Saturday, September 29, 2012

How Do You Illustrate A Ph.D.?

Or more accurately, how do you illustrate the process leading to a Ph.D. and what that degree means in the scheme of things.

Below is a reproduction of "The Illustrated Guide to a Ph.D." by Matt Might.  He has a website chockfull of lots of information for the graduate student, from how to get into graduate school in the first place to how to get a great reference letter.  There is even advice for those of you who have managed to graduate and get a job.

Here's the guide, which is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 License (meaning that you can use and modify for non-commercial purposes, but need to attribute the author).

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Is Your Writing Readable?

Some novice writers think that the more abstruse their writing is (and filled with technical jargon), the more knowledgeable they will appear.
If you’ve read my other posts on the topic, you know that I think the opposite is true.  The mark of a skilled author is the ability to write simple, concise narratives that provide clear, unambiguous interpretations of their work.  This characteristic is true of both the technical writer (e.g., of scientific papers) and the writer of non-technical articles.  However, if your target audience is the non-specialist, you need to strive for even clearer, jargon-free writing.
In previous posts, I’ve talked at length about various writing topics (you can do a search on “writing” to find them on this blog).  In this post, I’d like to mention a useful tool that can be used to assess and improve the readability of your writing, whether for technical or popular outlets.
The tool I’m talking about is the “readability statistics” found in some word-processing programs, including Word.  This function is found within the Grammar and Spell-Checking option.  The readability statistics function is not turned on by default, but you can activate it by selecting Options under the Tools menu (or Preferences for the Mac).  You then select the Grammar and Spelling tab and check the box “show readability statistics”.  Then all you do is select Spelling and Grammar under the Tools menu in Word, and you will automatically get readability statistics for any text you select.  
The two readability indices are the Flesch Reading Ease Score and the Flesch-Kincaid Score.  The Flesch Reading Ease Score rates text on a 100 point scale; the higher the score, the easier it is to understand the document; and for most non-technical documents, you want to aim for a score around 60 or 70.  The Flesch-Kincaid Score rates text on a US school grade level.  For example, a score of 8 means that an eighth grader can understand the document.  Note that earlier Microsoft Word versions artificially capped this at grade 12; the original formula extended the scoring to grade 17.  Later PC versions go above 12, but the Mac version has not been fixed to my knowledge. 
 Let’s give it a try with an example from the government website, Plain Language (for some hilarious reading, check this site out).  This is the “before” version of a government regulation: 
 “Under 25 CFR §1.4(b), the Secretary of the Interior may in specific cases or in specific geographic areas, adopt or make applicable to off-reservation Indian lands all or any part of such laws, ordinances, codes, resolutions, rules or other regulations of the State and political subdivisions in which the land is located as the Secretary shall determine to be in the best interest of the Indian owner or owners in achieving the highest and best use of such property.” 
 If we examine the readability statistics (left), we are not surprised to find that it gets a zero score for Flesch Reading Ease and a 12 for the Flesch-Kincaid score.    
 Here is how it was improved:
Section 1.4(b) of 25 CFR allows us to make State or local laws or regulations apply to your off-reservation lands. We will do this only if we find that it will help you to achieve the highest and best use of your lands.” 
 I think this version is more readable than the original, and the readability statistics confirm this.  The Flesch Reading Ease Score has been increased to 67.2 and a 9th grader should be able to understand it.
Let’s try a science example.  Here is a sentence from Margaret Mead’s “Coming of Age in Samoa” (which I’ve analyzed in a previous post): 
 "For it must be realised by any student of civilisation that we pay heavily for our heterogeneous, rapidly changing civilisation; we pay in high proportions of crime and delinquency, we pay in the conflicts of youth, we pay in an ever-increasing number of neuroses, we pay in the lack of a coherent tradition without which the development of art is sadly handicapped." 
Its Flesch Reading Ease Score is 29.3, and someone would need a 12th grade education (or higher) to understand it.  Part of the reason it gets a low score is that the sentence is long and convoluted.  If we change it a bit, we can raise the score:
 “Any student should realize that our complex and changing civilization costs us in terms of greater crime and more neuroses.  This situation leads to a lack of coherent traditions, which hampers the development of art”.
This revision raises the Flesch Reading Ease Score to 51.2 and a 10th grader should understand it.
Now, let me hasten to add that I’m just using this as an example of how these readability indices work.  I’m not suggesting that Mead’s sentence was poorly written and needed revision.  In fact, in my previous post, I used this example to illustrate the additive style of sentence construction….one that usually adds to the emotion or “atmosphere” of a piece.  
The point here is that you can use such readability indices to see how much mental effort a reader needs to exert to understand a statement you’ve written.  There are certainly limitations to the use of such indices, and there are critics (see this paper for a more detailed description of these indices and the main criticisms).  You definitely don’t want to write solely to meet these or other readability statistics, which have their limitations; you should always write to your audience and use common-sense in constructing your narratives.  However, I’ve found such statistics to be useful especially in taking a description and seeing if it would be understandable by a non-specialist.  
And there are other statistics given along with the two scores discussed above. 
Another useful bit of information that comes with the readability statistics is the number of passive sentences (see screenshots above).  Technical writing tends to use this type of construction, but should strive to use an active construction whenever feasible.  Word’s readability statistics includes an estimate of the proportion of passive sentences in a passage.
Many people are confused, however, about what is meant by active versus passive construction (see this post for more discussion).  People often think that an active construction involves the use of first-person pronouns: “We reviewed the data in multiple studies.” As opposed to : “The data in multiple studies were reviewed.”  Yes, these are examples of active versus passive constructions, respectively, but not because of the personal pronoun.  The distinction is whether or not the action of the subject is expressed in the verb.   
To illustrate, here’s another example of a passive construction: “Increased salinity was found to cause a shift in species composition.” Here, the subject of the sentence receives the action expressed in the verb.  
 Here is the active construction of that sentence: “Increased salinity caused a shift in species composition. “ In this version, the subject of the sentence performs the action expressed in the verb.  No first-person pronouns are involved.
Unfortunately, the calculation of passive sentences in Word sometimes underestimates the percentage (for a longer discussion, see the reference above).  However, it’s still useful, especially if it encourages the writer to be aware of passive versus active sentence construction.  Overall, the active construction tends to be shorter and easier to understand.  It also leads to more dynamic writing that is more enjoyable to read.  Technical writing typically must fit into a word limit set by a journal.  By reducing the proportion of passive sentences, you can often reduce the word count of your document and at the same time increase its readability.  The total words in a passage, as well as number of words per sentence, are also given in the readability statistics.  These statistics can be very helpful when you need to reduce the length of your narrative.
If you’ve never tried the readability statistics offered in Word or other programs, give it a try, especially if you frequently get the criticism that your writing is difficult to understand. 

