Wednesday, December 18, 2013

It Is Important To Note That…And Other Unnecessary Phrases

I recently received a manuscript that was overly wordy. Throughout the paper, the author had sprinkled completely unnecessary phrases or phrases that could be expressed with a single word. For example, here is a list of phrases that can be replaced with the word "because":

-due to the fact that
-owing to the fact that
-in view of the fact that
-the reason why is that

This particular manuscript was unusually encumbered with these and other annoying phrases (it is important to note that, it is of interest to the reader that, it is indeed of significance that). I pointed out a few of these overblown phrases and explained why the author might want to eliminate them (and perhaps be on the alert for them in future writings). Inexperienced writers often are unaware that wordiness is not a virtue. They repeat the important-sounding phrases they've read in other papers. Unfortunately, they add nothing to the paper, except length. In other cases, I suspect that it is simple laziness. Lazy writers know better but don't make the effort to search out and remove extraneous words—perhaps expecting others (co-authors, reviewers, editors) to do it for them. For some, flowery writing is a habit; they see nothing wrong with their pet phrases.

Sometimes I slip and use a wordy phrase when writing a first draft; however, I usually catch them during revision. Here are a few ways to help purge your writing of wordiness:

1. Make at least one thorough reading of a manuscript to look specifically for such phrases (as well as convoluted wording that could be stated more simply).

2. Some of these phrases are innocuous and easily overlooked. It takes a fresh eye to spot them. Putting the draft aside for a few days or weeks can give you some distance and make it easier to root out those obnoxious phrases.

3. If you have a habit of using certain phrases, one easy solution is to do a word search for them.

4. Read your manuscript aloud; problematic phrases and awkward sentences become more obvious.

5. How do you determine if a phrase is unnecessary? See if the sentence or paragraph is understandable without it (or with a one-word substitute).

Want more? Here's a list of 30 obnoxious phrases.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Bizarre, Sexist Advert for Scientific Equipment

In the "what were they thinking?" category:
Be sure to watch until 1:13 min.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Where's The Best Place To Be A Woman?

The Global Gender Gap Report (2013) is out if you want to check. Or there is a nice interactive graphic on the BBC World News site that summarizes the gender gap in five categories (health, economics, politics, education, and overall). You can scroll over countries to see the names and individual ranking.

The gender gap (overall average) is narrowest in the following ranked countries:

1. Iceland
2. Finland
3. Norway
4. Sweden
5. Philippines
6. Ireland
7. New Zealand
8. Denmark
9. Switzerland
10. Nicaragua

The UK, Canada, and the U.S. ranked 18th, 20th, and 23rd, respectively. Nordic countries made a near clean sweep of the top five. However, I don't think I'll be moving; just can't take the light deficit and cold.

Thanks to Chris S. for the link.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Dashed and Confused

Confused about how to use hyphens, dashes (en, em), and minus signs?

I receive lots of manuscripts to review and often see that the author has no clue about when to use a hyphen or a dash (or even that there is a difference). In a few cases, they may realize that the hyphen (-) is too short to use in a place where the en (–) or em (—) dash is required and attempt to recreate it by using two hyphens (--).

There are lots of arcane rules for using these symbols in particular situations, but here's a brief overview that generally holds for most uses.

Hyphen (-): use to join words (e.g., in a compound modifier), with certain prefixes, or to separate syllables of a word (e.g, in a line break). Sea-level rise, how-to book, un-American, science com-
munication. Note that compound phrases require a hyphen only when they precede the noun they modify—not when they follow: "The well-known researcher..." vs. "The researcher is well known."

The hyphen key is located on the keyboard between the 0 and = keys.

Minus sign (−): use to indicate a mathematical operation (subtraction). The minus symbol is longer than a hyphen and similar in length and height to the plus and equals sign symbols.

In word processing programs, you can find the minus sign in the symbol browser.

En dash (–): use to indicate a range of values or in certain word combinations. 5–10 meters, pp. 51–65, Houston–Dallas route, Comet Hale–Bopp.

The en dash is created on a Mac by holding down the option key and pressing the hyphen key. On a PC, you can can create it by holding down the ALT key and typing 0150 on the numeric keyboard. Also found in the symbol library in MS Word.

Em dash (—): use to set off or emphasize a strong break in thought in a sentence. "We all piled into the car—not stopping to worry about our wet clothes—and drove straight back to the city." It's also acceptable to use the en dash in this case, but with spaces: "We all piled into the car – not stopping to worry about our wet clothes – and drove straight back to the city."

The em dash is created on a Mac using shift-option while pressing the hyphen key. On a PC, you can get it by holding down ALT and typing 0151 on a numeric keypad. You can also find it in the symbol library.

For more detailed guidance in the use of dashes and hyphens (and other interesting writing tips), see this post at The Belligerent Copywriters' Guide.

Monday, September 23, 2013

How To Write A Boring Scientific Paper

Someone sent me a link recently to a 2007 paper entitled, "How to Write Consistently Boring Literature", by Kaj Sand-Jensen (Univ. of Copenhagen). I met the author many years ago and can quite imagine him writing such a tongue-in-cheek article.

The first line of the abstract reveals his motivation for writing it: "Although scientists typically insist that their research is very exciting and adventurous when they talk to laymen and prospective students, the allure of this enthusiasm is too often lost in the predictable, stilted structure and language of their scientific publications."

The paper is divided into four sections:

How to turn a gifted writer into a boring scientist
Why are scientific publications boring?
Ten recommendations for boring scientific writing
Alternative writing style and variable outlets

The first two sections are quite short and serve to introduce the main content in the third section. Here are the ten recommendations guaranteed to make your writing dull, incomprehensible, and impersonal:

1. Avoid focus.
2. Avoid originality and personality.
3. Write l  o  n  g contributions.
4. Remove most implications and all speculations.
5. Leave out illustrations, particularly good ones.
6. Omit necessary steps of reasoning.
7. Use many abbreviations and technical terms.
8. Suppress humor and flowery language.
9. Degrade species and biology to statistical elements.
10. Quote numerous papers for self-evident statements.

I find most of these suggestions to be quite useful if your goal is to write a boring paper. Not so sure about the "flowery language". I find that boring writers are adept at producing ornate and excessively verbose narratives. Perhaps what is meant is "colorful", "entertaining", or "provocative"?

There are some additional recommendations I might add:

11. Include all data collected, no matter how irrelevant, and describe it in excruciating detail.
12. At the beginning, fail to articulate your questions, objectives, or hypotheses.
13. At the end, fail to address the questions, objectives, or hypotheses posed at the beginning.

The latter two are essential if your goal is to be incomprehensible.

In the final section, the author suggests some alternative outlets for scientists who wish to have more freedom in their writing styles: books and essays. To those suggestions, I might add: blogs.

