Thursday, March 10, 2011

Written Off

In an attempt to get as much work done as possible before the inevitable decline in cognitive abilities due to infant-induced insomnia, I am now working maniacally to finish multiple white papers, start drafting grants for the May through Sept deadlines, and prepare all nearly-ready journal manuscripts for submission.

The latter activity has of late been the bane of my existence.

1) When I spend many, many hours editing your excruciatingly comprehensive paper in equally excruciating detail, and you give me the next version in which large chunks of text have been untouched so I have to fuckin' do it all over again, I will bite your head off. Do not bat your eyelashes in dismay at my wrath: ENTER THE GODDAMN CHANGES WHEN I REQUEST THEM.

2) If I tell you that the introduction sucks so badly that nobody can tell what the hell we did that was new or why we bothered with the work to begin with or where our work falls in the grand scheme of things, that means you HAVE TO COMPLETELY REDO IT.
When all I write in big, screaming letters is REVISE THOROUGHLY, and then talk to you to give you pointers along which it needs to be revised, that does NOT mean that the writeup is perfect. In fact, it means that it stinks so bad that the only way to save humanity from such a pathetic attempt at scientific writing is to burn it, and no amount of ink would have been enough to specifically mark all that is wrong with it. REVISE COMPLETELY.

3) Have mercy towards the reader. Do not bestow on him/her artificial, painfully cumbersome compound adjectives that no one in their right mind would use in speech. When techniques Awesome, Breathtaking, and Crucial are combined into an über-technique for a measurement, please, please don't say "Awesome-Breathtaking-Crucial-measured quantity". Saying "quantity measured by the combined Awesome-Breathtaking-Crucial (A-B-C) technique" is fine.

4) Do not keep your paper at arm's length, like it's a poisonous reptile that will hurt you if you get too close. Don't write in a detached, (cumbersome adjective alert!) passive-voice-heavy style. If you hate your paper, it will hate you back, and the reviewers will hate both of you even more. Clear, fluid, and engaging writing is absolutely critical. I cannot emphasize enough how strongly the good quality of writing correlates with short review times and overall better review outcomes.

5) Just because you found a specific analytical derivation or a computational intricacy or an experimental protocol particularly daunting and were proud of yourself for surmounting this obstacle, that does not necessarily qualify said obstacle for a central position in your paper. The paper must present a story with the technical details necessary to describe the work and support your message without obscuring it. For the 20 pages of details that are only likely to be read by a poor grad student soul entrusted with reproducing your data, there are appendices and online supplementary documents.

6) Don't be lazy with references. One of the most common complaints I have regarding the writing of my students, even those who write compelling technical prose, is underciting. I am looking at a manuscript written by a recent PhD grad of mine, who is sticking around for a short-term postdoc while interviewing for jobs: there is a large amount of text in the introduction, ironed out through multiple conference abstracts and his own PhD dissertation writing process; in the text, there are statements we know to be true, but they are not trivially obvious and should therefore be accompanied by appropriate references. He did not cite anyone.

7) Random pet peeves: I hate "impact" used as a verb. Not sure why, I just do. I hate reading about stuff being "negatively impacted" by the leprechaun turd production. I have a collaborator who savors it (in contrast to "to influence" or "to affect," for instance) and it's driving me crazy. Then again, I also used to feel passionately against "thus," but have since developed a tolerance to it. And I hate it when people take liberties with abbreviating journal titles as they see fit (and not as they are standardly abbreviated). I am religious about the serial comma.

I invite you to share your own technical writing pet peeves.

23 comments:

Andrew said...

" Do not bestow on him/her artificial, painfully cumbersome compound adjectives that no one in their right mind would use in speech. "

Is the writer perhaps German?
http://www.crossmyt.com/hc/linghebr/awfgrmlg.html
For example:
"But when he, upon the street, the (in-satin-and-silk-covered-now-very-unconstrained-after-the-newest-fashioned-dressed) government counselor's wife met,..." [Wenn er aber auf der Strasse der in Sammt und Seide gehüllten jetzt sehr ungenirt nach der neusten Mode gekleideten Regierungsräthin begegnet,...]

Gears said...

I love how, for 1 and 2, your students seem to think those changes are "optional". One of the first students I mentored didn't make the changes I asked. He thought they were "optional". I quietly reminded him that we weren't submitting the work until I was satisfied and he's only prolonging the inevitable.

He quickly complied.

I've been bitching lately on my blog about writing papers in Word. It's the first time in 3 years that I've needed to do that and I want to cry. That's my pet peeve.

