Monday, May 31, 2010

Academic Freedom Update

In case you were wondering, this is what is happening with the situation at Louisiana State University involving a tenured professor (Dr. Dominique Homberger) who was removed mid-semester from teaching an introductory biology class for failing too many students (see previous posts for details).

The LSU Faculty Senate reports in its May 31 newsletter that the AAUP (American Association of University Professors) will be sending a team of investigators to campus to "probe the state of academic freedom and assorted other irregularities on our campus".  The delegation, which will include faculty members from universities such as Michigan State University and Tulane University, is scheduled to be in Baton Rouge on August 27th and 28th.  I would like to be a fly on the wall.

The LSU Faculty Senate is also considering a resolution to affirm faculty members' right to assign grades.

The newsletter also reports removal of another professor at the University of Louisiana at Monroe, supposedly due to "firm grading practices".

The implication is that these cases reflect statewide policies and political intrusion into academic affairs.  A recent article in the Academe (Magazine of the AAUP) has a good discussion of "top-down leadership" and why it is inappropriate for colleges (the article focuses on community colleges, but the general idea applies to 4-yr universities).  I'll review some of the points made in this article in upcoming posts.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Domesticated Foxes and Feral Dogs, Oh My!

Continuing with the “animal theme”….

The previous post introduced the situation brewing at Louisiana State University (LSU) over the mid-semester removal of Dr. Dominique Homberger from her position as instructor of an introductory biology course.

A number of critics have seized on the format of her test questions as evidence of unfairness. Specifically, some are questioning the fact that she often gives 10 possible answers rather than the expected 4 or 5.

So I thought it might be of interest to take a look at a couple of questions from one of her exams and see what the fuss is all about.

The first question is largely based on a 1999 essay in American Scientist on the domestication of foxes in the former Soviet Union.

The second one draws on a recent Financial Times article on feral dogs in Moscow.

If you wish to test yourself, read the articles first, then take a look at the questions.

Here are the questions:

1. Choose the incorrect statement.

a. In domestic mammals, piebald coat color is seen frequently in dogs, pigs, cows, and horses.
b. Foxes that have been selected for tameness frequently also have a white
"star" on their forehead.
c. Domesticated foxes and dogs frequently have rolled tails.
d. Giantism and dwarfism is [sic] common among all domesticated mammals.
e. Domesticated mammals reproduce more frequently and more independently from [sic] particular seasons.
f. Overbites and underbites are more commonly observed among domesticated
mammals than among wild mammals.
g. Human beings display some of the characteristics that are seen in
domesticated animals.
h. Feral populations of mammals (e.g., dogs) usually lose the characteristics
of their domesticated ancestors.
i. There is no connection between the tame disposition and the morphological
characteristics of domesticated mammals.
j. Hormonal imbalances during development may be responsible for the
morphological characteristics of domesticated animals.

2. Choose the incorrect statement.

Feral dogs in Moscow ...

a. tend to have a similar look, with erect ears, thick fur, wedge-shaped head,
and almond eyes.
b. look like a breed apart and very unlike the purebred dogs from which they
may have descended.
c. vary in the color of their fur.
d. typically have a rolled-up tail.
e. tend to establish and defend territories.
f. are much less aggressive than wolves and are more tolerant of one another.
g. are an excellent example of feralization, which is the opposite mechanism
of domestication.
h. rarely wag their tails and do not show affection toward humans.

Although I could not replicate exactly the same conditions experienced by the students, I first read the articles and then tried to answer the questions.  I selected 1. c and 2. d.  However, I answered the questions shortly after reading the articles, whereas the students would have likely had time to forget  some of the details.  The fact that both "incorrect statements" dealt with curly tails (being a feature of domesticated, but not feral animals), however, was a big help in confirming the right answers.   

My critique of these questions and the reading assignments:

These are not difficult questions that require a deep understanding of evolution, genetics, or the process of domestication of animals to answer.  Although the questions focus on apparently minor facts in these articles, they could have been answered if the students read the assignment and connected the dots between morphology/behavior patterns and domestication/feralization. 

These questions mainly test reading comprehension, because answering the questions requires no prior knowledge of science or the concepts involved.  One could conceivably even answer the questions based on the photographs in the article alone (since it's clear that the silver foxes and the feral dogs depicted in several photos have straight tails).

So, I think the questions are not very challenging (i.e., they require nothing more than reading comprehension)—but that’s not the complaint of the students or some of Homberger’s critics. Critics seem to focus on the fact that there are more than 4 possible answers, i.e., the questions are somehow rigged to be overly difficult.  Yes, the odds of guessing the wrong answer are greatly increased with 10 possibilities.  However, it seems relatively easy to eliminate many of the correct statements--if one had read the articles. So it's possible to narrow the options down to at least 4 or 5, maybe less.  I doubt, however, even if faced with only 4 or 5 options, a student could pick out the incorrect statement, if they had not read the assignment.

If all the questions were like these two, then I would conclude that the students' grasp of concepts was not being adequately tested.  But without seeing the other test questions, it's impossible to tell.  It may be that because these questions were based on outside reading (and not lectures) that the difficulty was kept deliberately low, testing only that the students read the assignment.  If I had gotten a question like this on a college exam, I would have viewed it as a "give-away".  But then, I was the type of student who read all my assignments.

Some critics have said that the reading material was "too difficult" for university students.  I find this mind-boggling.  Any student who had difficulty reading and comprehending these articles has no business being in college.  Both articles were interesting, easy to read, and did not contain material that required an advanced degree to understand.  I imagine Dr. Homberger was attempting to provide examples that students might find more appealing or understandable than those given in textbooks.

I have yet to come across any blogger or commenter who actually read the assignments and then tried to answer the questions. They all seem to take sides based on whether they think 10 possible answers is fair or not. 

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Violation of Academic Freedom at LSU?

Urban legend has it that Louisiana State University (LSU) was the model for the 70s movie, “Animal House”. Actually, the screenplay was based on the experiences of National Lampoon writer, Doug Kennedy, at Harvard University and screenwriter Harold Ramis at Washington University in St. Louis.

But, it’s a common belief around LSU that the university was the inspiration for the movie, and few would dispute it. If you recall, Dean Wormer said to the slackers of Delta Tau Chi, “Fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life, son.”

Recent events at LSU make one yearn for the outrageous, yet somehow innocent, antics of Bluto, Pinto, and Flounder and Dean Wormer, with his plan (“Double Secret Probation”) to rid the university of their fraternity and most importantly, its members’ low grade averages.

Back then, students were held accountable for their low grades and told to shape up or ship out. Even the fictional characters of “Animal House” accepted responsibility for their miserable grades. However, the Deltas eventually rebel and fight Dean Wormer’s plan to delete the fraternity.  Bluto: “Nothing is over until we decide it is! Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell no!”

Fast-forward to 2010.

You may have heard of the brewing brouhaha at LSU over student grades. No, the university is not threatening to eliminate a fraternity for low grades a la “Animal House”. This recent ruckus is over the removal of Dr. Dominique Homberger from her position as instructor for an undergraduate course, General Biology (for non-science majors). The reason given was not, as one might imagine, some egregious class behavior on the part of Dr. Homberger, e.g., coming to class drunk or threatening a student with a gun, but because the class had “too many D’s and F’s at mid-term”. The concern was how this grading might impact the students.

If the lame reasoning stated above was not bad enough, Homberger was removed mid-semester by the Dean of the College of Basic Sciences, Dr. Kevin Carman, without consultation with her. In addition, and again without Homberger’s permission or knowledge, her grades were changed.

These actions were apparently sufficiently outrageous to warrant a strong letter from the LSU Chapter of AAUP (American Association of University Professors) to the President of the Louisiana State University System demanding an apology on behalf of Homberger. In their letter, the LSU-AAUP notes that the actions of the LSU administration are “violations of fundamental, well-established faculty rights, specifically (1) academic freedom in the classroom, and (2) due process, as laid out in a number of documents that the university subscribes to…” The LSU-AAUP’s letter ends with the promise to recommend censure of LSU’s administration to the National AAUP, if the issue is not resolved to their satisfaction.

Fellow professors at LSU and elsewhere are expressing shock at the actions taken against Dr. Homberger. Numerous websites are reporting the incident and many are weighing in with their opinions pro and con. 

Here are a few additional bits of information I’ve gleaned from the AAUP letter and interviews with some of the people involved:

--Dr. Homberger is a tenured senior professor, having been at LSU for over 30 years.

--Dr. Homberger has not taught an introductory course in about 15 years, having been teaching senior-level and graduate courses during the latter part of her career at LSU. This year, however, she offered her help to the department in teaching this intro course (presumably because of instructor layoffs due to budget cuts at the university). In other words, she did not have to teach this course and was doing the university a favor by teaching it.

--Dr. Homberger does not believe in grading on a curve and gives difficult tests. She also gives daily quizzes to ensure that students are doing the reading.

--Although at mid-term 90% (or 60% depending on which source you read) of the students were failing or had dropped the class, grades on the second exam and on daily quizzes were much higher, indicating that the students had gotten the message that they needed to work harder. Homberger's stated intent was to stimulate the class to work harder and that they would be given credit for improving. She was removed just after the second exam was administered and achievement on that exam was not considered in the decision.

--LSU is already being investigated by the AAUP for its termination of Ivor van Heerden, former deputy director of the LSU Hurricane Center and outspoken critic of the U.S. Corps of Engineers’ levee-building skills.

--Dean Carman is a former faculty member in Dr. Homberger’s department.

--Misinformation about Dr. Homberger’s publication record, grants, and relationships with students is being circulated by anonymous commentators—presumably in an attempt to further discredit her as an academician.

--A lot of attention is being focused on the format of her tests, specifically that her questions often have 10 possible answers instead of the expected 4 or 5.

I will continue in tomorrow’s post with two examples of Homberger’s questions.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

When Do I Reveal I'm Half of a Dual-Career Couple?

When during a job interview do you mention that you are part of a dual-career couple? This question is a particularly important one for female scientists.


Because a recent survey of 30,000 faculty members at 13 major universities found that 83% of the female scientists had life partners who were members of their own discipline. There are a number of ramifications of this finding, which can be read in depth in the report: Dual-Career Academic Couples: What Universities Need to Know.

So the likelihood that a female scientist will be part of a dual-career couple both seeking jobs in a scientific field is high. Deciding whose career will take precedence and other difficult decisions will have to be dealt with. It’s not easy (maybe more about my own experience later).

But when to break the news about your partner to a potential employer? Young job seekers with partners are often uncertain about when and how to mention the fact that their decision will depend partly on whether their partner will be willing to move or if there will be a suitable job for the partner at the new location. The general advice is not to reveal too soon during the hiring process that there is a partner or that this is even an issue. Not tipping your hand too soon is not being dishonest. You are not obligated to reveal this information and if you do so voluntarily, it could hurt your chances, especially if you are female.

Employers cannot legally ask about one’s marital status or children or similar personal information. I would advise young women (and men) not to mention anything about any potential issues until they have an offer in hand. I’m not talking here about something that would interfere with your ability to do the job being offered, but information that might cause a potential employer to select someone else equally qualified but without “personal baggage”. The time to bring up the issue of a spouse is after the job offer is in hand and negotiations have begun.

Most employers expect that people applying for a position will be in a relationship and actually anticipate questions about accommodating a dual-career couple, particularly universities.

I’ve found that young people I’ve interviewed for positions often jump the gun during the interview and try to start negotiating for salary, time off, perks, etc. This type of approach gives a potential employer the wrong impression—a bad one. Your goal during the interview process is to make them want you. After you have the offer is the time to ask for what you want.

The Clayman Institute for Gender Studies, which sponsored the report mentioned above, is developing information for graduate students entering the job market. The report, however, summarizes some useful advice about “what is the process, how do faculty jobs come about, how do universities work, who should I turn to, who is going to broker the deal in the university, so who should I be talking to there. And when, absolutely, should I mention a partner?”

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Lights, Camera, Action!

Over at FemaleScienceProfessor, the discussion has been about videotaping of speakers at conferences and seminars. The question was whether readers had been videotaped before and if so, did they mind.

I once gave a seminar, which was part of a special series featuring distinguished women in my scientific field, and the organizers videotaped the seminars and kept them on file as part of a program in women’s studies. I was asked for my permission, which I readily gave. I was also at a recent conference (in another country) and was videotaped by the local media during part of my presentation (as were other speakers).

This type of recording (along with posting of PowerPoint files on the Web) appears to be a trend that is increasing at scientific conferences and workshops. As a speaker, should you be concerned about being videotaped? What are the advantages and disadvantages of being video- or audiotaped during speaking engagements?

In some cases, videos of talks are used to promote the society or whatever organization is responsible for the taping—they may post the video on their website, for example. People who could not attend the conference would be able to view talks they missed. This option draws visitors to an organization’s website.

I am somewhat ambivalent about this practice. On the one hand, I don’t mind helping out a scientific society create content for their website or perhaps to use the tapes in an instructional manner. Also, I (and my research) may enjoy broader exposure by having a video or audio of my talk posted on a society’s or another organization’s website. On the other hand, I may not want my new ideas or unpublished data floating around the internet. If the talk was not a success, I might not want a permanent record of the failure.

What to do if you are approached by a videographer at a conference?  You may be asked only if you mind being videotaped, but are given no details as to how that video will be used or if it is going to be posted on the internet. If it’s not obvious, however, I think that you should ask the videographer how the video or audiotape will be used. If you are not given a satisfactory answer, you can refuse permission to be taped. If the videographer does explain to your satisfaction, then you should ask for a copy of your videotape (more about how you might use it later). You can make this a prerequisite for allowing yourself to be taped.

The main disadvantage that I see in having your presentation videotaped, particularly for novice speakers, is that the presence of a camera or microphone can add substantially to the speaker’s nervousness. Anyone who has had a video-camera pointed at them and who was told to “act naturally”, often finds themselves behaving very “unnaturally”. It’s not uncommon for people to feel very self-conscious on camera, if not absolutely tongue-tied. If it is your first conference presentation and you are very nervous about it, you might not want to have this added stress. If you are given the option to decline, be honest and explain why you don’t feel comfortable being videotaped. Most people will understand and comply with your wishes. If your request is ignored, complain to the conference organizers or session chair.

Interview seminars may be videotaped so that faculty who were unable to attend the live talk will have an opportunity later to view the presentation. This video might be disadvantageous to the interviewee if she was extremely nervous and did not perform well. The search committee would have ample opportunity to review the performance and content of the talk at their leisure, instead of relying on their memories. On the other hand, if her performance was stellar, the existence of a tape will likely reinforce the good impression she made.

More universities and other scientific organizations are posting podcasts and videos of their scientists explaining their research. So, it may be a good idea to get some experience speaking in front of a camera. Also, seeing a video of yourself speaking, especially delivering a scientific talk, is very instructive. You may be completely unaware of how many times you say “uh” or that you tend to rock back and forth when nervous. People can tell you that you about these distracting behaviors, but it really takes seeing yourself do them to make you really aware of how bad it is.

I know some people cringe at the thought of seeing themselves on camera and would never consider using video as a tool to improve their speaking skills. I understand the feeling, but would not let that stop me. It’s relatively easy to videotape yourself, and then you can view it in private. A colleague routinely videotaped her students practicing for a conference talk. She said it was amazing how quickly they improved after reviewing the tape and their performance on camera.  She said that before she used video, the students often did not believe her comments about their performance.

But it is really useful to have a videotape of yourself giving an actual talk at a conference. Your performance may be totally different in front of a real audience, as opposed to the practice session with your advisor or fellow students. There may be problems with how you connect (or not) with the audience or other issues that are not apparent in practice settings.

So, if the conference is videotaping speakers, it might be worthwhile asking for a copy to review later. You could also ask your advisor or colleague to videotape your performance.  For an example of how useful this might be, see this previous post about giving presentations.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

After Hours Dilemma

The Problem:

What should a PI do if a new technician asks to be excused from working after hours? In this case, the technician has expressed a reluctance to work in an empty building. If the PI had made the expectation for after-hours work clear from the beginning, then the obligation to make allowances in this technician’s case is lessened. We’ll assume in this instance, however, that there was no explicit discussion during hiring. It may be that the problem did not occur to the technician until after she spent a few evenings alone in the lab. It’s also possible that she is simply looking for a way to avoid work.

