Social aspects of writing

Intro: this is the second of a series of posts exploring some common themes in three books: Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Helen Sword’s Air & Light & Time & Space: How Successful Academics Write, and Tad Hills’ Rocket Writes a Story. The first post focused on getting started with a new writing project, rough drafts, and the pleasures of writing. This post focuses on social aspects of writing.

 

Writing is inherently social – at a minimum, your article is read by reviewers and, of course, we write hoping that colleagues will read and understand (and maybe even like!) our article once it comes out. But the process of actually doing the writing can sometimes feel very isolated. Certainly my general approach is to hole up in my office and try to crank out some text. I get feedback from coauthors, but that’s done at a distance and with little interaction outside Word.

So, I was interested to see that Helen Sword has social habits as one of the four components of a strong writing practice. She devotes a chapter specifically to writing among others, talking about writing groups, write-on-site boot camps and retreats, and online writing forums. Each chapter of Sword’s book ends with a “Things to Try” section; for the chapter on writing among others, it includes “start a writing group” and “retreat in the company of others” as two of the four suggestions.

Right after reading that section of Sword’s book, I read a Monday Motivator email from NCFDD (written by Kerry Ann Rockquemore) that also emphasized the social aspects of writing. That email also focused on social aspects of writing, including traditional writing groups, writing accountability groups, write-on-site groups, and boot camps.

Reading those back-to-back made me realize that I severely lacked social components in my writing. I have gotten very used to setting my own goals and not sharing them with anyone else, and to holing up in my office to write. But I also don’t feel like writing is generally a problem for me, so wasn’t sure if I really needed to address the lack of social habits. If there isn’t a problem, why try to fix it?

But then, on a solo morning run, I thought about how much further and faster and more enjoyably I can run on the days where I go with a friend. And I thought about how, when I first got into distance running, I would tell some friends and family members about my race plans, which made me more committed to sticking with my training runs. And I’m much less likely to skip a run if I am meeting a running buddy, which explains why I ended up running in a downpour recently. Could these same social habits help with writing?

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Journals have a responsibility to ensure ethical oversight of mental health research (and we do not currently have evidence that grad students are 6x as likely as the general population to have depression and anxiety)

I care deeply about mental health in academia (and have blogged about it in the past, including here and here and here). Given that, I was really interested when a recent paper by Evans et al. came out on graduate student mental health. However, when I read it, two things stood out to me: it didn’t mention IRB approval, and the most striking conclusion – that graduate students experience anxiety and depression at 6x the rate of the general population – is not supported by the study. The key messages of this blog post are:

  1. the authors did have IRB approval to do this work, but Nature Biotechnology did not know that when they published the study. The editor of Nature Biotechnology claims that, since they published this in their Career & Recruitment section, it is not a research article and therefore didn’t require peer review or questions about IRB. This is problematic, as the study is clearly written and presented as presenting new findings, and journals have a responsibility to ensure ethical oversight of work they publish.
  2. While the Evans et al. paper claims “Our results show that graduate students are more than six times as likely to experience depression and anxiety as compared to the general population,” that claim is not supported by their study. Their survey was not a representative sample of the graduate student body (it was a voluntary survey, distributed via social media and email), but they compare it to a representative survey of the general population to get the 6x statistic.

Again, I want to be clear: the authors did have IRB approval for the work, but I only know that because I wrote the authors directly (after being dissatisfied with the responsiveness at Nature Biotechnology), and Nature Biotechnology did not know they had IRB approval when they published the study. In addition, this study does not provide evidence that grad students are six times as likely as the general population to experience depression and anxiety.

Graduate student mental health is really important, so we need to get as accurate a picture as we can of the current situation regarding graduate student mental health. As discussed below, a study (by Levecque et al.) with a more carefully controlled comparison group found a 2.4 increase in risk in graduate students compared to the highly educated general population. This is definitely something that is still a problem and that still needs to be addressed, but it’s not a 6 times greater risk.

To expand on these points more:

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When writing, tell us your biological results!

Quick quiz! Let’s imagine you are reading the results section of a manuscript. Which of these is the most useful/interesting/compelling/informative?:

  1. Figure 2 shows the relationship between infection and lifespan.
  2. Our experiment on the relationship between infection and lifespan found unambiguous results (Figure 2).
  3. Including infection treatment as a predictor improved model fit for lifespan (stats, Figure 2).
  4. Infected hosts lived, on average, half as long as uninfected hosts (20 days vs. 40 days; stats, Figure 2).

