Open channels

Published July 01 2018

The GRE is a waste

I was thrilled to read the two articles (The GRE hurts graduate schools — and science by Alexander Shames and GRExit or retain by Rajini Rao, ASBMB Today, April 2018) discussing the value of the Graduate Record Exam. Since I took the GRE in 1971, I have questioned its relevance. However, my time as director of graduate studies of the Division of Biological Sciences at the University of Missouri made it crystal clear that the GRE is a waste of time, energy and money. In fact, the graduate school at the University of Missouri has not required the GRE for several years.

As director of graduate studies, I evaluated hundreds of applicants, and I can say confidently that the GRE has essentially no predictive value. We have had many students with poor GRE scores do extremely well in their graduate studies and go on to have very good careers. Conversely, we have seen students with excellent GRE scores who did not have what it takes to launch a career in science. Grades, research experience, personal statements (life experiences), letters of recommendation and interviews are all better predictors.

Most importantly, in order to realize their full potential, students need a committed and caring Ph.D. mentor. Shortcomings can be overcome in the proper training environment, and incoming students should be encouraged to do their homework carefully when choosing a lab for their studies. I applaud ASBMB Today for bringing this issue out into the open.

Stephen Alexander
Professor emeritus
Division of Biological Sciences
University of Missouri

In defense of the GREs

Theoretically, one major motivation for using a standardized test is to allow people of all genders, skin colors, countries of origin, etc., to compete openly against one another in a platform independent of school ranking or exclusive club admittance.

An Ivy League student takes the same GRE as a community college student, and their scores are compared directly against one another. The GRE allows a high-scoring community college student who wasn’t granted the privilege of attending the Ivy League school to demonstrate ability in a fair and open competition. That higher GRE score may be the only competitive advantage for a student who hasn’t had the opportunity to obtain the extracurricular record of a more privileged applicant. A high GRE score may make the difference for a skilled but low-opportunity student to get into a graduate program with only a 10 percent admission rate and a 90 percent rate of denial.

Is the GRE a good predictor of graduate school success? Yes, the subject section does seem to be. A paper published by Orion D. Weiner in Molecular Biology of the Cell, Vol. 25, No. 4, Feb. 15, 2014, 427-548, said that, “Only the number of years of research experience and subject graduate record exams (GREs) were strong discriminators between the highest- and lowest-ranked students, whereas many other commonly used admissions metrics (analytical, verbal, and quantitative GREs, grade point average, and ranking of undergraduate institution) showed no correlation with graduate performance.”

Anonymous graduate student

What the GRE can’t measure

Graduate schools definitely should get rid of the GRE. As a biochemistry major, I am excited to learn everything about chemistry. While taking organic chemistry, I realized chemistry came very easily to me. My life would be very satisfying if I could do aldol reactions forever. However, I am not a great test taker. During my junior year of high school, I took the ACT twice. I never made higher than a 20. Personally, I was satisfied. The ACT suggested that I major in medical technology instead of biochemistry. I was both hurt and offended but decided to follow my dreams.

While taking college chemistry, I thrived in class. I often got the highest test score and plenty of commendation from my professors for my lab reports. I knew I made the right decision to major in biochemistry, and I wanted to be a research scientist. Currently, I am researching graduate schools. Should I pursue a master’s or a doctorate? When should I take the GRE? Should I focus on schools that do not require the GRE? These are questions I ask daily. Standardized tests cannot measure my enthusiasm for biochemistry or how much I love being in lab. Why can’t grad schools focus more on my grades in biology, chemistry, physics, etc.? Why aren’t my three letters of recommendation enough?

I believe graduate schools should enforce the policy of maintaining a B or better average to stay in their respective programs. That is the best way to determine if a student is fit for the program. I’m pretty sure that when we are finally in the chemistry industry, no one will judge a biochemist based on his or her standardized test results.

Sherika Wright
Memphis, Tennessee

Post-publication review: ‘catch & kill’ at the NCBI?

Reference checking when reviewing a paper or grant application is easily accomplished by pasting the title in Google or in the PubMed page of the National Center for Biological Information. The latter page displays an abstract, and, with a further click, one can often access the cited paper. In 2013, the utility of PubMed abstracts was greatly increased when, with some fanfare, the NCBI announced the addition of a commenting facility for credited, nonanonymous contributors. It would be called PubMed Commons. In addition to the well-established pre-publication peer-review process, there was now an opportunity for post-publication peer review. When inspecting an abstract, a reader, perhaps engaged in pre-publication review, would see that there had been comments, which were a mere click away. Thus, post-publication review had the potential to assist pre-publication review, a process greatly influencing career progress, research funding and much more.

In the fields where I have some expertise, I soon noted contributions from people with reputations in those fields, and I found that both their opinions and those of many others were generally cogent and insightful. So I joined in, taking as much care as when normally reviewing papers or grant applications and adding appropriate references that the authors of the papers might have missed. The software made it easy, on each occasion, to notify the authors that a comment had been made. Sometimes an author whose paper had been targeted posted a reply or emailed me directly. More often, there was silence. This did not disconcert me, since I knew that the fields were active and they were busy people. Given that the operation was sponsored by the well-established NCBI and given the generally high quality of the comments, the possibility that PubMed Commons might not continue long into the foreseeable future did not enter my mind.

Then, in February 2018, the NCBI declared that PubMed Commons had been merely “an experiment.” Moreover, it was deemed to have been an experiment that had failed. This determination had been based not on the quality of the contributions but on the quantity (about 7,000). There were protests but to no avail. In March, the NCBI declined to accept further contributions for PubMed Commons. Had this been all, the matter might then have been closed. After all, although not offering the same advantages as PubMed Commons, other outlets for post-publication peer review were growing (e.g., PubPeer).

However, not only did the NCBI decline further commenting, but it also cut all existing links from PubMed abstracts to the 7,000 comments made over the five-year period during which PubMed Commons had operated. The comments were siloed away in relatively inaccessible Excel files. Fortunately, a private agency, Hypothesis, was able to rescue the comments in accessible form. Nevertheless, the links to PubMed abstracts remained broken.

Thus, when accessing the PubMed abstract to check a citation in a paper or grant application, a potential reviewer no longer can determine whether comments exist for that paper or grant application. Five years’ worth of comments have been squirreled away. The esteemed NCBI appears to have engaged in what is now popularly known in the tabloid industry as “catch and kill.” We await a scientific Michael Avenatti.

Donald R. Forsdyke
Emeritus professor
Department of Biomedical and Molecular Sciences
Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada