Day: December 28, 2015

Droppings 1: Service and Manuscript Review Questions

Some posts that didn’t make the second-to-last cut for the collection I am working on.

Academic Service, Take Eleventy

I have been thinking recently about what we, as professors, owe to the department and the university where we work in terms of service. We all have to do service, and doing very little is extremely uncollegial. With teaching, it is clear that we have a duty to teach the students to the best of our abilities. Unlike teaching, service is a necessary but highly variable and plastic aspect of our work; it is sometimes rewarding and sometimes necessary, but both the rewarding and the necessary aspects are considerably less common than ideal. Slacking on some service aspects has the potential to ruin a department, such as mishandling recruitment or promotions, or how the funds are disbursed. Systemic issues with personnel or funds have the potential to wreak havoc across the whole university. Not slacking on service, however, in cases when a committee mission is poorly defined or the committee appears dysfunctional, has the potential to drain you of a will to live and has negative effects spilling over into your research and personal life.

When it comes to department or university service, I prefer fewer but larger and more substantive assignments, where the workload may be considerable, but where I understand what the mission of the committee is and I believe it is important. I have been on the search committee for two years in a row, there is little that is more important than making sure we bring in good people. I was also on a pretty intensive university-level committee tasked with disbursement of intramural funds for research. I may spend the next several years on a committee that is critical in the tenure and promotion process.

But there are some things that I simply won’t do because I feel they are not a good use of my time and energy, and I don’t think they are a good use of anyone else’s, either.

For instance, we have annual recruitment days for prospective graduate students. These students, however, are all domestic students only from the neighboring several states. I used to participate in this event as a brand new assistant professor, but have decided to start ignoring it a few years in. I have never been able to successfully recruit a student through this event; the very few I do like and who might be a match end up going to better-ranked schools. So I realized that my time and effort are completely wasted on this event, and I also don’t think the amount of time and money invested by everyone is warranted: the best domestic applicants won’t come here no matter how good the snacks and entertainment are,  so spending all this money on travel and lodging to either kiss up to those who never considered us seriously to begin with or to court so-so applicants just because they are from the neighborhood is a complete waste. Our best and brightest remain international students, and I would much prefer that this money be used to fund a few department fellowships open to excellent international applicants. I have mentioned my thoughts to the powers that be several times, but to no avail; apparently there are enough people who think our recruitment day applicants are awesome and that it’s the greatest practice ever. So what I can do is just save my time and energy and not participate.

Also, this year the faculty search has been so drama-fraught that I don’t think I will be on a search committee in the near future if I can avoid it. It’s been the case of musical chairs — we can hire N people but there are N+1 subareas who claim priority in hiring, and it’s all been extremely unpleasant. Being on the search committee is an overwhelming amount of work even under the best of circumstances, and this additional tug of war is making me regret that I ever agreed to be on it.

I feel myself withdrawing from department life, not because I don’t care, but because I do care, a lot, and I feel frustrated and helpless by all the things that could and should be done differently. Maybe things look different once you are in a department leadership role, you realize you have to balance all sorts of competing interests. But at this point I find that I largely just don’t want to participate because the aggravation isn’t worth it.

I know people often talk about those who don’t participate in the life of the department as selfish. Maybe that’s true and maybe I am selfish. But I am becoming increasingly aware that at least some of those people who withdraw from department life, perhaps periodically, do so out of self-preservation. There are likely those who can argue and yell and then go back to their offices or their homes virtually unfazed. Perhaps they are a majority. Perhaps they are a majority of men. But whatever the demographic, there are those of us who can’t, and for whom the aggravation over department politics or inefficient spending spills over into other aspects of our lives. If I have an altercation in a meeting, I will be fuming over dinner, I can’t work in the evening and perhaps for a day or two afterwards. So instead of cuddling with kids or working on a proposal, I expend energy on disagreeable colleagues. That is not in my job description.