I think we’d mostly agree that option 4 is the most informative and interesting by a long shot. It focuses on the biological results, which, as ecologists, are usually our primary interest – presumably you did the experiment because you wanted to know whether and how infection impacted reproduction, not because you just really like making figures or doing stats!

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Do your figures tell your story?

When I review papers, I often read the introduction and methods, and then skip to the figures to see what I take away from them before reading the results. This can also be done the opposite way: read the results and imagine what they would look like in figure-form, then go look at the figures. I find this really useful when reviewing for making me get out of the passive reading of a manuscript and for encouraging me to think critically about the results. Sometimes, there’s a great match. Sometimes there isn’t and I realize I misunderstood something (which sometimes is just me messing up, but sometimes suggests something that is unclear in the paper). And sometimes I can’t figure out the reason for the discrepancy, which ends up being something I bring up in my review.

I was originally thinking about this as a tip for reviewing – as I said, it helps me think more deeply and critically about a paper. But, over time, I’ve realized it relates to a bigger issue: the accessibility of a paper. If you have a figure that clearly summarizes your results, your paper will be much more accessible to everyone from specialists in your area (the people who review your manuscript!) to non-specialists (including people who serve on search committees and award committees) and perhaps even to the general public.

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New paper on science community blogging!

I really don’t want the blog to turn into a platform for announcing personal papers, but this is another case that seems worthy of an exception. I am a coauthor on a paper that just appeared in Royal Society Open Science that focuses on science community blogging as an important type of blog. In the paper, we make the distinction between two types of blogging: science communication blogging and science community blogging. Science communication blogging is traditional scicomm: communicating science broadly, with non-scientists as a typical audience. Science community blogging, on the other hand, focuses on the process and culture of academia, with other scientists being the primary audience. Dynamic Ecology is pretty much entirely science community blogging. Some other blogs mix the two, and some are solidly on the science communication side of things. One of our arguments is that science community blogging is valuable, even though it often gets overlooked in discussions of science blogging. One piece of evidence supporting the assertion that science community blogs are overlooked: the Wilcox et al. book, Science Blogging: The essential guide, does not mention science community blogs, despite aiming to provide a comprehensive overview of science blogging.

Our new paper (which is open access so available to everyone!) discusses the reach of science community blogs and their value to the scientific community, including as a means of diffuse mentorship and as a means of contributing to scholarly discourse. The diffuse mentorship aspect of blogging is a key reason I blog. I think science community blogs are a great way of ensuring broader access to information that some people have but others do not (such as my post on how to format a CV for a faculty job application or Jeremy’s on how North American search committees work or Brian’s post on the five pivotal paragraphs in a paper). I also think science community blogging is a great way to raise issues that I think are important to consider (such as my posts on not needing to work 80 hours a week to succeed in academia or on being a scientist with an anxiety disorder). At this year’s ESA meeting, a surprising (to me) number of people thanked me for talking about these issues; my favorite may have been the person who stopped me and said “Thank you for being a real person!” This feedback meant a lot to me.

Our blogging paper was led by Manu Saunders of Ecology is Not a Dirty Word; she deserves a lot of the credit for this paper seeing the light of day! The other authors on the paper are Amy Parachnowitsch and Terry McGlynn from Small Pond Science, Margaret Kosmala of Ecology Bits, Simon Leather of Don’t Forget the Roundabouts, Jeff Ollerton of Jeff Ollerton’s Biodiversity Blog, and Stephen Heard of Scientist Sees Squirrel. Simon, Jeff, and Steve were the ones who had the idea for the paper in the first place.

The abstract of our paper is below the break, as are links to posts at the other blogs:

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Last and corresponding authorship in ecology: a series of blog posts turns into a paper

My paper on last and corresponding authorship appeared in the journal Ecology & Evolution today. Normally I don’t plug my papers on the blog, but this one is different: this paper arose out of a poll and a series of blog posts on the site, so it seems appropriate to wrap things up with a quick post today.

I suppose it’s actually not quite accurate to say the paper arose out of a poll. Before that, I had a tweet storm as I thought through issues, and that, in turn, was motivated by needing to decide on author order for a manuscript. When I was at Georgia Tech, I was told that I should be last author on all papers coming out of my lab as a sign of having driven the work. But I have a paper from work I did as a grad student where I am the last author (with my advisor as a middle author) because I did the least work on the project (Cáceres et al. 2008 Freshwater Biology), so the advice I got at Georgia Tech surprised me at first. At Georgia Tech, I was also told that I needed to be corresponding author on papers out of my lab; when I first got to Michigan, I never heard anyone mention corresponding authorship as something that mattered (and that included when I directly asked a couple of people about it). Notably, though, in the past year I did hear colleagues bring it up a couple of times.

