Friday, April 30, 2010

What I Said

Yesterday I described how a Great Man of Science sat in my office and explained to me some exciting research done by one of my recent PhD students and me, as if the work had instead been done by one of our collaborators, a very famous scientist (the Other Great Man of Science mentioned in yesterday's post).

What did I do?

First I wanted to make sure I wasn't misunderstanding the conversation. Did he really have no clue that I was involved in this research or was he just expressing himself in an awkward way, focusing for some reason on the fact that my famous colleague supervises the lab in which one part of the research was done (by my student) and just not expressing himself well?

It soon became clear that he had no clue. His further statements proved it.

I have previously been in situations in which someone didn't realize that I was one of many co-authors on a paper, and that hasn't bothered me as long as I really was a minor co-author.

In the case under discussion here, however, I was offended because Great Man didn't even remember that we had met not-so-long ago (~ 6 months) at a multi-day workshop that focused entirely on this research, much less that I was one of the organizers of the workshop. He thought he was telling me something I didn't know.

In talking to him, it was clear to me that, in his mind, this research was associated only with Other Great Man of Science. Despite the fact that he had abundant evidence to the contrary during the workshop ~6 months ago, he had erased the existence of the rest of us from his awareness of this research: the students, a not-famous but nevertheless awesome colleague, and me. In his casual conversation about this research, the only one worth mentioning was the Other Great Man of Science.

Other Great Man of Science is definitely not responsible for this situation. He is a nice person, a quiet man, and a great supporter of all students involved in our project. He has been generous with his time and research facilities, and he is not a back-stabber. Our research collaboration involving 3 professors at 3 institutions and students at each place has been successful because of positive interactions among the groups.

For Great Man to believe that this research should be credited to Other Great Man, and to express this to my (apparently forgettable) face, with no recollection that I had even been at that workshop, was truly strange. It was not malicious. The Great Man's habit of savoring the names of other famous men was a feature of his visit to my department. At one point, he compared himself to Max Planck.

So this is what I did after swiftly contemplating my options:

I said something similar to what many commenters to yesterday's post indicated that they would have said. I said "Yes, of course I know about that research because a large part of it has been my work." Then I launched into a calm but very detailed description of the project, highlighting the work of my student, placing Other Great Man's contributions in context, and describing the evolution of the project. I wondered whether, even though he clearly didn't remember me, he remembered the excellent presentations of my former student, Young Awesome Scientist, from the workshop? I continued to elaborate for a while about the research, in what I hoped was an authoritative but nice way.

He was definitely somewhat embarrassed, although I don't think the feeling went too deep. He mumbled something about not being good with names and faces, then changed the subject to his favorite topic: himself and other famous people he knows.

Right after my monologue and his mumbled excuse, he said "Oh, so your field is Z? I know The Greatest Man of Z Science of the Last Half of the 20th Century. Have you ever met him?"

Indeed I have. I do get out now and then, including to workshops that I help organize on fascinating research topics that even attract Great Men of Science as participants, although some of them, despite being impressed by the research, have a selective memory about the experience later.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Invisible Me

Not long ago, a Great Man of Science came to my department, gave some talks, and met with faculty, students, and researchers. I have met him before, most recently ~ 6 months ago, but we do not know each other well at all.

I expected him to be familiar with only one part of my research; i.e., research on topic X, as it was in the context of my work on X that we most recently met. Therefore, during my individual meeting with him in my office, I was amazed to hear him say:

My good friend, Other Great Man of Science, is doing some really interesting work on X right now. In fact, he is transforming the way we think about X, and has some recent results that are very exciting.

I was stunned when he said this, and sought clarification. I thought maybe I heard him wrong or somehow misunderstood.

I was stunned because he was talking about my research group's work on X.

The interesting ideas and results have not been generated by my collaborator, Other Great Man of Science, who is at another university. In fact, the exciting results are primarily the work of one of my recent PhD students, as part of her doctoral thesis work.

Other Great Man of Science was a collaborator on the NSF grant that funded this work, but he has not been the most active member of the group and has not been a driving force behind the research. In fact, although I enjoy working with Other Great Man, his part of the project has been lagging.

My PhD student (now graduated) has been the most visible person doing this research and making the interesting discoveries and interpretations. Great Man also met her 6 months ago and saw her present her research results, at length. Yet Great Man erased her from his perception of the collaboration as well. In his mind, the only person worth remembering or mentioning is Other Great Man of Science.

It was surreal to have my group's research described to me by someone else and attributed to a colleague, as if my student and I did not exist.

My ego, which is generally healthy but not too huge on most days, was wounded, but not mortally so, as I am dealing with the situation by wallowing in outrage and contempt for this particular Great Man of Science (as a person, not as a scientist).

I hasten to say that Other Great Man of Science is not responsible for this situation. He has not taken undue credit for the research. In fact, he has been very supportive of my student and would be the first to confirm that it is primarily her work and that she has made the most interesting discoveries of the work thus far.

It is Great Man of Science's perception of the research that is the problem. He sees his famous friend; the rest of us either don't exist or can't possibly be important. Given the incredible amount of name-dropping he did during his talks in my department, this may be a habit with him.

If you had been in my place when this Great Man gave credit to his famous friend for the ideas and work of one of your students and/or you, despite the fact that you and your student had published and given talks on the research (and Other Great Man had not) and you knew that Great Man had been present at those talks (and had asked questions at the time), what would you have done? Confronted him immediately? Let it slide because who cares what he thinks -- he won't change his ideas and why cause an embarrassing situation, assuming the Great Man of Science is capable of being embarrassed? Expressed anger? Used humor? Nodded silently? Wondered if he was losing his mind?

Later I shall reveal what I did, but for now this post is a cliff-hanger.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Solar Flare

The main character and narrator of the novel Solar by Ian McEwan is Michael Beard, a repulsive Nobel Prize- winning physicist who had the stereotypical experience of a flash of brilliance as a young physicist, soon after which he intellectually burned out. Beard drifts into being involved in developing green technology (wind, solar), but he's not too interested in it until he steals the ideas of a postdoc who was having an affair with Beard's 5th wife (an affair she initiated in revenge for her husband's many affairs) but who dies in an accident in Beard's home when he trips over a polar bear skin rug, whose dangers were foreshadowed, soon after Beard returns from a bizarre trip to the Arctic, where he (Beard) encountered an angry polar bear. Is everyone with me so far?

That's just one small part of the book, most of which consists of tale after tale of excess: eating, drinking, lying, stealing, womanizing. It is not a pleasant book, but it is not entirely without its charms. If you can get past the absurd plot and the revolting characters, it's possible to enjoy some of the writing.

Except for one part, which, for me, was even worse than the Polar Bear of Doom scenes:

In the part of the book I particularly loathed, Beard agrees to head up a government committee charged with promoting physics in schools and attracting more students and teachers to physics. He doesn't give the committee much thought when he agrees to be part of it. The committee consists of three physics professors, various school teachers and headmasters, and a professor of "science studies".

At the first meeting, everyone on the committee introduces themselves, and Beard is curious to hear from the professor of science studies because the field is a "novelty" to him. The professor begins by noting that "..she was the only woman in the room and that the committee reflected one of the very problems it might want to address."

Fair enough. Good point. The committee is sympathetic to this. I was sympathetic to this.

The science studies professor, however, goes on to explain a recent research project in which she studied a genetics lab that was trying to isolate a particular gene in lions.

"Her purpose was to demonstrate that this gene, or any gene, was, in the strongest sense, socially constructed. Without the various "entexting" tools the scientists used.. the gene could not be said to exist... The gene was not an objective entity.. It was manufactured by their [the scientists'] hypotheses, their creativity, and their instrumentation.."

Now everyone, including me, thinks she is a blathering idiot, as intended by McEwan. When the science studies professor is done speaking, one of the physicists asks "Do you honestly believe that what you don't know about doesn't exist?"

Beard, as chairman, doesn't want to waste time arguing about whether genes are real or not, so he ends the discussion, and moves along to other items on the agenda, noting vaguely that they will have time to discuss these issues in subsequent meetings.

Later that day, the committee holds a press conference to a group of bored reporters. Tedious questions are asked; tedious answers are given. The committee's aims are worthy; there's nothing newsworthy about it.

But then: "a woman from a midmarket tabloid" asks about the underrepresentation of women in physics. Beard says that the committee will be looking into this to see if there were new ways to address the issue.

All would be well if he had stopped there. But of course he doesn't stop there. He keeps talking.

"He [Beard] believed there were no longer any institutional barriers or prejudices.. And then, because he was boring himself, he added that it might have to be accepted one day that a ceiling had been reached.. It was at least conceivable that they [women] would always remain in a minority.. There might always be more men than women who wanted to work in physics.."

