"There's a fine tradition of passing the bad apple around, but that doesn't do anybody any good."

-- Toxicologist Resha Putzrath

One of the constants of a scientist's professional life is the annual tradition of writing letters of recommendation as students and colleagues seek fellowships, jobs, and advancement to tenure. But the act of writing or requesting such a letter may not be so simple. Letter-writers must make their missives honest yet sufficiently enthusiastic that they help rather than harm. They must avoid defamatory statements that might invite a lawsuit as well as unconscious gender bias in their language.

People requesting recommendations, on the other hand, are faced with the task of selecting the best people to write the letters and providing them with enough information for a letter of sufficient specificity. All this for a tradition that some believe has outlived its usefulness.

"There's an over-reliance on letters," maintains...

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