Service is important, but it is not more important than teaching or research or my peace of mind. Considering that the bullshit/importance ratio for service tasks can be unbelievably high, I have decided that I am within my rights to blow off the service tasks for which the ratio exceeds a certain value in order to be able to tend to the activities with a much, much lower ratio. I owe the department and the university the benefits of my expertise, teaching, research, and good citizenship. I do not owe the department enormous effort just so I could be heard. I do not owe the pigheaded colleagues the energy and time that my children and my students need instead.

Manuscript Review Questions

Among comments to the previous post, Nick and Mizumi asked two questions that warrant a longer response.

Nick asked: I was not given a chance to review the paper post changes. Is this normal? As an author I just assumed that my responses always went back to the reviewer for final approval, but I guess not? If the flaws are major enough, do I request to see the authors’ response prior to final acceptance? 

I am speaking here from an author’s perspective, and some of the responses may be field specific (I am in a hard STEM field). Those of you who are editors or simply in a different field, please chime in and correct/add.

If all referees requested minor revisions, it is likely that the editor will just look over the resubmission letter and make a decision without a second round of review. If the review featured a mix of minor and major revision requests, the resubmission can go back to all reviewers or it can only go back to those who requested major revisions (whereas they are sometimes asked to make sure the authors considered all the suggestions in all the reports). Indeed, when you request mandatory revisions, the resubmitted paper will most likely come back to you for a second round of review.

However, it is possble for you, as a reviewer, to request mandatory revisions and still not get the paper back. The scenarios in which this happens are the following:

(a) the other referee convincingly argues that the paper is beyond salvation, so the editor rejects it flat out and does not encourage resubmission;

(b) the other referee requires major revisions or recommends rejection, the editor does encourage resubmission, but the authors decide the reviews are so negative that it is not worth their time to try to fight it and never resubmit. They may go to another journal, but if they are smart they will take your review into account before submitting anywhere else.

(c) same as (b), but where the authors decide to wait a couple of months to resubmit. Due to the delay, the paper is considered a new submission and assigned a new set of reviewers;

(d) your review was so negative that the authors argued you were needlessly hostile and/or not objective, and they requested that the paper not be sent to you any more but that another referee be chosen. The editor was convinced and complied, so you as a referee are supplanted at resubmission. (FSP has a postthat describes this scenario.)

I would say that (a), (b), and (c) are fairly common. I don’t know if (d) has ever happened to me as a reviewer, but I have been on a team where we were the authors in a (d) scenario; once or twice we actually did get another reviewer.

As for final acceptance, the decision is ultimately in the hands of the editor. You as a reviewer are really advisory to the editor, and editors usually follow the reviewers’ recommendations, but the final decision is the editors’. I am sure, though, that if a decision has been made on the paper you reviwed, you can shoot the editor an email and ask for a status update. I might have done that once or twice, and the response each time was that the authors never resubmitted.

@ Mizumi: Are there opinions on what is “fair” number of reviews to accept? Over the past few years as a PhD student and then postdoc I’ve maybe drawn 8-10 reviews per year. Does that mean 8-10 is a good number to take on, so at least I am not a net drain on reviewer resources?

Mizumi, how many papers to review per year is really a question of how much time you have and how much you like reviewing papers. It’s an activity that is fun to do every so often (after all, it’s the fun science you get to read and help improve), but it does become a chore if you are under constant siege. One paper a month, which is approximately what you have been doing, is likely feasible even for very busy people. Would you be able to do one review every two weeks? How about one review per week? I think more than one a week (~ 50 per year) is difficult to accommodate. Unfortunately, the higher you are on the totem pole, the more requests you get per unit time — easily multiple requests per week. My goal is to hover around 1/week, but I will usually end up having 2 or 3 on my desk at any point in time, and another one or two which I have delegated to my students or postdocs. For instance, I review papers from multiple journals, maybe 8-10 journals fairly regularly. So even if each journal sends you a paper once a month, that’s still plenty.

As with most things in life, start on the lighter side — 1 or 2 papers per month are certainly a good service to your community, and the load will likely not smother you.

I am curious to hear how much of a review load other people have (please state career stage) and, from our readers who are also editors, how much refereeing load they think is appropriate.