He then goes on to explain that the brains of men and women are different, and that it's not about superiority, merely that there are innate differences in cognitive ability and interests. Boys are better at problem-solving etc.

Does some of this sound familiar?

Anyway, the reporters at the press conference are not particularly energized by these claims, but the professor of science studies is. She expresses her violent revulsion of what Beard has just said, then announces her resignation from the committee. She walks out. The reporters perk up and follow her out.

This is just the start of Beard's trouble with the "women and physics" issue, especially once journalists unearth his long troubled history with women (the many wives, the many affairs). And then it gets worse for him when he participates in a debate about the issue. He is the only Scientist in the debate.

Beard repeats what he said at the press conference; the cognitive differences between men and women etc. He is irritated. He wonders aloud if gravity is also a social construct, and he is booed.

A woman in the audience who rails about Beard's "hegemonic arrogance" speaks in "stern, headmistressy tones". The academic who debates him has "a red and blue frock, with a twittering voice to match". After the debate, Beard thinks he has done OK, considering how boring the twittery woman was.

But things soon go awry, and the plot gets even more farcical. Beard's career is (temporarily) destroyed by hysterical women who, helped considerably by the media, portray him as a sexist Nazi elite hegemonic unfeeling white male. Or something.

Other than a few glimmers here and there in the novel, when the reader might sort of feel some sympathy for Beard because he is, at times, cynical in an amusing way, this is one of the few episodes in which he is portrayed sympathetically. He blunders into this crisis unwittingly. It's true that he is a serial philanderer, but he is not sexist. He was only saying things that were true and scientific, backed up by research. He is just a simple scientist, and is a victim of these crazy women who don't understand science.

There are many good reasons why Beard's career as an administrator should have been destroyed, so it is ironic that he is brought down by these events, which, we are supposed to believe, aren't even his fault. The novel is otherwise a relentless, over-the-top depiction of a repulsive person who continually outdoes himself in disgusting behavior. Yet Beard becomes a sort of martyr-scientist, a well-meaning white male scientist attacked by people who have no understanding of Science but who are interested in demonizing men, concocting hysteria, and ignoring the undeniable fact that men and women are different.

I have read several reviews of this book, but none of the ones I read mentioned this particular episode. Some focused on the polar bear theme, and many rave about how well the author did with the "science" aspects of the novel (climate science, physics). Some reviewers, who seem to recognize that the book is a strange collection of disgusting anecdotes, resort to the rather desperate opinion that the book is so bad, it's actually brilliant. Overall, I would say that reviews are mixed but positive; e.g., Solar is not McEwan's best, but compared to what other authors can come up with, at least the ones who are still alive, it's awesome. And so on.

I think the book is a mess. Even so, despite the despicable parody about stupid women who don't understand science and the general unpleasantness of the plot and characters, I seldom regret reading a book, even ones I hate, this one included.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

One-way Traffic?

One of the committees I was on this year recently consumed quite a lot of my time, and involved a marathon session in which a group of faculty from all over the university got together and discussed other faculty. I (mostly) enjoyed the wide-ranging debates and glimpses of academic life in other disciplines. I had particularly intriguing discussions with an art historian and a psychologist, and felt overall that my time on this committee was well-spent.

This was my first time on this committee, which I agreed to join in part because I had always found this committee's methods a bit mysterious and I wanted to know how it worked.

Here are some miscellaneous observations about this committee experience:

1. My generally optimistic view of academics was confirmed. There were a lot of nice people on this large committee. These were faculty who devoted quite a lot of time to tasks intended to help other faculty, and in particular early-career faculty. I would say that the committee is moderately powerful -- not as powerful as a P&T Committee but more powerful than most policy committees. Yet these faculty were not in it for the power or for settling scores or whatever other cynical reasons people might imaging would impel professors to take on a time-consuming committee assignment.

2. When evaluating other faculty, the Liberal Arts Professors (LAPs) and Fine Arts Professors (FAPs) were harder on their colleagues than they were on the scientists, engineers, or social scientists. In fact, the LAPs and FAPs were harder on their colleagues than the scientists etc. were on anyone.

I certainly am not going to make a sweeping conclusion about this based on one experience with a particular set of individuals. Nevertheless, I found this phenomenon quite interesting. Warning: I am about to muse about this one anecdotal event despite the small sample size and lack of a control group, statistical analysis, IRB permission, and coffee.

Hypothesis: The LAPs and FAPs were not comfortable being highly critical about research topics far outside their expertise, so they tended to give the benefit of the doubt to science and engineering faculty. They were more critical of fellow professors, even highly successful ones, because they felt that they had a more solid basis from which to be critical.

The converse was not true -- science-technology-engineering-math (STEM) and social science faculty showed no particular propensity to be more critical of any particular discipline than another. Does this mean that we STEM etc. faculty are nicer? Or are we so egotistical that we think we know something about everything? Or is it because we are not intimidated by the non-scientific research in the same way that the LAPs and FAPs are intimidated by more quantitative fields?

These last questions remind me of a part of the novel Solar (by Ian McEwan), about which I will write more tomorrow. The main character is a loutish Nobel Prize-winning physicist. As a university student, he seduced a young woman by intensely studying up on Milton, her major intellectual interest. He read Milton, he read criticism of Milton, and within a short amount of time he could converse as an apparent expert, impressing her greatly and winning her heart. This woman became the first of his 5 wives.

The successful seduction of this woman by pretending to know and care about Milton..

".. was a turning point in his development, for he knew that no third-year arts person, however, bright, could have passed himself off after a week's study among the undergraduate mathematicians and physicists who were Beard's colleagues. The traffic was one-way.. The reading was a slog, but he encountered nothing that could remotely be construed as an intellectual challenge, nothing on the scale of difficultly he encountered daily in his course."

Once the physicist has this realization, he feels "intellectually free". Remarkably, although McEwan lets many more obnoxious thoughts and actions pass with no subsequent enlightening experiences to alter the physicist's perception of himself and others, this particular episode is later put into humbling context: many years after the seduction-by-Milton event, the physicist tells the story to a professor of English, who says:

".. you've missed the point. If you had seduced ninety girls with ninety poets, one a week in a course of three academic years, and remembered them all at the end -- the poets, I mean -- and synthesized your reading into some kind of aesthetic overview, then you would have earned yourself a degree in English literature. But don't pretend that it's easy."

On my university committee, I don't think any of the STEM or social sciences faculty shared this fictional physicist's view that the liberal arts are "easy". I saw no evidence that we underestimated the LA or FA research, or thought "I could do that with little or no effort" (because it's so easy).

One of the great things about these all-university committees is that diverse faculty are sitting in a room together. It's difficult to feel (too) skeptical about the rigor of another discipline when faculty from that discipline are sitting across a table from you, making interesting and persuasive contributions to the discussion. The LA and FA professors did need to explain some things to us scientists about the culture of their disciplines -- Why did so many LAPs, for example, seem to have determined the outcome of their research before they started the project? -- but I detected no contempt for "unscientific" research. And whenever we were faced with a research project that seemed truly bizarre, no matter what the topic, we all tended to agree about it.

I don't know why the LA and FA faculty were so harsh on their colleagues. I do know, however, that despite this tendency, the committee overall had no trouble reaching consensus on what what we thought were the best of the best of the faculty/research documents we were examining, no matter what the discipline, so in the end, I don't think the LAPs and FAPs were at a disadvantage by having sharks for colleagues.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Finger on the Button

The administrative staff members at a university's Sponsored Research Office (SRO) are the ones who actually submit proposals on behalf of the university and individual PIs. They push the button that sends the proposal to the funding agency.

When preparing an NSF proposal using FastLane, PIs have the following options in terms of giving "access control" to their Sponsored Research Office:
  • permission to view the proposal but not submit it (yet)
  • permission to view and edit but not submit (yet)
  • permission to view, edit, and submit
Of course the most efficient option for PIs is to go straight to the third option, so that the SRO can view, then submit, the proposal as soon as the proposal is ready. This option, however, is preferred only if you have a very competent and communicative SRO staff person working with you. Fortunately, that is the majority of SRO administrators I have encountered, but there have been some notable exceptions.

The view-edit-submit option makes me uncomfortable at the early to intermediate stages of proposal preparation because:

- The proposal might look like it is complete, yet not be in a form that I want submitted to the NSF. PIs are supposed to upload a project description and project summary by a specified internal deadline, a day or 5 before the funding agency deadline, so that the SRO can check the budget, budget justification, font types, font sizes, margins etc. In some (most?) cases, however, the proposal isn't submission-ready by the time of the internal deadline. There might be a support letter missing, for example. The proposal is ready enough for viewing and checking, but not for submitting.