Either way, the request by this new technician requires a careful response.  She cannot excuse the technician without giving the rest of the staff the same option.  Even if most of the staff would continue to come in anyway, the fact that one person does not will ultimately lead to general disgruntlement (someone will have to take over this technician’s after-hours duties).  Also, if the research depends on after-hours work, the PI cannot afford to allow it.  So it would be a mistake to give this new technician or anyone else permission to opt out of their duties. If the research can be accomplished without after-hours work, then another option might be investigated. But we’ll assume that’s not the case here.

The Solution:

The PI should begin by meeting with the technician and explain that work after hours is necessary for the success of the lab’s research program. She should acknowledge the technician's concerns about safety, but explain that she would like to come up with an alternative solution.

The PI should then ask the technician specifically what she is concerned about. The technician has stated only that she does not want to work alone in an empty building. Is she concerned about having an accident and no one to help, being the victim of an attack in an empty building or parking lot, or just what? Once the PI has a better idea of the specific concern, then she can ask the technician what would alleviate that concern (other than not working after hours). She should ask if the presence of other people would alleviate her anxiety or if better building security would help. The PI should ask what the technician might do to contribute to the solution (e.g., make use of a campus transport system or have a spouse or friend drop her off and pick her up on the days she must work late).

Once some other options are identified, then the PI and technician can work out the best solution together. It may be that some simple security changes would be sufficient to allay the technician’s fears.

If all else fails, the PI may have to implement a “buddy system” requirement for work after hours—for all employees and students. I realize this option sounds inconvenient and possibly unfeasible in some situations. But it may be the only solution in this particular case. Furthermore, this might be something to consider for the lab anyway--aside from the situation with this technician. Accidents can occur anywhere and any time, and less experienced staff or students may do some really dumb/dangerous things in the lab, particularly when supervisors are not around.

So, the answer to the question I posed initially is not completely straightforward. The PI is not legally obligated to excuse the technician from working after hours, since this was never promised during the interview. On the other hand, the PI failed to ensure that the technician understood the after-hours requirement for the position. So the PI bears some responsibility for the situation and therefore shouldn’t just turn down the request. The PI is also obligated to ensure the safety of her staff.  The correct response is to address the technician's concerns about safety and to find a solution that does not jeopardize the PI's research program.

In the future, the PI should ensure that new hires understand (and acknowledge) the duties and expectations of the job.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

PI Precautions

This post continues the discussion about what a PI is obligated to do in the event her technician asks to be excused from working after hours.  See previous two posts for background.  In this post, I suggest some basic precautions that the PI should have taken. 

1. Job description. It is always a good idea to spell out in writing (even if your institution doesn’t require it) what the official duties are for each position in the lab and specifically what this work entails—working long hours, travel involving overnight stays, exposure to bad weather or hazardous conditions, etc. These specifics should be part of any job description and explained verbally to job candidates. To be doubly sure, a PI can request the new employee’s signature (or email response) on the job description, acknowledging that they understand the duties and have agreed to them. This precaution will avoid future disagreements over who said what and when.

2. Other staff. Applying policies unequally among staff is a good way to create a disgruntled lab group, or even stimulate an employment discrimination suit. The solution here is simple:  apply all policies equally.   This means that if a PI excuses one technician from working after hours, then the option must be extended to all of them. If research depends on staff being able to work after hours, then the PI would want to avoid having to offer this option. If this expectation is made clear to job applicants and expressly stated in the duties, then there will be less likelihood that employees will ask to be excused.

