Regression to the “mean”

They say that Steve Caplan is a mild-mannered scientist. But he pops into a phone-booth–no wait–that’s a thing of the past–he pops into the darkroom, and out comes Dr. Mean…

Well, I do have a temper. Perhaps it’s slow to boil, but occasionally I lose it. I’m human. And what tends to set me off is an overdose of “ego-display”- also known as “peacockization”. And of course we scientists are” full of it”…

Several years ago I was minding my own business in my office when my computer again alerted me of an incoming e-mail. I was awaiting several sets of critiques, from journals and grant agencies, so my pulse took off and I nervously toggled to my e-mail program.

What awaited me was neither manuscript or grant critiques. It was a letter sent by an affiliated faculty member (in a different institution) informing every member of my department–students, technicians, post-docs, and faculty–that this affiliated (“courtesy”) faculty member had just published a paper in such-and-such journal, and as it was an important body of work, he was certain we’d all like to read it. The paper itself was attached.

In goes mild-mannered Steve into the darkroom and out comes Dr. Mean, fully regressed.

Claws sharpened, clickety-clack, Dr. Mean comprises the following e-mail (more or less) and “Replies to All”…

“Dear Dr. X, Thank you so much for your consideration and for kindly providing this most fascinating body of work to us all. I reckon that some of us were having trouble sleeping without it. By the way, FYI, there is a wonderful little tool provided by NIH called PUBMED (, and it’s great because every researcher can find exactly what he/she is interested in. You should definitely try it.

With best regards,

Dr. Mean

Ps. Did it work? Don’t know–never heard from him again…

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of about 10 students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery that is now in press! All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising.
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7 Responses to Regression to the “mean”

  1. We have an internal Faculty newsletter (quarterly) that compiles lists of peoples’ notable publications in the last 3 month period, but I’ve never heard of someone EMAILING them to people. That’s….. Chutzpah.

    Though I can think of less diplomatic words.

  2. stephenemoss says:

    So in the US you ‘regress to the mean’ in these situations. Here, we ‘revert to the wild type’ – perhaps in this case it was his/her first paper and your exuberant colleague simply got carried away in the excitement of it? Like Austin we receive an e-bulletin from the Faculty (weekly rather than quarterly), and it too sometimes cites ‘high profile’ local outputs. I’m not sure who decides which papers are deemed worthy of being flagged up, but they often seem to come from the labs of the Deans themselves.

  3. cromercrox says:

    Just think ‘delete’, Steve. Just think ‘delete’. I know to my cost that emails like that can be harmful to your health.

  4. Steve Caplan says:

    @Austin- Chutzpah! Well said. But people are so tolerant of it. I HAD to do something…

    @Steven- actually “regress to the mean” was my own invention (not statistically, of course)- it does sound logical for an institution to flaunt its own publications- but that’s different than expecting an entire department to be interested in reading your paper. If he had simply announced- “My first paper”, I might have congratulated him…

    @Henry- yes, I know- delete would surely have been the wiser course- especially for a junior untenured faculty. But, hitting the “Reply to All” button really was so much more fun (*he notes from the street, searching for food in the rubbish*)…

  5. Heh – nice way to burst his bubble! Well done!

  6. chall says:

    I think Dr Mean is better than Dr Hyde though 😉

    [although, from a future perspecitve writing the reply and put it in the ‘draft folder’… and then next day delete it might be a better option?! I still use that… feelings got to come out somewhere, right? ]

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