Editorial and Professorial Nuggets

—  I am an associate editor of a specialized disciplinary journal. I try my best to include junior researchers (postdocs, young profs or nonacademic scientists, even some senior graduate students) as reviewers when I know they do good work based on what I have heard or seen them present at conferences. It turns out, a surprisingly high number of people cannot write a review to save their life. Some of them are junior, so they have the excuse of inexperience, but some should really know better.

I get these cryptic two-line reports with a recommendation to reject. WTF? That is not a report. I cannot send that on to authors, it gives me a basis for nothing. Especially if you are going to reject, you better give clear reasons for doing so.  Even if the paper is crap, it usually (although not always) presents a considerable amount of work by the authors. If the paper sucks, tell them precisely why it sucks and how much it sucks, so they would know whether to try and fix it or that there is no hope and they should drop it.

How does one learn to write referee reports? Well, when it comes to my students, I send them samples of my reports to look at (ranging from minor revisions to rejections). But, one first and foremost learns from the reports received of one’s own papers. Which is why I wonder, especially for senior folks, how unobservant and unable to generalize they are,  that they cannot figure out what is to be done based on their own experiences with being on the receiving end of reports.  These are all skills necessary for doing science, how is it possible not to apply them when learning how to write reports?

— There are career editors and then there are editors who are practicing scientists. Either way, the longest part of the review-and-publication process should be the actual peer review. It should not be the time taken by the editorial office staff to check the formatting; it should similarly not be the time the editor takes to make a decision and transmit the referee comments to the authors after the peer review has been completed. I have found myself dreading submission to certain journals, because I know a paper in a certain field will go to a certain editor, and the editor has a habit of just sitting on the paper for days or weeks on end, both when it comes to making referrals and when it comes to making a decision (the time they take doesn’t seem to correlate at all with how hand-wringing the decision-making process might be; hearing about “major revisions” appears to take just as much time as receiving “publish as is”.

For editors who are practicing scientists, why do people take on this role if they are not committed to doing a good job? I know, becoming an editor in a good journal is an honor, but it’s also a job, and an important one. And part of doing it well also means doing it fast. I know some great associate editors who handle dozens of new papers per week very efficiently. But then there are others. And I wish someone gave them a kick in the pants so they’d finally get going.

Yes, I am very impatient. But you can bet that I am very efficient as associate editor.

— In professorial news, once again, the biggest problem of my undergrads is that they don’t know the math that they should know. They don’t have the facility with basic calculus, let alone analytic geometry. While some fairly complicated concepts can be hand-waved down to the levels of calculus or geometry, it’s of little use because these concepts, which should have been internalized long ago, appear only vaguely familiar to students as opposed to being tools wielded with confidence. Part of it, at my university, is the ever-shrinking list of required math courses so students could all get as many free electives as possible (?!); that’s because students feeling warm and fuzzy upon having customized their studies to the point of senselessness  beats actually getting a solid education in the major. The worst thing is the students’ attitude that this insistence on calculating stuff, on — gasp! — using math, is somehow unnecessary and is in the way of actual real knowledge. They want to make it go away and get to the good stuff. They cannot. I am all for pictures and analogies and building one’s intuition. I draw in class more than I write equations. But this is fairly high-level stuff, and the intuition has to be already honed by both math and experience with other similar problems. Students cannot expect everything worth knowing as a senior in a physical science discipline to just be qualitative or requiring no more than arithmetic and high-school algebra. I am really tired of having to apologize for what is really not particularly high-level math that they should be proficient in anyway.


  1. In my field, there’s a book called “Advice for a Young Economist” or something like that. It has a chapter on how to write referee reports. It is awesome.

    @CPP you obviously didn’t use Leithhold TCWAG as your text. I assume she’s talking about the plain old cartesian geometry you learned in high school (vectors, parabolas, ellipses, spheres, etc.) as opposed to the more advanced theoretical math version (manifolds!).

