How to Write a Manuscript Review

This one was inspired by a recent conversation in my group meeting.

Generally, the outcome of a review of a manuscript in the physical sciences is one of the following options (I am sure it’s basically the same in the biological and social sciences, and maybe even in the humanities, but I have no direct experience):

a) Accept as is

b) Reconsider with minor revisions

c) Reconsider with major revisions

d) Reject

As a referee, you will be asked to submit a report (to be transmitted to the authors and thus to be written in a collegial manner) along with a recommendation to the editor on the course of action. The recommended course of action is one of the options a) to d). Some journals offer further recommendation subtypes, such as “Accept with optional revisions” vs “Reconsider with mandatory revisions (minor)” vs “Reconsider with mandatory revisions (major)” vs “Reject and recommend transfer to another journal”.  Some have additional options for the referee, such as “I don’t need to see the paper again” or “I need to see the paper again.” But these are all nuances.

Reviews (report plus recommendation) are advisory to the editor. Again, reviews are advisory to the editor. Whether the review is positive or negative, write it so that the editor can understand what has governed your recommendation.

Each referee’s recommendation after a round of review is somewhere between a) and d). Based on these recommendation, the editor makes a  single decision between a) and d) — to accept as is, to invite resubmission with minor or major revisions, or to reject. This single decision is communicated to the authors. The authors will also see the referee reports, but may or may not see the recommendations of individual referees (depending on the field culture and journal), but the authors can usually tell from the content of the reports what each referee recommended. We focus on referee reports and the associated recommendations here.

When do you recommend “Accept as is”?

Option a), “Accept as is,” is usually not recommended by any referee after the first review unless the referee doesn’t give a toss. (It’s okay to “Accept as is” after the first or second revision.) As an associate editor, when I get an adulatory but shallow one-liner after the first review, “This paper is great, publish as is,” I roll my eyes. Such a report is completely useless. It offers me no advice, other than the advice that you as a reviewer didn’t take your job very seriously. Don’t be that reviewer. If you like a paper, your one-liner will not help against a scathing three-page report of another referee who hated the manuscript. If you really like the paper, give the authors something they can use to fight for it.

When do you recommend “Reconsider/accept with minor revisions”?

When you generally like the paper and its conclusion. You think the study is correct, the figures are clear, the conclusions are supported by the data, and the paper is written well. You were able to follow what they did and how, and you have enough information to determine that the technique is appropriate and correctly applied. The minor revisions are usually: missing relevant references (a small number), minor instances of unfortunate wording, some minor tangents that would be interesting to address as they link the paper to the broader field in a way the authors didn’t consider, clarifications in the title or abstract or intro, other clarifications of specific pieces or wording or details in the technique (experimental conditions, theoretical parameters), minor corrections to the figures (e.g., recommendation to choose different colors for better contrast in a 3D plot). Basically, the paper would not be awful to be published “as is” but it could be improved to full awesomeness with edits that are not overly time consuming.

When do you choose “Reconsider with major revisions” vs “Reject”?

Is there plagiarism/duplication of work? If yes, reject, and provide references where the overlapping work has appeared.

Is the paper topically inappropriate for the journal? If yes, then reject, and explain briefly why it doesn’t fit (these are often caught by the editors, so the paper is desk-rejected).

Is the paper not hot enough for the highfalutin journal? If the answer is affirmative, then reject, but please please explain why you think so. A negative one-line review is just as useless as a positive one. The editor can’t do much with your “gut feeling” that the paper is not cool enough for the journal, especially if that’s your only reason to reject the paper. (Unfortunately, what the gut of famous Prof. Greybeard has to say seems to have more weight than the opinions of younger guts). Your gut feeling should in principle be translatable into human speech, such as: all the references are old and there are no new ones, so this work is not timely enough for this journal; most of the references, especially recent ones and/or the ones with similar work, have been published in this other journal instead; the results are straightforward extension of published work and thus of very limited novelty; the results require unrealistic parameters or only occur under a very narrow set of conditions and are thus likely not robust, etc. [see comments for differences among fields].

Are the methods without a doubt inappropriate to address the problem at hand? Then reject. But if the method is one of several and is just not what you would use, that’s not a good enough reason alone to reject the work. Different methods have different strengths and often reveal different facets of the same phenomenon.

Now we come to the tough region.

Is the paper correct? Are the methods appropriate? Is it timely? Is it interesting? Does it present something novel about the world that is not obvious?

If the answer to all these questions is yes, then ask yourself if you can envision this paper being edited so as to become publishable. What would the authors have to do, specifically, to make it suitable for publication?

Does the language need considerable attention? Is the discussion of the techniques/methods unclear? Are the conclusions unclear? Can you write down what specifically is unclear?

If the answer is that you just hate all of the paper, that it’s boring or just awfully written, or that the necessary chances are comprehensive, pervasive in every aspect, then please reject outright. Try to to explain that the paper is far from publishable and that you cannot imagine it becoming publishable within the span of 1-2 revisions; that it would essentially have to become a completely different paper instead because of simultaneous issues with presentation, conclusions, figures, etc. It is much better to reject outright than to 1) torture yourself to try to list all the things that are wrong, 2) make the authors spend a lot of time entering those edits, only to 3) find out that even after all these edits you still think the paper is awful. Rejecting a paper because of pervasive issues is a kindness. For instance, imagine if you were to submit a first draft of a paper written by a second-year graduate student. These drafts usually require extensive edits and the advisor has to make several (many?) layers of corrections in order for it to become suitable to unleash upon the world. Similarly, there is no point in wasting the time of multiple referees “editing by peer review” something that’s as far from publishable as an early draft of a newbie student.

So, when do you say, “Reconsider with major revisions”? When you can envision a finite number of specific things that the paper needs in order to become publishable. Imagine receiving the paper with those revisions perfectly incorporated; if you would then have no problem accepting the paper, then that’s major revisions. Major revisions usually include: significant gaps in cited literature; missing data/figure(s) in order to support a conclusion; missing critical information that prevents a reader from following the exposition or assessing the correctness of the approach; poorly written abstract or conclusion.

How do you write a useful referee report? 

Start with a 2–3-sentence-long paragraph (Hyphen happy! Technically, the first one is a dash.) in which you state, in your own words, what the paper is about, how the authors do what they do, and what the main findings are. This helps show the authors and the editor that you have understood the paper.

Then say clearly, in a single-sentence paragraph,  what your position on the fate of the paper is. Do you feel it’s generally great, but have minor suggestions for improvement or minor but required edits? Do you think it’s inappropriate for publication in the present form, but expect it to become publishable if the authors satisfactorily address the specific problems outlined below? Or do you think the paper is simply not appropriate for publication in This Journal for reasons that are deal-breakers, and concisely explained?

If your are disposed towards rejecting, make sure you state why in a few sentences or a couple of numbered items/paragraphs.

If there are major issues with the paper, give a numbered list of major issues that the authors should address. Be specific about what you want them to do. Remember, if you are a good referee, this should be like a contract: if they do what you ask, you will recommend acceptance. Don’t be that douche who keeps moving the target and asking for new and varied things in subsequent reviews. Follow with a list of minor concerns, like the typos you caught, unfortunate wording, missing units, etc.

If you have identified minor or optional revisions, list them also in a numbered list. If something is optional to consider and you do not require that the authors comply, but just to seriously consider it, then say so.

Happy reviewing!

(See the comments for some differences between fields. Students and postdocs: your own advisor is your best guide regarding established refereeing practices in your field.)

Let It Flow — Part 2

— continued from here

Thy Paper Shall Have a Story

Papers for publication are different from proposals, and they are also different from reports or theses/dissertations. (This insight brought to you by Captain Obvious.)

Before you write a paper, you first have to ask yourself:

a) Do you know what you did?
b) Do you know why you did it?
c) Do you understand what you found?

Most students know what they did, which in a paper goes somewhere in the methods section and is often easiest to write.

However, most students, especially young ones, don’t actually know why they did what they did (other than that the advisor nudged them towards it). Why you did what you did is what makes your introduction and it is a very important part of the paper.  Often, writing a poor introduction means not really understanding where you work fits with the state of the art, which in turn means that you have to go back and read the literature more broadly, and you have to talk to your advisor more.

Understanding what you found goes into the results part of your paper. That’s “the meat.” Students have an easier time writing the results than the introduction, but often I find the results to be written trivially, just reading trends of graphs. That’s generally not enough for any reputable journal.

Your paper has to tell a story. It needn’t be the world’s most complete story, but it has to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. In other words, it has to have the Why (Intro), the How (Methods), the What (Results), and the So What, a.k.a. how it all fits with what we know or don’t know (Results/Conclusion). This is the paper skeleton, and it’s a good idea to not start writing the full paper until you are comfortable with it. (Again, you and your advisor should be talking about the skeleton  several times.)

Once you really truly understand the why, the other parts are easier to write. The intro needs to connect between setting the stage for the reader to recognize where your field is and what the important open problems are, what you do to address an open problem and how, and what you found and why it’s important.

Introduction (each of the paragraphs can be more than 1 if lots of material)

Paragraph 1: Open with an overview of the state of the art in a broader area and perhaps note applications relevant for your paper.

Paragraph 2: Recent developments in a closely related subarea; what is known (who measured/calculated it), what is still being debated (who said what, if there are competing experiments/theories)  or what is relatively open (any relevant work, perhaps on related systems), and why it is particularly important that we find an answer to some of those questions. (This paragraph also mentions briefly, some of the common experimental or theoretical methods, as you discuss the work of others).

Paragraph 3: “In this paper/letter, we…” State concisely what you did. It needs to connect to the open problems you just discussed as important in the previous paragaph. State what you did, how, and what you found, and how it answers the question(s) posed in Paragraph 2.

