TGI December and Reader Questions

‘Tis December!!! Phew. I must admit, posting every day in November has been tough, which was probably obvious from some of the less-than-inspired posts. When you start photographing produce, you know you are scraping the bottom of the blog-fodder barrel.

I think last year’s November blogging was easier, I am not sure why. I don’t remember having quite this many moments like “It’s roughly 11:30 PM, I am completely pooped and I finally got a few minutes to sit down. I want to go sleep, but I haven’t posted today. What the heck am I going to write about?” (Enter squash.) I had more travel but I think I was overall less busy. Or at least I felt less busy. Or I repressed traumatic memories of excessive busyness and insufficient inspiration. Or I just had a higher tolerance for my own vacuous posts. (I was kind of aiming for some serious academic blogging here. I guess that ship has sailed!)

Thanks everyone for reading!


OK, that’s enough meta self-flagellation.  EarthSciProf posted some interesting questions after the 15-Min Improv Blogging post.

1) How long does it usually take you to do a review? I take much less time than I did when I first started but am wondering about how long it takes you since you’re farther along.

It depends a lot on the length of the paper. In my field, there are letters, of 4-page double-column size (like Physical Review Letters) and there are comprehensive articles (like in Physical Review B, for instance), which can be anywhere from 4-5 to 20 pages long. I would say most papers are 6-10 pages of main text, anything over 10 generally means long appendices.

For a well-written letter in PRL, it takes 1-2 focused hours to read and write a good report It may be longer if there’s supplementary material or I have to look at a lot of references. These letter papers also tend to be reviewed for hotness rather than just interest and correctness; a common complaint is “This  is fine technically, but of too narrow a focus, and should be expanded and submitted to a specialized journal instead.”

A comprehensive paper takes longer to go through and write a report. Between 2 and 4 hours, depending on length.  Flying on planes is my favorite time to review papers, as there are no distractions. (Crappy papers take longer to review, because I start reading, get irritated, drop the paper before finishing, then have to still do it later, but then I procrastinate because I have already experienced the pain.)

A few months ago I was a referee for a good review paper, it was probably 60 pages (double column) and it took me all day. It was written by people I respect, so I ended up writing a lot of comments in the margins and scanning the marked-up document into a PDF which became part of the report. There should be some karmic brownie points in it, I hope.

What about you, blogosphere? How long does it take you to review papers? 

2) You posted something about a few months ago here

about only a small percentage of collaborations working out long-term. Any advice/guidelines/rules of thumb that you use to cut things off when a collaboration doesn’t seem to be going anywhere?

Ugh. This is a tough one, but I will give it a shot. All collaborations of mine that have dissolved owing to nonfunctionality were simply abandoned to die by all (dis)interested parties; at some point, no one attempted resuscitation any more. The parties stopped communicating and went on with their lives, never discussing the collaboration. The upside is that technically there was no confrontation, so everyone is still formally on good terms. This is not a bad thing in the long run.

I also have several collaborations that are generally healthy, but are on-again off-again, depending on funding and interests. We work together, then go our separate ways when the grant ends, then rejoin a few years later to do something else. I like this type of collaboration. It’s with people I enjoy working with, who have the same zeal, similar attitude to advising students and publishing, but we don’t have to be joined at the hip. In contrast, I have a colleague who does everything collaboratively, with several long-term collaborators. I find it stifling.

Are you on a grant together? If not, then just cut your losses and part ways. If you are on a grant together, then you need to produce something one way or another for your own sake, even if the collaboration is not working out. Proceed as best you can alone. If you feel appropriate, offer to include the collaborator on papers on your own terms; if they don’t agree or are being difficult, that’s your answer. I have found even very demanding people, when you do all the work and offer to have them as a coauthor on a polished paper, will swallow the pride/whatever other bug they have up their butt and say “Sure, go ahead and submit. Looks good!” I take myself off of papers to which I didn’t contribute enough, but most people don’t.

EartSciProf, if you have a specific situation, I am sure the readers would be happy to offer their insights.

Here are also some thoughts on collaboration from the depths of the Academic Jungle.

Wise academic blogosphere, please help EarthSciProf with the collaboration dissolution tips! 


  1. I really liked the daily blogging, too bad it’s December. 🙂
    I have a question for you. I would be really curious to read what you would say about the topic of energy, since this is something I am currently thinking about.
    It is clear that you operate on a very high level of energy. Most people would be overwhelmed doing a quarter of what you do. Why do you think you have such high energy? Is this genetic? Your upbringing? Very high motivation? Your way of thinking about things?
    Have you had phases with low energy? Do you feel like you are “using up” your energy over the years, or do you have some way to replenish it?
    I am asking this because I feel like I have used up a lot of energy over the years I spent in science and it is only slowly coming back, and I am not sure if I will ever be at the level that I was before. You however seem like you must have only become more energetic with time…. maybe it is like in sports. Some athletes have ruined their knee at 28, others are still successful at 40, and maybe it is small differences in how they move and how they manage themselves that make all the difference….

