Thursday, April 08, 2010

Response to comments on last post

Kea -

I hoped this problem of "who really did what" would be solved by some journals' new policies offering some kind of statement of "author contributions", but it turns out that most of them don't allow for realistic categories.

For example, my advisor insisted on being listed as having helped in all areas, despite having actually FOUGHT ME EVERY STEP OF THE WAY and really only contributed to one aspect (editing the manuscript). But the reading audience won't know that. That includes the funding committees who award grants to my advisor based on my ideas and my persistence in making sure it got published.

Anon -

Personally, I think that kind of behavior would have to be really extreme before it would hurt you. Presumably you were being asked about this DURING INTERVIEWS? (in other words - CRY ME A RIVER?!)

We're all penalized by our advisor's bad publishing habits.

That was exactly my point.

SamanthaScientist -

This is the biggest trap with holding out for "kitchen sink" publications. MOST science has ambiguities that seem to occur in waves. The trick is publishing at the peak of the curve before you fall down into another confusion well, and the you climb back out and publish another paper with the next piece of the puzzle. There's a rhythm to it, if you know what you're doing and you can figure out how to break off story-sized pieces. That's how we make progress. The problem I see all the time is that you really need both sides: the person on the ground has one perspective on where the project is, and in the ideal situation, the person in the office (the PI) has a bird's-eye view of where the project begins and ends.

In practice, though, there are two major problems that I can see.

1. Conflict of interest

You want to publish and GTFO.
Your PI wants high-impact papers.

2. Poor Vision and Distrust

You don't have (much) experience with publishing, so you lack the vision and confidence to know how that's going to go. On the other hand, you probably read a lot, so you have some ideas about formats and journals based on what you've seen other people doing in your field. Still, you're supposed to trust your PI - even when your PI lets you down.

Your PI, on the other hand, probably can't stay on top of all the literature anymore, and probably doesn't even try. However, your PI also doesn't really feel comfortable trusting your opinion, either. After all, you are a junior trainee and WTF could you possibly know. Nothing, right?

This tends to lead to delays and, in the worst cases, stalemates that result in zero publications.

Meanwhile, you're waiting or trying to prove your point so you do more experiments. Or your PI doesn't trust you so you're told to do more experiments, presumably with the hope of clarifying some things (but as we all know, more experiments does not always mean immediate clarity!).

This just ends up muddying the waters.

Personally, what I've learned to do is go a little farther than I think I need to, and test the waters. If it's muddier down there, I pull my toe out and publish, knowing I will come back and wade through the mud later when I have my hip-boots on.

If it's getting clearer and I can see lots of pretty fishies, I keep going and catch as many fish as I think I can fit in the paper. (assuming I have the resources I need, etc. which I don't anyway but that's a different rant!)

There are all kinds of tricks to writing good manuscripts, too, and I can't say I've learned how to do this. But the most successful scientists seem to know how to lead their reviewers in the direction of the pretty fishies so that the reviewers will say, "Hey! Fishies!" which is exactly what you want them to do.

Those of us who are less adept at leading the reviewer (and our advisors) tend to try to point at the fishies and end up with reviewers and advisors who love pointing at the muddy snake-pit and saying:

"Why don't you take off all your clothes and flail around in there for a while?"

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At 12:40 PM, Blogger SamanthaScientist said...

Freaking awesome post. Thanks for the response. I wrote a longer comment earlier but it wouldn't go through and I don't have the energy to rehash it. Anyway, thanks, and your ideas about oscillating research clarity and the pretty fishies resonate with me. If you have tricks for pointing your work towards the little fishies, I'd love to hear them.

At 2:43 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Glad you liked it! =D

I will think about how to write more on the subject, but in the meantime you might want to check out this old post and this old post.


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