Paragraph 4: When writing comprehensive papers in the physical sciences, there is this “Table of Contents” paragraph, where you say things such as “This paper is organized in the following manner. In Sec. II, we present the methodology, …” Many people keep it entirely generic (Sec. II Methods, Sec. III Results, Sec. IV Conclusion), but I like to put in more detail and use this paragraph to show how the main thread connects my story (“In Sec. III A, we show the vibrational properties of vibranium obtained using neutron scattering experiments… In Sec. III D, based on numerical simulation, we reveal that these unique mechanical properties of vibranuium make it an ideal material for intergallactic warfare.”)

The Vomit Draft

The whole paper — the material you put in and the order you put it in — is in the service of presenting your story.  The story should be reasonably clear in your head before you start writing. However, sometimes, after you start writing, you actually go and look some stuff up and think of things another way and, all of a sudden, you may need to change parts of the story somewhat, or even dramatically. This is natural — it happens in technical writing as well as in fiction — and is perhaps the most fun part of writing: the fact that writing helps clarify your thinking. Which brings me to the common saying that you make figures first, then write around the figures; this is true enough, but is hardly gospel. I say have a skeleton first, a decision on what the paper will be about (informed by dozens of figures you and your advisor already went through before writing), then make the figures to best support your story, and then write the results section around the figures. My students and I redo figures many times during the writing-editing process, as we distill our message.

However, you have to start somewhere, and that somewhere is a reasonably clear concept of your paper’s story. (Sheesh, have I said it enough times already?)
Then you start writing a rough draft, also sometimes colloquially referred to as the vomit draft, because it hints at people vomiting the inside of their heads onto the page; like vomit, the product is generally misshapen and not pretty, but is usually not smelly. [If your vomit draft actually smells like vomit (eeww!), stop spilling food all over your keyboard. You are gross.]

Now, I know there are folks in the blogosphere who will tell me that some people don’t write the rough draft but their sentences come out their heads perfectly formed right away. If you are like that, more power to you, you are a freakin’ unicorn — I bet the horn focuses your thoughts! However, most people need a rough draft, which they then edit, and for them it’s good practice to separate writing as things come to mind (which helps with the flow) from editing (which ensures that horrible grammar, spelling, and punctuation are not unleashed upon the world, or worse — your advisor’s desk!).

So, with a clear outline of the main story in your head, just start typing things as they come to mind, as you would tell them to another person. Imagine yourself giving a talk… unless giving a talk is even more terrifying than writing, in which case imagine you are on a beach, in a hammock, talking to a really hot hammock neighbor about your research project over some margaritas. At this point, please don’t worry about grammar at all. Just write how you think about your story.

A trick that helps is to start writing amidst a block of already existing (unrelated) text, so the whiteness of the page isn’t daunting. I always cite Finding Forrester and how Forrester helped his young protege by having him type on top of an old story. This trick has helped many a student. In my group we use LaTeX, so everyone starts learning LaTeX by working from someone else’s paper anyway, which provides examples of LaTeX commands and of semi-related existing prose wherein you can nestle your draft.

The point is to start; once you start, just dump the contents of your mind onto the screen. Write as things come and, as long as words pour out of you, don’t stop… unless you are starving, have a bladder that’s about to burst, or can barely keep your eyes open; in any of those cases, please stop; you will be able to get good flow later, I promise. I hate it that in the popular culture the ability to write is conveyed as some sort of mystic, hard-to-replicate experience (and nobody ever shows editing); a recent offender is the movie The Words I just saw on Amazon Prime (the movie is so-so otherwise).

Don’t worry about “the muse” in technical writing. You will get good chunks of text out of you on multiple occasions. Just write. It needn’t be pretty, it needn’t be super organized, just write. Consider it a chance to reveal your thought process and your knowledge and your excitement to other scientists. The more you write, the lower the barrier to writing.

Edit later

But when is later? When the flow stops. When you are done with a few paragraphs. When you are having a hard time getting the flow started. When you are almost done. When a few days has passed since you finished a draft. When office mate asks you to look at their paper. When it’s either edit or check references. Basically, don’t edit at the level of every word or every sentence you produce, but you can do it paragraph by paragraph or page by page or section by section, depending on personal preferences, available time, and editing stage.

Good editing means careful reading, putting yourself in the reader’s shoes, and — more often than not — murdering your darlings, so your other darlings can go on and get reviewed well at a fancy journal.

Don’t be afraid to let some grammar rules slide if they ensure good flow: e.g., sometimes long sentences are justified and work better than shorter ones, which can be choppy. Don’t be afraid to use punctuation in the service of your point: I use commas, dashes, and parentheses, which can all help separate a minor clause, depending on how closely it’s tied to the main clause. I love the semicolon and use it a lot in technical writing; it provides closer coupling between successive sentences than a period. Things like that. (Sadly, ellipses and exclamation points are not welcome in journal papers.) Proper punctuation will help pace your reader.

What say you, blogosphrere? These were lengthy posts, so I am a little (okay, a lot) out of steam, and I am sure I forgot a whole bunch of things. Please let J know what your favorite tricks for ensuring good flow in technical writing are. 

