Sunday, February 23, 2014

Help, My Department Requires Graduate Students to Publish a Peer-Reviewed Paper!

A colleague recently mentioned that her department is considering whether to require graduate students to have at least one paper from their dissertation or thesis research published in a peer-reviewed journal in order to receive their degree.

This is not a new idea. Such a requirement has been implemented or is being considered in a number of graduate programs in the US and elsewhere. In some cases, the requirement is different depending on the degree. Here are a couple of examples found on university websites:

"Graduates from the M.S. and Ph.D. programs are required to publish in the archival literature of their research fields. The requirement is as follows:
  • Graduation with the M.S. degree requires 1 publication in submission to a journal or conference by the time of the thesis defense.
  • Graduation with the Ph.D. degree requires 1 accepted journal publication and 1 submitted journal publication (or a 2nd paper) by the time of the dissertation defense."
"The process of bearing first author responsibility during the entire publication process from submission, through reviews and resubmission, and on to final acceptance, provides unique and valuable professional training.
To ensure that all …..students have this experience, as a requirement for graduation, each ….student must have at least one first author, peer reviewed journal article published, in press, or accepted."

As you might imagine, there is quite a bit of disagreement and debate underway about such publication requirements. One of the strongest arguments against the publication requirement is that the student has no control over the publication process and is therefore unfair. On the other side of the debate is the argument that navigating the peer-review process is a fair test of an essential skill (ability to publish in scholarly journals) and, moreover, will ensure the student graduates with at least one peer-reviewed publication. Here is a blog post that summarizes views on both sides of the debate, mostly from the student's perspective.

My view is that this is not an outrageous requirement and something any graduate student should be capable of achieving. It just requires some additional planning and preparation. I base my opinion partly on my own experience as a student. When I submitted my dissertation, one of the chapters had already been published in a peer-reviewed journal and four more were almost ready to submit (and were in better shape than most manuscripts I review today); these were submitted for publication soon after I graduated. I was also co-author on several other papers that were published or submitted during this period (I was working on several additional projects not related to my dissertation).

Was it difficult to get one paper published before graduation? No. I began writing that paper as soon as I had the data in hand; it was based on a preliminary set of experiments and an exploratory field survey that turned out sufficiently well to warrant publication on its own. My plan was to have it accepted by the time I defended. My thinking at the time was that my committee would have a difficult time failing me if I had a publication in hand—in the event I performed poorly during my defense. I also figured I would have an easier time defending my work if it had already passed peer review at a good journal (it worked; I had no questions about that chapter). I gave myself enough lead time to resubmit in case the first journal rejected the paper or required substantial revisions or additional analyses. As it turned out, that paper was accepted with minor revision on the first go-around.

Would I have done anything differently had there been a publication requirement? Possibly. I might have readied a second paper for publication to increase my chances of getting at least one accepted before graduation. I would have designed several short-term experiments that could be written up before my long-term experiments were done. I also would have started writing much earlier than I did. If I were to do it again, I would begin writing as soon as I started each experiment--sketching out the introduction and writing at least the methods and then results as they came in. No one ever advised me to do this, but I wish they had.

Do I think a publication requirement is unfair to students because they have no control over the review and publishing process? Not really. I don't agree that a student (or any author, for that matter) has no control over whether their paper gets published. While it's true an author has no control over who reviews their paper, they have quite a lot of control over how their paper fairs in the review process (see list below).

What if your department has a publication requirement? Here are ten ways that a student author can exert some control over the process and increase the chances of getting a paper published by a deadline:

1. Get Your Ducks in a Row. Plan ahead to ensure plenty of time to deal with co-author foot dragging, toxic reviewers, extensive revisions, or requirements for additional analyses. Set specific deadlines to have a first draft done, a submission date, etc. Based on those dates, plan the details of your writing project. Go over this plan with your advisor and any other authors and make sure the timing works with their schedules.

