Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Abstract Musings

How much effort do you put into writing scientific abstracts? Do you craft them carefully or treat them as an afterthought?

Here are some reasons to make an effort to write good abstracts.

First, the abstract may be the only part of a scientific article that is read. People often do not have access to the full article (requires a subscription or payment) or don’t want to spend the time reading the entire document, so they glean whatever they need from the abstract. Thus, it makes sense for your abstract to be as clear and concise as possible and to convey the essence of the paper and its significance. The more key words you include in your abstract, the more people are led to your paper and are likely to cite it.

Second, the abstract is often a preview of how good the paper is. Reviewers and editors form their first impressions of a submitted manuscript from the abstract. I know some reviewers who immediately reject a paper based solely on what they see in the abstract. Some editors (consciously or subconsciously) may use the abstract to decide whether to send out a paper for review. You might be surprised and outraged at this, but consider it from the reviewer’s viewpoint. Reviewers (and most associate editors) are providing their time for free and do not want to waste it on poorly-written manuscripts—ones that should be more polished before submission. The best way to annoy a reviewer is to submit a sloppy manuscript—and the abstract often announces just how bad it’s going to be.

The abstract tells the reader a number of things about the paper and the author(s) in addition to what the paper is about and what the main findings are. A poorly-written abstract says that the author is either a novice and does not understand how to write an abstract or is somewhat experienced, but did not put sufficient effort into the paper to write a proper abstract. Either way, it suggests that the rest of the paper is likely to be less than stellar. There are exceptions, of course, in which the paper turns out to be pretty good. However, I’ve seldom run into that situation.

When I get a paper to review, I first take a close look at the abstract. It tells me a lot about how much effort I will have to go to make a decision about it and to provide constructive criticism. I can often predict what the journal's decision will be based solely on the quality of the abstract. More specifically, I can spot the papers that will be accepted with minor revision. There will be some good papers with so-so abstracts; these are often the ones that are acceptable with major revision. The papers with atrocious abstracts often end up in the reject pile.

Note that as a reviewer/assoc. editor, I always read the ENTIRE paper and judge it on all its merits. The point is that the abstract sets the tone for the paper, which may take considerable positive points in the remaining narrative to overcome an initial bad impression. In contrast, a good abstract makes an immediate positive impression.

A bad abstract can also result when the paper is not really very interesting or important, and the abstract simply reflects this fact. This situation calls for even more effort on your part to prepare a good abstract. You must be creative in selling your paper, and the abstract is the advertisement for it. You can’t exaggerate, of course, but you should “put your best foot forward” in the abstract. It can make the difference between acceptance and rejection.

A really good abstract tells the editor that the work is important and interesting and that the author is a skilled scientist and writer. A “meaty” abstract contains lots of good information and creates a sense of curiosity in the reader, who then can’t wait to read the entire paper to get a full understanding of what was done, how it was done, and what it all means. You want your abstract also to say to the reviewer or editor that you are a professional (you’ve done your job and are not depending on the editor or reviewers to do it for you).

A final reason to spend time on your abstract is that it often helps you identify weaknesses in the paper that you then fix during later revisions. If you are having trouble summarizing your work in 300 words or so, then your paper may lack focus or organization or is unclear as to the work's significance.

Authors are often advised to write the abstract LAST, but this sometimes is translated by students as the abstract being the least important component of the paper. If you simply pull statements from the narrative and stick them together in a string, you are not really preparing a good summary of your paper.

So what makes a good abstract? A good place to start is the top journals in your field. Read and carefully analyze the abstracts of papers published in the best journals. They will all contain key elements. If you are a novice writer, a good formula to follow is:

1. Aim (state the problem or study objectives)
2. Location (briefly say where the study was conducted) or type of system, species, etc. you studied.
3. Methods (briefly describe the approach)
4. Results (concisely state the MAIN results—the ones that directly relate back to your stated objectives)
5. Main conclusions and significance (the “take-home message”)

Pay close attention to the word limit required by journals for abstracts. The shorter the abstract, the more difficult to write and the more effort required to get it right.

Practice writing abstracts. If you haven’t written any papers yet, select some good articles in a major journal and write an abstract for them based on your reading (don’t look at the abstract, though). Then compare your attempt with the published abstract.

So, if you are dreading writing that abstract, don’t procrastinate—get busy and develop your skills so that your next one sends the message: “Read this paper; it will be worth your while”.

Image Credit: "Abstract Thoughts" and oil painting by Aleta Gudelski

Sunday, August 16, 2009


What do you do if you suspect someone of scientific misconduct? What if you are accused of scientific fraud?

I just finished reading an academic novel called “Intuition”, which is about scientific fraud, whistle-blowing, and interpersonal relationships in a scientific laboratory devoted to investigating potential cancer cures. I found it a fascinating look at ethics as well as an entertaining story about scientists behaving badly.

Image by J. Taylor

When I was younger and more idealistic, I would not have hesitated to report misconduct. Now, I would tread more carefully.

Upon seeing a bank being robbed, a hit-and-run, or a child being abused, many people will call the authorities without thinking twice and stick around to provide eyewitness statements. But when it comes to reporting a coworker, a supervisor, an employee, or a colleague of suspected wrongdoing, people are more likely to hesitate because of the potential consequences—for themselves as well as for the accused.

Whistleblowers often suffer consequences equal to or even more serious than the people they accuse--which gives one pause. There is also the situation in which the evidence of scientific misconduct is not clear-cut. If you suspect misconduct, you must decide if there is enough evidence to warrant instigating an investigation. If you are mistaken, the person you accuse will suffer damage to their reputation that may never be overcome. There is also the possibility that the person you accuse will turn the tables on you and sue for slander and/or initiate an investigation into your scientific integrity in retaliation.

What if it’s you who’s accused of misconduct? Early in my career someone put some documents in my mailbox that insinuated I had altered data. There were two photocopies of a graph: one from a draft report to a funding agency and the other from the published article based on the same work. The same data point on each graph was circled with a red marking pen. The mean values on the two graphs differed slightly, and the first had a larger standard error. There were several question marks written next to these data points. That’s all there was—no note and no indication of who had put it in my mailbox. But the implication was clear: someone was threatening me with “evidence” of wrongdoing.

Of course, I knew who had done it. I had been harassed for years by a male coworker. This particular incident occurred about a week after I had cleaned out some of my old files, discarding duplicate copies and early drafts of old reports and manuscripts into the recycle bin. This individual apparently had been monitoring the recycle bin looking for something damaging.

This was one of those situations that superficially looked suspicious, but for which there was a reasonable explanation. The first photocopied graph was from an early draft of a report. I later noticed that one data point had an unusually large standard error compared to the others. I rechecked the original data and discovered a data entry error (a misplaced decimal point), which I then corrected. The final draft of the report and the journal article had the correct data. The difference between the two versions of the graph had no impact on the overall conclusions of the study or even the interpretation of that specific graph. Of course, that would not matter if the change had been made inappropriately.

The individual who had put these documents into my mailbox never reported it. I think he got more satisfaction out of me waiting to be accused of misconduct. I did worry about it for a long time—until it was clear nothing would come of it. There was little I could do because I had no proof that it was this person who had done this.

After that incident, I never put anything in the paper recycle bin.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Welcome to the Dollhouse

….is a film about the brutal and Kafkaesque experience of a girl in junior high school (in America). It basically portrays how cruel kids can be to each other. Dawn Wiener (aka “Wiener Dog” to her classmates) is the central character who is psychologically tormented by both family members and classmates primarily because she is somewhat nerdy, unattractive, and exudes a “victim vibe” that seems to attract bullying.

I often think about this film whenever I contemplate how things in the workplace/field of science are not much different from the schoolyard.

We’ve all (male and female) experienced instances in which we are not treated with respect. For women in science, however, disrespectful and unequal treatment is fairly insidious and very difficult to articulate, much less prove.

I realize that some women, particularly younger women, entering the field of science think that all these “feminist” problems were solved back in the 60s. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. A number of recent reports suggest that female scientists still lag far behind their male counterparts (see previous posts). The fact that many members of the new generation of female scientists seem unaware of this is quite disturbing.

There are many reasons for lack of progress, which include lack of mentors, family-work conflicts, and others. The point is that we have enough obstacles without having to deal with subtle discrimination. The point of articulating recurring problems is not to complain or whine about unfair treatment, but to raise awareness in both the potential victim and the (sometimes well-meaning, but clueless) perpetrator. And possibly this articulation will suggest ways of dealing effectively with these situations so that we can concentrate on more important things.

So, over the past few months, I’ve been collecting examples of ways in which female scientists are marginalized, discouraged, or undermined. Some of these are from my own experience (some as recent as this month), some have been forwarded to me by other female scientists, and others have been gleaned from blogs written by female scientists.

What I find interesting is the similarity among examples reported by other women. In the past, the ways that women (and other minorities) were discriminated against were quite consistent and blatant. It seems that although the means are no longer so blatant, there are still consistent themes.