Flexible and nice SRO staff are willing to examine a not-quite-final version of the proposal, as long as the parts they need to see are available, then submit the proposal when everything is assembled, up to and including the day of the proposal deadline. With these particular SRO staff people, I am willing to click the view-edit-submit button at an early stage. But:

A few years ago, I had uploaded some, but not all, components of a proposal before I left for a research-related trip abroad. I had finished and uploaded the budget and other required forms, but the internal deadline was still a week away, and I planned to work more on the project description, summary, and references while traveling. This was >5 years ago, and I was traveling in a part of the world that, at the time, did not have ubiquitous internet access.

After a few days, I went to an internet cafe filled with young men playing violent computer games. In my e-mail inbox I saw something far more terrifying than the virtual explosions and shootings on the monitors around me. I saw an automatically generated e-mail confirming the submission of my proposal. The SRO had submitted my incomplete proposal to the NSF.

In fact, this should not have happened at all because the proposal was so incomplete. The internal deadline had not even passed. Why did the SRO submit the proposal? I called my university in a panic. The SRO staff member who was handling my proposal had submitted it just before leaving on vacation.

I had to withdraw the proposal and reconstruct all the documents, some of which I had foolishly not brought with me because they had been completed and approved before I left. I learned that if you withdraw a proposal, you cannot recover the files on FastLane, and so I had to build the budget all over again with the help of a heroic department accountant (now retired, alas) and co-PI.

That experience traumatized me, and although that SRO staff member did not last much longer in her job, it took me a long time to bring myself to select view-edit-submit as an early option for SRO access. Lately, I have gone back to selecting this option when I know that a particular very competent SRO staff person is handling my proposal.

Just before a recent proposal submission, I learned that this particular person would be out of town during the relevant time frame for proposal submission. I gave the SRO permission to view, but not submit the proposal.

For some reason, my proposal therefore came to the attention of the competent person's superior at the SRO; someone with a long administrative title and no doubt awesome administrative responsibilities.

He sent me a very snippy e-mail saying that because I had not given his office access to submit the proposal early enough, he was going to delay submission of my proposal. He said that, furthermore, because my proposal appeared to have a target date rather than an actual deadline, he saw no reason why I should insist on the proposal's being submitted by a certain date.

By the time he sent that e-mail, his office had access to submit my proposal, in plenty of time before the deadline; I just hadn't selected this option right way. In addition, if he had looked at the cover page and saw what type of proposal it was and/or had looked at an internal document that clarified the issue of the deadline, he would know that I wasn't just being an imperious jerk who selected a random date for a deadline and expected everyone to work according to my schedule. The NSF program director had specified an optimal date, which was now going to be missed owing to the SRO administrator's little hissy fit.

SRO guy also questioned something in my budget -- specifically, an issue related to whether I could justify the amount of student support I was requesting relative to the proposed research.

What?? How does he know how much time it takes to do a particular type of research?

The budget had already been approved by the accounting office, my department chair, and my college's dean. The budget item in question was justified in the proposal -- in the project description and budget justification. The last thing I need is an administrator wondering whether I am asking for too much money for graduate students relative to the amount of work they will be doing. That typically is not a problem.

The overall theme of SRO guy's e-mail was that because I had offended and inconvenienced his office by not giving them immediate access to submit the proposal when I first initiated proposal preparation in FastLane, he was going to punish me in various annoying little ways. He cc'd his e-mail to the dean and my chair and someone else I didn't know.

He did not cc the co-PI, but I did. The co-PI thinks my reply was perhaps even a bit too nice. I did not mention my earlier emotional trauma regarding premature submission of a proposal, but instead just dealt with his points, one by one. My purpose was to appear calm, reasonable, and polite, and to get this proposal submitted as soon as possible.

Now I have two things to worry about:

1 - If I select view-edit-submit right away, my proposal might be submitted prematurely, causing major problems and inconvenience for all concerned. I know this is unlikely to happen again, but unless I know that a trusted SRO staff member is handling my proposal, I feel anxious about it.

2 - If I select view-edit but not submit first, I might offend this snowflake administrator whose feelings are easily hurt and who then punishes me by delaying submission of my proposal and raising spurious questions about the details of the proposal.

Ideally, faculty and administrators work together to optimize proposal submissions. The process involves effort and communication on both parts. Faculty need to follow internal procedures and meet internal deadlines for submitting proposals, but if we do that, we shouldn't have to worry about the delicate feelings of the administrators who have the ultimate power to push the button and submit (or not) our proposals to the funding agencies.

Friday, April 23, 2010

What I Don't Know

When I advise undergrads about graduate schools, I take into account the usual things, such as what the student thinks might be his/her specific interests for graduate research (and therefore which schools are good in that field). I also consider my opinions about which places have good advisers in that field, based in part on what I know about the previous experiences of graduate students working with a particular adviser or group of advisers.

And of course it is important whether the student is certain he/she wants to go directly into a PhD program, definitely wants to stop after the MS, or maybe will do an MS first and then see how things go (leaving open the option of a PhD later).

If the student has any personal issues that restrict options to a geographic area or to a set of universities that would also be suitable for the continuing studies or employment of a significant other, I can adjust my recommendations as necessary.

Although I do not claim to be a perfect match-maker between students and grad programs, I have done pretty well over the years in terms of helping students find a program that matches their scholarly interests, personalities, and other personal preferences.

I still have things to learn, though. This year I learned the following:

1. The economic crisis has shifted the ground at some schools so much that places that used to offer decent financial packages for stipends, tuition, and benefits now cannot. I don't know the details of the economic situations at particular institutions (although, for state universities, I can sort of guess based on what state they are in), but I wish I knew more so that I could have adjusted my recommendations accordingly.

Example: A talented undergrad asked for my advice about graduate schools. We talked about options on more than one occasion, and I suggested that he go to a conference in the fall, sit in on a range of talks in the fields in which he had an interest, and meet some people. At the conference, I introduced him to some potential advisers at one particular school that I thought was a really good fit for him. I knew that the professors to whom I introduced him were excellent scientists and also great advisers who cared about their students. The student talked to them at length and got very excited about the research possibilities. That institution was his top choice for a graduate program.

He applied and was accepted, he visited the department, and .. the financial offer was so inadequate that there might as well not even have been one. The student would have had to get a job and take out loans to make it through grad school (just as he had done as an undergrad), and no one should have to do that in the physical sciences.

If I had had any idea how bad the offer would be, I would not have made this "match". And I would have suggested that the student apply to many more places than he did. He had applied to more than one, but by mid-April, his options were few and unappealing. This was shocking because he is an excellent student and should have had his pick of graduate programs.

I felt like I had made a serious error in my advising, with possibly grave consequences. The story has a happy ending, though. I sent out some e-mails and found a colleague who was still looking for a graduate student and was pleased to have a strong recommendation of a possible candidate; the student now has a good financial offer at a really good place with a dynamic research group. It was only by luck, however, that I was able to fix my error and help work out a good solution.

Next year I will try to be better informed about economic issues before making strong recommendations. I feel very sorry for faculty in economically distressed departments that can't put together decent financial offers, but students need to look out for their personal economic situations as well. Those of us advising students on potential graduate programs can't just send them off an economic cliff because we only consider our usual criteria when making recommendations.

2. I have never really considered time-to-degree as a factor in my recommendations of certain graduate programs or advisers. These are difficult data to evaluate for a program or a particular faculty adviser; there are so many factors, including many related to the student. Even so, I learned this year of a particular program/adviser that I previously enthusiastically recommended owing to the interesting research and research environment, but now this place is off my list because the time-to-degree for many students is twice what it should be.

If a student asks my advice about that place I won't say "Don't even consider it", but I will strongly recommend that they talk to other students, look into the time-to-degree issue, and consider very carefully whether they want to invest what might be an unusually long time in their graduate studies. Students should do that anyway, no matter where they apply, but having this information in advance will affect my specific suggestions of graduate schools.

I hope all those involved in the grad admissions process this year -- professors and students -- had as successful a year as possible given the economic situation. I am happy with how things turned out for me and my research program, although I made my usual gamble and accepted more students than I thought would actually accept. They never all accept; except when they do. This year they all did. This has never happened to me before. That's fine, though. They all got good financial offers of guaranteed support, we are going to have fun, and we are going to be writing more proposals than we expected.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

To What End?

It is time for the Evil Reviewer anecdote to which I alluded in a post last week.

Colleagues and I submitted a manuscript about our Transformative Science to Awesome Journal. We were pleased to make it to the review process in a journal that summarily rejects most submissions.

We waited. And waited.

