Voice Your Opinion: naming your lab

There are perennial topics of discussion on Science Twitter. An example of this is: should figures be at the end of a manuscript are interspersed in the text. These topics tend not to be resolved because there are strong arguments (and personal preferences) on each side. I am not sure whether it is even possible to get people to agree with you using reasoned argument on Twitter. Anyhow, one such topic is whether you should name your lab after your surname.

In biomedical science, the majority of labs are run by a single PI. So if Courtney Barnett had a lab, she might call it the Barnett Lab. There are exceptions to this. A minority of labs are run by two or more PIs as a collective and even rarer are centrally funded labs investigating a topic which employ a leader. Here, “the Surname Lab” scheme doesn’t work, but it does for the majority of labs. So why is this contentious?

An example of the objection to “The Surname Lab” scheme.

The core of the argument is that a lab is a group of people, and one person (the PI) should not take all the credit. Of course this is true, but I don’t see that “The Surname Lab” necessarily takes credit away from people in the lab. Recently, the discussion on “Research Culture” has centred on the behaviour of PIs in what is obviously an unbalanced dynamic of power. Again, this should be tackled and bad behaviour should be eliminated. But is how a PI names their lab to blame here?

I call my research group The Surname Lab and I’ll explain why below. I don’t think you should or shouldn’t call your lab after your surname, just do what you like!

Three good reasons

First, other people will call your lab “the surname lab” anyway. Most labs, particularly in the USA, use the surname lab scheme anyway. Good luck trying to change this!

Second, I am the only constant. Lab members come and go, due to the way our research is funded. If I fail to get funding or when I retire, the lab ceases to exist. Since the lab by definition relies on me alone, it only makes sense to name the lab after me. It’s not egotistical. It’s just a fact.

Third, I don’t run a lab where people come in and run completely independent projects. Of course, the people in the lab do all the experimental work, but I’m involved in all of the work that goes on so I don’t feel that there’s any credit stealing going on. I can see that a lab of 60 people named “the PI surname lab” is more tenuous. In this situation, it may be problematic if there are senior scientists running sub-teams within that lab and not getting appropriate credit.

The alternatives?

A viable alternative scheme is to name your lab after what you work on. This solves the problem of any perception that the PI is taking credit. But all I see is problems with this.

  • I find it hard to describe the diversity of research in my lab with just one term that is not completely generic. “The Cytoskeleton Lab” might cover all aspects of work you might tackle but then how many Cytoskeleton Labs would there be around the world? True, there might be many “Barnett Labs”, but the number is lower than “Cytoskeleton Labs”.
  • If you work on a narrow research area it might be OK. The “Effect pyruvates on cell signalling lab” might accurately describe your work now and for the next few years, but are you going to work on this for your whole career?
  • I can think of several labs that have a generic name, e.g. “The Calcium Signalling Laboratory”. This actually strikes me as slightly pretentious, in any case it is just a sign on the door and everyone refers to them as “The Smith Lab” anyway.

One alternative I like is the “band name” approach. Naming the team by research subject but in a more abstract way. An example here is Théry and Blanchoin who call their team: Cytomorpho. This is a good solution especially if there is more than one PI running the team, where “the Surname Lab” doesn’t work well. I see the name used on the website and on Twitter but again, people only refer to the PI name when discussing the lab’s work.

What about research culture?

The tweet referenced above bemoans “PI Culture”. I would argue that the business of having a single PI is not a problem at all, it is the abuse of that power that needs to be tackled. In fact, a single PI is actually a good thing: one person to write the grants, line manage the people in the lab and take responsibility for the veracity of the lab’s findings. The problems come when PIs don’t do this. When they delegate and when they take one or more steps away from the research happening in the lab. It’s in this situation that it becomes more tenuous to call your team “The Surname Lab”.

I can think of examples where one person runs a large pyramid style research team with sub-teams. The leader is happy to be last author on all the papers written by others and they will even insert themselves as PI on research funding proposals written by team members! I see this as problematic. In one recent case, scientific fraud was committed in one of these teams at the level of a senior scientist in charge of a sub-team. The leader was very quick to distance themselves from the fraud despite having basked in the glory of all of the papers (I’m sure they had little idea what the work was even about!). In this particular case, the team was not named after the PI but after the research area.

Abuses of power will happen however the lab is named. Let’s tackle this rather than bikeshedding about how research teams name themselves.

Conclusion

This is a classic case of “you do you”. Many scientists who I respect dislike the notion of “The Surname Lab” and choose to do something different. If you feel the same, go for it. But please don’t insinuate that the way you name your lab reflects the way the lab is run.

The post title comes from “Voice Your Opinion” by Unseen Terror. The version I have is from a Peel sessions compilation “Hardcore Holocaust”.

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