Although the article is humorous, it has a serious message, articulated in the last line: "In an atmosphere of increasing competition among educations and scientific disciplines, I argue here that we desperately need more accessible and readable scientific contributions to attract bright new scientists and produce integrated understanding."

If you would like a good laugh (and also learn something about how to avoid being so boring in your scientific writing), you might take a look at this paper. Here's a link to it.

In the next post, I will talk about a new app and book (by Randy Olson) for communication-challenged scientists.

Image Credit: photograph by DrDoyenne; quote from the paper reviewed in this post.

Friday, September 6, 2013

How to Read a Scientific Paper

I remember the point in my graduate training when I realized that I was capable of reading and understanding scientific articles outside my field, even those that involved methods and terminology I was not familiar with. This was quite a revelation to me at the time because I was under the misapprehension that, once I completed my training, I would only be able to critically review papers in my own field or closely related fields.

What changed my mind was a course I took (plant biochemistry) in which the professor assigned published articles on a variety of topics to us to read and discuss. Quite a few of the papers involved molecular and other techniques that were as mysterious to me as the process of flying might be to an elephant. Being a conscientious student, however, I endeavored to teach myself how to read and understand scientific papers about unfamiliar topics. To make a long story short, I developed a procedure not unlike the one recently posted by Jennifer Raff, a Research Fellow in Anthropology at the University of Texas (which I'll get to in a moment).

With my method, I was able to effectively critique all the assigned papers and to enthusiastically participate in class discussions (we were graded on our class participation). I discovered that not only could I hold my own with the rest of the class (mostly biochemistry grad students who were more familiar with such articles), I was able to point out critical flaws in the studies that no one else saw. My strong background in statistics was particularly useful in poking holes in experimental designs (to my surprise, most of the assigned papers reported no statistics whatsoever, not even standard error bars). When the professor began calling on me for my assessment of a paper's experimental approach and whether the conclusions were supported by the data, I knew I would never wonder again whether I could understand any scientific paper and whether its findings were valid.

If someone with scientific research training can feel inadequate when faced with an unfamiliar topic, imagine how non-scientists must feel–particularly science writers who are assigned the task of writing a newspaper or magazine article about a new discovery reported in a scientific journal. To help such folks, Jennifer Raff has written a nice blog post called "How to read and understand a scientific article: a guide for non-scientists".

Her post is not only a good guide for non-scientists, it is an excellent primer for science students and even scientific researchers wanting to improve their skills at reviewing papers.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Presentation Myths: Tell a Joke to Lighten the Mood

In this latest series of posts, I've been talking about myths surrounding public speaking, specifically focusing on the scientific talk. In this post, I thought I would tackle the idea that a speaker should tell a joke or a funny story during professional presentations to put the audience at ease. Is this a good idea or a disaster waiting to happen?

There is nothing inherently wrong with being funny during a formal presentation, especially when the material being presented is deadly dull. God knows, the audience is likely desperate for something to break the monotony or seriousness of the meeting. The problem is that this is sometimes very difficult to pull off.

Some speakers are naturally funny or have a knack for telling amusing stories. I know colleagues (and students) who could easily become successful stand-up comedians. They are not the problem. It's the rest of us scientists who are so serious and, let's face it, deadly dull. Of course, it's always possible to be so dull as to be hilarious, e.g., Ben Stein in the movie Ferris Bueller's Day Off:

By the way, that stint as an economics professor in this movie launched Stein's career in film (before that, he was a speechwriter for Presidents Nixon and Ford, among other things).

But back to professional talks. The problem comes in when a speaker tells a joke or a funny story that really has no bearing on the speaker's topic. It almost always falls flat. Some even tell highly inappropriate jokes that worked on their beer-buddies (so everyone must like it, right?). The most recent, public example of of a joke-gone-wrong was the knock-knock joke told by one of George Zimmerman's attorneys during the opening statements.

The biggest sin is often not that the joke is inappropriate but that it isn't funny.

Sometimes it's just the wrong audience. A memorable example occurred at a botanical conference and during a talk about gravitropism in plant roots (how plant roots grow in a downward direction). The speaker explained that he had figured out that the chemical signal guiding root growth was dependent in part upon a mucous coating on the root tip (that facilitated ion movement, I think). He had tried all sorts of media in an attempt to replicate this mucous material, but the only one that seemed to work was the "personal lubricant", K-Y jelly (interestingly, the main ingredient is methyl cellulose). He then proceeded to describe his experience buying up large quantities of this product at his local Walgreens and the exchange he had with the checkout clerk. It was hilarious. However, no one laughed, except me, as I seem to recall. The audience was composed of mostly botanists (who are not known for their sense of humor). Upon further reflection, I suspected that this particular audience failed to find this story funny, not because they thought it was inappropriate but because they did not get the reference to K-Y jelly and what it is commonly used for. At least that's my working hypothesis. Perhaps some botanist readers would like to rebut?

The botany story might have gone over much better with another audience. But it was the high point of that meeting for me. In fact, it's been over twenty years since I heard that talk, and I still remember it (both the technical and the humorous aspects)....which relates to my previous post about telling a good story.

My own experience with using humor in professional talks is mixed. Humor only seems to work for me when it is unplanned. All the times I planned to tell an amusing story or make a humorous aside, the audience did not laugh. However, when I have added something on the spur of the moment, even when I was being serious, I've gotten a big laugh.

For example, I was once giving a talk at a conference on restoration of tropical forests and was describing my field site. It was located in Florida adjacent to a golf course. I showed an aerial photo of the site and described how I and my students had to trek across the golf course to get to our study site and were sometimes stopped by the groundskeeper who thought we were illegal aliens (we were dressed in field clothes and carried garbage bags). I thought that would get a laugh. It didn't. Then I later mentioned, off-handedly, that my students, on their first excursion to this site, always expressed fear of snakes, alligators, spiders, or some similar beast. I told the audience that I tried to allay their fears by telling the student that the most dangerous creatures out there were senior citizens lobbing golf balls into the forest. I was serious...getting beaned by a golf ball was much more likely than encountering a dangerous animal. It was a spur-of-the-moment statement that got a tremendous laugh. Go figure.

I suppose the take-home message is that humor can be used in a professional talk but it takes good timing, the right audience, and perhaps some comedic talent (but not always) for a successful outcome. If you have an example (successful or not), please share. We scientists need a good laugh now and then.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Presentation Myths: Tell a Good Story

Most of us plan our scientific talks the same way we write our technical papers. We use the typical paper format of introduction/objectives, methods, results, and conclusions–in that order–to design our seminars and conference presentations. This approach is the one that is expected by a technical audience and that the presenter usually finds most logical and convenient, especially when designing a presentation based on a paper in preparation. We simply follow, in a linear fashion, the steps we took in conceiving and conducting the study.

Some would argue that a traditional format is the correct (and only acceptable) way to give a formal talk about scientific research. Here are my objectives: 1, 2, 3; here are my methods: 1, 2, 3; here are my results: 1, 2, 3; here are my conclusions: 1, 2, 3. Any questions? Anything else is unprofessional. I would like to play devil's advocate here for a moment and consider whether this viewpoint is totally justified and whether there is another approach that might work better–and that is to tell a story. This idea is not a new one. Many experts advise speakers that the best way to capture and hold an audience's attention is to tell a story. The idea of storytelling as a professional presentation device has become fairly widespread in business circles. Maybe even to the point of attaining myth status (hence, my title).

Audiences love stories–presumably even audiences composed of scientists. We enjoy a good story just as much as regular folks. But should we use a story to present scientific information? What kind of story are we talking about? Let's explore the idea a bit.

Some of you may have heard of Nancy Duarte, the guru of presentations. If not, you might want to check out her books, Slide:ology and Resonate. Anyway, she suggests that there are three things you must do to ensure a successful presentation: 1) keep the audience in mind, 2) understand your role as the presenter, and 3) tell a good story. Her point is that to really connect with an audience, a speaker needs to tell a compelling that appeals to that particular audience and that ensures all audience members hear and understand the message. A good story helps a speaker connect with the audience and helps the audience understand the content of the presentation.

In a scientific presentation, we are presenting facts and figures, for the most part. I'm sure there are scientists out there who want to present only the facts and sneer at the suggestion that those facts might be presented in the form of a story or in a way that helps the audience follow the material being presented. You've probably heard such speakers. They jump right into their talk without providing any background or stopping to explain complex concepts or terminology; they assume that the audience understands why their research is important. If someone in the audience is not up to speed, then too bad. This example sits at one extreme along a continuum in the connection between speaker and audience. At the other extreme is the situation in which the speaker has made not only an intellectual connection with the audience, but an emotional one as well.

This is where storytelling comes in. Its purpose is to enhance the connection between speaker and audience. A story will elicit some type of emotional reaction: surprise, intrigue, laughter, curiosity, excitement. But does a more compelling, humorous, or interesting storyline really help make our information more appealing, understandable, or memorable for an audience?

I've been pondering this question and how to go about telling a good story in a scientific presentation for some time. For example, is it possible to make slight changes in the traditional format of scientific presentations so that the speaker addresses all three of Duarte's suggestions? The idea is to capture the audience's attention right from the beginning and make them pay attention through to the end. I don't think it requires much of a change in the traditional format to turn what could be a boring presentation into one that makes the audience sit up and pay attention. There are a few ways to do this. Some presenters tell a personal story, e.g., how they became interested in their topic or what their motivation was. Other speakers use humor, either by delivering a "tongue-in-cheek" talk or by telling an opening joke or amusing story (that relates to the topic; just telling a random joke usually falls flat).

Another approach is to spark the audience's curiosity by posing the work in the form of a broader question or a deeper mystery. You might even combine the mystery and personal story approaches by starting your presentation this way:  "I was at my field site (or in the lab), finishing up measurements, and made an interesting observation.....I wondered what was going I decided to conduct a little side-experiment....the results of that experiment turned out to be the most important discovery of my career."

That is telling a story....and one that will get the immediate attention of everyone in the room. They will want to hear how the story turns out.

If your research result is not so career-changing, you might say, "That experiment led to a most surprising conclusion about [insert research topic]." Or you might say, "That experiment led to the most interesting aspect of my dissertation research." Then you can proceed with the typical format of introduction, methods, results, and conclusions to describe your study. At the end, you would return to your "story" and perhaps explain how this has led you into an exciting new area of research or to new research collaborations. Variations on this theme might be: ...that experiment opened up a whole new area of research for me....that experiment led me to question my whole approach to [insert science topic]....that experiment made me question the well-known theory of [insert theory]...that experiment showed me how I had gone wrong in previous attempts....etc.

Most audiences will find such personal comments not only acceptable but will remember your talk because you injected some emotion into it (in contrast with all the dry, passionless talks they will attend at that conference).

You may have heard that there are only 7 (or 20 or 36, depending on the source) basic plots in storytelling. Here is a list of 20 (from 20 Master Plots by Ronald Tobias) that might be fun to ponder as a possible storyline for a scientific presentation (note: I'm not necessarily recommending these; this is just a mental exercise to get us thinking about story lines):

1) Quest
2) Adventure
3) Pursuit
4) Rescue
5) Escape
6) Revenge
7) The Riddle
8) Rivalry
9) Underdog
10) Temptation
11) Metamorphosis
12) Transformation
13) Maturation
14) Love
15) Forbidden Love
16) Sacrifice
17) Discovery
18) Wretched Excess
19) Ascension
20) Descension

The example I gave above might fall into the Riddle, Metamorphosis, Transformation, or Discovery type of plot. Some of these plots seem tailor-made for science (e.g., Rivalry, Sacrifice), whereas others may be inappropriate or inadvisable to use (e.g., Forbidden Love (although this might work for research on reproduction!)).

If you are a student, you might begin your talk by saying that you knew next to nothing about your topic or had a preconceived notion about it....then you conducted your research....and ultimately learned x, y, and z. This approach uses the "Maturation" story plot. If your research involved traveling to Antarctica or to a deep sea vent, then you might be able to use the Adventure plot and interject some interesting side notes about your experiences or the difficulties in acquiring your data. I know that such aspects appeal to scientific audiences because in my own presentations, I often get unexpected comments about the data that I've collected worldwide. The most common comment I get is not about how impressive my dataset (and scope of inference) is, but instead something along the lines of, "Wow, I'm impressed with all the exotic places you've traveled to and worked in." I'm always taken aback by such comments, but it tells me something about what people find interesting and memorable about my work (hopefully, they also find my results interesting).

Not everyone recommends this personal story approach, however, because it puts the speaker at the center of attention instead of the topic of the talk. As Duarte advises, "So many people feel like they’re the central figure — kind of like the hero of the story — because they’re the one talking the most. But in reality, your role is that of a mentor — you should be giving the audience a magical gift or a special tool, or helping them get unstuck in some way."  I agree. In any professional presentation, the topic should be center stage–although it is possible to use a personal story that compliments or enhances the science story, as the examples above illustrate. 

I think a much better (and safer) approach is to tell a story about the science. So how do you tell a story about your research using the science topic as the basis of the plot?