The reviews came back. The identities of both reviewers were very clearly stated in the reviews. Famous Scientist 1 loved the paper. Famous Scientist 2 hated the paper. We were allowed to revise the paper.

We revised the paper, taking into account the more rational of Famous Scientist 2's comments and providing a rebuttal to those we considered unreasonable.

The paper was re-reviewed by the same reviewers. This took a long, long time. Nearly a year had gone by before we received the second round of reviews back.

Famous Scientist 1 loved the paper even more. Famous Scientist 2 hated the paper even more. The paper was rejected.

The primary author (not me) protested. In fact, he was enraged because FS2's comments were rather inflammatory and his most serious criticisms were demonstrably untrue. One comment was that the questions we addressed were not of interest, and the methods we used were flawed.

We argued against the criticisms and other comments that could be demonstrated to be untrue, using citations of recent papers about the ongoing, unresolved debate on the topic of our research. The editor agreed to send the manuscript to a third reviewer who would have access to the previous reviews and correspondence.

Reviewer 3 (whose identity is not known to us) could not believe that FS2 would deliberately shoot down the paper unless he had solid, scientific reasons to do so. The editor's decision to reject the paper (again) hinged in large part on this belief that FS2 was an "honorable" man.

In the meantime, FS2 was busy. He reproduced our results, addressing the same questions (which he had stated were of no interest to anyone) and using methods he had criticized as flawed in our work. He submitted his own manuscript on this same topic to another journal. This fact came to our attention by chance.

What to do?

My colleague, now even more enraged, was able to document the existence of this "new" manuscript, complete with date of submission, showing that at the very same time FS2 was taking an unusually long time with the review of our manuscript, he initiated research on the same topic, submitting his own manuscript soon after his second, savage review of our manuscript. My colleague wrote a long, detailed letter to the editor.

The issue remains unresolved, but it is unlikely to have a happy ending for anyone.

Fortunately, in the case of our beleaguered manuscript, none of us authors are at a career stage that hinges on having a high profile publication. We think the science in the manuscript deserves publication, and we think we deserve credit for the ideas and applications in the paper, but it doesn't really matter where the paper gets published.

It is difficult for me to understand the level of ego? enmity? selfishness? depravity? that would drive someone to say that our research was worthless, and then immediately turn around and work on that same topic using the same methods (and !surprise! get the same result). We have all lost respect for Famous Scientist 2.

This episode made me wonder:

Was it really worth it to him to do this just so that he could be "first" to publish these results?

What am I supposed to think about the other papers by this Famous Scientist? I don't doubt that much of his existing work represents his own ideas, although now I wonder if he has ever done something like this before. I have met him and I know him to be a very smart and creative scientist. He doesn't need to steal the work of others.

Do they have "responsible conduct in research" workshops at his institution? Does he attend them and feel gnawed by guilt at his unethical conduct or does he glaze over in boredom at the case studies of postdocs in biomedical labs, thinking that none of this relates to him?

How open should I be with other colleagues, students etc. about this situation? Assume that there is no reasonable possibility that we misinterpreted FS2's actions and that there is solid evidence for the scenario outlined here. Being silent about the situation might allow him to continue in his evil ways, potentially doing real harm, but openly accusing someone of dishonesty (however much documentation I may have in my files) sets up a situation of "Which person do you believe?". The answer might well be "Famous Scientist 2" (as we saw in the review process).

Is FS2 pleased with himself that he was apparently successful at getting our paper rejected, or does he feel any discomfort at all about his tactics? Or maybe it is all just a game to him, and he feels satisfaction that he has apparently "won" this round?

I don't know. In my career, I have seldom experienced anything so blatantly inappropriate associated with a manuscript review, so I prefer to think that this is a relatively rare situation. I regret that I can never again contemplate this Famous Scientist's work without a hostile suspicious feeling.

I hope that our paper will eventually be published and appreciated for its interesting science, primarily the work of my colleague, who deserves full credit for his creativity, hard work, and persistence.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Summer Time

It is with some reluctance that I am diving yet again into the fraught topic of

Professorial Use of Summer Time.

Yesterday's theme was money. Today's theme is students.

As part of my continuing effort to explain Academia from the point of view of a (mostly) well-meaning professor and adviser, let's consider the summer situation of a professor on a 9-month appointment at a research university.

Although I in no way condone the rude behavior of professors who apparently seem strangely pleased to inconvenience students who want to defend their thesis or take a preliminary exam in the summer (e.g., by refusing to participate in these events during the summer), I will throw out for discussion a few of the relevant issues from the professorial point of view.

At my institution and others like it, professors are not required to teach or do institutional service in the summer. That is the principle behind our being paid for 9 months of work rather than 12. Nevertheless, it is not uncommon for students and others to think it entirely reasonable that professors be available in the summer for committee meetings, exams, and so on.

Another frequent comment is that professors who make a decent 9-month salary should be happy with that. After all, we can have our 9-month salary paid out over 12 months, so it is just like being paid for 12 months. The reasoning seems to be that the actual amount of each pay check doesn't matter as long as you continue to get paychecks in the summer.

Is there another profession in which it is widely believed that those in that profession should work without pay for several months of the year just because they make a decent salary? Wouldn't it be a great way to keep health care costs down if medical professionals volunteered their services for 3 months of the year? Their salaries are high enough; why shouldn't they donate their time and expertise? And what about lawyers? Couldn't they work pro bono a few months of the year?

I am satisfied with my 9-month salary and pleased when I can get paid for at least some of my research time in the summer, but I disagree with those who think that we professors are greedy if we want to be paid for the work we do in the summer, that professors who work in the summer don't deserve to be paid in the summer, or that professors should automatically be available in the summer at the times that are most convenient for the students.

That last statement is obnoxious, but I mention it because, although the vast majority of graduate students are very hard-working, I have seen more than a few cases in which a student procrastinated throughout the academic year, spent a lot of time being involved in hobbies and social activities, and then needed to take an exam in the summer. That's the kind of thing that can rankle even moderately nice professors who are otherwise on board with working without pay in the summers and being available to help students.

In fact, most of my colleagues volunteer some or all of their time in the summer, and many of us are happy to do so. We don't stop being advisers just because it is summer. Most of us also know that it is in everyone's interest that students get the help they need, make progress in their research, and pass the various milestones (exams) in a timely way. Sometimes it just works out that summer is the best time for an exam or defense. And certainly if a student needs to defend in the summer in order to move into a particular job, the vast majority of professors I know would show up for a summer defense if at all possible.

Like most of my colleagues, I work in the summer and I enjoy it. Except when blogging, I don't obsess about my summer salary, or lack thereof, and I spend a lot of time with students of various sorts, whether or not I am paid to do so.

Even so, I do not want my summer time to be taken for granted or wasted. And I do not want my university to proscribe my research and advising activities in the summer (the topic of yesterday's post). Furthermore, if it's not asking too much, although I am of course enjoying the fabulous fun to be had in the waning phase of the academic year, I would like summer to come soon, please.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Giving Less Than 100%

Here is how I think the summer salary (from grants) thing should work:

If I can get some summer salary from a grant, that's great. If I can't or if I need to spend my summer salary on another grant-related research activity, that's fine. No matter what my summer salary situation is during the 3 months when the university does not pay my salary, I advise my graduate students, I advise my undergrad researchers, I write new grant proposals, I go to conferences, I read, I think, I write papers, I discuss Science with various colleagues, and I even occasionally think about what I will teach in the fall. I basically do whatever I think is best for my researchers and our research program and my overall job as a professor. I adore having this flexibility. For me, one of the excellent things about being a professor is that there is an extended interlude in the year when I have a lot of freedom to set my own schedule and priorities.

Here is how my university thinks the summer salary (from grants) thing should work:

If faculty get summer salary from a grant and are paid at their usual salary rate for a specified time period, they can do nothing other than activities related to that grant: no writing of papers unrelated to that grant, no research activities unrelated to that grant, no travel to conferences unrelated to that grant, and certainly not any writing of proposals for a new grant.

During that time, we aren't even supposed to spend significant time with graduate students who are not supported on the same grant that pays our summer salary for that time block. We are supposed to say "Xavier, I'm sorry, but I can't help you with that until next month when I am no longer being paid summer salary" or "Benita, we should discuss that before July 7 because after that I can't talk to you about your research until August 12", but "Omar, yes of course we can meet this afternoon. You and I are being paid on the same grant right now."

And what about graduate students who want to defend their thesis in the summer? They'd better find out the summer funding situations of all their committee members or they are out of luck entirely. It would be better to have a committee comprised entirely of faculty with no summer salary from sponsored grants because these faculty can do whatever they want.

Although one might think it is in the best interests of the university that faculty write grant proposals and give papers at conferences, woe betide faculty with proposal deadlines or conference abstract deadlines in the summer.