Here are also links to related posts on Academic Jungle and here on xykademiqz

Happy vomit-drafting! 

Let It Flow — Part 1

Reader J asks how to ensure good flow in technical writing:

I’m going to be a graduate student soon. I follow your blog, especially when you talk about writing, because I’m not good at it. A problem I have had since middle school is that my sentences and paragraphs don’t flow well. My papers are “hard to read.” As a non-native English speaker, I also have to edit manually for parallel sentence structure, comma splices, and prepositional phrases. I have some good references for sentence structure and phrases, but how do I write smoothly?

First, I want to commend J for being conscientious about writing well so early in his or her career. This will make J’s advisor very happy!

Before I start dispensing wisdom, a disclaimer: I am (obviously) not a professional writer, editor, linguist, grammarian, or anyone who has any degree or certificate that would attest to any sort of formal qualification whatsoever to speak of good writing in English; in fact, I am not even a native speaker. What I do have are 10+ years of experience of being a professional scientist, publishing independently, writing grants, and training others how to report science in written form. Also, between Academic Jungle and xykademiqz, I have been blogging for what is now over 5 years! Considering that the readership appears to include people who are not related to me by blood or marriage, my blog writing may not be entirely hopeless.

I will try to share what I do, and if I know why I do it, I will try to share the rationale. Sometimes I do stuff simply because I think it works (I am sure there is literary theory on it, but I don’t know it). So please renormalize your expectations accordingly!

Now on to play a smartass…

Technical Writing: Not Entirely Unlike a Competitive Sport

In general, technical writing is relatively formulaic, and you can write passable research papers even if the prose is stifled. However, the quality of writing — good versus excellent — will make the difference between getting published in a middling versus very good journal, or between getting denied and getting funded. So I highly recommend working towards getting as good as you can. The good news is that you can become considerably better at technical writing — especially in regards to aspects such as composition, flow, and writing speed — by practicing in a medium such as a blog or a personal journal, where you can experiment with breaking the grammatical and stylistic rules (e.g., playing with punctuation, emphasis, choppy versus lengthy sentences, or how the choice of a synonym changes the tone). If you were an athlete, you’d be cross-training (swimmers lift weight and run, for instance); consider blogging or keeping a journal a form of cross-training for your main sport, which is technical writing. 

What’s flow?

Grammar and proper sentence structure should never come before good flow, good tempo, proper word choice, and whatever else it is that you need to get your main thing across, where in technical writing the “main thing” is your point, i.e., your main finding. In non-technical writing, the “main thing” may be to convey your own or your characters’ mood or emotions, for example.

So please don’t let yourself obsess about grammar, at least not in the initial  stages of writing; that’s something you worry about once it’s time to edit (more on it in Part 2). I will take a student’s draft with poor subject-verb agreement or repeated adjectives any day if the text flow is good and if they write in a logical and persuasive fashion.

What’s good flow in technical writing? You essentially want the reader to follow your train of thought, starting from certain easily grasped or widely accepted facts/laws/phenomena, through linked statements, to your “main thing.” Good flow means that a member of your audience can keep a relatively constant pace of reading, without having to pause or reread a cumbersome construction or to skip boring, trivial, or redundant paragraphs. Ideally, the only places your reader stops is where you want them to stop — where there’s a figure, or an equation, or a place in the text where something is being emphasized. Flow means you are holding the reader by the hand, so they walk comfortably beside you and have enough time to notice and enjoy the flowers; you should not be lagging behind the reader (means you are redundant or spend too much time on trivialities) and you should not be dragging them behind you (which means having to go back and reread hard-to-parse constructions). [Notice the redundancies in this paragraph? I could totally cut the last metaphor, for instance.]

In technical writing, good flow also means that you will recognize the places where your reader may ask “Wait a minute, what about this?” You will ask that question for them in the text, right at the point at which they would ask it themselves, then you will give them a satisfying answer right away. Good flow means your reader can be sort of lazy while enjoying the fruits of your intellectual labor.

What helps with good flow? As with all things writing, what helps most is reading. By reading a lot of technical papers, you will find those that you feel have been particularly well written. Pull them aside and dissect them, apply the scientific method: ask why you think this paper is so well written, what makes it so appealing? Try to figure out what the moving parts are (trust me, it’s way easier to do this for papers than for grant proposals; I am still convinced that good proposals must contain magical pixie dust).

Also, read your own writing. I like to reread my own papers and proposals (blog posts, too!), even after they are published or submitted. I read them many times during the writing and editing process, and these rewrites and rereads  help a lot with flow. Sometimes I think my students don’t read their papers at all before sending me drafts, because I can’t believe they would not have caught how constipated some sentences sounded if they had actually read the thing. Read your writing, people!