  2. We have a post on reviews today too. 🙂

    As for how long: crapoy papers take a couple hours. Good papers take a day. I’ve been getting more good papers than I used to.

  3. Also re: collaboration– I have a post in my head gelling because I’ve missed two hard deadlines in which I did all the work and then my co-PI/co-author didn’t read it over/ok it in time for it to be submitted. Senior people.

    I suck suck suck at coauthoring with people (I complain about them, but I’m the common denominator). But I also don’t do so well working on something just by myself. I keep going back and forth on which I should do.

  4. Now the question about time spent in review: why it is not compensated by publishers? The time spent in reviewing an article is a real work time not compensated by the university.

  5. In my field papers are 10-15 pages of text, it takes 2-4 hours for me to read and write. My reviews are usually better if I have time to read, set aside, and then come back to write the review. However usually I just bang it out it all in one go. Planes are also my favorite time for reviewing.

    Ha ha, your description of dissolved collaborations exactly mirrors mine. Down to the go-along-and-never-mention-the-collaboration-again aspect.

  6. Oh, and the worst are crappily written but good idea papers. Often from scholars with English as a second language. These take for ever because I feel obligated to help with rewriting (I don’t want to reject a paper just for grammar).

  7. @ Zinemin: Most people would be overwhelmed doing a quarter of what you do. Why do you think you have such high energy? Is this genetic? Your upbringing? Very high motivation? Your way of thinking about things?
    Have you had phases with low energy? Do you feel like you are “using up” your energy over the years, or do you have some way to replenish it?

    Those are all great questions,. You understand you are enticing me to engage in navel-gazing, a dangerous passtime indeed? 🙂 Perhaps a separate post is in order. I will just say I am no poster child for an energetic person. I am actually quite lazy a lot of the time, but I have stamina (still, less so than when I was younger) so I am able to do a lot in maniacal, often deadline-driven bursts (which I actually find quite pleasurable). So I operate in what seems as a very unbalanced way from the outside.
    I am the exact opposite of the driven and ultraorganized Martha Stewart-CEO-triathlete-brain surgeon. I will likely never run a marathon. My house is messy. I get bored with everything easily and have real issues with too much structure, so my modus operandi is built around that defining quality (I might have a version of adult ADD; I am serious). I know there are people for whom structure releases stress; it is quite the opposite for me. Lists, for instance, make me deeply uncomfortable, as do too many standing meetings and too many commitments in general. So I keep everything in flux as much as possible. This seems like complete insanity to many people (e.g. my husband) but it works.
    During peak productivity times, I am ultrafocused and can juggle many, many balls. Then there are the low-energy times where I am useless, and fortunately academia allows me this luxury.

    As for motivation, if you go through the Academic Jungle archives, you will see some pretty down in the dumps posts. I had a very low point in terms of motivation a few years ago. I am on the upswing now. Colleagues say it is cyclical, you feel good, then crappy, then good again about work.

    I have found that I often know exactly what I want and need, I am just afraid to go for it or do what I know is right. I suffer to the point where I don’t care about the negative potential effects, and then I am emboldened to do what’s I knew in my gut was right all along. If i didn’t battle the impostor syndrome and second guess myself all the time, I would save myself a lot of grief and time.

    OK, I will shut up now. As I said, it doesn’t take much to get me to ramble about myself. 🙂 Maybe a longer post later.

    @nicoleandmaggie; I hear you on collaborations. I am most comfortable working alone or with a small set of tried-and-true, on-again off-again collaborators. I have little patience for people who work on timescales much different than mine. Recently I had a collaborator who would make me wait for 3 weeks for comment (they always end up being only light and cosmetic) on a manuscript that was polished and ready to go. I said no, I am submitting now , and you can incorporate comments once we get it back from review. They said OK. When the paper came back with 3 glowing reviews (all very minor revisions), I felt very vindicated.

    @rs: yes! I don’t mind reviewing for nonprofit society journals, especially APS and the like that have no page charges, are really open for submission to everyone in the world, and are really good about letting the authors post typeset work on their webpages and retaining copyright. But the likes of Springer, Elsevier etc, where I have to pay to download a typeset copy of my own goddamn paper (because their university subscriptions are too expensive) makes me livid. Authors do the work for free, referees review for free, and Springer/Elsevier make a buck? I suppose the university does pay for all this work during the academic year.

    @The Frugal Ecologist: I definitely comment on the paper structure and especially abstract, title, and intro. Often people don’t do their work justice with how they write, the paper is much better than you could tell from the lackluster abstract or an overly generic title. I definitely say stuff like “Cut this, this is unclear, move this thing there, figure 5 is completely illegible.” I think people appreciate well-meaning constructive feedback, I know I do.

