Starting in-person teaching tomorrow. With all the gear I’m supposed to wear, it will be wild.
Also, I need to carry a ton of supplies, to clean my station, provide masks and face shields for students, and also cleaning supplies for all of them. I love that my job is now a combo of masked prof and masked cleaning lady. Like I have two secret identities.
The amount of incomplete and contradictory information on how the face-to-face is to be done, despite mountains of email on the topic, is so ridiculous it’s fascinating.
My story got among top 10 (which means it got published) in one of my favorite flash-fiction competitions.
Have a ton of new fiction, thanks to biweekly writing sprints. It feels good.
Did a ton of work this summer and submitted three papers. I almost like them.
Have been maintaining an hour a day of exercise for several months now. Feeling good.
Assembled a rowing machine recently and was sore all over the next day, which emphasized the need for a rowing machine.
Kids are starting school next week, all online. We will see how it all shakes out.
Hearing about all the people who are no longer staying at home, but traveling just a little here and just a little there makes me feel powerless and stupid. Are we the only ones who’ve not gone anywhere for vacation this summer? It feels like we are the only ones not in on same sort of cruel joke.
How’s it going, blogosphere?
Friend of the blog Alex has an interesting new essay “Why I Didn’t Put a Trigger Warning on My COVID-19 Assignment” up on Heterodox Academy. Check it out!
Oof. This comic from SMBC. https://www.smbc-comics.com/comic/funding
Today, I am feeling acutely peeved because the pandemic has eaten up a semester of my sabbatical. I know I shouldn’t think this, I’m counting my blessings, etc. But there it is. Sabbatical is a major perk of a faculty job, one that makes up for a lot of other things. Yet here I was, sitting at home all spring at significantly reduced pay, while everyone else was sitting at home at full pay. They still get to go on their sabbatical when this is all over; my next one won’t be for another seven years, or when my middle kid is in college. When Smurf is in high school. By the way, this was my second sabbatical ever. The first one was spent caring for the newborn Smurf. So yeah. I have yet to have a real and full sabbatical.
On the other hand, how do we have real, rejuvenating sabbaticals when there are research groups to constantly supervise? I don’t have to teach and go to faculty meetings, but none of other obligations ever stop or change. Students want supervision, need constant check-ins. Papers and grants need to be written. Those of others have to be reviewed. Talks need to be given. Most of the work is still there, in the same form as ever, just at reduced pay.
August was never really a month of relaxation in academia, and this year quite dramatically so.
There have been innumerable emails all summer about every minute change regarding in-person/online teaching. Not that we, faculty, have any say in what transpires, but there are pro-forma online “town-hall” meetings and surveys and whatnot, giving an illusion of faculty governance to only the most naive. When push comes to shove, such as when someone asks to be moved online because they’re just not comfortable teaching face-to-face in a tiny lab, because the students write and ask why the instructor is putting them in danger, because there are no TAs because the TAs don’t want to teach in person, we see just how accommodating the institution is. (I won’t even speak of all the staff like janitors who’ve had to report to work this whole time, and who will get the shit end of the stick cleaning after everyone, because whoever thinks the elaborate cleaning requirements for students attending in person will be fulfilled by anyone seems never to have met any twenty-year-olds. (Has also never gone to my gym, where we were always supposed to wipe the floor and kickboxing bags after class, and no matter what class I attended, what time of day, 99% of dudes never cleaned after themselves, just got up and left after class, leaving the women to clean everything.)
But this is the pandemic, so everyone has been on high alert since March, stressed and worried about tuition and room/board money coming in (even though pretending it’s not about the money).
Even during normal summers, we are never left alone regarding the upcoming semester. Remember that faculty are not paid during the summer, except from research grants. Why these constant intrusions, making my blood pressure spike several times every day?
Is it the people who are on 12-month contracts wanting to show they’re earning their keep? Or is it a typical corporate power move, basically making sure no one ever thinks even for a little while that they have the right to any personal time whatsoever? Like the colleague who always emails with superficially important links on nights and weekends, ensuring we have no peace and we know he’s working really hard?
And don’t get me started on all the summer defenses. I have had more thesis proposals and defenses this pandemic summer than I have during most semesters. WTF is up with that? These are supposed to be one off, not “everyone, it’s summertime, let’s graduate”!
So, tl;dr: I’m starting this fall semester quite grumpy. I will be teaching in person. How’s everyone doing?