Be aware of your weaknesses; they need not be your undoing

If you are a non-native speaker of English, you might be self-conscious about your command of the language. My university has pretty good English-as-a-second language courses aimed at graduate students, and these do help correct gross errors in writing and speaking. But, you ultimately want to write at the level similar to that of a comparably educated native speaker, which means that you should not be happy with just not making egregious grammar mistakes, but rather continuously refine your spoken and written English.

I know that my big grammatical issues are the use of the definite and indefinite article as well as prepositions, because the information that is conveyed through articles and prepositions in English is conveyed through the use of cases (forms of nouns) in my mother tongue. For example, my Chinese students sometimes have issues with tenses and the use of gendered pronouns, again because the information about the when and the who is conveyed differently in Chinese. Students with different backgrounds have other systematic problems when they write, depending on the language of origin.

For me, articles and prepositions are issues in the sense that if write and don’t edit carefully, I might mess up, and I probably mess up in spoken English, especially if I am nervous or tired. Also, trying to talk and write as an educated native speaker means using idiomatic English; I like to experiment with idioms and even funny novel constructions, such as puns, which means I get things wrong. I have certainly flubbed an idiom (or a hundred) in my day, but you have to boldly use them in order to get better. Make a habit of paying attention to how native speakers use idioms; I always note when someone uses a construction that I probably would not have used or that I don’t really know the meaning of, and make sure to look it up later.

Finally, don’t assume, just because someone is a native speaker, that they are automatically a superior technical writer. I remember in grad school, I was getting ready to apply for faculty positions and had my two best American friends check my research and teaching statements. The two were not consistent about what they wanted fixed, not even at the level of whether a noun needed an article or not in front of it. So don’t that you suck just because you are not a native speaker; conversely, don’t assume you’re automatically golden if you are a native speaker (your non-native-speaking advisor will thank you).

Another thing, which holds for native and non-native speakers alike, is that people seem to have certain personal stylistic tendencies that are not ideal. For instance, I tend towards too many transition words, sentences that are too long, and I tend to repeat myself (I do that when I talk as well, say the same thing twice for sure; not only do I enjoy hearing the sound of my voice, apparently I like rereading my written words). Here, on the blog, I edit more or less thoroughly, depending on the mood and available time; some posts are better than others. Sometimes I leave the redundancies because I am lazy or because I liked a paragraph and just didn’t want to cut it — blogging is a hobby, after all, so I allow myself to get messy and self-indulgent. But, in technical writing, which is my professional mode of communication, I am very serious about cutting redundancies, removing the superfluous moreovers, therefores, and howevers,  and shortening sentences for maximal clarity.

All this is done at the editing stage, though, which means you already have a rough draft…

— continued here —

Workaholic Geeky Nonsense

The semester is about to start. Which means that the summer is over. Which means that, in order to fully get into all the fall proposal writing around all the undergrad course teaching and insane service, I have to get these last two papers done and submitted, like, yesterday.


Over the past few days, I worked  12-14 hour every day. Really focused, high-productivity, long days. I fuckin’ loved it. I love working non-stop, and if it were possible to somehow forgo sleep, at least temporarily, without loss of sanity of productivity, I would love to be able to just go-go-go.

Man, I love working.

When I don’t waste my time and energy worrying about whether or not I am appropriately recognized and admired, the bottom line is that I love reading papers, looking at data, analyzing data, coming up with mathematical models and appropriate algorithms for their numerical implementation, troubleshooting, making graphs, writing papers, and talking with graduate student about every single one of these aspects of my job.

I love doing science.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, I am actually a good role model for inspiring people to leave academia. More than one student has said that seeing me and the insane schedule that I keep has convinced them that mine is a job they don’t want.

I read all the time all around the web about there being a surplus of PhDs who all think they will be professors, who are then all surprised when that proves impossible and are also for some reason oblivious to the fact that there are other things they can do. Apparently, I do my part — without even trying! — to discourage young’uns from pursuing an academic career ; the few who were not discouraged have done very well for themselves!

I don’t know what it is that other professors do that (supposedly) makes all of their students and postdocs think they want the professor’s job and there is nothing else. I bet the professors look really cool while doing their job. Luckily, I never look cool, especially not while doing my job.

How do I achieve this elusive goal of discouraging all but a few? You can do it, too!
Look sleep-deprived and incessantly drink coffee, having mild panic  attacks when a coffee cup approaches empty. Send emails before 7 am and after 11 pm. Respond to their emails immediately no matter what time of day or week. Share with them when the deadlines are and name all the things that depend upon certain grants being renewed (their food, shelter, tuition, and health benefits). Work with them closely on every paper and proposal and let them know how much effort goes really, truly into every piece that is meant to be read and understood by others while bearing your signature. Keep track of all the details of all of their many very different projects in your head and be able to give each of their talks at a moment’s notice with no prep whatsoever. Push them to do better and lift them up and don’t let them give up on themselves or their work. Forward them emails from industrial collaborators about job openings. Encourage them to attend all manner of professional workshops to broaden their soft skill set. Sleep less than any of them and take less vacation than any of them.