Here is my list so far (in no particular order):
1. Deja-vu: You make a valid point, but it is ignored. Later (sometimes minutes after), someone else (usually male) poses the same idea and only then is it acknowledged by others. This is a direct putdown of you and your ideas.
2. Do I Exist?: A male member of a group consistently ignores you in meetings, looking only at other males in the group and directing questions or comments to everyone except you. No, it’s not your imagination.
3. Alpha Male: A male scientist tries to get you to turn over your dataset or method (that you’ve spent years or your career developing) to them, with no offer of collaboration. This often happens right after you give a presentation. The implication is that you do not know what to do with such excellent data; whereas he, the alpha male, does.
4. Subordinate (Insecure) Male: A male, typically a lackluster scientist, upon hearing about your research, announces that he’s already doing that study or “has the paper ready to go”. In fact, he doesn’t. He’s just threatened by someone who has actually completed work he wishes he had done.
5. We All Look Alike: You are often confused with other female scientists (despite major differences in appearance). This behavior is a dead give-away that you are not considered to be an individual, but a member of a group of “not-so-important others”.
6. Misplaced Chivalry: Men frequently offer their help in telling you how to do something or even try to intervene physically (even if it is your job or your project). When you politely decline their assistance, they protest that they are only trying to be nice, helpful, etc. Actually, they are undermining your authority (whether consciously or not).
7. Inappropriate Comments: Women are more frequently judged based on their appearance than men. People feel free to comment on your appearance, often in the context of an overall assessment of your abilities.
8. Call Me Dr.: You are frequently referred to as “Miss”, “honey”, “young lady”, or titles other than your correct professional title (Dr.). If you think this is the result of ignorance, ask yourself if your male colleagues with Ph.D.s are often mistakenly called “Mr., Boy, “Little Guy”, or “Sonny”.
9. Boy’s Club: You hear about a lunch or meeting that you were not invited to or an email that was sent to all your male colleagues, partners, or coworkers, but somehow you were left off the list of correspondents. Once is an oversight. Twice or more is a pattern.
10. Territorial Imperative: Other male scientists attack your work like a pack of wild dogs pouncing on an innocent rabbit, making outrageous accusations and hinting at your incompetence. Some write nasty letters to you, telling you how you misinterpreted your data. A few call you to demand that you stop working on THEIR TOPIC. Others write directly to journals trying to get your papers withdrawn. Still others actually go to your field site in an attempt to collect data to refute your previously published research that disproved their pet theory.

We can deal with isolated incidents or slights by ignoring them; but when they occur regularly, it gradually eats away at our confidence. The frustration can even lead us to subvert our principles (so as to be accepted by the crowd) or even behave like our tormenters.

Which brings us back to “Welcome to the Dollhouse”. The film is a spot-on portrayal of human behavior in an unrelentingly hostile environment. Dawn Wiener is so starved for acceptance that when a bully orders her to meet him after school so that he can “rape” her—she actually shows up for it. The bully is also abused, and so on…

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Cruel and Unusual?

“The writing in this paper is pedestrian and plodding.”

“The author shows minimal understanding of this topic, and this paper actually moves the field backwards twenty years.”

“The approach used in this study is unimaginative and the experimental design contains serious flaws.”

“This author has no idea how to write a proper abstract.”

Sound familiar?

Part of being a scientist is dealing with criticism. If it’s constructive criticism, the comments will help you prepare a better article or other science product. I get annoyed when someone fails to thoroughly critique my paper and instead offers platitudes: “This is a great paper—I can’t find anything wrong with it.” Well, I doubt that anyone has ever written something that could not be improved upon. Such comments don’t help you.

On the other hand, some reviewers, editors, and others are less than nice in delivering critiques of your work. They may even make unfounded statements or raise ‘red herrings’ that are difficult to rebut and waste your time.

Students are rarely taught formally how to deal with private reviews, much less public criticisms. In the previous post, I described some ways to deal with public criticism (letters to the editor or a formal comment on a published work). Most scientists go through their entire careers without having to deal with such criticisms. Actually, I find that the more novel, surprising, interesting, and controversial papers are the ones that are publicly attacked most often. So, in a way, these are compliments.

The contents of letters to the editor or comments are often not unlike the criticisms raised in reviewer comments. They point out erroneous statements, failure to cite the relevant literature, methodological flaws, poor writing, etc. The key message in the previous post for dealing with criticism was to respond only to the scientific aspects and ignore any personal or other comments that caused an emotional reaction in you. It's difficult to ignore these things, but it will pay off in the end.