Sunday, May 2, 2010

Constructive Criticism III

This post continues my musings about criticism. We are now at the final stage of maturation in the development from novice to mature scientist in terms of accepting and providing criticism:

Late Career (full professor, senior scientist and beyond)

As I’ve tried to convey in the previous two posts, these transitions in one’s perception of and reaction to criticism accompany the change from a position in which one only receives criticism (e.g., a student) to someone who additionally serves as a critic (e.g., advisor, reviewer, editor). As a scientist’s experiences as a critic expand, her viewpoint regarding critiques of her own work begin to shift. At least, that’s the hope.

In addition to a better understanding of the critic’s viewpoint, the mature scientist is more informed about scientific standards in one’s field, expectations of reviewers and editors, and the reality of scientific “politics”. The mature scientist may develop a “thicker skin” to buffer against the vagaries of reviewer comments, particularly the harsher ones that border on (or are) personal attacks. This dermal protection may be enhanced by the recognition that vigorous criticism of one’s work sometimes indicates professional jealousy or a deep-seated inferiority complex on the part of the reviewer. As this week’s quote (side panel) suggests, it’s far better to be the subject of criticism than to be ignored. But that sentiment is small consolation when your work has been shredded by another.

It’s also useful to keep in mind that it’s the reviewer’s job to try to poke holes in your work. You actually want them to do this, because they will often identify weak points that you will then be able to address before publication. Some critics are a bit more enthusiastic in this regard than others. A few clearly have an ax to grind (either with you or what your work represents). Others are too lenient or lazy.

It goes without saying that it’s far better to receive constructive, rather than destructive, criticism. Even the most inexperienced person can recognize the difference—and the motives—behind these two types of criticism. Most people, upon receiving a critique, can readily see whether the comments are meant to help or to harm. Some reviews are a mixture of the two.

The goal for the author is to deal with each type of comment effectively. The mature author also knows that she cannot depend upon the editor to make the distinction between helpful and harmful comments (or act upon this knowledge). So she must learn to respond with finesse rather than with emotion. I realize this is far easier said, than done.

However, keep the goal in mind: getting your paper past the goal-keepers.

The mature author is not interested in “getting back at” the reviewers by ridiculing their remarks. Instead, she calmly explains where the reviewers may have gone wrong in their assessments (perhaps acknowledging that this may have been partly the author’s fault due to awkward wording) and then offers a well-worded explanation. She also honestly thanks the reviewers for being so thorough, so forthright, or whatever the case may be.

If the reviewer has written a mostly personal attack with no documentation to back up outrageous statements, then the mature author simply restates what her findings have shown and that in the absence of any contradictory evidence (which the reviewer has failed to provide), she has no alternative except to ignore the reviewer’s criticism (or provide only minimal response). By keeping her cool and refraining from outraged reactions to criticism, the mature scientist conveys a demeanor of professionalism and confidence. She doesn’t have to say that the reviewer is a jerk—it will be obvious.

In the end, the mature author derives much greater pleasure from out-maneuvering the mean-spirited critic than by reacting emotionally to a personal attack.

The mature scientist also spends considerable time critiquing others’ work--as advisor, reviewer, and/or editor. Giving constructive criticism is difficult to do well, however.  If you read articles about constructive criticism, they invariably focus on the technique of sandwiching the criticism between two compliments in an effort to disarm the recipient and avoid a defensive reaction. This method rarely works because it’s so transparent. Although a few skilled critics might pull it off, most people clumsily apply this technique, which then fails or backfires. This approach, which is akin to giving someone a bitter pill hidden in a piece of cake, is not how I define constructive criticism.

For criticism to be constructive (i.e., helping to improve), it must do more than simply compliment the author on some aspect of the work. The criticism should involve suggestions that will substantively improve the work. An example might be a suggestion to better display the results in a figure or table—an explicit description of how to do it, not just the statement that the change is needed. Or the suggestion might be a reorganization of information to better develop a logical argument—again, with explicit instructions as to how this might be accomplished. This all takes effort on the part of the critic, which is one reason it’s not often done well. Most critics will say that something needs improvement and then leave the author to figure out how to do it.

How much constructive criticism one gives is determined by a number of factors: time, motivation, etc. As I’ve discussed previously, it’s not always advisable to spend a lot of time on recommendations for revising a manuscript when the science is fatally flawed. If that’s the case, then it’s best to tell the authors that the study needs to be repeated or substantially augmented. The mature scientist resists the impulse to spend more time than necessary on such reviews. In other words, why waste time correcting flawed English, typos, and other editing problems when the manuscript is obviously not publishable? Copy editors will catch most, if not all, typos and other errors in an accepted manuscript. So the scientific reviewer is of most help in assessing the science and its significance. If you can provide one or two good suggestions for improvement, then you’ve likely helped the authors more than most reviewers.

Of course, not all authors (especially experienced ones) are grateful for explicit suggestions for improvement, so your efforts may be for naught. However, this should not deter you (in your role as constructive critic) from trying. I’ve found that in figuring out a way to improve someone else’s paper, I’ve added to my own toolbox.

Well, those are a few thoughts on constructive criticism in science, not by any means an exhaustive examination of the topic—and admittedly, a very personal view.  I’m sure others will have different viewpoints and experiences.

No comments: