Friday, April 30, 2010

Constructive Criticism II

This post is the second in a series about criticism—how we evolve in our reactions to it and how we deal with it. Note that the suggested categories (and examples) are very general and not necessarily rigid. A post-doc might react to criticism as would someone more mature; conversely, a late-career scientist may still react to criticism as a student would.

I quizzed my spouse (who was always ahead of his peers in terms of maturity) about how he reacted to criticism as a student, and here is his response. He said that he automatically assumed that his advisor, other professors, even technical staff had many more years of experience than he did. He also believed that their criticism was always given to help him improve. Note that up to this point in his life, he had never encountered a truly nasty person and assumed the best in others (he still does, which actually works for him…maybe a topic for another post). Consequently, he invariably followed the suggestions of critics. He says he can’t recall any time that he strongly disagreed with any of them. I should point out that he was a very confident student…not at all a doormat. He simply was mature enough to accept criticism and smart enough to know that someone with 30+ years of experience might know a thing or two. I was in the same department, so I know his professors—all caring and honest people who tried hard to help students. Such is not likely the case everywhere, I realize.

My previous post focused on the less mature of us (me included) who progressed more or less in an average and predictable way. I also wanted to emphasize the negative outcomes of being either too sensitive to criticism or too resistant. Those who’ve matured early (like my husband) don’t need much help, in contrast to those who are resistant to criticism. Hence, my emphasis on cautionary tales.

So, kudos to those students and post-docs who have developed (early) a mature view of criticism. You are already at the next stage:

Mid-Career (asst. prof., new PI)

In this stage of maturation, the scientist has mostly moved beyond knee-jerk reactions to criticism, although there are occasional regressions, e.g., when a critic says something particularly bone-headed. During this phase, one listens carefully to the comments of others and distinguishes between the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Depending perhaps partly on personality and partly on early-career experiences, the mid-career scientist may begrudgingly accept criticism, but not like it very much. Others, particularly women, may still suffer self-doubts upon receiving criticism, whereas men may shrug off negative comments rather more quickly. A few begin to truly appreciate a thorough review that asks difficult questions and makes the author tighten up the logic or supply a better justification for a particular statement.

In terms of responses to criticism, the maturing author is diligent in responding to each and every critical comment—either making the suggested correction or calmly explaining why they disagree with the critic. This reaction is particularly important in responding to reviewer comments on a manuscript submitted to a journal. A good way to annoy a reviewer (who will be asked to do a second review of your paper) and the editor, is to fail to provide a thoughtful response to all previous comments and suggestions. A point-by-point reconciliation, explaining what you did in your revision and why, is greatly appreciated by reviewers and editors who must otherwise struggle to figure out whether you dealt effectively with their criticisms.

I know it’s sometimes difficult to remain detached when dealing with really idiotic comments that clearly indicate the reviewer either didn’t read your paper carefully or is simply out-to-lunch. But learning to become detached, taking the criticism less personally, and responding without undue emotion is what distinguishes the maturing scientist. At least on paper. It’s perfectly OK (in my opinion) to rail to your best friend, trusted colleague, or spouse about the awful review you just received and how unfair some of the comments were. You can even write out your immediate reactions to get it out of your system. But then you must step back, take some time away from it, and let yourself get some perspective on the critique. Perhaps first deal with the minor comments or those that you find useful. Let the ones that really get under your skin percolate a bit in your head (even if you are not thinking about them consciously, your subconscious is working on them). When you can contemplate the really negative comments without your blood pressure going up, then you are ready to address them.

Of course, it’s during this phase that you become a critic yourself, being tapped to carry out peer reviews and to serve on editorial boards. This experience accelerates the maturing process, as you might expect. You begin to see what kind of effort it takes to do a thorough review and to appreciate the time your colleagues have spent reviewing your work. You also see that associate editors have a difficult job (also unpaid) in persuading scientists to do reviews and to deal with author’s fragile egos.

What type of critic you become is likely influenced by how you have been treated as an author. You may decide to dish out the same negative stuff that you’ve received in the past, or conversely, commit to treating others with the respect and fairness you’ve failed to receive. Most scientists, fortunately, focus on providing constructive criticism and avoid personal attacks, either voluntarily or in response to journal admonishments to do so. A few become harsh reviewers, never finding anything of value in any manuscript that falls on their desks. Others are too easy, never finding any fault with any manuscript. You begin to realize that both these extremes are not helpful to you as an author.

In this mid-career stage, I think most scientists tend to accept all requests for reviews and then spend a lot of time on them, providing pages of comments. I have no statistics to back this up—just my impression from talking with others. My limited poll also suggests that women are more likely to fall into this behavioral category than men. I won’t speculate on why…. it’s probably for a lot of different reasons.

Personally, I never turned down a review request during this stage and felt obligated to put a great effort into doing a thorough and fair review. Doing a lot of reviews in the early to mid-career stages is profitable because you learn a great deal about writing, about good (and bad) science, about what journals want, and how to improve your own weaknesses. I provided some detailed reasons for being a reviewer at another blog (FemaleScienceProfessor), reproduced here:

1. You learn a lot about writing (e.g., in terms of technical proficiency and personal “style” or “voice”) and what it takes to get published. You learn as much from reviewing poor papers (what not to do) as from excellent papers (what distinguishes them from the pack).

2. You learn what the standards are (in general and for specific journals) and what specific criteria are used by reviewers and editors.

3. The more journals you review for, the better you understand what subject matter is being sought (and you are less likely to commit the error of submitting inappropriate material to a journal).

4. You become known to editors, especially if you are a consistently good reviewer. Editors then tend to go out of their way to handle future submissions of your own work personally and ensure that they are evaluated fairly and quickly.

5. As you become known as a fair and thorough reviewer to editors, you are in a better position to challenge a negative review of your own work

This has already become a longer post than I originally intended, so I’ll stop here and reserve further musings for the next post.

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