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Thoughts about Co-Authorship

It's Sunday, and I've spent the week finishing revisions of a couple of papers.  I'm lead author on one paper and about fifth on a multi-author paper.  Over the years, I've noticed that some co-authors make more of a contribution to writing and revising a paper than others. However, most co-authors (at least in my experience) leave most of the writing up to the lead author and usually make only limited edits to the various versions sent around for everyone's input.

Is this a good or bad thing?

First, I should say that I'm one of those co-authors who contribute to the writing regardless of my author position and at least try to do a thorough edit to catch misspellings, grammatical and punctuation errors, and awkward sentence constructions.  If there are issues with the content and interpretation, then I will make additional comments and suggestions for revision.  If the paper's topic is entirely within my field of expertise, I will typically go further and do some rewriting and reorganizing as well as adding relevant literature that may have been overlooked.

My thoughts are that if my name appears on the paper, then I am responsible for its content.  Many scientists, including me, collaborate with other people, some of whom may be virtual strangers (I've never personally met some co-authors).  When you don't have first-hand knowledge of someone, you then must be a bit more cautious in signing off on a manuscript.  If you were one of the project leaders and/or senior scientist in the group, then you likely will share responsibility with the lead author for the integrity of the paper.  Most journals agree with this thinking, although some distinguish between co-authors who are responsible for the entire paper and those who've made a more limited contribution.  In any case, anyone who is not willing to accept responsibility should not be an author.

Consequently, I carefully assess any drafts sent to me and question any shaky aspects. You would think that lead authors would welcome the help, and many do.  Some, however, do not like co-authors to make substantial (or sometimes even modest) revisions.  I'm talking about the common situation in which the lead author writes an initial draft of the entire paper and then sends it out to co-authors for their comments.