  2. @CPP: What N&M said. It’s basically about writing down equations for geometric objects using a coordinate system (e.g. equations for planar objects such as a straight line, parabola, cubic parabola, circle. etc. Also equations for 3D objects such as a sphere, ellipsoid, cone, torus etc.) I had it in high school. Maybe it falls under high school geometry here in the US.

  3. CPP was a frat bro?

    I guess that makes sense.

    As to math, I’m convinced that most of the problem is that we’re trying to produce more scientists and engineers by scraping lower and lower in the barrel of talent. We’re getting the kids who weren’t quite as good at balancing numerical thinking (which can be quite concrete) and abstract mathematical thinking (formulas and all that).

  4. 1. Re: learning to write reviews. I teach my students to write reviews by co-writing reviews with them. If I get a review to do that is in the range of the project they are working on [an obviously common occurrence], I [with approval from the editor] co-write the review with the student. We both read the paper, the student does the review, and then I edit it with them. That way doing the review turns into a teaching process for the student. (I try to give each student one review every year.)

    2. Re: math. The problem (I think) stems from the necessity of math entering more and more fields that it didn’t used to be needed for. Remember that historically, training in most of the major math and science fields was more selection-processes than teaching-processes – in each class, a subset of students already thought the “right way” and just needed to learn the mechanics of the next step. Those students would go on to the next class. The other students went into other less-math-necessary fields. Professors saw no reason to change because they were the students who had progressed through each class and “never had a problem understanding it”. (I know this was true for physics, I’m pretty sure it was true for math. I know the physicists were pretty shocked when they discovered that they weren’t actually teaching most of the students.)

  5. How do you get to be “a senior in a physical science discipline” without being good (or at least decent!) at math?! Perhaps you’re using physical science discipline in a very broad sense, but I would think there is a lot of self-selection here. I guess you can’t just set the standards where you think they should be and flunk people who can’t rise to the challenge? Even after tenure? Because graduating students like that is really doing them a disservice — you know they’ll end up paying for it sooner or later.

    Also, my PI doesn’t teach his students how to do reviews. Do most people?

  6. How do people get to be a senior in a physical science discipline without being good at math? Simple. Partial credit, gentleman’s C’s, textbook solution manuals on the internet, and (when necessary) every faculty has a subset who have drunk the edufad kool-aid and have a mindset of “Well, we need to be understanding…”

    Are we doing them a disservice by passing them? Well, we certainly don’t want to push them toward something for which they are manifestly unqualified. That sort of treatment should be reserved for scions of wealth. OTOH, if we don’t somehow graduate them, they still have student loans and no diploma to show for it.

    So, basically, the entire system is a mess.

  7. @Alex: But if students knew that people who weren’t good with math couldn’t hack particular majors, I doubt they would choose them to begin with. No one is that much of a glutton for punishment! So the weeding out should begin early…. But, because I am the understanding type, I would make some provisions for people who are truly interested in acquiring the skills and just never had the chance until college. That’s what understanding means … giving people a chance to learn, not a diploma when they show no interest in it as some sort of consolation prize.

    But seriously, how does tenure not help you at least do what you know is right in your own courses?

  8. First, the students do know that people who aren’t good at math shouldn’t major in physical science. What they don’t know is that they themselves are not good at math. Curves, partial credit, high schools facing strong pressure to give students decent grades in “college prep” courses so that they can send more students to college, and freshman calculus classes taught by people with no security–all of these factors conspire to fool students about their own mathematical prowess or lack thereof.

    And even with tenure, unless you are truly, truly crusty and completely prepared to just not give a shit about anything, you won’t fail 3/4 of the room. OK, maybe in certain intro classes, when it is early enough for them to change their direction without too much pain, but not in advanced classes, for students who have the sunk cost of time already spent on the major.