Bits and pieces of doing the job:
— Emailing with one program manager while working on a project report for another, from a different agency, and I feel a little like I am secretly juggling two significant others, nly instead of flirty texts we exchange graphs and Gannt charts and highlight slides and requests for revised budgets.
— One program manager is MIA for months on end, but when they’re on, they send out a flurry of emails and are super accessible for a brief period. So the other day I was emailing with them between 12 and 2 am. Yes, all of us involved in academic science are nuts.
— I’m writing an evaluation letter for the promotion a candidate and want to make the letter as strong as possible. I look up the most highly cited papers and want to highlight the importance and originality of the contributions, and I realize that the papers, while technically fine, sound wishy-washy. The statements of work (in abstract, intro, conclusion) are all weak and equivocal. Reader, if a well-meaning evaluator cannot easily figure out why the hell these papers were written to being with, what’s new and important in them, then your bleary-eyed, attention-challenged colleagues will quickly dismiss your work. Learn how to write clear, concise, persuasive statements of work. What did you do, why did you do it, why should people care, and did you find anything of note/advance the state of the art in some way?
— Will I ever be senior enough not to constantly be assumed clueless in the reviews of my papers? Like, “Are the authors reeeeeeally sure what they say holds, because it doesn’t seem to me that it does, based on me flipping through this textbook.” Yes, we are fucking sure, because I have dozens of paper on the topic spanning nearly two decades. I know how to fucking recognize it.
— At least with papers, I can rebut the above comments. I cannot fight the presumption of incompetence in grant reviews.
— Is there a way to have a sabbatical that actually feels restful? I fear it’s not possible when you have a research group. The work never stops. Maybe you’re not teaching, but all the research supervision happens just as before, so you’re constantly tethered by the needs of the group. Even when I procrastinate, all the stuff I have to do for my students hangs over my head.
— I’m teaching in person this fall, in a gigantic classroom, under a face shield. Both I and the students will be expected to undertake extensive pre- and post-lecture cleaning of our work space. Should be just peachy.
— How is it that the society considers me old/useless/invisible, yet I still have two more decades till retirement? That’s two more decades of grant writing… Man, I better stop futzing around with short fiction and start writing best-seller novels.
How’ve you been, academic blogosphere? What’s new at the dawn of a new academic year?
For my fiction writing, I use specialized search engines — Duotrope (paid) and The Submission Grinder (free) — where you can look up different magazines, acceptance rates, and all sorts of cool stats. The engines rely on user-reported information on acceptances and rejections (dates, whether personal or not, whether preceded by a hold, etc.). Each magazine entry has a list of recent responses (e.g., 21-day personalized rejection; 43-day acceptance). People with acceptances have the option to have their name listed (e.g., 43-day acceptance. Congratulations, Peggy!). Many people opt not to have anything listed; some have a nickname (squirrel), their first, or their full name. But there are a few who list their title (Dr Perry Mason). This practice strikes me as odd.
I chatted about it with one of my writer friends, who saw nothing wrong with it, as in “If you’ve got it, flaunt it” and asked if I listed PhD after my name in my faculty email. I said no, because everyone had one. (If anything, listing one’s endowed professorship or a high administrative position is what we academic nerds do as a show of force.)
Then it hit me: In my professional world, everyone does have a PhD, so much so that a PhD seems like not a big deal, almost a triviality, only the beginning point of a career and achievement. But it’s not trivial. It denotes an already remarkable level of achievement in one’s field of inquiry. A vast majority of people don’t have a PhD, nor do they know anyone who does. A PhD is a big deal. We should be proud of it. We shouldn’t hide it. But I always hide it, because people are weird around intellectuals. When people ask what I do, I say I work at the university. If they don’t probe further, I don’t volunteer. If they do, I say I am a professor or that I teach, and I see a shock and immediate re-classification of me from wherever I was to wherever university professors get mentally placed. I don’t have to say I have a PhD; I assume it’s implied, and its unspoken existence does make for an awkward dynamics for a moment, or a dozen.