You might begin by considering your research question or hypothesis and then design your story around it. You likely conducted an experiment (or a series of experiments) to test some hypothesis. Try to think of a popular analogy that relates to your hypothesis and use it to introduce your talk. Let me give you an that I saw someone use in a conference presentation. The topic was ecosystem restoration, and the title was something along the lines of "Field of Dreams: If You Build It, Will They Come?" The talk opened with a picture of a baseball field, and the speaker briefly referred to the movie, Field of Dreams, and then described how it related to her question about ecosystem restoration: whether recreating the physical landscape or framework of a particular habitat would naturally lead to colonization by plants and animals typical of that habitat and eventually to restoration of key ecosystem functions. Her research tested this idea. She used the baseball analogy to put a clear image in the audience's that most movie-goers could immediately relate to. The speaker then used a baseball diamond (and the bases) as a framework to make various points throughout the talk. It was very effective from several standpoints. First, the baseball analogy captured the audience's attention and told them that this was not going to be a typical talk....that the presenter had gone to extra effort to help the audience understand her topic (meeting Duarte's first point about keeping the audience in mind). Second, the baseball analogy provided a framework for the talk and put the speaker into the role of a guide or mentor who helped the audience understand the overall concept of her research (meeting Duarte's second point about the role of the speaker). And third, the baseball analogy created an effective storyline (meeting Duarte's third point about telling a good story).

Another effective way to tell a good science story is simply to describe how the research relates to humans. For example, imagine that you conduct research on how to model sea-level rise. Start off by explaining how sea-level rise will impact human communities living along the world's shorelines and how your research will lead to more accurate identification of the most flood-vulnerable areas. That's a story that causes an emotional reaction or emotional connection between the audience and your topic–and only takes a few seconds to relate. Now, people in the audience will understand at a gut level why your research is important, even if they cannot follow all the technical details of your modeling work. Everyone should be able to use this human-interest approach to tell a story about their research. It just takes a bit of effort to make the connection for your audience. Don't assume they will know it; and even if they do, they will appreciate your pointing it out, especially if you tell it well.

You can also tell a story by putting your research into a historical perspective. Describe how previous discoveries or insights have led up to your question or hypothesis. The audience will then wonder how your story will turn out. Will your work add to that history? Will it overturn long-held dogma? Audiences always appreciate having things put into a historical perspective, even those who are intimately familiar with the topic (and especially those who contributed to that history).

Similar to the historical perspective approach, you can also present what is known and what is not known about your topic and then explain how your research attempts to fill that information gap. You can use facts and figures to support your story, but it will still be a story. How will it turn out? Will your data be sufficient to bridge the gap or will more work need to be done?

So does the advice about telling a good story extend to scientific presentations? Or is it just a myth? Well, think about which presentations you've heard that really stuck with you. Did they tell a good story?

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Presentation Myths: I Need a Laser Pointer

I've been periodically writing about presentation myths (see previous posts), and today I thought I would tackle another one:  the need for a laser pointer. Everyone seems to want to use one, even those speakers who clearly cannot hold the light point steadily enough for the audience to pick out what it is the presenter is trying to emphasize. I know a few colleagues whose hands are so unsteady that the laser light point literally jumps all over the screen and momentarily touches on every datapoint in view. Which one are we supposed to focus on?

Actually, the laser user I describe above is only one of several categories and subcategories. The category I call Unsteady Hands includes people who are nervous and are literally shaking from fear; people whose hands have a modest, involuntary tremor (either pathological or not); and those unfortunates who suffer from both. There is really not much these groups can do to eliminate the shaking. You would think that such people would say to themselves that this bit of technology just isn't working for them. But you'd be wrong. Instead, they resort to maneuvers such as holding the pointer with both hands or steadying the hand holding the pointer against the podium. This often doesn't work and draws attention to the fact that they can't manage with one hand.

Then there are the speakers who use the laser pointer as a reading aid by running the light along the text on the screen while they read the text to the audience. Let's call them the Readers. This group not only commits the sin of filling up their slides with a bunch of text, they add to the audience's suffering by painstakingly reading what the audience members are already perfectly capable of reading...AND they highlight the torture with their laser pointer.

Related to the Readers are the Circlers, who endlessly circle points on their slides while they are talking. Sometimes, they circle things for no good reason. I recall a colleague once commenting during a presentation that he didn't know why he was circling a particular point. Seriously? I imagine the answer is because this is a self-soothing behavior similar to the distracting habit of some speakers who jingle the change in their pockets or who rock back and forth. It's just a visual distracting behavior instead of aural.

The most dangerous are the Wavers, who wildly wave their laser light around the room like Obi Wan Kenobi, sometimes pointing at the ceiling, the walls, or directly into the audience's eyes. My husband is one of these. He's totally oblivious to the fact that he's doing it. He gets carried away with what he's talking about, excitedly points out some key piece of data on the screen with the laser point, then turns to the audience for their reaction....unfortunately while keeping his finger pressed on the laser button. Does he wonder why the audience is ducking?

I'm sure there are other types and variants, but these are the main ones that come to mind. The remote controllers that are used by a speaker to advance to the next slide are often outfitted with laser pointers, which only encourages these laser-challenged users. I say, get rid of them. Or at least invent one that automatically shuts the light off if the laser pointer is moved too erratically or for too long. Any inventors out there?

In the meantime, those of you who cannot hold the laser light point rock-steady should use another means to emphasize your point. For example, use animation to highlight things on your slides. An animated arrow or circle is an effective way to point out a key datapoint. Or animate in important numbers or text in a contrasting color. Don't get carried away, though, or my next post will be about overuse of animation. You should be designing your slides so that it is rarely necessary to point out a key piece of data or text. Important information or data should already be obvious without additional emphasis. If it's extraneous, it shouldn't be on the slide in the first place.

Stay tuned for more presentation myths....

Thursday, July 18, 2013

It's a Jungle Out There

This morning I cleaned out my inbox, deleting without opening, three invitations (to submit manuscripts) from journals I've never heard of. Such invitations have become a weekly occurrence. Even though I've set my spam filter to block emails from repeat offenders, I continue to get new ones.

Coincidentally, I received a link to a blog post about predatory publishers by Ian Woolley writing for Soapbox Science. He goes into detail about the practices of these journals, how to identify them, and about a website that purports to be a watchdog of predatory publishers. You might find it interesting and thought-provoking.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Double-Blind Peer Review

Nature Geoscience recently announced they are offering the option for authors to remain anonymous to reviewers (here is a link to an editorial). Actually, both Nature Geoscience and Nature Climate Change are testing this option. The editorial that describes this new option explains that the journal's editors are convinced that this double-blind process will remove unconscious bias. In particular, the editorial states that "One of our motivations for setting up a double-blind trial is the possibility that female authors are subjected to tougher peer review than their male colleagues–a distinct possibility in view of evidence that subtle gender biases affect assessments of competence, appropriate salaries and other aspects of academic life ((Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA10916474164792012)." 

As the editorial mentions, some reviewers will attempt to guess the identity of the authors. There will be clues in the paper, no matter how careful the author is. A few reviewers will be certain they have guessed correctly (even though they likely will be flat wrong). To what extent this guessing will influence the review, is not clear. Hopefully, most reviewers will simply shrug and focus on the paper's content, which is what they should be doing anyway.