In life, there are various quantifiable aspects that change over time. More often than not, it’s not the value of the function that we care about, as much as the sign of the first derivative. Sometimes a positive first derivative is good, sometimes a negative one.


If anyone tells you that calculus is stupid or useless, you can print this post, crumble it into a ball, and shove said ball into the mouth of the heretic spouting such nonsense. Calculus is an almost absolute goodness, only surpassed by complex calculus... And calculus on spheres, donuts, and other cool objects, also known as differential geometry… *geekgasmic sigh*


You know how The Oatmeal made me grumpy the other day? It’s all forgiven, as I came across an old classic — The Motherfucking Pterodactyl comic. And there is even a song (below)! It is hilarious,  but view at your own peril.


Lastly, among the comments to the last post emerged the awesomeness that is this guide to acting like a Minnesotan. It has a very Monty Python feel!


I haven’t been blogging much as I am a) recovering from the semester and b) writing technical stuff 24/7. So I am a little tapped out. As I am thinking about writing, it’s fitting that I write about writing.  Perhaps I should go full-meta and write about writing about writing…  For now, I give you a few technical writing and publishing vignettes.

The wimpy paper

The paper is competently written, correct, and boring as hell. Why? Because there is no story. Each figure is clear, pretty even.  The problem? The text pertinent to each figure is banal — just stating what the figure shows, what each symbol or line means (needlessly duplicating the caption), and trivially reading off trends. For example, all you get is

” For parameter C>C0, A increases slowly with increasing B. For C≤C0, A is independent of B.”

Yeah, I can see that from the figure, so what? Tell me why it’s important! What does it mean about the system at hand? Give me some nontrivial insight that the figure corroborates. For instance, “This dependence has been predicted based on the Orthodox Theory, but it was never experimentally measured before. The measurements presented in Fig. X confirms that Orthodox Theory accurately describes the underlying physics.” Alternatively, “The dependence of A on B presented in Fig. X is in contrast with the Orthodox Theory, which predicts A to be a monotonically decreasing function of B for all values of C.” Then go on to say what you think happens and why, ideally support with a different set of experiments or new theory theory.

I hate the wimpy, non-committal papers where the authors don’t state any conclusions or make any strong statements. Science isn’t stamp collecting, it requires you to understand and interpret data; the understanding and interpretation are what’s included in the body of knowledge.

The “I will make you sweat” paper

In my field (and many others, I am sure), there are comprehensive papers and there are letter papers that are typically 4 pages long. A well-written letter should be readable and understandable with <50% of the focus on the part of the reader. You should nudge me towards what I should think, with figures and text playing off and reinforcing one another. Don’t make me sweat like a constipated buffalo, reading two terse, cryptic paragraphs over and over again, trying to figure out what on earth you are talking about and how any of it has anything to do with the data in the figure (or common sense, for that matter).


This is mainly for professors, but others can play as well, and I know the variation will be drastic among fields.

How many papers can you conceivably write in a year?

I mean, the papers on which you are the lead author or do a significant amount of writing? I work almost exclusively with trainees and each paper is a lot of work: I can’t just sit and write it, we have to do the back-and-forths, the edits and the teaching. It takes a lot of time. I think my upper limit for papers where I am really involved would be 1 paper per month on average (more during the summer, less during academic year); usually, it’s less than that, roughly 1 paper per group member per year (senior ones can do 2, junior ones have 0, but it comes out roughly about 1 per group member per year). Full disclosure, I had 8 papers last year; I suppose if I had more than 12 people in the group we’d run into my own bandwidth limitation.

I see these people with 20+ papers per year from their group and I wonder — how? I suppose it depends on the length of the paper (a 4-page letter versus a 12-page comprehensive paper), how many senior people are on the paper (which can be a blessing, as they hopefully know what they are doing, and a curse, since they can be super busy and make it hard to get the edits done with), if you have good postdocs or research scientists… But still, how do you produce so many papers per unit time? I suppose there are these elevated planes of productivity that are like Mount Olympus: only a select few ever reach them.

Which brings me to a related question: There is definitely a need to edit and revise papers before submission. At some point, the gains from successive edits become insufficient to justify the extra time. This issue is particularly important when attempting to publish in high-profile journals,  as an insane amount of polishing goes on just to get a chance to pass the editorial desk and go out to review. A recent paper of mine with collaborators took years of hard work of several people, and about 2 years of writing and editing, and eventually went into a Glam Offshoot. Unfortunately, it seems we may have missed the wave of interest or whatever, because, after all that time and effort and the battles with reviewers, it doesn’t seem to be attracting much attention. Oh well.

So how do you decide when to pull the trigger? When it’s perfect? (Never.) When you are sick of it? When the student reaches the point of sending you two emails per day, begging you to submit already? When your grants are up for renewal? When you’ve done the three back-and-forths with student, edited the final version for two weeks and it’s as good as it’s going to get in the near future?

Update: This week’s PhD comic

Writing Papers with Graduate Students Who Don’t Want to Write Papers, Take Seven Gajillion

Over the past few weeks I have been working on papers with several students in parallel, and I am again pulling my hair out and wondering if there is a  way to get the writing done and the students trained without me going bald.