Where I've run into difficulty in the past is if there is a disagreement over interpretation of the data, although occasionally it's been due to a difference in "writing style".  A co-author may be a bit too exuberant or expansive in interpretation, and I think we need to be more cautious, due to limitations in the data.  It's a fine line, especially when trying for a more prestigious journal that is interested in more sensational.......I mean exciting, results.  Colleagues who are more cautious like me also say that they have similar difficulties with some co-authors.

There are also those situations in which the lead author is not a very good writer or perhaps has not put sufficient effort into the writing.  The worst-case scenario is when the lead author has done an abysmal job writing the first draft and/or has misinterpreted the data.  Worse, they think the paper is fine as is and want to submit it immediately (they just need your stamp of approval to proceed).  I've found myself in such a situation, and I can say it is not fun.

Do you:

1.  Return the paper immediately with the brief (written) message that they need to rewrite it?
2.  Have a talk with them and explain your concerns in detail?
3.  Revise it yourself and hope they are willing to compromise?
4.  Hope one of the other co-authors will do either #1, 2, or 3?
5.  Let them submit it and hope the journal reviewers/editors point out the flaws?  

There is no really painless way to handle this.  However, as I suggest above, if your name is on the paper, you have the responsibility to ensure the information is accurate and unbiased and that the writing is reasonably good...before it's submitted.  My choices have always been #2 or #3, depending on the circumstances.

As lead author, I take most of the responsibility for writing the first draft and revisions, but am grateful for any input from co-authors.  Most of my co-authors have been willing and responsive, although few have invested the kind of writing effort that I typically provide as co-author.  Exceptions are when co-authors are assigned specific sections to write, for example, in a synthesis paper.  I've had mostly good experiences with such situations, but know others who've had difficulties getting co-authors to pull their weight.  You are then faced with the choice of writing those sections yourself and whether to drop someone from the author list.

In the end, you want to collaborate with people who complement your mode of writing and meet your expectations for co-authorship.  If you've never worked together before, it helps to establish the authorship ground rules before starting a writing project.  

Monday, September 10, 2012

Help Wikipedia Improve Articles about Women in Science

I just came across an announcement about an "edit-a-thon" workshop sponsored by the Royal Society, London and with the goal of improving articles in Wikipedia about women in science.  It will be held October 19, 2012, 14.30 to 20.00 at the Royal Society's library.  The plan is for attendees to work together on pre-selected Wikipedia articles to edit them, using the library's resources, which include a collection of printed works about women in science (e.g., biographies).

Here's the link:

I imagine few of us will be able to attend this event, and there does not seem to be a way to attend electronically.   However, the basic idea of the workshop seems to be good and could be extended to develop a movement to encourage those who have the knowledge and editing expertise to write or improve Wikipedia articles about women in science.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Using Barcodes at Scientific Conferences

You may have noticed that some people are incorporating mobile barcodes (QR (quick response) codes) into their presentations and posters. Instead of handing out flyers or reprints that people invariably lose (or throw away) on the way home, you can insert a custom barcode on a corner of your poster, which when scanned with a smartphone, will direct the user to your website or other URL where they can access the information of interest (your profile, a reprint, a detailed method, a pdf of your poster or presentation).

This option not only saves a few trees, it leads people to other information about you and your work. The image inserted into this post is a barcode I generated at one of the websites that provides the service for free.  When scanned with a barcode scanner, this takes someone directly to this blog.

You can also download a barcode reader for your smartphone.  Then you're all set to provide a direct link on your poster to additional information about you or your work and to access similar information provided by others via barcodes on their posters. On your professional website (you have one, right?), you simply set up a page that contains the relevant information and use the page URL to generate the unique barcode.

You can also use barcodes on your business card or your CV to direct people to your website. Another use for barcodes at conferences is to direct job hunters to a website with detailed information about applying.  Instead of posting a flyer listing a long URL that people may not copy correctly, add a barcode that they can scan with their phone.  Just generate a unique code for the webpage advertising the job, fellowship, or other item of interest and add it to the flyer.

Not everyone has a smartphone, however.  To help these people out, you can use a shortened URL instead of a barcode.  Note the text just below the barcode in the above image.  This is a shortened URL that is automatically generated along with the barcode.  If you copy and paste that text into your search engine address line, it takes you to my blog.  You can also generate a short URL at sites such as Google url shortener.  Here is a short URL for my last post:  This shortened version of the original URL ( is much easier for someone to copy and to tweet.

Have any of you readers used barcodes yet?  If so, how have you used them?