Anonymous said...

Ah, the joys. I'm curious: do you have a couple of examples of particularly well-written papers? I'd like to see what you consider the pinnacle of scientific writing.

Massimo said...

Hey GMP, how do you like it when you get back the .tex manuscript file with the following comment line:
%STILL NEED TO WRITE THIS PART

;-)

Anonymous said...

Oh, it's not just me then....I thought maybe I was just being unreasonable to expect that my students might actually notice my edits and polish the paper. Here's another one - please take a few minutes to do spell and grammar check. Even if you are not, you should be embarrassed to give me a manuscript where commonly used words and the name of the organism we work on are misspelled in multiple places. Also, stream of consciousness is a well known style of creative writing which worked well for James Joyce. It does not work well for you. Or science.

Jen said...

Well, at least you give you students the opportunity to write their own manuscript. I prepared my write-up of my graduate work and gave it my PI. His only comment was that it was well-written but not how he'd write it. Then he proceeded to re-write the entire paper, redo all my figures and publish it (with me still as first author). I can't point to a single sentence in that paper and say that I wrote it. How the f*** am I supposed to learn how to write effective papers if the PI just does it instead? I'm learning my postdoc mentor has a similar approah to writing, but this time, I'm going to fight for the right to write my own paper.

Namnezia said...

I used to hate but now I love MS-word's "track changes" for editing things back and forth.

My pet peeve is when people think that they do not need to use complete sentences in the figure legends, and figure legend titles.

Yael said...

Pet peeve: when people present error bars but don't define n, or state if their error bars are SEM/SD, or what their P values are and threshold for 'significance'. Non-overlapping error bars sometimes have a P value >0.05.

Alex said...

Not related to research articles, but in lab reports my students LOVE to use the word "various." They also have no clue how to describe errors, procedures, and uncertainty.

"In this experiment we studied the effects of various variables on the variation of the period of oscillation of pendulums with various length strings. The effects were consistent with theory except for some error that was within the normal variation of human error."

Where to even begin with that?

Alex said...

As to research articles, I have found the following when reviewing: If the grammar is absolutely atrocious, the science is weak. I have yet to see an exception.

Yes, I realize that there are plenty of people who are good at science but horrible at English grammar. However, those who are thorough, conscientious scientists know that they have a responsibility to do their work right. So they compensate for their weakness by asking for help, just as they would seek collaborators if they lacked expertise in a particular technique. Sloppy idiots, OTOH, can't be bothered to get help doing things the right way.

I have yet to see an exception. I've reviewed good papers with some rough sentences here and there, but I've never reviewed a paper in which the science was good but every sentence needed at least one major correction.

Anonymous said...

GMP, don't you know that if the student makes said corrections, you're just going to change them back to the original form during your second edit? So why bother? She/he's just saving you the hassle, obviously.

I'm joking, of course.

My pet peeves:

-alot. Really? Still?

-units. Learn what is capitalized (Dewar) and what is not (mbar). It is not that hard. This is similar to your pet peeve about the journal abbreviations.

-plagiarism. This is a big one for me, mostly because people don't seem to know what plagiarism actually is. Also, please don't plagiarize me and expect me not to notice, it is insulting.

Anonymous said...

Impact as a verb was not in the English language, until recently. Language does evolve, but this one evolved via a particularly abhorrent bureaucrat-speak. It's the same style that adds "going forward" to the ends of sentences (admittedly one only usually hears that in spoken English, so far... but anyway it makes me want to barf).

"Thus" is overused, as is "however", and "therefore". 90% of the time removing them from the sentence does no harm and makes it read better.

Jen: I rewrite papers by my students and postdocs, when they are crappy writers and/or have major English issues. I often give them a marked-up draft first; but if it doesn't get that much better after one or two iterations, I take over. The paper needs to get published someday, and I am not sending in a piece of crap with my name on it. I don't know if your advisors have the same attitude or if your writing is bad, but that's my view. For students and postdocs who are at least half decent writers, I don't take the same approach, I just make some edits/comments and let them incorporate them - or not, even, if they don't want to and their style is at least respectable, even though different from mine. I have worked with both sorts of people (good and bad writers), in comparable proportions.

People need to learn to write to be really successful in science. But if they are really bad it is usually a result of inadequate education in writing over many years and as a PhD/postdoc advisor in science I just can't single-handedly make up for that, it takes too much time and I don't have it.

Anonymous said...