In my fiction bio (it’s a 2–3-sentence blurb that follows a published piece), I make a vague reference to being a writer and a scientist, then list three places where I’ve published fiction, followed by website and social media links. I also publish a smattering of poetry, and in those bios I don’t even mention being a scientist at all, because, honestly, I’m a bit intimidated. So many poetry journals have mastheads filled with serious writers who hold MFAs, so I don’t want to draw attention to my decidedly non-MFA-holding impostor self. The MFA is fairly common among editors of literary short fiction, but not quite as prevalent as in poetry. In genre fiction, however, many (most?) writers and editors have another non-writerly vocation and associated degrees. English PhDs do show up in all three types of mastheads (poetry, short literary fiction, short genre fiction) but with a much lower frequency than MFAs. Among writers, I do know a handful (probably under ten) people who hold an MFA in addition to a doctorate of one kind or another (PhD or JD or MD). There are some highly accomplished people out there who make me feel like a complete slacker!
The writer friend from above said I should be flaunting my PhD and my theoretical and mathy background in my bios for genre fiction. I’m not so sure. I may have science cred, but that doesn’t mean my fiction doesn’t suck donkey balls. It feels like the more I flaunt my science credentials, the more I might antagonize the readers and editors with my layperson scribbling intrusion. Is this crazy?
It can be exhausting to feel like you’re always intruding. On the one hand, I choose to branch out into activities in which I am a total newbie. On the other hand, can I still be a newbie years into an activity, and, if not, how do I turn off this annoying impostor syndrome? (LOL That’s a trick question. I can’t.)
But I should at least be a little kinder toward the people who do list their credentials in their bios and publication announcement, unrelated to the writing pursuit as these credentials may be. Perhaps all they’re trying to do is raise their stock, give themselves some credibility, battle a crushing impostor syndrome.
In the meantime, it’s good to remember that having a PhD is great, that one should be proud of it as PhDs are not common in the general population, but that one’s title and expertise should be wielded with kindness and humility, because while it does means a high level of achievement in a small subfield, the world is vast and full of capable, talented people, and, in more areas than not, we’re all clueless newbs with plenty to learn.
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I’ve written some (OK, maybe a lot) about the way I (dis)organize my time.
My goal is not to throw shade at list lovers and über-organizers. However, I feel like the only “how to” voices we hear online come from the people who advocate that success, money, and happiness stem from buying planners and planning-related stationery and/or boxes and/or shelves, hiring more people to take care of your kids (or relegating childcare to the possibly reluctant spouse), and basically making your time highly structured.
I am here for all those of us to are unwilling or unable to do some (or all) of the above.
My approach to life and everything else is that of a chaos goblin. If you’re a chaos goblin, too, if you do not strive to eradicate all disarray from your life and impose long-term order, but rather allow for (myriad) imperfections in yourself and others and in how you spend your time, and you focus on what suits you and yours best at any given moment, embracing the fact that you will have great days and terrible days and everything in between, and that it’s cruel (not to mention pointless) to force yourself to do stuff you absolutely don’t have to do, then maybe this blog post might just be of use to you.
This post was inspired by some writing-related questions I received from a reader. I will get to them shortly, but first some general principles.
I am not objectively lazy, even though I sometimes feel like I am. I always have many things going on, which means that there is usually something I will feel excited to tackle, and, in the absence of hard deadlines, I indulge myself as much as I can. Maybe I planned to work on a paper, and maybe I will, but maybe I won’t. If I am really itching to work on fiction this morning, I will. The thing is, by trying to do whatever pulls me most at any given moment, I actually get a ton done, and pretty fast, while I minimize feeling miserable.
I never miss real deadlines. However, any “deadline” that I deem soft, unreasonable, or for other reasons missable or ignorable, I will do my best to miss and/or ignore. It’s a compulsion and connected to my personality. This is why I abhor the college SRO requiring single-PI proposals a week in advance when I know it never takes more than an hour from me enabling SRO access to the proposal actually being submitted. This is also why saying I will start writing a proposal three months in advance and finish it a month ahead of a deadline to let it marinate will never fucking work for me because I know this is a bullshit arbitrary deadline posed by me and I will delight in watching it pass as time marches on toward the actual submission deadline. I really, really like to mess with myself whenever I try to be too tight-assed about anything. I don’t call myself a chaos goblin for nothing.
I have a family and while they do intrude on everything I do, non stop, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Husband and I never really outsourced childcare beyond daycare centers and afterschool. We’ve hired a babysitter maybe 10 times total for all of our kids combined. The people we trusted and asked to babysit (daycare teachers) usually didn’t need the little money they could make by babysitting as much as they, too, needed time off. So, as you read this, please note that implying I should get a babysitter to take care of some of the distractions will not be useful, especially now that my younger two are 9 and 13. To paraphrase Stephen King in On Writing: “Life is not a support system for art/work. It’s the other way around.”