And what are we supposed to do about reviewing or editing manuscripts and proposals during this time?

I can see the reasoning behind not paying someone from a particular grant while they are working on another project. I don't like it if the policy is going to be interpreted so strictly as to prohibit legitimate professional activities, but I can understand the principle. What really bothers me, however, is when the definition of the working day is not confined to standard hours and faculty are not even supposed to do other work, including write proposals, in their free time -- nights and weekends, for example. Apparently whatever time we work, whether it is 40 hours or 168 hours a week, that time belongs to the grant that is paying us, and we can work on no other projects, not even in the wee hours of the morning while sitting on the porch with a laptop and some friendly cats. The grant owns all our working time, however much that is.

And in fact, if we are working, we should be working in an "approved site", which does not include homes, cafes, or the various nooks we find to work while our offspring are engaged in enriching structured activities (sports, music etc.).

I don't get that either. Is the assumption that if we are not sitting at our desks, we are likely to be lying on a beach somewhere? If we were allowed to work at home, do the ethicsmeisters fear that faculty would interpret this as permission to do "research" in posh night clubs and resorts (and charge the expenses to our grants)?

A widely held view among physical scientists is that our biomed colleagues would do just that, and, in fact, that without these strict policies, they would all be paying themselves double so that they could support their cocaine habits, even though they force their grad students and underpaid postdocs to manufacture most of their own personal drug supplies in their research labs. {<-- attempt at joke}.

The good news is that we are allowed to attend a conference in the summer if the theme of the conference is related to the grant that is paying our salary at that time. I am confused about this, though. If we attend a conference to present a paper on the topic of the grant that is paying our salary, are we allowed to attend other talks, even if they are off-topic? Can we chat with colleagues about other research? Will we be banned from the poster sessions because they are rife with unethical possibilities for viewing graphic depictions of unrelated research?

The people who tally effort have run amok.

The solution, of course, is to claim effort at <100% during any time period that requires working on multiple projects, advising various students, writing new proposals, or attending a conference.

That's doable. Instead of being paid x weeks of summer salary at 100% effort on a grant, I can be paid at a lower % effort for longer. And then I can have the kind of summer that I want to have, and everyone benefits: my research group, my university, my cats, and me.

Problem solved? Maybe in practice, but the policy that necessitates these accounting games makes me want to gnash my ears.

Monday, April 19, 2010

If I Have to Stare at One More CV This Year..

This year I somehow I ended up on four (4) committees that review Other Faculty and their research ideas, accomplishments, and/or productivity. This seems excessive to me, but there are at least 2 explanations for this turn of events:

1. The usual reason for senior FSPs: There are so few female full professors in the physical sciences-engineering-math that we get called on quite a lot to serve on certain committees. Sometimes I just say no because I don't have the time (or interest), but sometimes I feel that it is important to say yes. This accounts for one of the committees this year.

2. There is a very nice, competent, hard-working, smart, and generally awesome staff person in charge of organizing some of these committees, and whenever she asks me to serve on a committee, I find that I can't say no. This accounts for 2 of the committees this year.

I have no explanation for the 4th committee, other than I felt that I should do it so that I had a voice in some things about which I would probably otherwise have complained.

I sort of followed my "conservation of committee mass" rule of quitting a committee if I add a new committee. The only one I added without quitting another was the least time-consuming of the four.

In none of these cases, when asked to be on one of these committees (or when I agreed to be nominated for an elected position), did I think "OK, but I really don't want to be on that awful time-wasting committee". I was lucky in that, I guess. I felt that all these committees were in some way worthwhile.

I am pretty sure that I would have said nyet if asked to be a committee that I felt a great reluctance to join because I thought it would be even more boring than most committee assignments or because I didn't think it was a good use of my time. I suppose that is a selfish, but any guilt I might feel is completely assuaged by my awareness of how much time I devote to institutional service.

When asked to be on a committee, do your criteria for accepting vs. declining to be on the committee depend on your prediction of whether you would find the committee interesting and/or a good use of your time, or does your sense of duty and academic citizenship triumph over such selfish concerns?

Friday, April 16, 2010

Talk Talk

If you are a graduate student (or an undergraduate student involved in research):

How much do you discuss research or other academic topics with your fellow students outside of classes and seminars?; e.g., at lunch or other social opportunities? A lot? Occasionally? Never? (you can also answer according to the situation when you were a student, if your students days are over)

How much do you discuss research with other students?
All the time
Quite often
Now and then
Never free polls

As I described in a recent post, when I was a student, my fellow students and I talked about Science a lot. Some of venues for talking/socializing were faculty-free (some of the grad office space, late night pub excursions), and others involved faculty (late afternoon pub excursions).

It was good to have some informal discussions with faculty, but we also valued our faculty-free times and spaces. In fact, I think these student-only Science discussions were particularly important for me.

As I have surely described at some point in the past, it was after a particularly brutal one-sided "discussion" with one of my committee members that I started the collaboration that resulted in my first paper with another graduate student. This professor had savagely belittled my research and ideas, told me I was stupid and ignorant (in those exact words), and expressed great pessimism that I would ever get a graduate degree of any sort, in part because he was going to vote "fail" at my defense. I staggered back to the grad office area and sat, stunned, on a couch in the common area.

A senior grad student, whom I didn't know well because he was in a somewhat different subfield of research, saw me and asked why I seemed so down. I told him that Professor Z hated my ideas and thought I was an idiot. He said "That is actually a good indication that you might be right. Tell me your ideas." So I did. He was quiet for a few minutes, and then said "I think you are on to something. Let me tell you about some of my work that relates to what you're thinking." So he did, and this started a series of discussions over the course of months. We developed our complementary ideas, tested them, wrote things, sketched things, and eventually published a paper in a journal I thought would be out of my reach as a graduate student.

I credit this grad student with saving my career. I don't know if I would have quit grad school, but I was seriously considering it.

Most conversations among students are not life-changing like that one, but they are nevertheless important ways to develop your ideas and your communication skills. When I started grad school, I had never really had an intellectual debate about Science before. I didn't really know how to argue -- not in the sense of having a hostile disagreement, but in the sense of organizing arguments (evidence) to support an idea or to figure out how to test an idea.

I also had to learn that arguments were not (necessarily) person. You could lose a scientific argument, but still enjoy the debate, emerge with your self-esteem intact, and learn something important.

Although some of my fellow grad students were quite aggressive and skilled at these discussions, I definitely was not, but I learned a lot by having discussions and debates. I do not think I ever would have learned this from my professors, in part because it wasn't until I was a senior grad student that I started to feel comfortable expressing my opinions in anything approaching an assertive and confident way.

If you are a student in an intellectually stimulating, interactive department: that's great. You are lucky and you will learn many important things. Don't worry if you start out not having much to say, but listen and learn and participate as much as you can. Eventually you will be one of the confident senior grad students or postdocs, but the transformation won't happen by magic. Start talking now!

If you are a student in an environment that for some strange reason does not involve academic discussions outside of the classroom and you want to change that: Find at least one other person who feels the same way you do. Maybe more will join in. Don't let the we-don't-talk-about-work people make all the rules about acceptable topics of conversation. Don't worry if they frown at you. It's fine if there are some times and places when people want a break from intense discussions about work, but this should not be an all-encompassing rule that excludes all such conversations from lunch time, coffee breaks, and other opportunities like that.

In any academic unit, it should be possible to find people who are passionate about their research and studies and who want to talk about what they are working on and learn what others are doing.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Burnt Out - Help

Below is an e-mail message from a reader. I have responded to the e-mail privately, but I hope some readers can also help with advice or other support.

Dear FSP,

I'm about to quit research because I can't take the sexism anymore. Would you still try and convince me to stay?

I'm recently recovering from a rape assault, and as a result am finding it impossible to cope with sexism in the workplace. I feel like my reaction to this sexism is completely justified, but that I might not have found it so overwhelming had I not been going through this particularly difficult time.

I'm at the point where just going to work is emotionally draining and I am actively considering quitting. The main reason for my choice is sexism, not other difficulties which exist with a career in academia. I fear I may be throwing research away because I'm going through a very difficult time recovering from the rape assault.

In the last year, I've been so upset by this, that the quality of my work has degraded. I'm a postdoc, so one unproductive year is important. Given the sexism and rumors that exist in the workplace, I can't imaging discussing the rape and its effect with anyone at work.

The sexism I'm talking about is both indirect (witnessing patronizing comments about women and porn which is openly accepted at my workplace) and direct (patronizing comments about my gender, sexual advances from PhD adviser, sexual harassment from colleagues at every institution I've been at - in one case it was violent, victimization when I complained).