2. Get a Statistical Review. Get input or advice from a statistician to ensure that the experimental design and statistical analyses are solid and that the statistical methods are written properly. If there are reviewer criticisms related to the statistics, this same person can to help counter those criticisms, if unfounded, or help you redo the analyses, if needed.

3. Get Peer Reviews. Prior to journal submission, have your manuscript read by committee members or anyone who has a lot of publishing experience to identify potential flaws in logic or writing. Follow their advice, unless there is a good reason not to. Pay particular attention to any problem mentioned by more than one person.

4. Get an Editorial Review. Consider hiring a professional editor (or ask your advisor to) to go over your manuscript, especially if you are a non-native speaker.

5. Select the Right Journal. Carefully select an appropriate journal for your work or get advice from the committee or other professors if you are not sure. Do your homework; don't just select a journal at random or because your advisor publishes there. Match the quality/novelty of your paper with the journal and its acceptance rate. Scrutinize recent papers in your target journal and try to match their writing style, length, and organization. Avoid journals with long or inconsistent review times.

6. Follow Author Instructions. Follow the journal formatting and submission instructions to the letter. This includes not only the narrative structure and bibliography, but also figures and tables. Some journals will automatically reject a paper that does not conform.

7. Write a Good Cover Letter. Submit a carefully written cover letter explaining why your work is important and why it's appropriate for that journal (don't, however, rehash all your paper's findings).

8. Suggest Reviewers. Provide a list of appropriate reviewers and any people with a conflict of interest (ask your advisor for suggestions if you are unsure).

9. Be Proactive But Professional. Contact the journal if you do not hear anything in a reasonable period of time and ask when you can expect a decision. If the paper is accepted with revision (minor or major), don't delay. Quickly make those revisions and provide a point-by-point reconciliation for the editor to show that you've made the suggested changes; if you disagree with something, explain fully why you think the change is not needed. Be professional in your response and thank the reviewers for their input, especially if the final acceptance hinges on a second round of reviews.

10. Have a Backup Plan. Be prepared for rejection and don't panic if it happens. Have a second journal pre-selected in case the first one rejects your paper and quickly turn it around (don't waste time fuming or whining to your office mates). Take the first reviewers' comments into account when revising for resubmission or you may see those criticisms again. If possible, have a second paper in the works to double your chances of publishing by your deadline.

These suggestions won't guarantee your paper gets accepted by your defense deadline but will help you stay on track and avoid some of the reasons papers get rejected.

Friday, January 10, 2014

A Slight Case of Sexual Harassment

What would you do if someone made an inappropriate remark (of a sexual nature) to you—for example, during a professional meet-up to discuss something that might help advance your career? What if that someone is a very influential person in your field? What if they persist even after you express dismay and discomfort with their behavior?

This is what one woman did: She posted a description of the incident online and asked others who may have experienced something similar to contact her.

That description is not one of my hypothetical situations but a real one involving a well-known science blogger, Bora Zivkovic (A Blog Around The Clock), who resigned as blog editor for Scientific American after being accused of and admitting to sexual harassment. This event stirred up a firestorm in the blogosphere back in October (I started this post then, but got sidetracked). Anyway, in case you missed it, here's a recap: Zivkovic's victim (Monica Byrne) described what happened in a detailed blog post here (9 October 2012); initially, she did not identify her harasser by name but only that he was a "prominent science editor and blogger". Her post has since been amended to name him. Another female victim, upon hearing about the reaction of disbelief and anger from some bloggers about the incident, posted her own story about an encounter with Zivkovic. Then yet another woman detailed her interactions with Zivkovic extending over several years in a blog post, along with a series of emails (they do come back to haunt you) she received from him. Others chimed in on various blogs with reactions to both the revelation of the harassment itself as well as to how it was revealed. A more recent description by another victim, Kathleen Raven, was published in December by Nature (World View).