3. Safety. First, the PI must ensure that her lab and staff are meeting basic safety and OSHA regulations. This is to protect them and the PI (in the event of an incident).

a. At a minimum, the PI should have protocols in place for dealing with likely emergencies (chemical spills, fire, etc.)—and these protocols should be in writing (preferably in a binder readily accessible in the lab).

b. There should be emergency numbers posted prominently.

c. Standard safety equipment (coats, goggles, masks, eyewash station, etc.) should be available and in working order.

d. MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheets) should be available for all chemicals in the lab and compiled in a single place—for easy access.

e. I would also suggest holding regular lab group meetings to go over safety protocols (minimum once per year or whenever there is a large turnover of staff)—and document that you held this meeting.

f. If your staff does fieldwork, there should be a standard protocol such as filing a “float plan”, holding a “tailgate safety meeting” prior to departure, having emergency phone numbers in hand, cell phone or satellite phone, first aid kits, etc.

g. It’s a good idea for all staff to have taken first aid and CPR training. My agency requires it and annual refreshers. Many institutions arrange for such training through the Red Cross.

h. If your group handles especially hazardous materials or operates special machinery or vehicles, ensure that all have received official training and adhere to regulations.

If the PI has done all the above, then in the event of an incident, there will be less chance that the PI will be blamed for negligence. It’s not a guarantee, of course, but failure to have done these things can be used against the PI in the event of litigation. It is unwise to assume that an accident is unlikely or that a subordinate (or their family) is unlikely to sue in the event of injury or death. A PI must assume that accidents will happen no matter how benign the setting or how careful the staff.

In terms of building security, a PI cannot usually afford to install surveillance cameras or alarms, hire security guards, or implement elaborate building access restrictions. However, these are all suggestions that can be made to the institution—and the PI should be sure to document that she made these suggestions and what their response was.

All of the above suggestions are what should be done prior to being faced with the hypothetical issue of the fearful employee. But they don’t really provide a solution to this case. The next post provides a more specific solution.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Decisions, Decisions

This post is a follow-up to the previous post that described a hypothetical situation in which a PI has hired a new technician who later expresses a fear of working after hours in a nearly deserted building. Others of the staff regularly work outside of normal hours because of the nature of the research. I asked if the PI is obligated to excuse her from those duties.

The majority of readers (so far) think that the PI is not obligated to comply with this request (see poll at bottom of page).

In this post, I will begin to examine the issue, and in succeeding posts suggest some solutions to this specific situation.

There are several aspects to this issue. Let’s take a look at each one.

1. Job description. First, the PI must consider what this employee’s job description says and what was said when she was hired. If the employee expressed a concern about working after hours during the interview, and she was told that she would not be required to do so, then there is an implied contract.  The PI may be obligated to uphold this contract. If the PI (or HR) specified, on the other hand, that she would occasionally or routinely have to work after hours (or whatever the case might be), then she accepted the job under that agreement. 

2. Other staff.  The PI must apply any policy equally to all staff in her lab.  She cannot let one staff member be excused from some aspect of work and not extend the same possibility to everyone (exceptions might be for someone who is handicapped, for example, but this would have likely been discussed upon hiring). Failure to do this could lead to a discrimination lawsuit and land the PI in very hot water.

3. Safety. Even if the PI thinks that safety is not a real issue in the building or whatever the work situation entails, failure to take proper precautions could expose the PI (and institution) to legal problems if an accident occurs.  The PI is responsible for the safety of those staff she supervises (and anyone who spends time in her lab). Anyone working alone in an office, a lab, or in the field can have an accident (chemical spill, falls), suffer some health problem (allergic reaction, heart attack), or be the victim of a criminal act. Not only does the PI not want any harm to come to her staff on ethical/moral grounds, she also does not want to put herself into a position of liability. If an accident occurs, the first thing that the institution will investigate is whether the PI followed safety regulations (OSHA and institutional regulations) and did everything to ensure staff safety. If the PI hasn’t taken reasonable precautions, guess who is going to be blamed?

In the next post, I'll consider some options a PI may consider in dealing with this situation.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

You Are Excused?

Hypothetical situation:

You are a PI and have hired a technician (female). Your lab's research occasionally requires work after hours and on weekends to monitor experiments or to complete critical analyses. After a few months, the new technician expresses fear at working in a nearly deserted building and asks to be excused from such work. The security at your workplace is not great, but there have never been any "incidents".  You have other staff who routinely perform after-hours research.  Are you obligated to agree to the new technician's personal preferences?

What do you think? Express your overall decision in the poll (for results, see bottom of page).  I'll provide my thoughts on the issue later.

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.