Without further ado, here are the questions from reader Positive Definite, who’s part of an active academic writers’ group.
1. When and where do you like to write? Do you write in the same place at the same time every day, or can you write anytime, anywhere?
Technical writing: I use Latex for papers, MS Word for proposals and collaborative papers with experimentalists. I mostly do my technical writing on one of my desktops (work or home office). I don’t like laptops, and do I use my laptop when I travel, but otherwise stick to the desktops. Before the pandemic, I did most of my technical writing at work or at home in the evenings. During the pandemic, well, it’s all at home, in my home office.
Creative writing: I use Google Docs and work either from my desktops or, quite often, on my phone. (I also read most books these days on the phone, desktop, and occasionally Kindle. I used to think I’d never abandon hard copy for ebooks, yet here we are. My already double-stacked shelves are thankful.)
One problem during the pandemic is that I share the home office with husband and Smurf. Husband has set up another space for himself since he’s been teaching online all summer, but Smurf and I are office mates pretty much all day, every day. He sits at his desk next to me and can get quite distracting (he’s a little chatterbox in general, plus he sometimes rages at his Roblox games). Middle Boy is just outside and often quite loud over Discord with his friends. Overall, there’s a lot of noise near my currently only desktop computer. To combat this, I put on headphones and, if I need to focus or the kids are really loud, I also play some music (the key here is to play something I like and know well). This is how I survived grad school in a cube farm with 20 other students, and the strategy works for most kid-generated distractions.
During the pandemic, I have actually managed to impose more structure on my time than usual — or, rather, more structure has spontaneously self-assembled from the chaos — likely because I have much more time overall and am far less exhausted than I usually am. I think the absence of the face time associated with teaching, service, and travel makes all the difference. (Note that I don’t find interactions with my grad students or collaborators draining, but invigorating.) These days, I get enough sleep, an hour of exercise per day, and even though I cook every day, there’s still plenty of time to do work and to relax. I mostly write and edit fiction on the weekends and do work during the week; I participate in writing sprints every other Saturday, which gives me a story seed to work on and submit before the next sprint. However, work week/fiction weekend is not a hard and fast rule, and if I’m on a roll with either technical or creative writing, I will stay with it for as long as it lasts.
2. Do you have any pre-writing rituals or habits before you sit down to write?
I slaughter a small animal and offer it as a blood sacrifice to Athena. Otherwise, I make sure I have my coffee and feel reasonably comfortable (not hungry or needing to go to the bathroom), and that’s about it. I also make sure to preempt whatever whining might be coming my way in the near future (e.g., I feed anyone who needs to be fed).
Twitter is my most sinister time drain (I’m a bit too active on literary Twitter, not too active on the academic one). I use the lockdown feature in LeechBlock (add-on for Chrome) for 2-3 hours at the time when I need to do something. The lockdown works much better for me than scheduling large blocked-out slots, because I will just ignore the latter and open an incognito window. The lockdown, however, is activated when I need it and it’s not unrealistically long, so I don’t feel the need to circumvent it. I will use lockdown several times a day during busy days.
3. Do you have any methods for managing tasks and your time to stay productive and not let projects and deadlines become overwhelming?
Not really, at least nothing that I can easily articulate and share. Also not much that is set in stone, because I like to change things up, and because I can never stick with any measures that feel punitive, even if they were successful in the past. (For example, this is why I gave up on calorie tracking; while it worked for weight loss, it’s fucking soul-crushing, makes me overfocus on food, frustrates me because who the fuck knows how many calories are in the stuff I cook, and just makes me feel like an anally retentive robot.) Finally, I am not opposed to (and by not opposed to I mean I really crave) the adrenaline rush; as someone said, “Deadlines focus the mind.” I might sing a different tune if I were in industry, but, in academia, there are few deadlines that are really inflexible.
I do occasionally make big-picture (like six months to a year) rough plans for getting the papers out, write those up and share them with my students, so they know what’s coming down the pike. This is especially important in the year before a major grant is up for renewal, but even so the deadlines are really loose (“This to be done by end of this semester”).