Coincidentally, I just completed a double-blind review (my first) a few days ago for a different journal. Interestingly, the journal did not explain that the paper's authors would not be revealed to me. Instead, I was provided the usual links to the paper, which contained no mention of the authors or their affiliation. Not finding that information anywhere, I finally realized that this was a double-blind review.

Did not knowing the author's identity affect how I conducted the review? Not really. In fact, I liked not knowing who the author was quite a bit more than I expected. I wonder if other reviewers will feel the same way?

Friday, May 10, 2013

Myths About Giving Presentations: Imagine Your Audience Is Naked

I've been discussing myths about giving presentations. A lot of myths deal with fear of public speaking. The recommendation to imagine your audience naked or in their underwear or sitting on the commode is meant to allay the speaker's fear of being on stage. Supposedly, a naked audience is less intimidating. Rumor has it that this idea came from Winston Churchill, who used this technique (among others) to overcome his fears of speaking in public (he also apparently recommended that people practice their speeches in front of a mirror). I could not find confirmation that Churchill was the source of this advice, but it has certainly been repeated extensively.

This is one recommendation, however, that I've never even considered following, even though it has been suggested to me on a number of occasions throughout my career. I've also heard well-meaning teachers and advisors give this advice to students. First off, it sounds incredibly silly. I have enough trouble trying to remember what I should be saying without the extra mental effort that would be required to envision the audience without their clothes on. I could see myself walking onto the stage, turning to face the audience, trying to picture a roomful of naked people, and then blanking out completely on my speech as my head filled with unsavory images of my colleagues in their birthday suits. How would I face them later and carry on a conversation with a straight face?

No, no, no. This is bad advice not only because it's disrespectful of your audience but because it puts a barrier between you and them. Just the opposite of what you should be doing: Connecting with your audience. If you are afraid or contemptuous of your audience, then you are not connecting with them. If you are not connecting, then it's likely they are not paying much attention to what you are saying. Putting up barriers between you and your audience (huddling behind a podium, reading your speech and never looking up, looking at the screen with your back to your audience) makes for a bad presentation. Audience members will understand at a gut level that you are not confident about yourself or your message. People are incredibly skilled at reading body language, even if they are not quite aware of it at an intellectual level.

Along these same lines, I've heard about another "trick" that some speakers use to avoid looking into the audience members' eyes (but appear to be doing so). The trick, apparently, is to look at people's foreheads instead of their eyes. They supposedly cannot tell that you are faking eye contact. I'm not so sure that's true. If you are faking eye contact, you likely are giving off other subtle hints that you are afraid or insincere, which the audience will spot. Avoiding eye contact tells another person that you are not trustworthy and have something to hide. Faking eye contact is also bad advice because it means that you are missing important feedback from your audience. If you are not looking, you don't know if your audience can hear you, can understand you, or is interested in what you are saying. If you see negative expressions, maybe you can't do anything during that speech but it will be valuable information to help you improve your next talk.

Whenever I see someone in the audience frown or shake their head–it is disturbing–but I try not to dwell on it. I continue to look around the room until I see someone nodding or smiling. Another thing to keep in mind is that the audience members could be mirroring your expressions and body language. If you are exhibiting nervous tics or even fear, your audience is going to be uncomfortable and fidgety. If you are relaxed, smiling, and looking straight into your audience's eyes, they will likely feel comfortable and good about themselves and you.

Being nervous is no excuse for failing to make a connection with your audience. In fact, on the few occasions when I've heard a really nervous speaker admit to the audience that they were terrified of speaking, the audience immediately became sympathetic and encouraging. Most people want you to succeed and can empathize with your nervousness. If you have to imagine your audience in any condition, imagine that they admire you and are there to learn something from you.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Coming Soon to a Journal Near You: Video Abstracts

Some of you may be familiar with a new trend at some science journals: video abstracts in which the authors explain their findings on camera, sometimes enhanced with animations or other visually-rich media. A few journals routinely accept and publish video abstracts prepared by authors. Two of these are the New Journal of Physics and Cell, and you can see examples of their video abstracts by going to their websites.

These video abstracts are typically short (3-5 minutes) and often published on a video-sharing site such as YouTube, rather than on the journal website. By providing video summaries on such accessible and popular video-sharing sites, authors make their work widely available. Anyone can access these media without having a subscription or paying a fee.

In addition to the above journals, several other journals are currently "experimenting" with video abstracts. This movement reflects the overall trend in multimedia communication of information on the internet, in combination with the availability of digital devices and software for creating and sharing video.

What are the advantages for an author? By using video, authors can explain their work in a way that they are not able to do in print, such as showing footage of their laboratory setups or methods, field sites, and/or study organisms. The authors are able to provide a more personal explanation of their findings and put them into a broader perspective. By posting a video on the internet, the author can raise the visibility of themselves and their research because search engines rank video high in comparison to text-only descriptions (especially if it's the only video out there on the topic). People searching for information on a topic will be more likely to find their video abstract, and the video will lead viewers to the technical paper. Also, if the video is published on YouTube, the authors are free to embed their video abstract on their own websites, something they often cannot do with their journal publication because of copyright restrictions.

What are the advantages for the reader? Video can provide a richer, more interactive experience for a reader. For non-specialist readers, a video in which the authors explain their work in everyday language  would provide greater insight, spark their curiosity about the topic, and possibly encourage them to learn more about it. For example, as a scientist, I'm interested in keeping up with major discoveries in other fields. Although I'm not likely to read a technical paper about the Higgs boson, I would watch a video that explains what's been discovered and what it means.

Are video abstracts just a fad or will it become a common practice at science journals? Hard to say.

Some video abstracts are well-done:

Others are pretty awful:

Some science disciplines (physics) seem to be getting on the multimedia bandwagon faster than others. Whatever the future of video abstracts, we are clearly in a learning phase. Many of my colleagues have never even heard of video abstracts and expressed no interest in doing one, even if offered the opportunity. Students seemed to be more receptive to the idea, and I suspect this is because they are more technically-savy and accustomed to watching YouTube videos than most of their professors.

If video abstracts become standard practice, authors will need to either develop some skills at creating such videos or will need access to multimedia specialists who can help them. My guess is that most authors will end up paying someone, either at their institution or a free-lancer, to produce a video abstract. Possibly some journals will offer the service at a price. It will be interesting to see how this practice evolves.

For more on the video revolution in science communication, see this video:

Image Credit: modified photograph from USAID

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Myths About Giving Presentations: Never Apologize for a Bad Slide

We've all heard or read advice about how to give presentations, or more specifically, how not to screw up in front of your peers. It's sometimes worthwhile, however, to revisit sage advice to see if it is really germane or if it needs some clarification or modification.

