Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Not My Best Work

Today I got reviews back for a manuscript that has been languishing in review for an absurdly long period of time: nearly a year. Fortunately, the reviews were positive, which lessens my annoyance quite a bit.

This manuscript is on a topic extremely peripheral to my usual research topics, and that also decreased my stress about it, although the fact that my co-authors and I spent considerable time on the research and writing of course means I/we have a strong interest in seeing the paper published.

The three reviews are also very helpful, which is always nice. One thing that amused me, though, is that the reviews all say things like: interesting paper, great idea, nice dataset blah blah blah, but then one says that, despite being a valuable contribution that should be published, "This paper does not represent [Professor FSP's] very best work." Well, I happen to agree with that, but if I only published my 'very best' work, would I publish anything ever? Would I ever write anything, scientific or blogific? Can I get an A for effort anyway because I worked really hard on this paper?

I'm not complaining about the reviews -- they are very constructive and will help a lot with the revisions.

I think the 'best work' comment is funny because my daughter's elementary school teachers are always telling the kids to do their 'best work', and my daughter and I have had numerous conversations about what exactly that means (neither of us is sure). I am still not sure, despite being officially told today that I didn't do my best work with this paper.


lost academic said...

I think it's a strange comment for anyone who isn't a grade school student anymore-unless someone has a pretty close relationship with the level of work at a variety of levels that you could do (since you had done so before) I have trouble envisioning the author being able to say seriously that you are somehow not putting forth your best effort, since that reviewer really doesn't seem to be able to judge that.

Unless of course they are secretly watching a hidden camera in your office while you worked on the paper, took drugs, drank, mocked the paper and pulled an all-nighter to crank out the bare minimum. Somehow I doubt any of that could be happening.

Female Science Professor said...

Is caffeine a drug?

Mike3550 said...

The dynamic of people being told to "do your best work" has also worked in wierd ways throughout my academic experience. Part of what made my undergraduate experience valuable is that I learned exactly when I had to do my best work. I have seen many friends and colleagues in both undergrad and graduate school work slavishly to try and always do their "best work."

I think it links interestingly to what you posted about on Sunday. If I am always trying to do my best work on all of my projects, then I am never going to finish anything. The key, I have found, is that it is important to figure out which things are important to do my best work (e.g. writing grant applications that I know that I have at least a decent shot of getting) and when it is not absolutely necessary (e.g. the first draft of a paper -- as long as all of the words are spelled correctly).

I think that it is often a lesson that is left out of much of our education system in general and becoming increasingly problematic as middle-class families are trying to get their children to do "all the right things" and pad their resumes from the time they are in elementary school. "You must be a black belt in karate, an Eagle Scout, President of the National Honors Society and sing in the school choir in order to get into Harvard, honey -- and, if you don't get into Harvard, then you are going to amount to nothing..."

I often wonder if, as academics, it should be our responsibility to teach students/advisees/junior colleagues how to juggle and do work that is "good enough" most of the time and our "best" the rest of the time. I think that it would go a long way towards helping us not get caught in the limbo of having great ideas but never seeing them through.

SandyShoes said...

That would ruffle my feathers a bit. It's patronizing, and isn't it outside the scope of what the reviewer's supposed to comment on? I mean, the paper is either worth publishing as submitted, or it isn't and here's why, is all that's needed, right?

Ah well. At least now you know why it took so long to get comments... Reviewer X was evaluating your entire body of work for context.

anon said...

Oh my god... one year!??? I just got reviews back for my paper after two months in review and I thought it was too long. We agreed that we would send a letter to the journal asking why the delay after about two months, but the reviews arrived two months later to the date pretty much.

And it does matter because if you're not sure if the paper is going to be accepted, then work on that project will stall due to uncertainty. Now I can move on to do experiments that are a logical progression of what was in the paper. So basically, progress was retarded on that project for two months. If the review took 1 month, then progress would have stalled 1 month. One year? Well, I'm sure eventually I'd start doing further experiments, but the uncertainty would kill off the enthusiasm. I have three other projects I could work on after all.

Female Science Professor said...

anon - Yes indeed, 1 year was absurd. If I were an early career person or if this paper really did represent my 'best work', I would have been very upset rather than merely annoyed.

mike3550 - Exactly! It occurred to me as I was writing that this post was in line with Sunday's. I hope I don't sound like I'm proposing that everyone write up and submit mediocre work, but I think there's room for a lot of excellent science that might not be the absolute 'best'. It's important not to be blocked by excessive anxiety about perfection.

James said...

Wait, you say you agree it's not "your best work", but then you say later that you're not sure what the phrase means?

Anonymous said...

This happens in the humanities, too. I have to be vigilant, or I get so balled up about producing something perfect that it's hard to make myself write anything at all.

Klatuu o embuçado said...

In Portuguese we have a fine cultural aforism: «O óptimo é inimigo do bom.», something like: «Best it's the enemy of good.»


«Education is not filling a bucket, but lighting a fire.»
William Butler Yeats

Anonymous said...

I would prefer the words: To do one`s best EFFORT, and not work:)

Agree? ;)


gs said...

"This paper does not represent [Professor FSP's] very best work."

An odd and reckless remark. Something can become more important in hindsight than it looked when it first appeared.

Paul said...

HEHE. This made me giggle. I have some colleagues (an NZer and an Australian) who wrote an article together. One of the referees commented that "The manuscript is surprisingly well written considering neither of the authors are native English speakers"!

Zuska said...

Well, a remark like that has only one purpose, and that's to undermine. The reviewer couldn't bring him/herself to outright reject your paper because it was clearly good enough to be published, but he/she could undermine you with that remark. Undermine you in the eyes of the editor, and in your own eyes, because you two are the only ones who are ever going to see that remark. Underminers operate out of jealousy or contempt, so either this person is jealous of your work, or is contemptuous of, perhaps, Female Science Professors. In either case, a dirtbag who's not worth the time of day.

Adeline Foster said...

Albert Einstein was brilliant in his view of physics and his determination to solve problems. Much of his achievements were aided by the brilliant work of his first wife, although he declined to share the credit with her.
Is it true that he was a poor speller? That would depend on which language you were inquiring about. Having been born in Germany, raised in Italy, educated in Switzerland, and finally emigrated to America; it is no wonder that he may have become confused at times over the grammatical structure of the language he was using, especially the English diction. It is noteworthy that the preponderance of his work has come to us in a sufficient proofed form as to enlighten us as to his meanings.