At the beginning of a week, I decide on a few big things that I should work on and roughly when, but I am prepared to have a bad week (e.g., this morning started with two fiction declines, yay Monday!) or for something urgent to fall into my lap (e.g., last-minute tenure letter request, anyone?). So I try not to sweat it if I can’t make the original weekly plan. There’s always another week. Plus, I sometimes have a really awesome week and get a ton done faster than expected, which is always a treat.
I’ve really tried not to be too cruel with myself during the pandemic. I am doing well overall, being that my group does math and computing so we’ve continued pretty much undeterred through the crisis. I’ve been trying to focus on the group members’ spirits remaining high, and on everyone doing well mentally and physically. Students have bad/down weeks and I would never take it against them, so I try not to take it against myself, either, although I am sure the students expect me not to have any downtime myself. I am not going to dwell on my issues with them, as it would erode my authority, but they could easily reason to the conclusion that I, too, sometimes need a break simply because I’m human who is responsible for many other humans.
In all, I do make loose long-term plans (written) and loose short-term plans (unwritten), which often change.
4. What’s the best advice you’ve ever received about writing?
I can’t say that I have ever received explicit writing advice from anyone when it comes to technical writing. But here are some things that I consider fundamental and try to impart on my graduate students and postdocs (many of whom are not native speakers of English): correctness, clarity, and logical flow before all else. If it’s crystal clear what you are trying to say and there’s a logical thread connecting your arguments, you are most of the way there. Engaging, beautiful prose, light as a butterfly’s wings, that comes later.
When it comes to fiction, I feel like I probably care about plot more than most literary writers and do not mind spare prose at all, especially if it is clear and precise. One good metaphor or simile can do wonders; I don’t need a pile of bland adjectives instead. And I fucking hate hate HATE it when ornate language is used to mask the absence of plot or authorial vision, or to plug giant logical holes. In fiction, the best pieces of advice are:
a) Make sure the reader cares about your characters, usually because the characters care about something, too, otherwise even the most intricately plotted piece will ring hollow.
b) You could (and should) always have more tension/conflict in your story.
c) Start the story as close to the inciting incident as possible.
Feedback on writing is paramount. For young technical writers, there’s the advisor, but before the advisor there are senior members of the group. They have the benefit of knowing the jargon and being further along in the writing journey, and will give the feedback of a benevolent, interested reader.
With creative writing, feedback is similarly important. I review a lot of other people’s work and have found a small number of people from whose critiques I greatly benefit. They like my work, have a similar style, work in the same genres as I do, and are either on par or a bit ahead of me in the writing game. You need a critique partner (often called a beta reader) who gets you, because their job is to understand what you tried to do and let you know if, when, and how you failed to achieve your own objective, then to possibly offer solutions. Critique partners might be blunt but usually aren’t, and I don’t mind either way, because I trust them. If you are critiquing someone you don’t know well, always err on the side of kindness and express everything as your personal opinion, which it really is. “This seems to me…”; “It reads to me like this happens…”; “This part wasn’t clear to me; you might want to reword it. Here is a suggestion…” This advice goes back to these excellent posts from Critters.org: here and here.
5. Do you ever struggle with writer’s block? If so, how do you overcome it? If not, how do you prevent it?
Not really. But it’s important to define what writer’s block actually is. I think most people mean “I have decided that I need to write this, now, and I have this amount of time available for the task, yet nothing is coming out.” I certainly know how this feels, but I don’t think this is a block of any kind; in my opinion, this is your creative brain fighting the arbitrary shackles you’ve put on it. I certainly cannot force myself to write in a highly regimented way. If there’s a big important deadline coming, for instance a proposal deadline, I never have issues buckling down and getting to work — my creative brain has never let me down when it’s really important. However, I think that’s because during other times, I try to give it free rein and work on what I (or rather my creative parts) feel like working on. If I am itching to write a story, I will write a story. Then I will get energized by reading new papers or talking to my students, and before you know it I am working on a manuscript again.
There are also days when I feel irritable and unmotivated. I try to give myself a break if it’s clear I am craving a break. In our line of work, a few days of reading for pleasure or binging Netflix is not the end of the world. If the creative well is dry and it begs you to replenish it, just do it. You will be back sooner and going full steam after you’ve rested.
