Wednesday, November 21, 2012


It is a real challenge to write papers that say, "here is what is wrong with this body of work I am reviewing" in a way that doesn't make the people who wrote that work feel like I am a nit-picky asshole. So I go back through my drafts multiple times, looking for things that are poorly stated or abrasive, and trying to fix them without losing the meaning. Then I send the draft to colleagues and ask them to look for anything I missed. I may still come across as a picker of nits, but I have minimized the insult as much as possible.

I am scheduled to give an interview to a radio reporter who wants comments from a not-involved scientist on a recent paper. I happen to know the senior author on that paper very slightly. In this situation I have none of the ability I would normally employ to go back and make sure the things I am saying aren't abrasive, overstated or unfounded. Rather the reporter has both the ability and the motive to find the most dramatic and controversial thing I say and put it in a context of her choosing.

Imagine that I say to the reporter, "This is really an excellent paper, that greatly increases our understanding of poodles and how fancy they are.  I'm not much of a poodle-fancier myself, and hadn't known there were so many kinds, let alone that they could do back flips so successfully. I would have worried that I would break their necks doing these experiments, but these guys clearly knew what they were doing. I may have to go out and get a couple of poodles."

The reporter could reorganize as follows: "A new study out of Paris has concluded that poodles are the fanciest dogs around. The authors compared the fanciness of a wide range of dog breeds on a variety of measures, and poodles took the cake, paws down. But not everyone in the field is fond of poodles. Dr. Daniel Levitis of Rostock, Germany is, 'not much of a poodle-fancier myself.' In fact, he says, 'I may have to go out and get a couple of poodles' What would he do with them? 'I would break their necks.'  So clearly there is still great scientific controversy regarding the worth of poodles."

I've been advised to avoid saying anything the least bit critical about the paper in question, myself, the authors or the weather, and instead to try to talk as much as possible about my own work. We'll see how that works out.

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