One recommendation I often hear is, "Never apologize for a bad slide." Yet many of my colleagues seem not to have ever heard this one. They continue to put up slides with long tables filled with data in font so small that it's impossible to read even from the front row. These presenters apologize for the busy slide, then say that they just want to point out one or two data points and that the audience should just ignore the rest.

Well then why not just create a slide with those one or two important data points in large font? It's easy enough in PowerPoint. The audience will be able to read the values and can concentrate on them. Better yet, add a graphic or photo that emphasizes the relevance of those data to the point you are trying to make. See the following example.

Much more effective than a dense table. So why do people persist in presenting bad slides? Part of the reason is sheer laziness. They cut and paste the table, graph, or diagram from one of their papers (or someone else's paper). They think that to do anything else requires more time and effort (which is usually not true). The other reason is that they collected all those other data and so must show it....right? Wrong. The audience will be aware of the effort you went to to get to that key data point. Showing extraneous data has the opposite effect of annoying, rather than enlightening your audience.

Showing a slide that is impossible to read or understand is also insulting to the audience. It sends a clear message that you don't care about them. And if you apologize, it means that you are well aware of the poor quality of the slide but didn't care enough about the audience to fix it.

The advice about never apologizing for a bad slide suggests that it's OK to use bad slides as long as you don't acknowledge it. Actually, most of us realize that this advice means never use a bad slide. No slide is better than a bad slide. However, it's easy for novices to misinterpret this advice....which is why I bring it up. I should mention here that using tables and complicated graphs or diagrams in posters is OK (because the viewer has the time to digest them and likely wants to see the data), but you should still design them well so that your point is clearly made.

I would amend this recommendation to be, "You should never HAVE to apologize for a bad slide. If, while practicing your presentation, you find yourself saying, "Now, I realize you can't see the data on this slide, but I just want you to focus on this number...", delete that slide and create a new one. Your audience will thank you.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Scientist Who Happens To Be a Woman

This month is Women's History Month, and last Friday was International Women's Day. Such celebrations are set to recognize and pay tribute to the contributions made by women throughout history. Many of those contributions were by women in science.

A growing number of women, however, are becoming increasingly uncomfortable with efforts to highlight women in science because such emphasis may lead to the conclusion that there is something unusual about female scientists or that we need "special help" to succeed (special awards, fellowships, grants).

The problem seems to be exacerbated by news stories in which the female gender of the story subject is emphasized over whatever it is she has accomplished. Articles about women scientists invariably talk about the fact that they are women (".....she's one of a handful of women to work on this topic.") and about family matters ("....she had to leave her three-year-old for a month to do field research in the Antarctic"). Some focus on special challenges they face as women in a male-dominated field ("....she had to accomplish twice that of her male colleagues to be acknowledged as competent").

I came across this post by Christie Aschwandenwho suggests the Finkbeiner Test for articles profiling women in science. It's similar to the Bechdel Test, which assesses gender bias in film, which I've described here previously. To pass the Finkbeiner Test, the article cannot mention any of the following:
  • The fact that she’s a woman
  • Her husband’s job
  • Her child care arrangements
  • How she nurtures her underlings
  • How she was taken aback by the competitiveness in her field
  • How she’s such a role model for other women
  • How she’s the “first woman to…”
I agree that over emphasis on gender can backfire and send the wrong message. But I also understand the journalists' viewpoint in trying to make a technical topic more attractive to readers (especially female readers) by emphasizing gender and/or the unusual. To get people interested in reading about a topic, the journalist has to find a "hook", and anything unusual works well to attract readers. Look at the recent media buzz about Danica Patrick, the first female NASCAR driver to win the pole position in the Daytona 500 competition. Even though media attention is focused mostly on her gender, she's edged out male competitors to become the most popular NASCAR driver, especially among female fans of the sport. Her crew chief said that he's given out "more lugnuts to young girls this week than he's given to anyone in his career". 

I do wish that we could just write and read about the accomplishments of a scientist or race car driver who just happens to be a woman. But that's not going to happen as long as the subject's gender is seen as something unusual. Journalists can help things along by de-emphasizing gender in articles about female scientists (as Aschwanden and Finkbeiner suggest). As scientists, we can decline to provide answers to gender-based questions in interviews and refocus attention on the science. 

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Can You Write Me a Reference Letter, Preferably a Good One?

You've carefully put together your application package for that internship, fellowship, or dream job, including a compelling statement about your research or teaching goals and a list of all of your publications, awards, grants, and other accomplishments. You think you are well qualified, with achievements that are above average for someone at your career stage. You submit your application and then wait anxiously for that email telling you that you've been invited for an interview or selected for that fellowship or internship.

When it finally comes, the news is not good: "Dear Candidate, we regret to inform you that your application was not successful. There were many excellent candidates this year but....". At the end is a personal note that says, "You might want to rethink your list of references."

Huh? What could that mean? You are not sure, but it sounds as if one of your reference letters was not exactly glowing or perhaps even negative. You think about the three people you asked to write a letter of support for you. They all were people who you thought would write an excellent recommendation. They all agreed to prepare a letter for you. What could have gone wrong and was this what sunk your application?

Reference letters have been on my mind recently since I just participated as a panelist for a student award. I was struck by the huge discrepancy among reference letters, even those written for the same student. Here are some excerpts (modified slightly to hide any identifying information) followed by my assessment:

"I strongly recommend Ms. X for this award. She is hard-working, eager to learn, and quite intuitive. Her academic record is outstanding with a 4.0 grade-point average. She routinely asks penetrating questions in class and shows a more in-depth grasp of the topic than most students. She has developed a unique angle for her thesis research project, which puts it at the cutting edge of the field. Among the 100 or so graduate students I have interacted with as professor, I would rank Ms. X in the top 5%." The letter goes on for several paragraphs to extol the many virtues of this student, providing detailed examples and heart-felt opinions. My opinion: there is no doubt in my mind that this student is held in high esteem by her professor and deserves serious consideration.

"I wish to recommend Ms. X for this award. She is a student in our department and has taken a couple of classes with me. I understand that her advisor is also writing a letter for her. She is conducting thesis research in an area related to mine, which is ...." This letter then goes on to describe the author's area of research, rather than the student's. This professor states no opinion about her abilities or skills or qualifications for this particular award. The letter ends with, "If you need any more information, please don't hesitate to contact me." My opinion: this person has no idea how to write a letter of reference and/or did not want to (or have time to) write a positive, substantive letter for this student (but agreed to write one anyway). The student made a serious mistake asking this professor for a letter.

"I am writing this reference at the request of Mr. Y who is applying for this award. I have been acquainted with this student for a short time. He is about to complete his second semester in our department and I believe he has just initiated his field research. Based on his undergraduate record and the accomplishments he lists in his CV, I can recommend him to receive this award. Feel free to contact me for further information." My opinion: this person knows next to nothing about this student and should not have been asked to write a letter.