My recommendation is to listen to this inner voice as much as you can when it’s telling you what it wants to do and, if you can help it, don’t override it. In creative endeavors, indulge yourself as much as you can. And get lots of hobbies! If you are anything like me, having many things you can do means you fight boredom easily, always feel intellectually engaged, draw inspiration from all sorts of sources, and get plenty done on various fronts.
Finally, I have confidence that the muse will come back. It always does, in time, after I have fed it enough through rest and consuming other people’s science and/or art. Do not abuse the muse with unreasonable expectations.
6. Do you have any favorite books, not necessarily about writing, that have influenced the way you write?
In terms of technical writing, I would say no. My advisor was quite hands off and didn’t really edit my papers much, so whatever I learned, I picked up on my own by reading papers and analyzing them. Why does this paper read so well? What are the moving parts? How did they structure their argument? What makes these other papers so boring? How would I rewrite this crappy sentence or this verbose paragraph?
I have been blogging for the last 10+ years, and blogging has helped both my scientific writing and served as a great preparation for creative writing. All forms of writing benefit from clarity, precision, and logic. In all forms of writing, knowing exactly how certain syntactic structures or choices in wording and punctuation affect your reader make you a better communicator. All forms of writing can and do feed into one another.
If you aspire to become a great technical writer, write in any shape or form you can. Keep a journal. Start a blog on some topics you are passionate about. Write poetry or short fiction or screenplays. Connect with other writers.
I think scientific writing has made me a pretty decent editor when it comes to creative writing (at least of prose). Writing buddies always compliment my ability to spot a problem and articulate why exactly it is a problem. I am sure this stems from my analytical approach to, well, everything.
A book about technical writing that many seem to like: Joshua Schimel’s Writing Science: How to Write Papers That Get Cited and Proposals That Get Funded. I have it, and I like it, but I am not a die-hard fan, perhaps because by the time I got to it, I felt I already knew most of what is covered therein.
If you are into writing and selling short genre fiction, Douglas Smith’s Playing the Short Game: How to Market and Sell Short Fiction is popular, although I found it soul-crushing in its dismissal of everything that’s not a sale at a professional rate, especially at this day and age when short speculative fiction is no longer a viable commercial enterprise.
The book I love with a fiery passion of a thousand suns is Stephen King’s On Writing (I wrote about it here, and the post is part of a rather extensive chapter on writing in Academaze). On Writing is part memoir, part writing manual, and 100% un-put-downable, even on repeated reads.
Wise and worldly readers, please share your own pearls of writerly wisdom!
In my role as associate editor of a specialty journal, in the recent week or so I’ve been given, over and over, the crappiest of gifts: that two-line nonreview review, accompanied by a recommendation to reject. Some of these came from people who really should know better. These reviews are worthless. I cannot use them, because they contain no information on which I could base my decision. I cannot reject and forward these non-reviews, because they are callous toward the authors who put a lot of work into their manuscripts, and because, if I were to use them and forward them, I would show myself to be callous, too.
The question is: How does one learn to write useful referee reports/reviews of the technical work of others? (Other than being an editor, I also received recognition as an outstanding referee from a professional society, so I’d like to think I know a little bit about the topic.)
My students get training on how to write referee reports. After they’ve published a paper or two, they will get solicited for reviews whether they know what they’re doing or not, so it’s my job to make sure they do a service (rather than a disservice) to the scientific enterprise. First, I share (through the group’s password-protected document repository) a few of my own reviews with group members, which they can use as a style and structure guide. We also do joint reviews — certain society journals have this option, in particular for a supervised co-review with a (named!) junior person, whereupon the junior person also gets added to the reviewer base. I might ask a student to supply an additional review on papers where I am associate editor and the topic is in their wheelhouse. I have never, ever asked a student to do an uncredited review instead of me: either we co-review or I decline and recommend them as a reviewer, but they always get properly credited for their work.
Before I proceed, a couple of disclaimers. In my field, there is only single-blind review (the referee is not known to the authors, but the authors are known to the referee). In most journals I referee for, the referee is explicitly asked to recommend a course of action (e.g., reject, resubmit with minor/major revisions, accept as is, transfer to another journal, and sometimes other finer steps in between); these are advisory to the editor, who can ultimately do what they like. If your field or subfield is not like that, for example if you’re actually forbidden from making even a hint of recommendation, please do not assume that all fields are like yours or that I don’t know what I am talking about.