Thanks for your time and any advice you may have. Feel free to post this letter on your blog (not my email address).

Sincerely, Burnt out astronomy.

PS: Thanks for your amazing (and depressing) blog.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Preferred People

Some journals ask authors for a list of possible reviewers, and some also ask for a list of reviewers to avoid. Are these lists useful to editors? Who should be on these lists? If someone is listed as a person who should not be asked for a review, can the editor still ask that person for a review?

In my experience, these lists are advisory only. They are suggestions of some people with the necessary expertise to review the manuscript. If the author has particular opinions about issues other than expertise (e.g., objectivity), these may also be a factor in deciding which individuals to list as preferred reviewers and which, if any, to request not be asked to review.

If authors list the obvious reviewers, I have no problem picking at least one from their list of suggested reviewers, maybe even two if that makes sense and I would have asked these people anyway. In most cases, though, I try to find at least one reviewer who is not listed. If you want to increase the chances that a certain expert person will be selected, a possibly good strategy is to leave that name off your list. Whether this strategy is good or not depends on the editor's editorial habits. You may well not be aware of what these are, so in fact probably the best strategy, if required to provide a list of suggestions, is to make a sincere list of expert people.

As an editor, if I don't think the list of suggested reviewers is reasonable, I may not select any from the list. Some authors seem to believe that the editor will or must pick from their list, and they stack the list with their close colleagues and friends in their own department. This is not a good strategy because (1) it probably won't work; and (2) why give the editor reason to question your judgment and ethics?

There are certain research topics that involve feuding research groups, and the authors in each group believe (in some cases with justification) that those in the other group(s) will not give an objective review. These groups always list those in the other(s) in the do-not-review column. If I know something about the debate and the people involved, I either respect this request or I don't, depending on the people and the situation. In most cases, however, I respect the list, but if I do happen to select a reviewer from the do-not-review request list, I remain alert (as always) for any possible problems with the review, including apparently unsupported negative criticisms or what seem to me to be overly harsh reviews of matters for debate (as opposed to problems with the data or observations).

Reviewers do not decide whether a manuscript is accepted or rejected; they make recommendations. The editor decides whether the reviews are reasonable and makes the decisions, so a negative review may not be fatal.

The manuscript management system with which I am most familiar makes it very clear what author preferences are in terms of reviewers to select or avoid. Not long ago, however, I was a guest editor for a journal that used a different system, and I found this other system difficult to navigate. At first I didn't even see that there was a place for authors to list their reviewer preferences; the list was rather hidden. Also, the journal had an inefficient system for selecting reviewers for manuscripts in guest-edited issues, so I was unable to select reviewers directly. For two different manuscripts, reviewers who were on the authors' lists of reviewers to avoid were in fact asked to review the manuscripts. Both returned very constructive, overall positive reviews in which each also made their identity obvious to the authors.

In one case, the authors were enraged that a reviewer had been selected against their recommendations. They complained to the main editor. They wrote a rather nasty letter to me. This was puzzling because the reviewer gave them a very useful and positive review; there was absolutely nothing in that review that indicated a problem with objectivity. Did they just dislike on principle the fact that this person had been allowed to give input? There was nothing time sensitive in their manuscript; nothing that needed to be kept secret from certain people in advance of publication; nothing even very controversial. In fact, it was a solid but rather prosaic paper that I spent a huge amount of time editing because the writing was so bad. The authors were in error to believe that just by listing the objectionable person on a list meant that the editors were bound to comply. I probably would have respected their wishes had I known them and had I ultimate control over reviewer selection, but I was not compelled to do so.

In the other case, the authors were pleased that they had gotten such a positive review from someone they feared would not be objective. They later started corresponding with the reviewer about their mutual research interests, and sent a nice thank you letter commending the editorial work of my colleagues and me.

Some journals ask for a reason why an individual is included on a to-be-avoided list of reviewers; some funding agencies request this information as well. If there is a reasonable explanation for why an individual should not review a manuscript, then an editor may be more inclined to comply with this request.

It can be difficult to explain some of these reasons, though. Unless you are an established researcher with a long track record of publishing, you probably don't want to write "This person hates all of my papers and always gives a negative review" because it raises the question of whether all of your papers are really bad. Something vague like "conflict of interest", however, is an all-purpose, vague-but-possibly-effective reason, should you be required to provide one.


Are these lists useful to editors? Yes and no. Not really. Sort of.

Who should be on these lists? People with expertise. People who are not your close friends and colleagues.

If someone is listed as a person who should not be asked for a review, can the editor still ask that person for a review? Yes.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Let's Review

Why review manuscripts?

Reviewing can be a deeply unsatisfying experience if you end up mired in bad writing, spending a lot of time making detailed and insightful comments for an editor and authors who will ignore all of your criticisms and suggestions. Reviewing can also be a very positive experience in which you help improve the content and presentation of a possibly interesting and important (or at least useful) paper, learning something in the process, and accumulating the respect of authors and editors.

In the comments of yesterday's post, Dr. Doyenne provided a nice list of reasons why reviewing can be worthwhile for the reviewer. You should check out that list, but I have also included some of the items, in modified and supplemented form, here. Some of them are most applicable to new researchers, but can apply to reviewers at any career stage.

1. You learn a lot useful things about writing, science (or whatever), and publishing. You may even learn more about the technical aspects of manuscript writing, organizing, and publishing from a bad manuscript than from a good one, so don't assume that you've wasted your time just because the manuscript your reviewed was a travesty.

2. You will learn what is appropriate (or at least typical) in terms of length, level of detail, and subject matter for particular journals. You should get an idea about these things by reading published papers, but reviewing can help make all this more clear. For example, a common criticism of manuscripts submitted by recent PhD students is that a manuscript "reads too much like a thesis chapter". This isn't an issue if you write your thesis chapters as manuscripts, but in some cases the thesis contains much more detail than a manuscript should. Even though doctoral students surely read many published articles and should get some idea of what is an acceptable level of background material, somehow it is different when you are writing your own manuscript. If you start looking at manuscripts (even your own) through the eyes of a reviewer, you get better calibrated, saving yourself some criticism when you submit your own manuscripts.

Furthermore, some journals provide a checklist or series of questions for reviewers to fill out as part of the review. As an editor I find these lists rather useless, but they do provide some structure and continuity to a review. For the reviewer, these may give an idea for what kinds of things are considered important, in general or for a particular journal. You may also learn about this kind of thing from other means during the review process, and these may help you organize and target your own manuscripts better.

3. Once you have some experience reviewing, you can better deal with reviews of your own manuscripts, especially if there are (very) negative comments. If you are encouraged to resubmit a manuscript, you may have a better idea for how to craft the letter to the editor, explaining any reviewer comments you decided to ignore. If the editor knows you as a diligent and thoughtful reviewer, this opinion might help you in discussions with that editor about the fate of your own manuscripts.

4. If you are a reliable and thoughtful reviewer, editors may return the favor by trying to make the manuscript review process as efficient as possible for you. If you submit a lousy manuscript, the editors are unlikely to give you a break just because you are a good reviewer, but a grateful editor might feel inclined to handle your manuscript soon after the reviews come in rather than letting it languish in their inbox for a while.

5. In some fields, for some journals, editors are influential people and it can be a good thing to come to their attention as a bright and thoughtful person. This can be helpful not just with your own manuscript submissions, but just in general in terms of your visibility and professional standing in your field.

Note, however, that not everyone shares this view that editors can be important people in their fields. A few years ago, I was in a committee meeting during which one of my fellow committee members, an outspoken professor with strong opinions, tried to sink the nomination of a particular candidate for an award by noting that the candidate was an editor of a journal and this meant that the candidate was a "has-been" whose research career was so washed up that he was now an editor instead of a real researcher. He announced that most editors are "losers". There was silence in the room, so he said "I'm guessing that there are a lot of editors in this room and that you all now hate me." I said "I don't know about the others, but I'm an editor and I hate you." (In fact, I didn't hate him at all, but it felt good to say it.)

6. And finally, reviewing is considered Professional Service, a component of a faculty job at many institutions. You can list on your CV or faculty activity report or tenure dossier the journals for which you have done reviews. If editors are requesting reviews from you, this is a sign of professional visibility, and in many fields that is a good thing.

As I've written before, if you submit manuscripts, you should review manuscripts. If you review manuscripts, you should do a careful and constructive job, finding a good balance between sharing your expertise and not sharing any irritation or biases that are not appropriate to display in a review. If you are angry at an author because they gave you a bad review or you hate their former adviser or whatever, don't do the review.

