The school of hard knocks

April 6, 2012

One of several tensions between trainees and PI should rightfully be over the “way things should be” and “the way things really work” in science.

The mentor, usually, plays the role of the cynic when it comes to getting papers accepted and grants funded. The trainee, usually, plays this role when it comes to collecting data.

Papers are an interesting situation. Excessive amounts of “this is the voice of experience talking” can lead to a defensive crouch. Conservatism. Never drawing bold conclusions or asserting strong implications.

OTOH, experience is good for something. Knowing what triggers reviewer ire can be the difference between the paper getting accepted instead of being rejected. Naturally, you as PI know it will get in somewhere eventually but trainees have timeline issues that even they might not fully realize.

How inclined are you, Dear PI Reader, to let the trainee submit the paper the way they like it when your bet is that a particular thing will make the reviewers crawl all over you?

Do you let them learn the lesson the hard way?

No Responses Yet to “The school of hard knocks”

  1. DrLizzyMoore Says:

    The answer might be stage-specific. As a n00b, I can’t really afford to leave it up to the ‘littles’ about the content of said paper–even though these are invaluable lessons. We need papers out, like, yesterday. Now the trainee can help write it…..

    If we had a great publishing record, and this trainee (thinking grad student here, not post-doc) was trying to get out ‘one last paper’, then I’d likely let them put it out ‘their way’…….


  2. proflikesubstance Says:

    Yeah, I agree with DrLizzy. I don’t have the time to play trial and error with papers. Maybe in a few years…


  3. While these kinds of decision are made collaboratively in my lab, at the end of the process, if there is a difference of opinion between authors, the final decision is mine. That is what it means to be the senior author.


  4. drugmonkey Says:

    The question, PP, is whether you would ever let them do it their way to let them learn the lesson directly. Experience is always more valuable than “because I said so”, no?


  5. No, I would not “let them do it their way” solely for the purpose of “let[ting] them learn the lesson directly”.


  6. Busy Says:

    Experience is always more valuable than “because I said so”, no?

    Yes, but in this case the cost is too high and the probability of them learning is too low. They could easily ascribe the paper rejection to politics or any of the other issues likely raised by the reviewers.


  7. postdoctoral type Says:

    Interesting. I’m definitely more cynical than my PI in most areas. PI said, Let’s submit the manuscript to Big Name Journal, and I said, Seriously? It’s probably just going to delay things. (All my work seems pretty obvious to me.) And she said No, really. Big Name! So I wrote things up with what I thought was an overwrought spin, and then PI wanted to get feedback from all her friends in her field. I wouldn’t have done that, but it helped. I come from a slightly different field, so we both took turns saying, No, we can’t write that, because everyone in my field will think it’s obvious–but they will get excited by this other thing.

    With the most recent manuscript, the PI wanted to submit to Medium Name Journal, and I said, It’s really not a big enough result. We submitted there anyway. The journal agreed with me.

    As a postdoc who has not received anywhere close to the amount of funding or manuscript acceptances as my PI, I view her opinions as extremely informative and important. The only times I will oppose them are when it’s clear she’s missing some critical information (e.g., about what has already been published or old results).


  8. postdoctoral type Says:

    I also want to agree with your point about trainees’ timeline issues. I missed most of the hiring season due to PI-imposed delays and seemingly endless refinement of a manuscript (which held up another manuscript). I’ll never know if those tweaks made all the difference, but I missed some dream job openings that have since been filled. I know PI doesn’t realize the time pressure I’m under from personal/relationship factors.


  9. Susan Says:

    This time last year I was caught in an endless cycle of refinement with a paper, with the application cycle looming large ahead too. I had a private mini life-crisis over it and got very very pushy with my PI about just getting it out, somewhere, yesterday. PI is about 5 years ahead of me but this was not my first paper by a long shot, our pub lists are about the same length. Big struggles over cycles of microscopic changes ensued, with attendant posturing over the Last Word. I submitted it to Glamour Mag knowing well that PI was not done refining (entirely unclear what ‘done’ would be but that is another story). The paper flew in.

    I’m still not sure what the massive difference was between this paper and my own other epic 10-submission/revision struggles was. In both cases I submitted the best, clearest paper I could. But what I do know is that PI had no more answers than I did. And I maintain that when you find yourself making endless microchanges, you should have submitted it a month ago and gotten reviews already.


  10. drugmonkey Says:

    10-submission/revision struggles

    I cannot possibly imagine any scenario that justifies 10 total submissions. Fighting tooth and nail down the IF chain were you?


  11. Susan Says:

    I’m exaggerating on that point, obviously, and even starting to look up the real number would have been too painful. I’d guess I’m not alone in feeling like it was 10. Or 20. Or so.

    That number, though, is another facet to deciphering the mystery of paper acceptance. We all keep our rejection letters and revisions and replies and all that. One of the reasons is that ideally we can later get over the pain, look back and see what we’ve learned from those numbers and all that arguing. Have you done that, or had your trainees do that, DM? What kind of meta-analyses of rejections, besides just average number of submissions, do you find useful to learn from?