I first read about this event in an editorial in Nature News and Comment (22 October 2013). The gist of the editorial was that "we have not adequately addressed the problem of harassment, perhaps because it is difficult to quantify". The editorial describes such harassers in the scientific community as "Dr Inappropriate", someone who makes inappropriate sexual remarks or has wandering hands. Many of us (in science) have either observed Dr Inappropriate in action or been his victim. It may be the professor who has a reputation of making comments of a sexual nature to female students or colleagues. Or it may be a lab director who gives new meaning to the phrase "a hands-on kind of supervisor".

Those who have never been on the receiving end of sexual (or other) harassment sometimes have difficulty understanding what all the fuss is about ("The guy's a loser; just ignore him"; "He's just teasing; don't get your shorts in a twist."). If you read the encounters in the links given above, you saw that some of these incidents were subtle and downright difficult to describe in concrete terms. So it's not surprising that the reaction might be to think that the victim is being overly sensitive. The picture gets even murkier when the harasser is generally well-liked and has a lot of good qualities (as was apparently the case with Zivkovic).

What bystanders often fail to grasp, however, is the power dynamic that is at play here. If someone who has no power over you or your career makes an inappropriate remark to you, it is easy to ignore them or to challenge their behavior. This is how most people view such situations—from their bystander viewpoint, not the victim's. However, if the harasser is your superior or otherwise has the power to help or hinder your career, then you quickly find yourself between a rock and a hard place. Speaking up, even only to express discomfort with a superior's behavior, can have serious professional repercussions. If you are just starting out, the wrong move can end your career before it even gets off the ground.

The women mentioned above were vulnerable because their harasser was someone with the power to help them in their careers. Otherwise, they might never have agreed to meet him/interact with him. In hind-sight, they probably realized that they should have left/broken off the relationship as soon as things began getting weird. They did not, however, probably because of a combination of things in addition to wanting his support:  they likely did not want to be rude, hoped that the encounter would get back on a professional track, wondered if they were imagining things, etc. Some women in particular are vulnerable in such situations because they don't want to offend anyone, even someone who has put them into an uncomfortable position. Young people who are taught to respect their superiors are also reluctant to call out someone like this. Harassers (like con artists) rely on other people's reluctance to offend (and on bystanders' reluctance to intervene).

When I was in my twenties, I encountered sexual harassment much worse than what Zivkovic did, but I was afraid to confront my harasser or report it. That changed after I became more experienced and more confident that I would be taken seriously. If someone made me feel uncomfortable, and I could not redirect the conversation/encounter, I would just leave. I didn't make excuses; I just got out. If I could not avoid the person, I took steps to document their actions.

Sometimes, all it takes to stop all but the most determined harasser is to let them know that you've initiated documentation of their behavior. I've short-circuited harassment simply by sending an email saying something along the lines of, "I was very uncomfortable with our conversation this morning and the comments 'x, y, and z' you made during our meeting [date/time] or "I would like to summarize my reaction to our conversation on [date/time]....If I've misunderstood, then please explain what you meant by x, y, and z." Often, such an email will prompt an immediate apology or an attempt to explain what they "really meant".

Even if the harasser ignores such an email and does not respond in writing, the email will create a dated record, which establishes (1) a timeline, (2) what happened or was said (from the victim's viewpoint), (3) that the behavior was unwelcome, and (4) that it is negatively impacting the work environment. Establishing that the behavior is unwelcome is a critical element in making a case for sexual harassment, should that be necessary. Note: it's important to forward such email documentation to yourself at a private email address or print out copies to keep on file at home, not in your office. Such documents can be critical in any subsequent adverse actions or litigation.

Back to the Zivkovic scandal. I think everyone can learn something from this unfortunate event. It seems that these women and perhaps a lot of young women like them (and men) are not certain what constitutes sexual harassment. By not being aware of what harassment looks like (or thinking that it no longer occurs), makes people vulnerable to sexual predators. For women in science, an early negative experience or repeated experiences can lead to their departure for another line of work.