"I am writing to offer my enthusiastic support for Mr. Z's application for this award. He has made excellent progress on his thesis research and is excelling in all his coursework. He has all the personal qualities of the most successful graduate student, and I expect him to make important contributions to our understanding of [research topic]. Mr. Z is a bright, motivated, and energetic young scientist that I am pleased to have in my lab. He is a worthy candidate for this award, and I strongly encourage you to consider him. I would be happy to provide additional details about Mr Z's qualities should you need more information. I unreservedly recommend Mr. Z to you for this award." The letter goes into great detail about the student's research and his role in its design and novel ideas for experiments. My opinion: this is a student whose professor has no reservations about recommending him for the award and deserves serious consideration.

The above examples should give you some idea of how varied real reference letters can be. In no case was there a letter that stated anything negative or described any perceived weaknesses. Yet it was easy to categorize letters as outstanding, good, fair, and poor. At the one extreme were the letters that contained glowing, but detailed, comments and that stated flat-out their unreserved recommendation of the student. At the other extreme were the shortest letters that contained no positive comments or even a single opinion about the student.

Some people were clearly outstanding writers of reference letters and understood the importance of providing detailed information and personal opinions about a candidate. Perhaps ten percent of the letters fell into a category I would call "glowing". In several cases, we got letters like number 3 above and even a couple that were from the student's major advisor, who had had them in their lab for five or six years. Yikes. In those instances, it was sometimes clear that the advisor did not hold the student in high regard but still agreed to write a letter. In one case, the letter from the (very busy, very famous) advisor was three sentences long and basically said "I recommend this person for this award". In other cases, it seemed that the letter-writer had no idea that their letter, which lacked any observations or opinions, positive or otherwise, would be perceived as a bad reference.

In the cases where the student got a glowing letter from one person and a poor letter from someone else (like Ms. X above), it was possible that the second letter-writer had some beef with either the student or the advisor. Even so, we could not discount it because at a minimum it showed that the student had not done their homework in selecting people to write a letter for them. Also, their overall rating would suffer in comparison with another student whose letters were all outstanding.

So what can you do, if anything, to ensure that your reference letters are all good ones? I'll explore that in upcoming posts.

Image credit: modified photo from

Monday, February 11, 2013

Can Movies Provide a Model for Assigning Scientific Credit?

Imagine if the credit for a scientific publication was ascribed the same way movie credits are.

What got me thinking about this was a reader comment on a paper published in PLoS Biology about author sequence and how to calculate credit for author contributions in multiauthor publications.

Determining author contributions to a scientific paper is an increasingly important topic as the number of multiauthor papers has increased over time. The reason this issue is of concern is because evaluation committees may use author position on a person's publications (along with other measures) as a criterion to gauge their scientific worth and leadership abilities. The commenter suggested that the solution (to the dilemma of calculating credit) might be resolved by using the movie credit model. A post on the PLoS blog also makes the argument for a movie credit-style approach:

"Such a research credit system would have huge benefits for one’s career prospects; and it might encourage more effective collaborations. Moreover, these credits could easily be tracked by scientist or project in a database akin to the Internet Movie Database (IMDB). It could provide an alternative to the ever-so-important citation factors as a means of assessing one’s scientific impact. And maybe one day there will even be an Academy Awards of Science."

Those of you who read this blog know I like movies and often use them to discuss, among other things, how women in science are perceived by society. So, of course, I found this suggestion intriguing and decided to delve a bit further. It's not as crazy as it sounds, so bear with me while I explore this idea a bit.

In a movie, there are producers, actors, set designers, cinematographers, screenwriters, and so forth. The credits that roll during the closing sequence list everyone who contributed to the making of the movie. Some contribute more than others and are listed first in the credits, but everyone is listed, from the director down to the lowliest person who held the lead actor's cigarette during takes. Relevant to our discussion is the fact that a movie is the end result of a technological effort involving a team of people making different contributions to the end product, very similar to a modern scientific paper. The movie, however, is never solely credited to a single person or category of filmmaker professional. The success of the movie, which depends on all of these people performing their jobs well, clearly cannot be ascribed to a single person or group of people such as the screenwriters (although some, such as the director, make a more substantial contribution than others). The Oscars and other awards, which are given to honor not only screen actors but also cinematographers, costume designers, and others, reflect the fact that filmmaking is a joint effort of a variety of film professionals.

Unlike other publications that are the result of the sole efforts of a single author (e.g., novels), modern scientific publications often reflect the work of a team of scientists, technicians, statisticians, graphic artists, and others in much the same way a movie is made. So why do all the people working on a movie get credit (which they claim on their resumes), while not everyone who contributes to a scientific paper can claim credit for it?

Interestingly, early movies (before 1960) listed only the director and actors (and maybe the costume designer if it was a period movie), and these came at the beginning of the film. Someone who worked as an illustrator would never get credit; only the art director might be given onscreen credit. The change to listing everyone who had anything to do with the making of a film was due to trade unions. The unions argued that their members should get credit because it was essential for getting jobs on future films and because non-actor artists should be able to list the movie on their resume. Nowadays, virtually everyone who is in filmmaking belongs to a trade union, which looks out for its members....hence, the 15 minute long credit sequences we see at the end of movies.

In scientific publications, the authors are really the only individuals who receive credit for the work and who can list the paper on their resume, even though a number of non-authors may have contributed to the final product, and in some cases, may have made a critical contribution (for example, a statistician who helped with the experimental design). Such people usually are mentioned only in the acknowledgements, where their contributions are lumped all together in what is essentially a footnote. Because of this, non-authors cannot list the publication on their resume....and can describe only their general role ("In 2012, I assisted in field sampling during a study of coral reefs in Indonesia"). In contrast, a cinematographer, an animator, a sound technician, or even a gaffer can list on their resume the movies they've worked on.

The assignment of credit for a scientific work in part reflects the nature and history of scientific research in which the early discoverer of new knowledge, who was the sole author of the paper, got the credit. This pattern held until the early 1900s when more scientists began collaborating and tackling complex projects requiring teams of people. The numbers of authors on a paper increased while each author's contribution became less clear and quantifiable. Scientific studies increasingly involved technicians and others whose contributions were considered insufficient to count as authors. The tradition of all credit going to part of the scientific team via authorship has persisted despite the increase in non-author contributors to scientific research. Some perhaps suggested the idea for the study; others provided the laboratory space or other essential logistics; many collected data or provided technological expertise; a few gave statistical guidance....none enough to warrant authorship or credit for a scientific discovery but who played a role in the ultimate outcome.

Many scientific publications today are produced by multi-disciplinary teams, each with many people contributing in much the same way as teams of animators or set designers on a film. Papers in some disciplines such as genomics can list 100 authors, a situation that is likely to increase in the future. There is even one recent paper describing the Large Hadron Collider that lists 2,926 authors. In such cases, how do you know who did what and who, other than the first author, made a major contribution? Although some journals (e.g., Nature journals) require an author contributions statement, these are often awkward and potentially lengthy. Would it be more feasible to use a movie credit model in such cases or would that lead to even more confusion?  

