ask a scatterbrain: writing goals

A colleague of mine has set up a writing accountability group for the summer. They’ll check in once a week to see how the past week went and to map out the coming week. The group is not explicitly about reading one another’s work, but about ensuring that such work is accomplished. I thought some of her questions and concerns would be a worthwhile discussion to have with a wider audience and something that others who might plan such groups could benefit from.

  • Should these groups be about encouragement, measuring progress, evaluating goal achievement, all of the above, or something else?
  • If the group is about encouragement, how can one balance encouragement with enabling? What happens if someone always has an excuse for why they’re not writing? Should they continue to be part of the group?
  • If the group is about progress, what are some of the ways that we can measure progress on intellectual work when it’s not always clear-cut (e.g., an argument is developing, even if I haven’t written the introduction, the paper might not be getting longer, but it’s getting more polished) ?
  • If the group is about setting and evaluating goals, what type of goals are most effective? Is it better to say, “I’ll finish the data and methods section of Paper A this week,” or to say, “I will actively work on Paper A five days this week,” or something in-between?
  • Are there ways for fellow group members to motivate progress and goal achievement? Gold stars worked in grade school, but what works in grad school or on the tenure-track?
  • If someone is working on a number of projects, should they work on each of these a little each week, or focus on them one at a time? Is it possible for people to move projects forward in tandem, in ways that are mutually beneficial, or does multitasking come with too much of a cost?

Finally, are there other things that readers would suggest about such groups? Do you have good success stories, things to be wary of? Any feedback is welcome.

the guy in england

Recently I re-read the famous 1953 talk by Irving Langmuir on Pathological Science. This time, one quote stuck out.

The set-up is that Langmuir describes how he visited the lab of someone performing a supposedly breakthrough-producing type of experiment, and through some canny actions, are able to show that really the experimenter is deceiving himself into believing he’s observing phenomena when really he’s just interpreting noise. Langmuir didn’t publish an expose of this guy’s work or anything. Instead:

“I sent a copy of the letter [explaining that this experimental technique did not work] that I had written to Davis to Bohr asking him to hold it confidential but to pass it on to various people who would be trying to repeat these experiments. To Professor Sommerfeld and other people and it headed off a lot of experimental work that would have gone on. And from that time on, nobody ever made another experiment except one man in England who didn’t know about the letter that I had written to Bohr. And he was not able to confirm any of it. Well, a year and a half later, in 1931, there was just a short little article in the Physical Review in which they say that they haven’t been able to reproduce the effect.”

Here the audience laughs. Me, I felt angry on behalf of the guy in England. Sounds like he wasted a bunch of time trying to work with a result that had been published, and for which there existed no contradiction in the official record. This happened because he was an outsider, not one of the people who were in-the-know to receive the information through personal networks that people already knew decisively that the experiment didn’t work. All he had was the official published record, in which there existed no contradiction.
Continue reading “the guy in england”

blind item

A couple years ago, I reviewed a paper for a highly reputable journal (note: not ASR or AJS). The paper had substantial merit, but did an extra analysis that I didn’t think made sense. (Worse, really, I thought it was outright misleading.) I explained why in my review. The paper was given an R&R in which the authors were instructed to answer various reviewer criticisms. The paper was re-submitted, and, in the revision, the questionable analysis was removed. I recommended acceptance, and, as it turned out, I was the only reviewer on the second round. The paper was published.

Recently, I was reminded of the paper and looked up the published version. I saw that the authors had put the questionable analysis back in the paper.

Does this happen often? Should I be bothered? Annoyed? Upset? Angry? Is there anything I should do, beyond the catharsis of posting this?

Obviously, there are many complaints about the review processes and how reviewers can make authors do things that the authors don’t think are right. I’m pretty confident in my views about this analysis, but the authors may well disagree (after all, they were the ones who did it in the first place). So, I can empathize with a certain degree of “Screw Reviewer C!” thinking. But, well, as Reviewer C, I’m feeling a little defrauded.