The incorrect capitalisation of mbar is quite a serious error (x10^12)

Alex said...

Wouldn't it be a 10^9 error? 1 mbar = 10^-3 bar, and 1 Mbar = 10^6 bar. Or is there an extra 10^3 thrown in just to show how serious it is?

Anonymous said...

Things that annoy me:
- no space between number and units
- misuse of \sim and \approx
- abstracts which say a bunch of wishy-washy stuff and don't summarize results
- saying "we" on a single-authored paper.

yeah i know im petty

Dr. Girlfriend said...

My pet-peeve is PI’s who write papers for postdocs and students. Sometimes it is easier that way, but it is a copout.

Unless you are a technician, a career in science involves writing – I don’t understand why some students and postdocs just don’t get this!

I have always insisted on taking the lead in my writing, but I know that had I not (or really sucked) my PI’s would have done it for me.

Anonymous said...

Hah--"impact (vt.) on" drives me absolutely nuts too.

I've been in a funk all day because I need to clean up a seriously incomprehensible and inconsistent draft of a manuscript written by another postdoc. I'm only third author, but the senior author has already "edited" the manuscript and made 5% of the changes that need to happen. Make that 1%. I have a really hard time concentrating on the science when I'm conscious of the writing. Maybe I wouldn't be conscious of the writing if I weren't doing some academic editing for spare change on the side... or maybe I wouldn't be so conscious of the writing if the science weren't slightly "hard" for me sometimes. In any event, I hate it when writing slows me down.

Editing feels like doing the dishes. I could be assembling a table for one of my own manuscripts today, but instead I have to clean up this other paper that I wouldn't otherwise want my name on. I'm beginning to wonder if the senior author deliberately left me with this task.

Here are my pet peeves:
- Liberal use of "as well"
- Unclear pronoun references and the use of "this" and "these" as pronouns
- Inconsistent numbering and comma usage
- Inconsistent terminology. Some variables in the paper I'm editing have three different names and two acronyms.
- Laundry lists of studies ("Alice et al. (2001) showed X, Bob et al. (2002) showed Y,... More recently, Zigfried et al....") instead of a synthesis of ideas.
- Incomplete descriptions of methods and analysis. When I was a grad student, I used to think that spelling things out too clearly insulted readers who of course knew what was going on, but I realize now that generous clarity and exposition are how papers get widely read, understood, and cited.

gerty-z said...

One of my pet peeves: "interestingly, ..."

This is generally followed by something that is NOT actually interesting, IMO. Because when something is interesting, you don't have to point it out like that.

Anonymous said...

I was actually referring to the use of mBar instead of mbar. I have no idea where that comes from, but it is a common mistake, and it drives me insane.

If someone I knew tried to use Mbar in place of mbar, I'd probably not-so-politely ask them to never talk to me again. :)

Anonymous said...

Pet-peeve: when a professor (who is a non-native English speaker) attempts to correct my English.

News flash to the professor: you may have a PhD and know more about science, but your English is not your forte.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous, as a non-native speaker, I find it embarrassing for everyone that I am often the one cringing at the grammar and spelling of native speakers. But by and large, the feedback that I give on writing to students goes much much deeper than English.

Also, non-native speakers know their English is not perfect. It's hardly a newsflash!

Bottom line is, there are plenty of native English speakers who write horribly and non-natives who write well. Either way, your professor has more experience in scientific writing than you. They also most likely intend to give feedback that goes deeper than correcting English. I would advise you to try to learn from your profs rather than getting peeved.

Anonymous said...

I know a lot of native English speakers who are terrible English writers. Speaking and writing are two very different skills. Speaking is something everyone does naturally, writing is something that you have to be trained how to do, and how to do well.

It is in fact very likely that a PhD non-native speaker of English has more training in scientific writing than a non-PhD native speaker of English.

That doesn't excuse making "corrections" that are wrong, of course. I once got back a review asking for small grammar/style changes that were utterly bizarre, in some cases resulting in a sentence that wouldn't make any sense.

Mike the Mad Biologist said...

Random pet peeves: I hate "impact" used as a verb. Not sure why, I just do. I hate reading about stuff being "negatively impacted" by the leprechaun turd production. I have a collaborator who savors it (in contrast to "to influence" or "to affect," for instance) and it's driving me crazy.

I'll just second that. Because it's not impacting, unless one is referring to deceleration caused by physical contact.

HATE IT.

While it's not a written phrase (hopefully), "moving forward" also bugs me.