Could the movie credit model even work for scientific publications? Well, I can see some problems with it, not the least of which would be resistance from scientists accustomed to getting all the credit. At issue would be who should get credit for the scientific discovery reported in the paper and how would this be indicated in the credits? Of concern, also, might be that someone listed in the credits, but with a minor contribution, would claim a greater role on their CV. I don't think the latter would be any more of an issue than it is in the movie business (a lighting technician is not going to claim she made the movie). In fact, it might reduce this possibility. With the current model of listing multiple authors (using an often unspecified method of assigning position*), minor contributors can get undue credit.

Another stumbling block might be how to sequence the credits to indicate relative contribution. The credits could be listed in a sequence of decreasing contribution, much like they are today in author lists, except that their role would be clear (Principal Investigator, co-Principal Investigator, Laboratory Director, Field/LaboratoryTechnician, Statistician, etc.), and people who often are inappropriately listed as "authors" today would be more accurately credited for their actual role in the study. The Principal Investigator(s) (who conceived and designed the study, conducted the research, and wrote the paper) would be appropriately credited as the discoverer(s) of new knowledge. A movie credit-style listing might add to the length of a paper, but concern about length is likely to be less of an issue as we move to primarily electronic publication of scientific papers and away from printed journals.

The biggest obstacle, perhaps, would be coming up with a standardized system that everyone agrees upon and then how to get everyone to adopt it. It would likely take some of the major journals making the move first and showing how it might work. Several have already implemented the requirement for an author contributions statement, which is an attempt to go in this direction.

I'm sure there would be other objections to the movie credit model, and one could argue that it would not resolve the issue of how to quantify credit for a scientific paper. However, spelling out the roles that each person played might make it easier to quantify credit than using some formula based on the author's position in the author list (as proposed by the paper in PLoS Biology). The other thing such a change would do, which seems to be an improvement over the current model, is to allow those contributors who are now mentioned only in the acknowledgements to claim credit for their contribution to the work.

I'm not necessarily advocating a change from the traditional model to the movie credit model. Possibly, such a change would introduce unforeseen problems and perhaps add to the bickering that already occurs in some research groups as to author sequence and who should get credit for a discovery. However, it's an interesting exercise to contemplate how it might work and who might benefit.

The problem of how to quantify scientific credit is not going to go away and will only worsen as the average number of authors per paper increases. We eventually may be forced to consider a radically different credit system that better reflects the complexity of modern scientific research.

*Someone unfamiliar with how authorship position on scientific papers is determined might assume that the lower the position in the list, the lower the contribution and, thus, the less credit deserved. However, that logic does not always match how author position was determined, which can vary from discipline to discipline and even from lab to lab. Although the first author position is typically occupied by the person who deserves most of the credit (but not always), the ranking of the succeeding authors may have been determined alphabetically, for example, when there are collaborating groups. In some cultures, the last author position frequently goes to the person who deserves substantial credit; this is typically the PI who got the funding and who designed and oversaw the project. In others, the last position may go to the person who contributed the least. Consequently, some may benefit unduly from their position while others may be underrated, depending on how the author sequence is assessed relative to how it was actually determined. 

Image Credit: modified image from

Tuesday, January 15, 2013


Well, so much for my New Year’s resolution to be more productive. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I’m traveling in a country with spectacular natural scenery and lots of interesting things to do?
Scientists often do sabbaticals and fieldwork in locations far from home where many more (and new) distractions exist than at home. How do you manage the work you are supposed to be doing and the opportunity to experience a new and interesting place?
Such a situation is problematic for the procrastinator and even for people like me who rarely put off important tasks:  “I’ll just take a quick hike to this overlook–shouldn’t take more than an hour round-trip–then I’ll feel invigorated enough to finish formatting that paper.” Hours later, after reaching the summit, which was considerably more challenging than it looked on the map, I’ve had to stop and rest and have something to eat before starting back down. By the time I get back, it’s time to start dinner. By 9 pm, I’ve finished cleaning up the kitchen but can’t keep my eyes open. Well, tomorrow is soon enough to tackle that formatting….”
At home, the above scenario would never happen to me. I’m good at ignoring distractions and prioritizing tasks. However, when I am traveling and encountering unique and never-before-seen places, sights that I may never see again in my lifetime, the decision to postpone working on a paper that only a handful of people will likely read becomes more reasonable. If you have only one or two days in a particular location before moving on and there are interesting things to see and do there, then you have to make a choice.
In the long-run, it makes more sense to take the time for new experiences….as long as you don’t avoid work altogether or miss important deadlines. 
Actually, I’ve been quite good at combining travel with work. Check and answer email and write or analyze data for a few hours in the morning. In the afternoon, go for a drive to check out an interesting local attraction. Come back and do some more work and answer any new emails.
Although my current procrastination is situation-specific, many people have a more generalized procrastination problem. That is, they routinely put off important tasks and never meet deadlines because they find a multitude of other, minor tasks (without deadlines) to do instead.
Some people are what are known as “productive procrastinators”, a term coined by Piers Steel, a professor who has published a book called, “The Procrastination Equation”. Some of the techniques he says he uses to productively procrastinate sound very familiar. For example, when I have multiple projects, I can procrastinate on one by working on another. Or when writing, I might put off penning the introduction by writing the methods or formatting the literature cited. When I’m working on a paper and find myself pondering whether it’s time to clean my desk, I will switch to another part of the paper, e.g., prepare a figure or table, and then go back later to the narrative after the impulse to procrastinate passes. Psychologically, this works because we naturally will work on something boring and repetitive if it allows us to avoid something even more distasteful or daunting.
Much earlier, Robert Benchley revealed his secret to accomplishing a lot of work through productive procrastination: “anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.” I’ve used this principle for years. I might spend a few hours during the workday cleaning up my desktop, perusing a scientific catalogue, or just thinking about new project, but in the evening or on the weekend will write or analyze data or proofread a manuscript. In other words, I’m not doing what I’m supposed to be doing during normal work hours but doing them instead when I’m off the clock. This strategy is a psychological “trick” that allows you to work on whatever you feel like tackling at a particular time but which leads to an overall net production.
Let me hasten to add that the total time I spend actually working on stuff I’m supposed to be working on (research, data analysis, writing) has traditionally exceeded 40 hours per week. And over my career, I’ve been reasonably productive, publishing more than 100 peer-reviewed papers and book chapters. If you are goofing off most of the time, surfing the internet, reading blogs like this one, and only spending a fraction of the day actually producing something substantive, then you are going to have a problem. 
If you want to find out where you rank relative to others, you can take the procrastination test