I hope this is a semi-convincing list of the various reasons why reviewing can be useful for the reviewer beyond the content of the manuscript. These reasons will be cold comfort when you are deep into a ghastly manuscript, but realize that somewhere, somehow, someday, it is better to be a constructive and thorough reviewer than a mean and/or lazy reviewer.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Editorial Opinions (2)

It is completely understandable that some people who are new to reviewing manuscripts may lack confidence in their reviews and wonder whether they are commenting on the "right" things in the "right" way and in the "right" amount of detail. It might be comforting for these uncertain reviewers to see the comments of the other reviewers to gauge whether they are on track with their own review.

Consider, though, that the content and styles of reviews vary a lot from reviewer to reviewer because reviews should vary a lot. It isn't necessarily such a good thing, then, if your review comments correspond well with those of other reviewers. In fact, if you commented on completely different things that the other reviewer didn't consider or notice, this could make the reviews even more useful to the author(s) and editors.

As an editor, I try to select reviewers who will examine a manuscript from different points of view. Of course different reviewers should be able to detect any major flaws in a manuscript, but beyond that, I want different reviewers to comment on different aspects of a manuscript. Otherwise, why get more than one review?

Doing a review is not a test that you pass or fail as a reviewer. You are providing a service to your professional community by sharing your expertise.

What should a review contain?

Reviews should provide a thorough and constructive critique of the content of a manuscript, focusing in particular on the data, analysis, and/or ideas that form the basis of the work. You should consider whether you think the interpretations are justified, making it clear whether something is objectively "wrong" or whether you just don't like it.

I am not impressed when a reviewer says "This is wrong" about something in a manuscript but doesn't explain why and doesn't provide any suggestions about better alternatives or ways to get at a not-wrong result. If you want your review comments to be considered by the editor and the author, you need to back up any criticisms as much as possible. It also helps to be polite. Your comments will be taken more seriously if you write "I do not agree with the interpretation that A follows B, and suggest instead that..." as opposed "These people are seriously stupid if they think that A follows B."

Note: Some reviewers write their reviews in the active voice, directly addressing the authors as "you", as in "You should consider deleting that entire section that starts on page 17"; others refer indirectly to "the authors", as if the comments are addressed primarily to the editor, although of course the authors will read these comments. Perhaps the custom varies in different disciplines or different journals, or maybe it is just a reviewer personality thing.

In your review, if you are going to suggest the addition of a citation of one or more of your own papers, you should explain why this should be done. As a reviewer, I typically comment on citations of my own papers, or lack thereof, only if (1) a paper is mis-cited (i.e., my paper on purple kangaroos who live in lunar craters is cited after a statement noting that green rabbits live on Neptune); or (2) if there is an egregious omission (i.e., a statement that purple kangaroos live in lunar craters and then no citation of my work whatsoever, despite the fact that I have published extensively on this topic and no one else has).

Reviewers should, to some extent, consider the manuscript as a completed thing and only suggest the addition of new items (particularly those involving new research activities that may be costly in terms of money and time) if those items are absolutely essential to the manuscript; i.e., without them, the paper is not publishable. If you truly believe that a paper is not publishable based on its current content, of course you should state this in your review and back up this opinion with reasons, but if you just think the paper would be better with more data, make it clear that you are making a suggestion, not pointing out a fatal flaw.

This is where an editor can play an important role. In many cases when I see this type of do-more suggestions in reviews, I tell the author that I think this is an unreasonable suggestion and they do not need to address it in their revision. In other cases, I concur with a reviewer and tell the author that their paper is not publishable without this additional work; fortunately these cases are quite rare.

It is also very useful if a reviewer comments on technical aspects of a manuscript, particularly those issues related to clarity. Does the organization of the text make sense or does it interfere with your understanding of the major points of the paper? Is the paper too long/too short? If not, what is a better way to present the information?

I understand if a reviewer does not want to take the time to fix the writing problems in a manuscript, especially if there are a lot of problems. I don't like doing this as a reviewer and I find it annoying as an editor, especially if at least one of the co-authors is a native English speaker. I am not paid for my work as an editor, and co-authors who are able to fix their own writing problems should take the time to do so before submitting a manuscript and expecting others to clean it up. If none of the authors are native English speakers, of course I can and do help with writing issues, but I am always grateful when a reviewer takes the time to do this as well.

To those who lack confidence in their reviews: don't worry. Just do a careful job of reading and commenting on the manuscript, and there is a very good chance that your review will be helpful to the author(s) and editor.

Keep in mind that your main job is not to point out new and different research activities that the authors should have done or could do, and focus on what is in the manuscript. Provide both general and specific comments (including noting what you liked about the manuscript, if anything, not just what you didn't like), note any problems you find, make constructive suggestions, and don't take too long with your review. Also remember that by reviewing a manuscript you are doing a great service to all involved, and perhaps learning something interesting, so don't stress out, just dive in and write out your comments.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Editorial Opinion

There are many different ways that one can be involved in the editorial aspects of scholarly journals, and one's experience with the editorial universe can also vary considerably depending on whether a journal is published by a professional society or by a for-profit company.

Some variations on the wonderful world of editing a journal include:

1. being on an editorial board that essentially serves as a pool of reviewers (i.e., if you agree to be on the editorial board, you agree to review most manuscripts that are sent to you);

2. being on an editorial board that exists only as a list of names on a journal to show.. actually, I don't know what it shows. When I agreed to be on the EB for one particular journal, I assumed that I would actually do more than just have my name listed, but so far I haven't done anything. Does my Distinguished Name add luster to this journal, inspiring more people to read it? No way. The only people who would read this journal already have an intense interest in this very specific aspect of Science. Perhaps the in-name-only EB is like having a list of "fans" or "friends" of the journal.

3. being an associate editor for journals that have an extra editorial layer between the reviewers and the editor(s). I have been an AE at various times in the past. This type of editorial organization can be a bit inefficient, but this type of structure makes sense for some journals that have a somewhat broad scope. The editors need a pool of experts who are better qualified to select reviewers and provide their own comments on the manuscript and the reviews, but the editor or editors make the final decisions.

4. being the editor of a journal. Variations on this include: (a) being the one and only chief editor of a journal, and (b) being one of 2 or more other editors who are autonomous in their decision-making. And of course these editors can either be part of a system that has associate editors or an active editorial board, or may themselves be directly involved in selecting reviewers.

I have been or currently am involved in one or more of each of the above except 4a.

Somewhere in the blogosphere recently -- I am sorry I don't remember the blog, as I was roaming somewhat indiscriminately at the time -- I read someone's opinion that editors should be eliminated so that reviewers and authors could communicate more directly. I don't remember if the person holding this opinion has ever been an editor, but I'm inclined to think not.

As anyone who has received reviews for their own manuscripts likely knows, reviews vary a lot in terms of constructiveness, thoroughness, usefulness, and politeness. Part of an editor's job is to even out some of the roughness of the reviews, to provide more substance if the reviews lack it (in some cases by finding additional reviewers), to guide authors regarding revisions, and to reconcile disparate reviews or choose one review over another as being more instructive. In rare cases, editors rescind reviews or reviewer comments that are offensive. We keep the system running despite the vagaries of the reviewers (and authors).

Being an editor of a journal that covers a broad range of topics is difficult because you have to rely so much on the expertise of others, but it is also difficult editing a more specialized journal in which you know many of the authors and reviewers. In that situation, your own professional interactions with specific individuals are at stake and may be influenced by your editorial work.

In my work as an editor, I have found it essential to have a good online editing system that keeps track of reviewer data such as: time since last review for this journal (so I don't overload anyone with too many reviews), average time it takes a reviewer to submit a review, and information about the reviewing habits of an individual (e.g., do they routinely return thorough and useful reviews or are their reviews shallow and useless?). If someone is known to me in advance to be a not-so-great reviewer but is nevertheless someone who can provide an important point of view, I might try to get an additional reviewer for the manuscript in question.

I try to keep the system moving as rapidly as possibly, but of course I am somewhat at the mercy of the reviewers for this. Even so, when reviewing time becomes too prolonged, I have several contingency plans: (1) I have a small group of willing "emergency reviewers" who might be able to provide a rapid review; I try not to use this group if at all possible, but they have saved the day on a number of occasions; (2) I act as a reviewer myself, if I feel qualified to comment on the manuscript's topic; or (3) If I have one thorough review in hand, I will just use that and add my own comments (not as a reviewer, but just to make note of anything I think the one reviewer missed). In some cases a delinquent review is submitted in time to be of use during the revision process. So far I have not had any situations in which a late review contained information that would have changed my editorial decision on a manuscript if I had the review earlier, but perhaps I have just been lucky.