Reporting findings in written form is an inherent part of doing science. If you don’t publish your work, it’s as good as nonexistent. But, even more generally, scientists and engineers with advanced degrees will likely have to write technical texts one way or another, regardless of where they work, so it is important to train graduate students to write.

To me, writing has always been the easy, enjoyable part of every project. Sure, literature survey for the introduction is a bit of a pain the butt, but starting to write a paper means that the technical hurdles have (mostly) been overcome, that we have done the hard stuff and now it’s time for the frosting on the cake. Getting to write the paper has always been the reward part for me. Also, writing helps me distill my thoughts: the process of trying to explain what was done and how the reasoning went in a coherent, fluid form, often helps me understand the problem even better than before.

In contrast, I find that most of my students dislike writing. While for international students it may be the insecurity about their command of English, I find that even native speakers and non-natives with excellent command of English would largely still rather not write than write. Even students who may be very good and engaging presenters are often surprisingly lackluster writers or just horrible procrastinators when the time comes to start putting words on paper. “That’s because they are novice writers,” you say, “surely they will learn with practice, and writing will become easier;” that’s true, but only to a degree. Many simply really, really don’t want to write, don’t want to learn how to write, and would rather I left them to do their reading, derivations, and coding. They love being immersed in the technical nitty-gritty of their projects.

Writing is to science what eating fiber is to diet: necessary to keep things moving.

When you were little your mother probably bugged you about getting fiber through fruits, vegetables, and grains. Once you are all grown up, you probably understand the importance and include it in your diet, even if you don’t really like eating it. With my PhD students, I definitely stress very strongly the importance of technical writing. I used to iterate ad nauseam with each student until each paper was perfect; that took forever and the process often didn’t converge, so I had to take over. Right now, after the framework of the paper is agreed upon, I have a policy of 3 back-and-forths with edits before I take over and do the final rewrites; I ask the student if he or she wants to iterate more, as occasionally I do have a student who does want to keep going a little more to perfect their craft. However, most students are very happy when I take over; some procrastinate endlessly with their edits, some will tell me that they hate writing and don’t want to do it, or that it’s just really hard and they would rather I did it.

You know, it’s my duty to emphasize the importance of technical writing to students and to offer them the opportunity to learn. But do I actually have to shove the writing down their throats? I mean, if they are resisting learning, is it really my duty to force them to learn to write? We are dealing with young adults, but adults nonetheless.

I am wondering if I should reduce the mininum technical writing requirements to “full drafts for those who want to learn how to write, figure and figure captions for those who decide they don’t care to learn how to write,” or some similar scenario. Basically, when I see someone is fighting me and just does not want to write, perhaps it is OK for me to say “Fine. You supply the figures I tell you to make, I will write the paper. But don’t tell me that I didn’t tell you it’s important to learn how to write, and if you ever want to have another crack at it, let me know. In the meantime, you are relieved of this ominous duty.”

What say you, blogosphere? Is it OK to relieve the suffering of both myself and the students who really really don’t want to write?  Sure, that will leave them scientifically constipated, but I’m tired of having to chase them in order to force-feed them professional whole grains. I am not sure it’s in my job description or in anyone’s best interest.

April Showers Bring May Semester End and Thoughts on Learning New Things

For faculty on the semester system, there are only a couple of weeks of teaching left. This is probably the busiest time of the year, due to the sinister convergence of the semester ending and the conference season approaching. Program committees of many conferences are working hard these days to evaluate the abstracts; I am on three. On top of it, I am about to go to DC, again, for the third time in the last six months. This year has, so far, been very busy for me.

With perpetual busyness, how does one find the time to learn new things? I mean, where does the time come from to learn new techniques or the tenets of new fields of inquiry, but learn them really, really well?

I am working on topics that are somewhat but not far removed from my core expertise. You pick up related stuff along the way, as you work with students and postdocs, listen to talks by others, read up on papers in order to write proposals. But I feel I am not really an expert in any of these topics, as what I know about them has been acquired in a non-systematic fashion, by assembling the bits and pieces from various sources over time. I always worry that there are things I am overlooking, the literature I am missing.

There is something to be said for being introduced to a topic through taking a class or reading a textbook. Yet, the only way I have the time to read a textbook is if I teach a class based on it, and even so I may not get to read the whole thing. There are several topics that I find interesting and where I could potentially have something new and nontrivial to say, but the time to properly learn about any of them is just not there. I am itching to venture further out, to learn more and seek challenges and connections with fields that are more foreign to me.