    Also, it’s easy for a very conscientious person to say “Well, I want to at least help them learn _something_ this semester, so I’ll kind of start from a low level and try to go as far as I can with them. Makes more sense than standing up here and doing things that NOBODY will get.” So you do that. You do your conscientious job. And then you give them some sort of passing grade, but that passing grade is for work that bears only the faintest resemblance to “Advanced theoretical principles of physical science” or whatever the class title is.

    And so you wind up in the situation I’m in, where I’ve had people in my classes who are in their fifth year of college and only recently completed sophomore math and have not yet figured out that a math-intensive major is maybe not for them. And nobody is giving them that advice either, because the campus is getting all sorts of grants for increasing the number of people in STEM, not for increasing the standards in STEM classes.

    This is the system. Granted, I’m at a school that’s one rung lower on the prestige hierarchy than GMP’s, but some problems are almost scale-invariant.

  9. Huh. Every year I take students who think they aren’t good at math and show them that they actually are. And I take students who actually aren’t good at math and make them better at it. (Granted, sometimes it is an uphill battle– I had two students in my office hours yesterday needing to learn how to multiply fractions. They probably won’t stay in the regular major and will do one of the interdisciplinary ones that require less math or switch to another social science.)

    Back when my DH was teaching engineering students in the 101 class, he occasionally did fail half or more of the class. That’s one of the reasons he left academia.

  10. When I teach my graduate students, I have them write reviews of papers in the field that we are studying. I assign the papers to read and review – so they both learn the topic that I want them to learn, as well as learn how to critically evaluate papers they read. These are skills everyone needs to have, so I think it helps prepare them for whatever they go on to do – including if they end up needing to review papers that are not published yet.

  11. If my students showed me that they couldn’t multiply fractions, I’d probably throw myself off the roof of the building.

  12. It isn’t just math. I teach a senior/first-year grad course in bioinformatics. I have had students fail the course three times because they could not write a computer program (after having passed at least 3 CS courses, including “advanced programming”). I don’t have a high failure rate (under 10%), but I have had students for whom this is the last class needed to graduate who failed repeatedly—often giving up after the two warm-up programming exercises. Since the assignments don’t vary much from year to year (maybe one out of 9 assignments gets updated each year), you’d think that they could at least get one week further along each year.

  13. A more serious response to nicoleandmaggie:

    I agree that we have a responsibility to teach the students that we have, not the students we’d like to have. To the extent that I just have to teach them, I can teach students still learning fractions or students studying applications of fractional linear transformations in the complex plane.

    Often, however, I have to teach them to some yardstick, e.g. the department expects me to cover Advanced Theory of Physical Science Subfield at the level of whatever book, or graduate schools assume that people with a BS in my discipline have studied topic X at the level of book Y, or another department on campus is assuming that students taking my intro course are prepared for the other department’s sophomore course. I can’t teach Lagrangians to people who are still struggling with vectors. I can’t teach calculus-based physics to engineering freshmen, and prepare them for a sophomore-level course, if they barely get trig. Well, OK, I can teach these things, but I can’t teach them in 3 hours/week for one term. Give me more time with them, and I can get them from where they are to where they need to be. Give me limited time (and time is always the most precious resources) and I just can’t get most of them ready for whatever somebody else is expecting.

    I could ignore what the next person is expecting, but then gasstationwithoutpumps is wondering why somebody has taken a class labeled “computer programming” but can’t yet program.

    So my choices are:
    1) Meet them where they are, go at the pace they can go, and leave them unprepared for the next course. Also, ignore the fact that there are also some better-prepared students in the class who are paying just as much tuition and have the same hopes and desires for actually learning something this term.
    2) Do something to serve the needs of the next course, and the needs of the better-prepared students (who are also students and also show up with the expectation that they will learn something new), and in the process fail a huge fraction of the students.
    3) Do something to serve the needs of the next course and the better-prepared students, and give a “Gentleman’s C” to avoid slaughtering a large chunk of the class.

    There’s really no good option on that list. I’ve tried all 3 of them, and I’m never satisfied.

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