Sunday, July 12, 2009

Survivor's Guilt

Sibling likes to use analogies. "Let's say we're comparing french fries and Chinese food," she said at one point during a meeting and it took every ounce of self control not to roll my eyes.

"Why," I thought with a long-suffering sigh, "can't we talk about what we're talking about rather than stepping back and using these elaborate examples that don't really make sense?!" Then I realized that it's exactly what I did and I spared a quick smile of ridiculous affection for myself. I am a silly goose. And being so sometimes allows me more patience and understanding than I might have otherwise had.

There was, for those of you who've not been with us for very long, the elaborate 'penguin' series. I can't immediately think of other examples, but I was quite fond of telling stories around stories. In very long posts. And I enjoyed writing them very, very much.

I remembered the penguins because I was searching my archives today to remember how to write a paper. I had frowned upon receiving the request. It's not a deliverable for me anymore - I don't feel flattered to have been asked or that it remains important to contribute to the publishing community.

Yet I did know this topic and reading through the abstract made me believe the paper was awful enough that it'd be easy to review. So I clicked the 'yes, fine - I'll do it' link and began reading the paper.

"That doesn't make sense," I muttered, supine on my bed and curled amidst pillows. "Wait," I said a moment later. "Why do I care about this?" Paging the screen of my laptop back, I re-read the abstract and introduction and couldn't find any mention of significance. "So we just do crap because we can? And then publish because it's fun?"

As I was typing comments, I noted that I didn't see the significance of the work. I suggested they follow the advice set out in my post in order to focus an overly-long introduction. I noted some confounds and expressed my concern that their data weren't wrong enough to support the sweeping conclusions. And I suggested they take a step back, think about what they were doing and try again.

I reviewed my comments, making sure I noted the strong points that I looked hard to find, and submitted what I'd written. It was fair, I told myself, and might enable him to write a paper worth reading.

I was then struck by a miserable sense of guilt. I recalled being held hostage against publication demands and the horror of getting a paper rejected under those circumstances. I also remembered the frustration of working through revisions that would have been unnecessary had people just read what I wrote.

It sometimes pains me to admit the process worked. Rejection and the overcoming thereof built confidence. Revising papers I thought were fine as is made me a better writer - focused on holding people's attention and being completely clear about the message I hoped to convey.

I spared a moment to say a quick prayer for the author of the paper I reviewed. I hope he finds happiness in his academic career and develops stronger writing skills. Godspeed, grad student. May you eventually review papers with kindness and encouragement in memory of how I recommended major revisions of your paper.

1 comment:

Psych Post Doc said...

I never experience guilt over giving a bad review because I do exactly what you did, take great pains to find the strengths first.

I always begin my reviews with the parts of the paper I liked even if it took me a few readings to find one.

I too am relieved that my life doesn't revolve around publishing any longer, however I miss the actual writing process.

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