One part of the training is helping students understand what it is that they should be recommending based on the report. Are the edits minor, but mandatory? Are they minor, but optional? Then say so. Can you envision the authors making certain edits that would eventually make you happy to recommend publication? Then tell them clearly what they need to do, even if it’s major, and don’t recommend rejection, but major revisions. Is there something in the paper that’s a complete deal breaker, so that you cannot envision how it would become appropriate for the journal without being a completely different paper? That’s a rejection. For example, the paper is not novel (all they claim to have done new had already been done by others, whom they didn’t cite); the paper is wrong or fraudulent or grossly misleading; the paper is poorly aligned with what the journal publishes (e.g., outside scope; too specialized for a generalist journal).
This is how I recommend to structure a review:
a) Summarize the paper in one to two sentences. If the paper were a screenplay, this would be the logline. You’re letting the authors and the editor know what you think the paper is about.
b) A few sentences regarding your general impressions of the paper. Not just the bad; the good, too. For instance, if it’s was written well or if it’s an engaging read, say so. If it’s an interesting topic, say so. If it is timely, say so. If it is a paper on a topic that was beaten to death 10 or 50 years ago, say so.
c) A clear recommendation and the general reason for the recommendation, which should flow out of point b).
Btw, points a-c are usually one, maybe two paragraphs total. Not very long if you know what you are doing.
d) The specific points (with detailed arguments and references!) that led to your recommendation. I usually number these, and many referees do, so they’re easier to refer to during revision. I think of this list as a contract between the referee and the authors. If the authors do a good job of addressing these specific requests, you should be willing to recommend publication. I am royally pissed with referees who move these goalposts. We had one like that a few years ago. We’d address all the many, many minutiae, only to have the referee come back asking for more and new stuff. It was maddening.
Doing d) properly takes time, but this is the heart of the review, and needs to be done properly for both the authors’ and the referee’s sake. In recent months, I have had the misfortune of reviewing several manuscripts where the authors pretended whole subfields didn’t exist and they didn’t cite anyone, presumably out of ignorance, but there’s also a nonzero chance it was on purpose, in order to elevate the perceived novelty of their work. In one notable example, it took me weeks to write the review, first because I was too pissed to write it, second because I had to sit down and look up key references to show them what they were missing. I explicitly had to say it was not an exhaustive list, that it was their job to do a literature review, but I pointed them toward where they could find out more.
The style of the review should be polite and matter-of-fact; being blunt is fine, but taking jabs, especially ad hominem, is not. I occasionally catch myself being snarky and have to drop the review until I can write more dispassionately. Don’t be mean or snarky. There are always junior scientists who poured their heart and soul into the paper. Do not be cruel; it can crush a young person’s spirit and contribute to them leaving science. The editors who let mean-spirited reviews through (presumably from untouchable giants in the field) are also to blame.
Miscellaneous: Do not be a pronoun jerk. When reviewing single-author papers, it’s easy to use “the author” and never even use a pronoun. It’s inclusive, avoids misgendering people, and prevents you from appearing blatantly sexist. (Based on my single-author-paper days and even today, when I submit solo-PI proposals, there’s always someone who relishes a bit too much in using the female pronouns to tell a female author that she sucks or that her work is garbage.)
Also, when you respond to referee reports, use “Referee A/1” and “they” because you have no idea who reviewed. While I’m used to being referred to as a he, presumably because my reviews display such kickassery and competence that no one can fathom them having sprouted from a feeble lady brain, I am definitely pleased when the male gender is not assumed.
Academic blogosphere, what are your thoughts on becoming a good referee and on the peer-review process in general?
Dear fellow readers,
I am a STEM professor who decided to pour my frustrations into an essay. It’s written in a personal style, shaking my fist at the heavens about students who have never developed good skills in high school math and yet refuse to switch from a highly quantitative field to something else. I have tenure and I am a member of the union, but I am also at a university that is loudly trumpeting messages about Student Success. Also, while I never relate any specific incidents with identifying details, I do note that a lot of colleagues dismiss the notion of steering students elsewhere, and often say “What about diversity?” when I say that some students just don’t have the mathematical skills. (Note that many of these floundering students are white males from suburbia. The students whom I wish to steer elsewhere are less diverse and more privileged than my colleagues need to claim in order to fashion their stance into some semblance of morality.)
Would it be insanity to publish this under my real name?
— Blog Reader