Those clueless people who engage in such unwelcome behavior risk their jobs and careers—possibly their families. Maybe they'll get away with it for a while or maybe they'll end up like Zivkovic. Employers who fail to deal with harassers risk lawsuits, loss of good employees, tarnished reputations— and so on.

I'm not sure what can be done to make things change, but being aware of the problem is a start.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

It Is Important To Note That…And Other Unnecessary Phrases

I recently received a manuscript that was overly wordy. Throughout the paper, the author had sprinkled completely unnecessary phrases or phrases that could be expressed with a single word. For example, here is a list of phrases that can be replaced with the word "because":

-due to the fact that
-owing to the fact that
-in view of the fact that
-the reason why is that

This particular manuscript was unusually encumbered with these and other annoying phrases (it is important to note that, it is of interest to the reader that, it is indeed of significance that). I pointed out a few of these overblown phrases and explained why the author might want to eliminate them (and perhaps be on the alert for them in future writings). Inexperienced writers often are unaware that wordiness is not a virtue. They repeat the important-sounding phrases they've read in other papers. Unfortunately, they add nothing to the paper, except length. In other cases, I suspect that it is simple laziness. Lazy writers know better but don't make the effort to search out and remove extraneous words—perhaps expecting others (co-authors, reviewers, editors) to do it for them. For some, flowery writing is a habit; they see nothing wrong with their pet phrases.

Sometimes I slip and use a wordy phrase when writing a first draft; however, I usually catch them during revision. Here are a few ways to help purge your writing of wordiness:

1. Make at least one thorough reading of a manuscript to look specifically for such phrases (as well as convoluted wording that could be stated more simply).

2. Some of these phrases are innocuous and easily overlooked. It takes a fresh eye to spot them. Putting the draft aside for a few days or weeks can give you some distance and make it easier to root out those obnoxious phrases.

3. If you have a habit of using certain phrases, one easy solution is to do a word search for them.

4. Read your manuscript aloud; problematic phrases and awkward sentences become more obvious.

5. How do you determine if a phrase is unnecessary? See if the sentence or paragraph is understandable without it (or with a one-word substitute).

Want more? Here's a list of 30 obnoxious phrases.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Bizarre, Sexist Advert for Scientific Equipment

In the "what were they thinking?" category:
Be sure to watch until 1:13 min.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Where's The Best Place To Be A Woman?

The Global Gender Gap Report (2013) is out if you want to check. Or there is a nice interactive graphic on the BBC World News site that summarizes the gender gap in five categories (health, economics, politics, education, and overall). You can scroll over countries to see the names and individual ranking.

The gender gap (overall average) is narrowest in the following ranked countries:

1. Iceland
2. Finland
3. Norway
4. Sweden
5. Philippines
6. Ireland
7. New Zealand
8. Denmark
9. Switzerland
10. Nicaragua

The UK, Canada, and the U.S. ranked 18th, 20th, and 23rd, respectively. Nordic countries made a near clean sweep of the top five. However, I don't think I'll be moving; just can't take the light deficit and cold.

Thanks to Chris S. for the link.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Dashed and Confused

Confused about how to use hyphens, dashes (en, em), and minus signs?

I receive lots of manuscripts to review and often see that the author has no clue about when to use a hyphen or a dash (or even that there is a difference). In a few cases, they may realize that the hyphen (-) is too short to use in a place where the en (–) or em (—) dash is required and attempt to recreate it by using two hyphens (--).

There are lots of arcane rules for using these symbols in particular situations, but here's a brief overview that generally holds for most uses.

Hyphen (-): use to join words (e.g., in a compound modifier), with certain prefixes, or to separate syllables of a word (e.g, in a line break). Sea-level rise, how-to book, un-American, science com-
munication. Note that compound phrases require a hyphen only when they precede the noun they modify—not when they follow: "The well-known researcher..." vs. "The researcher is well known."