I almost gave up on this paper multiple times, because I wasn’t sure it was worth the time. But I kept hearing comments from colleagues at various institutions about author order or corresponding authorship coming up as an issue, especially related to tenure & promotion discussions, so it seemed important to get this information out there in a format where it could easily be shared.

What did I find? This is the abstract of the paper:

Authorship is intended to convey information regarding credit and responsibility for manuscripts. However, while there is general agreement within ecology that the first author is the person who contributed the most to a particular project, there is less agreement regarding whether being last author is a position of significance and regarding what is indicated by someone being the corresponding author on a manuscript. Using an analysis of papers published in American Naturalist, Ecology, Evolution, and Oikos, I found that: 1) the number of authors on papers is increasing over time; 2) the proportion of first authors as corresponding author has increased over time, as has the proportion of last authors as corresponding author; 3) 84% of papers published in 2016 had the first author as corresponding author; and 4) geographic regions differed in the likelihood of having the first (or last) author as corresponding author. I also carried out an online survey to better understand views on last and corresponding authorship. This survey revealed that most ecologists view the last author as the “senior” author on a paper (that is, the person who runs the research group in which most of the work was carried out), and most ecologists view the corresponding author as the person taking full responsibility for a paper. However, there was substantial variation in views on authorship, especially corresponding authorship. Given these results, I suggest that discussions of authorship have as their starting point that the first author will be corresponding author and the senior author will be last author. I also suggest ways of deciding author order in cases where two senior authors contributed equally.

If you’re interested in finding out more, the paper is open access. Something that is fun is that this is the first paper to appear in Ecology & Evolution’s new paper category, Academic Practice in Ecology and Evolution. Also fun is that, after acceptance, the production staff required that I add an author contribution statement to my sole-authored paper. So, I wrote: {continues below the break}

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Choosing reviewers, recognition not recall, and why lists like DiversifyEEB are useful

Last week, I was assigned a paper to handle as an Associate Editor at American Naturalist. After reading through the paper and deciding it should go out for review, I began the task of finding potential reviewers. There were two people who immediately stood out to me as qualified reviewers. But AmNat likes to have a list of six potential reviewers to work from, so I continued through my standard process: 1) try to think of another person; 2) struggle with that; 3) think “surely I can write the editorial office folks and tell them we should just go with these two I already thought of because they’re perfect”; 4) decide I need to try harder before giving up; 5) after some more effort, end up at a list of six (or, in this case, seven) people who would be good reviewers, ranked in the order in which I’d like them to be asked. After going through that process, the two people I originally thought of were still on my list, but they were numbers 4&5. For some other papers, the initial people I thought of didn’t end up on my final list at all. And I have never had the first two people I thought of end up being the first two people on my list of six.

In other words: there were really good options who I only thought of after working at it for a while; those people were better options for this task than the people who initially occurred to me. To me, this is striking, but not really surprising. It’s what motivated the DiversifyEEB list that I created with my colleague, Gina Baucom. We all have biases, and those make it so that the people we think of first aren’t necessarily the best ones. And, moreover, our biases make it so that we’re more likely to think of well-known white men. That’s just how our brains work.

As I thought through this on my walk home, it reminded me of a story Kay Gross told me shortly after DiversifyEEB launched. Kay said that, many years back, she had a conversation with Margaret Davis. What Margaret told Kay is that, when she got a phone call asking her to recommend people for something, she would say, “Let me think about that and get back to you”. She did this because she had noticed that the first set of names she thought of were always men. But, if she thought it over more, she came up with more names and more diverse names. I found it especially interesting to learn that Margaret Davis had created a set of cards, adding a new card whenever she met an interesting woman scientist; during the time between getting the call and getting back to the person, she consulted that set of cards (her own personal DiversifyEEB list!) to think through people who were well-suited but who didn’t initially occur to her.

Back to the specific topic of finding reviewers: Charles Fox and colleagues have done a set of really interesting studies related to gender and the publication process. In one, they found that just 25% of the reviewers suggested by authors were women. In another, they found that only ~27% of the reviewers invited by associate editors were women. I initially thought that perhaps one solution to the problem of lack of gender diversity in reviewers would be to have more journals ask for lists of 6 potential reviewers — perhaps thinking longer about who should review something would increase the diversity of who they think of? But it turns out that Functional Ecology already asks their AEs to come up with 6 potential reviewers, so clearly that, on its own, will not solve the gender balance problem.

