the reason that analytics keeps permeating more and more areas is that there is an intense drive to capture the qualitative aspects and turn them into something quantitative. It is no longer sufficient for a scout to say that an outfielder “tracks the ball well”. This skill wasn’t captured that well in 2003 by simple counting statistics like range factor, but now we can plot the actual path the player takes to determine whether he takes the most efficient route to the ball. What does “beer and tacos” mean? Dayn Perry said it best. In responding to Richard Griffin and others who argued that organizations such as the Boston Red Sox, run at the time by Theo Epstein, should focus less on stats and more on scouting, Perry wrote:

“Grumps like Griffin don’t understand the concept of synergy. A question that’s sometimes posed goes something like this: “Should you run an organization with scouts or statistics?” My answer is the same it would be if someone asked me: “Beer or tacos?” Both, you fool. Why construct an either-or scenario where none need exist? Heady organizations know they need as much good information as possible before they make critical decisions. Boston under Epstein, for example, is a veritable clearinghouse for disparate ideas and perspectives, and so far it’s working just fine.”

From 2005-2010, I was in graduate school at UC Berkeley. When my graduate advisor, Tom Alber, would suggest multiple experiments during group meeting, I would often yell out “Beer and Tacos” from the back of the room. The idea being that we shouldn’t prioritize only experiment A or experiment B, but that we should probably consider doing both. In 2011, when I started my lab, I continued shouting “Beer and Tacos” in my own group meetings at UCSF. We want to create “a veritable clearinghouse for disparate ideas and perspectives”.

Now we come to publishing. People like Mike Eisen argue for BEER (only immediate publication/preprints and post publication peer review/PPPR) and people like Emilie Marcus argue for TACOS (only traditional journals, unless you have a special “wink wink” agreement). The system is evolving. It’s clear that “journals only” is not going to be the future. The delays and politics around “formal peer review” can be detrimental to our goals as scholars. However, many of the trends on how journals are coordinating peer review are all about openness, speed, and scholarship. It’s also clear that journals can add value, even beyond the obvious benefits in coordinating peer review: reading the table of contents is (surprisingly) the nearly exclusive way that many scientists become aware of work outside their lab. Becoming aware of papers in this manner is not the ideal system in the long term, but it does add value today. The exact pairing of preprints and journals is in flux - but there is wide agreement that we value scholarship and rapid communication of results.

As we debate exactly what type of beer we will be drinking in the future and what filling should go in the taco, my lab cares about getting our work out there as quickly as possible and ensuring that it reaches the widest audience possible. So we ignore shouts for “Beer OR Tacos” and choose “Beer AND Tacos”. When we post preprints, we are happy about getting our work out there immediately, we are eager to improve the work through peer review in any form, and we are hopeful that eventually publishing in a traditional journal will help it find an audience. And so we go to celebrate, as a lab, by ordering “Beer and Tacos”.