The hyphen key is located on the keyboard between the 0 and = keys.

Minus sign (−): use to indicate a mathematical operation (subtraction). The minus symbol is longer than a hyphen and similar in length and height to the plus and equals sign symbols.

In word processing programs, you can find the minus sign in the symbol browser.

En dash (–): use to indicate a range of values or in certain word combinations. 5–10 meters, pp. 51–65, Houston–Dallas route, Comet Hale–Bopp.

The en dash is created on a Mac by holding down the option key and pressing the hyphen key. On a PC, you can can create it by holding down the ALT key and typing 0150 on the numeric keyboard. Also found in the symbol library in MS Word.

Em dash (—): use to set off or emphasize a strong break in thought in a sentence. "We all piled into the car—not stopping to worry about our wet clothes—and drove straight back to the city." It's also acceptable to use the en dash in this case, but with spaces: "We all piled into the car – not stopping to worry about our wet clothes – and drove straight back to the city."

The em dash is created on a Mac using shift-option while pressing the hyphen key. On a PC, you can get it by holding down ALT and typing 0151 on a numeric keypad. You can also find it in the symbol library.

For more detailed guidance in the use of dashes and hyphens (and other interesting writing tips), see this post at The Belligerent Copywriters' Guide.

Monday, September 23, 2013

How To Write A Boring Scientific Paper

Someone sent me a link recently to a 2007 paper entitled, "How to Write Consistently Boring Literature", by Kaj Sand-Jensen (Univ. of Copenhagen). I met the author many years ago and can quite imagine him writing such a tongue-in-cheek article.

The first line of the abstract reveals his motivation for writing it: "Although scientists typically insist that their research is very exciting and adventurous when they talk to laymen and prospective students, the allure of this enthusiasm is too often lost in the predictable, stilted structure and language of their scientific publications."

The paper is divided into four sections:

How to turn a gifted writer into a boring scientist
Why are scientific publications boring?
Ten recommendations for boring scientific writing
Alternative writing style and variable outlets

The first two sections are quite short and serve to introduce the main content in the third section. Here are the ten recommendations guaranteed to make your writing dull, incomprehensible, and impersonal:

1. Avoid focus.
2. Avoid originality and personality.
3. Write l  o  n  g contributions.
4. Remove most implications and all speculations.
5. Leave out illustrations, particularly good ones.
6. Omit necessary steps of reasoning.
7. Use many abbreviations and technical terms.
8. Suppress humor and flowery language.
9. Degrade species and biology to statistical elements.
10. Quote numerous papers for self-evident statements.

I find most of these suggestions to be quite useful if your goal is to write a boring paper. Not so sure about the "flowery language". I find that boring writers are adept at producing ornate and excessively verbose narratives. Perhaps what is meant is "colorful", "entertaining", or "provocative"?

There are some additional recommendations I might add:

11. Include all data collected, no matter how irrelevant, and describe it in excruciating detail.
12. At the beginning, fail to articulate your questions, objectives, or hypotheses.
13. At the end, fail to address the questions, objectives, or hypotheses posed at the beginning.

The latter two are essential if your goal is to be incomprehensible.

In the final section, the author suggests some alternative outlets for scientists who wish to have more freedom in their writing styles: books and essays. To those suggestions, I might add: blogs.

Although the article is humorous, it has a serious message, articulated in the last line: "In an atmosphere of increasing competition among educations and scientific disciplines, I argue here that we desperately need more accessible and readable scientific contributions to attract bright new scientists and produce integrated understanding."

If you would like a good laugh (and also learn something about how to avoid being so boring in your scientific writing), you might take a look at this paper. Here's a link to it.

In the next post, I will talk about a new app and book (by Randy Olson) for communication-challenged scientists.

Image Credit: photograph by DrDoyenne; quote from the paper reviewed in this post.