After more reflection, perhaps it makes sense that the lists are still pretty biased, even if they have more people on them: these potential reviewer lists still rely a lot on recall (that is, who I think of as I think about a particular topic), not recognition (that is, choosing from a list of names that might be suitable). And the original motivation for DiversifyEEB was learning (from Joan Strassmann) about psych research showing that the best way to come up with more diverse groups is to rely on recognition, not recall. (If you remember nothing else from this post, remember “recognition, not recall” as a strategy for increasing diversity!)

So, if you are an associate editor for a journal (or, really, in any other position where you are trying to come up with a list of scientists for something):

  1. It’s worth the effort to try to come up with a longer list. In that process, you are likely to think of people who are better options. This will lead to better reviews (or a better seminar series or candidate list or whatever it is you’re trying to do.)
  2. Once you have your list, consider the diversity of it. Does it include diversity in terms of race, gender, career stage, and institution type (including non-academic ones)? In some cases, your list might intentionally be lacking a form of diversity (e.g., a candidate list for an endowed chair probably won’t include many early career folks). But, in most cases, a lack of diversity will reflect our inherent biases. (We all have them! The key is to recognize them and work to counter them.)
  3. If your list seems to be lacking in diversity, try to find lists that will give you more ideas. DiversifyEEB is one, but you can also look other places (e.g., if you are trying to think of Darwin Day speakers, a scan of the editorial boards of journals like Evolution, AmNat, J. Evolutionary Biology, etc. might give you ideas). Another great strategy, especially for looking for reviewers, is to go to the webpage of the person you first thought of and look at their grad students & postdocs. This includes looking at recent grads who have moved on to other positions.

As I said above, the key is being aware of the biases we have, recognizing when outcomes indicate biases are at work, and working to counter them. Lists like DiversifyEEB are one way to try to do that, and I love knowing that Margaret Davis had created her own version of a DiversifyEEB list long ago! I’d love to hear from readers about what strategies you use to try to increase diversity when coming up with potential reviewers, seminar speakers, etc!

Who should be senior author on papers resulting from collaborations between multiple research groups?

I am pretty much through with revisions to my manuscript on authorship, with one exception. One of the reviewers is (quite reasonably) pushing me to make a stronger recommendation about how authorship decisions should be made in the increasingly common case of collaborations between groups. But, of course, this is a tricky issue, and I’m waffling on what exactly to recommend. This blog post is me trying to work through that, and looking for feedback at the end. I’m quite interested in hearing how others think decisions about authorship should be made when multiple groups collaborate substantially on a project!

I’ll start by recapping some of what my results, since they set up the general question. Then, I’ll give some of my thoughts on what might be a proposed solution. And, as I said above, I’ll end by asking for feedback on what I propose.

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Guest post: Got a professional editor?

Today we have a guest post from Richard Primack of Boston University. Last week, I did a poll asking whether readers had used a professional editor for a grant proposal or manuscript, based on a Nature News piece that quoted Richard as saying, “I hire professional editors to help me polish my articles, grant proposals and reports.” he says. “I can do this myself, but it’s more efficient for me to pay someone to help.” I was surprised by that, since it never occurred to me to use a professional editor. The poll suggests I was not alone. 62% of respondents said they’d never used a professional editor for a manuscript because it had never occurred to them; 67% said it never occurred to them for a grant proposal and 68% for their dissertation. In this guest post, Richard talks more about the process.

Richard’s post appears below the break:

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Have you ever used a professional editor for a proposal or manuscript?

Last week, there was a Nature News piece on time-management that included interviews with several academics, including myself. The article quotes ecologist Richard Primack as saying, “I hire professional editors to help me polish my articles, grant proposals and reports.” he says. “I can do this myself, but it’s more efficient for me to pay someone to help.” This stuck out to me. I had heard of professional editing services that aim to improve the grammar of a manuscript (my impression was that these are generally aimed at non-native English speakers), but that someone in Primack’s position might use a professional editor had never occurred to me. And it made me think: should I be doing this?

It led me to wonder (on twitter) about how common this practice is, and how easy/hard it is to find good professional editors. It sparked a lively conversation, but I was still left wanting to know how common this is. So, here I’m going to do a quick poll to try to find out. Obviously this is not a scientific poll, but I still think it will be interesting to see the results.

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