I have been asking people how they find the time to learn new things, and the answer they often give me is “sabbatical.” I don’t see that happening with me; having small and school-aged kids and a working husband, I don’t see us leaving this place for a real sabbatical any time soon. During my previous sabbatical, I had a kid and also organized a major conference; I wrote several proposals, of which a major one got funded; I worked with students and wrote papers, and I think I did quite well keeping my head above water on all fronts, considering that my brain was mush due to no sleep and out-of-whack hormones. My next sabbatical is years away, and I need/want to learn and do some new things sooner than that. But there is just never enough time to pick up a book and work through it, for real. On top of teaching, I continually have students to work with, papers to edit, grants to write, service, travel. Summers are prime-time for conference travel, writing papers, and preparing fall proposals (this fall is really important for me grant-wise, I really need to do a good job with the NSF). There always seems to be something more urgent. Yet learning new things that can support your long-term research vision is important, like investing in education and infrastructure is important for long-term economic growth.

Now, I have a pretty good system for getting uninterrupted blocks of time. There is one day of the week when everyone knows I am MIA, and I have been successfully blocking out a second day in recent years; this also means that the other three days are chock full of teaching and meetings and I feel positively drained after them. My 1-2 blocked-out days are spent on writing papers or grants or whatever else needs tending to urgently; for instance, I spent a whole day grading last week, because that was the most urgent thing to do.

Being a working parent means that your time is always maximally obligated. Becoming older, I find that I can’t keep the pace of little sleep and burning the candle on both ends, which I used to be able to pull off when I was younger to squeeze some extra time for work out of the stubbornly 24-hour-long days. For instance, after a day of wrangling the Littles, like today, I can barely blog, let alone read something technically challenging.

How does one find the time to learn new things for work? I suppose this somewhat extends to — how does one find the time to exercise or have a hobby? People will offer answers that I have always found irritating: “You just have to make it (or yourself) a priority.” When you have kids, that means (1) you take the time from your work, (2) you take the time from your sleep, or (3) you take the time from your family time, which means your partner or additional caregivers bear the brunt of you taking the time for yourself or your new endeavors. I want to learn new things to do my job better, so I don’t think I should be sacrificing too much from (2) or (3), because I don’t have the stamina to skimp on sleep any more and the kids are only little once and my DH is entitled to weekends too. I want to find the time during my work day to accommodate more learning.

What say you, blogosphere? How do you find the time to learn new things for work, and learn them well?

Following Up with New Connections

In a comment to my recent post, “Musings on Networking,” TheGrinch asked:

Any advice on how to follow up / be in touch with new connections?

How to follow up depends a little on what type of interaction you had. With some people you just had a nice brief chat, but you didn’t connect either professionally or personally. I would say you don’t have to follow up with them at all, just be friendly if you meet them again somewhere in the future.

If you connected with someone personally, like if you are both grad students and went bar-hopping, then just do the usual friendly stuff that you young folks do :): email, text, Facebook, tweet. Whatever feels comfortable.

But if you connected with someone mostly professionally, if you do similar research, that’s actually quite easy because scientists are huge geeks in the best sense of the word: they are passionate about their work and LOVE to find someone else who shares their passion. In this case, a few days after the conference, I usually send an email saying something like this (unless I get a similar email from the other party first!):

Hi NewSciBuddy,

This is Xykademiqz from the University of New Caprica. It was a real pleasure to meet you last week at the 15th International Conference of Awesome. I enjoyed hearing about your research on superawesome spins and ultraawesome laser pulses. As promised, I am sending you a PDF of my presentation, as well as the preprints of the Glam Mag and Reputable Society Journal papers that I mentioned when we spoke; they are about to come out in the next month. 

[Optional 1: Invite  them to come give a talk at your place, such as “Would you like to come give a talk at UNC? Our seminar series is on Tuesdays. If you are interested, send me a few dates that work.” If they tentatively invited you to their institution and you really want to go, you can throw it out there and say “About me coming to give a talk at your place, I could do mid-April or early May. Let me know which dates would work. Thanks again!

Optional 2: Insert joke about weather/sport/food in exotic locales/travel/something not entirely technical that you might have discussed.]

Best wishes/regards, 


When someone I know sends me their papers, I always at least briefly take a look, and I think most people do.  I have several colleagues with whom I have a relationship where we will just send each other our new papers that we think the other one might find interesting, accompanied by  a few pleasantries and general information about life (for instance, if you send your new papers, you might also add that you are moving institutions). Then, we hang out whenever we meet at conferences again, but usually not all the time, a few meals or coffee breaks. With a few colleagues the relationship has become a tad closer, in that we will actually send each other emails to the effect of “Long time no see, what have you been up to?” In that case, I would say mentioning that you got married or pregnant or that someone close had passed away would probably be OK. A couple of my European colleagues send me Christmas cards. With quite a few I have an open invitation to come and give a talk whenever I am in Europe, which I did take advantage of once or twice.

Also, if you see the other person’s new paper in a journal, that’s an excellent excuse to ping them  (“Just saw your paper in Nature, congratulations!” ) The same holds if you see they won an award — be happy for them and let them know you are!

Overall, try to keep it friendly and light, perhaps a little aloof.  You certainly shouldn’t push anything. 

I will shut up now and let others chime in.

What say you, blogosphere: Once you have met new people at a conference, how do you stay in touch?