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This “to do” list makes me want cake

One of the strangest things about academia is the many things we’re asked to do well with zero training. Teach, for one. I mean, we get some “see one-do one” style training, and some graduate programs offer more support in this realm than others, but we are essentially learning on the job. Trial and error, where the medium for practice is our students’ lives. I just attended a workshop–because I am the kind of person who seeks out and takes advantage of opportunities to learn, and I am highly unusual in this regard–on good mentoring. I got a handout and listened to a bunch of people complain. I left in a bit of a huff, feeling the way students must often feel after seeking mentoring. That was a waste of time. Now I am back in the office and faced with two tasks that I have never been trained to do, and yet are a big part of my job.

  1. Review a paper.
  2. Write a letter of recommendation.

So to prevent me from spending the rest of the day looking at shoes on the internet, I am going to tackle item number 1. I am going to put on some music, make some tea, and ask for help. Fellow academics*: How do you efficiently review a paper? Any tips for making it not take more than a couple of hours, but also be FAIR? It’s easy to blow the task off and write a couple of shitty paragraphs, and the more I do these, the more tempted I am to basically give what I get: Find a nit-picky thing on page 10, criticize some theoretical point vaguely without offering any suggestions, but claim that it’s a fatal flaw, refer them to my brilliant work on the subject.

*Non-academics, if your job has any component of evaluation, there’s probably an analogue to the paper review. How do you evaluate the work of others?

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. I am not in academia, but I am now at a point in my career where it is becoming a common expectation that I will delegate things to others. I am terrible at this! I trust almost no one, and very few people do things the way I would do them (i.e., the right way, LOL).

    It might make my life a little easier if I were able to “give up the reins” occasionally, but I really struggle with it.

    May 3, 2016
  2. First I read through the paper and write it up while I’m doing it. Preferably on a plane or while waiting for DC1 to get out of piano. While I’m reading it I decide if it’s a reject or an R&R or if it’s not obvious I keep changing my mind back and forth as I write stuff. If it’s an obvious reject, I stop reading so carefully and stop writing anything except major things on the paper. It doesn’t matter if there’s a typo in footnote 6 if they’re claiming correlation is causation and there’s a perfectly reasonable reverse causality/omitted variable explanation.

    In A guide for the young economist , the author recommends putting your feedback in this format: 1. Summary of paper, 2. Major, 3. Minor, 4. Minutia. After I’ve read the paper I figure out the major concerns and put them in the cover to the editor, then I type up what I’ve written in the comments to the authors into those sections.

    Rec letters are similarly formulaic. Who am I, how long have I know the person in what respect. How much do I recommend the person. Why I recommend the person illustrated with colorful anecdotes about skillz (if any). Reiteration of how much I recommend the person.

    May 3, 2016
  3. Agree with nicoleandmaggie. Except mine is probably tempered by way too much angst about whether I have any expertise whatsoever to be commenting. So regardless of quality, I always start by thanking the authors for the opportunity to review their paper. And I probably too often phrase my suggestions in the form of considerations, as in ‘The authors could consider….’ And yes, if I know early on that it will be a reject, I certainly don’t do the same quality of review that I would if it is an R&R. If writing style/grammar/etc is problematic, I suggest that they have have someone review the paper specifically to help with quality of the writing. I like the formula for the rec letter. Also, love the music and tea suggestions for getting through onerous tasks. And, I totally needed to read the first part about the things we are asked to do without training. Thank you!

    May 5, 2016
  4. Winter Blue #

    1. Read the paper in a format that you can mark up (like Acrobat Pro). Make lots of notes. This may take a few days of working on it in chunks.

    2. Write a ‘summary’ paragraph where you summarize the paper and list its merits. Even if it’s really bad I always try to start with some positive aspect.

    3. Write a detailed list of comments, starting with the intro (or the title or abstract if you need to!). In the detailed list I choose 2-3 major things that I think need work, unless it is the rare magical paper that is perfect (never encountered this but it must happen). Sprinkle page and line numbers so everyone knows what you are talking about. The whole thing should be at least a page. If its taking longer than a page and a half you can just quit and leave a bunch out because it shouldn’t be accepted anyway….

    4. Fill in the journal’s annoying form where you have to make assessments in their formatted boxes.

    5. Have another cup of tea!

    May 5, 2016
  5. I’m just going to remind you of my all time favorite review, RETURNED TO THE AUTHOR as follows (to a postdoc in my grad lab, I saw it with my own eyes):

    “I didn’t understand your paper, so I didn’t read it.


    May 6, 2016

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