  8. I wish with this last missed deadline that I’d just said, “sure, if I don’t hear from you by Friday I will turn in what I sent”… but it’s hard when the person is a full professor at a top school and you’re… not. I’m super bummed, but I think that’s just what I’m going to have to do. This “I’ll get it done this weekend” update every weekend until the deadline has passed… not worth it. Really I should just do more solo-author stuff. But when other people are actually working on the project, I’m so much more motivated.

    Right now I’m trying to get myself to restart the NSF proposal whose August deadline was missed. There’s more than can be done with the literature review etc. And this time the coauthor needs to inform her grants office long before the January deadline.

    And there’s the funded project where the co-PI had a huge hissy fit and has gone radio silent. He’s not a good enough coauthor for me to care about soothing his feelings, though I did respond with a professional and sympathetic email after his last thing, where he accused me of trying to communicate with him via my RAs instead of directly with him. That’s after the email where he said I needed to remind him of deadlines more frequently and it’s my fault he’s been not getting things done by the deadline if I believe he’s going to do things when he says he’s going to do them.

    What has been working for me with my two value-adding but pokey co-authors (both of whom I submitted papers with this past week) is throwing back and forth for an hour each day rather than letting them sit on it and make extensive corrections. Then in crunch time we go back and forth in hour intervals several times each day.

    What I would really like would be a coauthor who isn’t pokey. I’ve had RAs who are similarly helpful (and who I coauthor small papers with before they go on their non-academic ways), but they’re hard to come by.

    Ok, if I start on that NSF proposal now, I only have to work for an hour before my lunch meeting, and I know that once I start it won’t be so bad. Plus since I haven’t looked at this for a month, I can spend most of the hour reading and making small changes.

  9. When I review a paper (thankfully I am not getting that many requests lately), I usually read it once, sit on it for a few days, read it again, sit on it again for a few more days (or a bit more, depending on my general busyness and how much time the editors give me), and then write the report in about an hour. I try to be constructive, but sometimes it’s hard to be constructive and detailed…

  10. Please write a post about the energy thing, its the VERY thing I’ve been contemplating today reading several different and unrelated blog posts (usually about staying up working on something or another until 11pm). I think I lie in the low energy end of the bell curve. I’m motivated, but I get tired and need my sleep!
    As for reviews, I’d say anywhere from 2-4 hours, depending on the length of the paper, my familiarity to the specifics of the topic, and how much grammar/English I have to correct. Though if the English is truly, universally bad, I just note that the authors may need to get an editor. A couple of recent journals I reviewed for had an option to check a box “Does this paper require English-language editing”, because I guess its so common and they don’t want you to focus on that in your review.
    I HIGHLY appreciate constructive comments/edits, including changing the title to make it catchier, restructuring the abstract, re-ordering the results, etc…

  11. Oh and I ALWAYS send manuscripts to co-authors with the date of planned submission. If their edits are not back by then, I’ll keep them for the revision. I need x papers in any given academic year and I can’t wait around forever when I know my paper is at the bottom of a 3-page long priority list.

  12. Thanks for info on reviews. 10 page papers sound great. My field frequently has papers that are 15-20 pages (25-40 double spaced pages in manuscript). When I first started reviewing (as grad student), I was at ~8 hours but now I’m more in the 2-3 hours range. I’ve reduced the length of my reviews over the years because I felt like my reviews were much longer than other reviewers. I now try to focus on a few bigger scientific or communication issues with a paper. I make fewer comments on writing because it’s not my job to rewrite papers for them. At the level journals I’ve tended to review out (society-level, good subfield journals), I feel like the major issues with most manuscripts are communication of methods, assumptions, and interpretation rather than the data or measurements.

    I do get pretty annoyed when people with PhDs (and native English speakers) put in barely readable work for the resubmit stage. I got frustrated enough with the writing and errors in that paper in the first revision that I actually throw it across the room. The authors had data from a new technique (as the core of their paper) but neglected to include that data in a table. I felt like the PI of that lab was really dropping the ball and being disrespectful of reviewers’ time by letting somebody from their lab send out a manuscript that poor.

  13. Thanks for the helpful comments on colloboration and the reference back to Academic Jungle. I figured you had relevant posts but didn’t realize those posts are helpful tagged! Really useful to know about the on-again/off-again nature of some of your collaborations.

    I don’t have a particular situation in mind. As somebody a few years away from tenure, I’mm trying to figure out my contributions as a collaborator and when to keep pursuing a collaboration vs let one die. I really don’t understand people who won’t comment on drafts. I’m slower than I should be when I’m doing must of the writing. But when somebody else is doing most of the writing, I try to get my comments back quickly, in part because I find it more fun to comment/revise somebody else’s writing than my own.

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