  12. drugmonkey Says:

    Hm, can’t say I look back and study up on my prior rejections, criticisms, etc. For current trainees I figure it isn’t any more help than dealing with the feedback on their manuscripts?


  13. Hm, can’t say I look back and study up on my prior rejections, criticisms, etc.

    This is very foolish, holmes. I have learned a fucketonne about how to avoid peer-review trouble in the first place by studying past history of our manuscripts.


  14. drugmonkey Says:

    Some of us have a functioning memory system, PP.


  15. I agree that it depends very much on the personality of the PI. If the PI is somebody who can get papers out and knows when and how to cut their losses to get the results published, then definitely listen to them. Chances are that these PIs will also have good reasons for the changes, and will articulate them cogently if you ask them.

    On the other hand, perfectionist PIs that hold papers up for a long time with minor and minute improvements are exactly the type of control freak who will insist on everything being satisfactory before submission, and unlikely to have the self-insight to admit that they have a teeeeeny tiiiiiny problem.


  16. Jim Thomerson Says:

    As a reviewer, I successfully advocated rejection of a paper written by a guru and his graduate student. Part of my concern was it was obvious which parts were written by which author. They integrated their writing , resubmitted and I supported publication.

    When submitting a manuscript, I generally have in mind a second or third option. I coauthored with someone I thought excessively perfectionist. He said, “I want people 100 years from now to say I did good work.” OK, I can’t argue with that.


  17. Part of my concern was it was obvious which parts were written by which author.

    That’s the fucken goddamn stupidest shitte I’ve ever heard a reviewer assert about the basis for their review, and I’ve heard some seriously stupid shitte. Unless the writing was so poor that it was not possible to understand what the authors were asserting, it’s not the business of a fucken reviewer to impose their stylistic preferences as part of peer review.


  18. Jim Thomerson Says:

    I think it is the reviewer’s job to help authors present their work is the least embrassing way possible.


  19. That is total bullshitte. The reviewer’s job is to assess the work for its interest and scope (for most journals, but not PLoS ONE), experimental correctness, validity of the conclusions drawn from the experiments, and whether the the writing is sufficiently comprehensible. To recommend rejection of a manuscript because you dislike the writing style is absurd, and as an editor, I can tell you that I would completely ignore such a reviewer recommendation.


  20. Jim Thomerson Says:

    I have reviewed a fair number of papers authored by people who do not have English as a first language. I have helped them with their writing style and proper use of jargon. I have been pleased to see their writing improve from article to article, and have been thanked for my help.


  21. English so poor that it is incomprehensible is a different story, and I have editorially rejected manuscripts at PLoS ONE when the authors refuse to obtain professional English editing services (PLoS ONE does not provide copy editing).

    Perhaps I need to remind you, however, of what the fucke we are talking about:

    As a reviewer, I successfully advocated rejection of a paper written by a guru and his graduate student. Part of my concern was it was obvious which parts were written by which author. They integrated their writing , resubmitted and I supported publication.

    How did you get from there to manuscripts that aren’t written in comprehensible English?


  22. Jim Thomerson Says:

    I shifted my research emphasis a little bit. The papers were written in poor English, but not incomprehensible English. This was in a small, incestuous, almost, research area. Those same authors reviewed my papers, and sometimes helped me make my self more clear. I look on reviewing as an opportunity to help colleagues publish better work. I don’t see it as intrinsically adversarial; setting a barrier to publication, although that does happen.


  23. scicurious Says:

    Agree that it might be more helpful for the PI to let the cynicism show and not let (or, shudder, encourage) the poor trainee to work their way down the IF chain, resulting in 3+ years of manuscript rejections and revisions and what have you. At this point it’s no good for the trainee’s career, learning experience or not.


  24. drugmonkey Says:

    resulting in 3+ years of manuscript rejections and revisions and what have you

    Well, the number of outright rejections is probably the bigger key, but 3+ years is *quite* a long time for a graduate student or even a postdoc to be f-ing around trying to get a first-author pub.

    Not sending out for review is basically a no-cost, so I’m not too bothered about one of those to start with. And one reject after review is probably expected value….if you don’t get these now and again you aren’t shooting high enough. More than that though? Something needs to be recalibrated in your (the PI’s) approach.


  25. Susan Says:

    One reject after review is the expected value: I agree there. But how far do you go down after that? Say NN reviewed it and the comments were not that bad (as in, big-picture encouraging, a page or two of nit-picking) * ? How exactly do you then infer that your next stop should be Neuron or PlosOne?

    *If I were conspiracy-theory-minded, I would start to think that sometimes reviewers are kinder when they know they’re going to slam-dunk it in the circular file. So you get a set of not-so-critical reviews, and are in reality in an information vacuum. Then again, I’m on the spectrum of “not so good at reading minds of reviewers”. I know you’re going to pop me for that dysfunction o mine, DM, but that’s my comment for today.


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