It has been important for me to find the right balance in terms of time I spend on editing tasks and the types of editing activities that I do. At the moment, I am quite content with my editing experiences both in terms of types and the time involved. Perhaps in the future I will want to branch out to other editorial experiences, for the challenge or for variety, but right now, things are good the way they are.

I have also served on a search committee that evaluated candidates to be editor of a journal, and this was kind of interesting because each candidate had a different combination of skills. But which was the right combination?

Some of the candidates were excellent scientists and would have added prestige to the journal, but it was clear (in some cases by their own admission) that they did not have the organizational skills or the time to do a good job. Other candidates seemed to have excellent organizational skills and editorial experience, but they were not well respected as scientists. We didn't want someone whose major qualifications were clerical skills. And other candidates had other liabilities (e.g., a candidate who had lots of editorial experience but who had been sanctioned for plagiarism). And what if someone is an excellent scientist and quite organized, but is a polarizing figure, well known for being involved in disputes that at times involved unprofessional behavior? Is that relevant to an individual's qualifications to be an editor? In fact, it probably is quite relevant.

But why be so picky? These people were interested in spending vast amounts of time for no/low pay as a professional service. Shouldn't a journal be happy just to find someone willing to do the "job"?

Fortunately, amazingly, we eventually found a person who was excellent in all respects for this particular position. I guess as long as there are people like that who have the energy, skills, and personality to succeed in the job, the system will continue to function.

I don't know what it's like in other fields, but as an editor of a journal in my field of the physical sciences, I have been impressed with the dedication and care that many reviewers take with their reviews. Therefore, despite the peer reviewing system's flaws -- and colleagues and I recently encountered a rather shocking example of one of these flaws (perhaps more on that some other time) -- my experience has shown that it is mostly a good system that involves a lot of conscientious reviewers and editors who give their time and share their expertise to make it work.

[I haven't decided yet about Monday's topic, but I have a few more things to say on the topic of being an Editor. Also, perhaps we can all share our most disturbing experiences with reviewers and editors next week, to balance out today's mostly-positive view of the peer review system. So save your stories of that sort for next week!]

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Playing the Game (2)

Citation index considerations aside, have you made any publication decisions specifically because you wanted to increase your number of publications, on the cynical-but-perhaps-justified assumption that more papers = better?

For example:

1. Have you taken what probably should have been one paper and split it up into two or more shorter (but nevertheless distinct) papers for the sole purpose of increasing the total number of papers on your CV?

Figuring out how many papers should be written about the results of a particular research effort is a bit of an art, and in some cases more papers is the best decision. Sometimes you know in advance whether to write results up as one or more paper(s), and sometimes you don't know until you start writing.

My question, therefore, refers to cases in which the main motivation for splitting up a project into n>1 papers is to crank up the publication numbers.

2. Have you published what probably should have been one paper but that instead were two or more related papers that were not as distinctly separated in content as in the first scenario? (i.e., shingling)

This is also a fuzzy concept because sometimes you want to publish one short and zippy paper and then another, longer one in a more specialized journal. Is that shingling? Or what if you decide to publish some different-but-related papers because each involves different groups of co-authors and it makes logistical sense to keep the publications separate? Or maybe you want to publish a review paper that summarizes information in some of your other papers. There are many legitimate ways in which similar papers are published by the same author.

But then there are other cases. I recall one time when I brought a manuscript to review on an airplane. This was back in the Days of Paper, so I had a hard copy of the manuscript, and had turned to a page with a figure on it. I was traveling with some colleagues to a conference, and a colleague in a different-but-related field was sitting next to me. He was also reviewing a manuscript, and turned the document to a page with a figure on it. It was the exact same figure. Yes, I know that manuscripts in review are confidential, but there we were, sitting next to each other with two different manuscripts submitted to two different journals at the same time, and there was at least one thing in both manuscripts that was identical. So we started comparing. The two manuscripts had the same authors, the same figures using the same data for the same topic, and only a slightly different "spin" put on different aspects of the data. Those two manuscripts clearly represented shingling of a sort that was probably not OK. We informed the editors of the journals.

3. Have you ever submitted a paper before the project had advanced as far as it probably should have before writing up part of it as a manuscript; i.e., a premature manuscript that was probably publishable but that you knew would be much better if you worked on the research more? (but you didn't feel you could afford to wait longer because you needed publications on your CV sooner rather than later)

As with the other cases, this is not an obviously bad thing to do either. Maybe you would have waited longer to publish if you already had tenure, but there are also good aspects of publishing a preliminary paper to communicate initial results rather than waiting, perhaps years, to publish one big definitive paper. You'd want to be as confident as possible that the preliminary paper was sound, but if you feel you have something to say that is of interest, I think it can be very useful to publish early and often.

I know that that is "playing the game" and perhaps contributing to the mass proliferation of academic articles so that the flow of information is overwhelming and the very act of publishing a scholarly work is devalued etc. etc., but I think that if you have something interesting to say, it's a good thing if you write it up and get it out there.

Ideally, in the course of your career, you will publish some short papers and some longer, more detailed papers and some review papers and some papers in Awesome Journal X and some other papers in Specialized Journals Y and Z, and it will all even out. It's in the early stage of an academic career when every decision about what/where/how much to publish can seem so critical.

From what I've seen in the physical sciences, the "best" route to take at all stages of an academic career is to try for a balance between publishing a reasonable number (according to the norms of your specific field) of very good but perhaps not awesome papers in respected journals, and then some (but likely fewer) rather awesome paper(s). This is preferable to having lots of narrowly focused papers or only/mostly having "big idea" papers. Together, however, these different types of publications demonstrate the breadth and depth of your research.

When deciding how to divide up a big project into papers, I try to optimize publication quality, speed, and impact, as well as consider what is most fair to the most number of co-authors, particularly students, postdocs, and/or tenure-track colleagues. This not always a straightforward decision, of course, and sometimes I wonder if I would do just as well by consulting a Magic 8-Ball for advice.

Or maybe I should go back for yet more training in Responsible Research Conduct. Surely somewhere in all those case studies and PowerPoint presentations, there is a nifty formula for sorting all of this out easily. {note use of delusional font}

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Playing the Game (1)

This spring, I have to refresh my ethics training, a ritual that is annoying mostly because the university makes it so extremely difficult for faculty and postdocs not involved in the biomedical sciences to find relevant ethics training opportunities. I am really not that interested in spending 2 days learning about research with human subjects, as my research involves no human subjects (other than grad students..).

And now all our graduate and undergraduate students who receive a salary or stipend from NSF must be trained in ethics.

Ethics training is important, but it is boring: don't plagiarize, don't fabricate data, don't falsify data. And the case studies are bizarre.

So let's forget about whether the postdoc should hide the data outliers that may or may not be due to a power fluctuation during extremely expensive analyses at a national lab even though the grad student involved in the research thinks that they should at least inform their PI, and consider some more interesting situations. For example, following on yesterday's citation theme:

Has your awareness of the importance of citation data affected your decisions about publishing?

That is, would you have made a different decision about anything related to publications (authorship, type/number/format of publications etc.) if your citation metrics were not being constantly tabulated for all the world to see?

When answering the first-order question, consider only whether you have ever considered the impact of a publication decision on your citation indices. Such considerations are not a priori unethical; it is possible that such considerations will result in your making a completely ethical and smart decision that helps your career. An example of that might be to send a manuscript to a journal that is indexed instead of to an edited volume being published as a not-indexed book. You do not change anything about the authorship or content of the paper; just the publication venue.

But now consider whether you have ever made a citation-fueled publication decision that might not have been entirely ethical but that could possibly be justified because "That's how the game is played." (others are doing it; if you don't play the game, you lose; etc.).

I don't think I've made any unethical decisions about research publications, but I definitely had citations in mind a couple of years ago when I decided to revise a much-cited technical document that was originally authored by someone else (now long retired) and that was in great need of an update. In that case, though, I wasn't thinking so much of my own citation index, but was instead intrigued by the idea of transferring citations from Journal 1 to Journal 2, in part because I am involved in the editing of Journal 2 and therefore have an interest in promoting the success of Journal 2. I hasten to add that I am paid nothing for my editorial work for Journal 2, so financial considerations were not involved. There were in fact valid scientific reasons for publishing the update in Journal 2, in addition to my personal affection for Journal 2. In the end, though, I published the update in Journal 1, but I admit that my original intentions were rather craven and driven in part by thoughts of citations.

That's the worst example I can think of for myself, but perhaps that is because I am a tenured mid-career professor. If I were on the tenure-track today, I am sure it would be difficult not to consider citation index issues when making publication decisions, although if it makes any of my early-career readers feel any better, I happen to know that at least some promotion & tenure committees at research universities are specifically instructed not to consider the h-index or other citation statistics when reviewing files for tenure and promotion.

to be continued..