Friday, June 08, 2012

The Importance of Being Anal

Collaborations are a form of marriage. They last differing amounts of time and can fail for all sorts of reasons.

I am a very anal person---absolutely through-the-roof anal---and one of the things about which I care very deeply is exposition. In my publications, I want to get my wording precisely right if at all possible, even though I will invariably change my mind about some things when looking back later after my memory of why I wanted a particular phrasing has faded away. (My writing goals for this blog are rather different, as you have probably noticed. Here my goal is to write in a stream-of-consciousness form whose intent is for you to imagine me ranting at you---or perhaps even to imagine me discussing things calmly with you, which does actually happen on occasion.)

So, in short, I believe that not only are scientific calculations critically important but that one also must be ultra-anal (one might even call it "OCD") about writing things both for clarity and for style. One can certainly argue endlessly about style, but let's just say that I have a style, and we can forego discussions of whether or not you or anyone else think it's crap. (I hope that's ok.) And because of this, I am generally a major pain in the ass for people like journal editors---possibly frustrating interactions with me have caused at least one reputable journal to change their editorial policies (or so I believe)---and, of course, my coauthors. Hashing out phrasing when I am on the author list can be a somewhat trying experience, and it usually lasts longer when working with me than it does when working with others. So if you can't handle that, than you shouldn't work with me. The marriage just won't work.

Anyway, I believe very strongly that scholarly work depends not just on the raw scholarship but that my personal scholarship is enhanced substantially by my anal writing. (I will speculate that this particular attitude meshes much better with my arts and humanities colleagues than it does with my scientific ones.) I spent time as a journalist in college, as I put in 4 years as a writer and 1 year as a co-editor for a vaunted (snicker) publication known as The California Tech, and I cannot overstate how important that has been for my scientific career.

But back to things closer to the point: I am presently dealing with the revision of a paper (for which a journal editor and referees keep moving the bar, which is massively annoying). I know that I tend to frustrate many of my coauthors with my keen insistence on language, but because of the circumstances with this revision---and there are some additional complicating factors that I am not telling you---perhaps things have boiled over a bit, and one of my coauthors (indeed, a soon-to-be-former coauthor) dismissed as trivial what I consider to be very important grammatical, stylistic, and spelling corrections (which I made crystal clear that I considered to be very important things to do to improve the paper). And it's fine for my coauthor to think things are trivial even when I think they're important. I can handle that, and we're all entitled to different opinions. Collaboration---like all marriages---requires compromise. But I will simply not accept something I consider as critically important being dismissed as trivial rather than hashed out (or my being allowed to have control of the file so that I can make the damn changes myself). If I make it clear that I feel something is important, then my coauthor damn well better either work with me on it or let me spend the time to make the changes I want and then iterate with me as necessary until we both like things. So when this paper is over and we get our final acceptance from this journal or some other one, we'll part ways---not because my coauthor thinks my comments were trivial but rather because the fact that I obviously considered them important wasn't construed as a sufficient reason to hash them out anyway. In these situations---namely, when my collaborator finds that something is important, regardless of whether I find it important---I do make time even when it doesn't exist, and I expect the same of others. (And, very importantly, I obviously deserve my share of the blame for our parting of ways. I can be difficult to work with at times, and it would be improper for me to deny that.)

Alright, I have now ranted a lot. Such is my nature. Let me end on a more positive note and bring things full circle (or perhaps the orbit has a different shape?). What are the fruits of being anal? To give one example, I am really proud of the introduction to this recent paper. It discusses different types of assumptions that people make when deriving approximate theories to study dynamical systems on networks, and it carefully distinguishes various assumptions (which are often implicit in many papers rather than discussed explicitly, let alone carefully) that are made when developing certain types of theories. I have been writing some lecture notes on dynamical systems on networks in preparation for my book (on which I am woefully far behind, by the way), and I have drawn one short section from the relevant part of this paper's introduction. I have looked through many sources while preparing my lecture notes, and I can't find a single other one that presents these assumptions so clearly, and here we have them all in the same place in one coherent discussion. This paper is a technical paper on a rather specific topic and it appears in Physical Review E, which is a very good but decidedly non-sexy journal. So it's readership isn't going to be very broad or include overwhelming numbers of people. And the discussion in the introduction to this paper is not the kind of 'impact' (shudder!) that concerns the UK government, University of Oxford, and (I believe) most researchers from most disciplines. But my coauthors and I did the best job I have ever seen of explaining this particular set of material, which is confusing to many people and is typically explained poorly (if at all) in other works that discuss analytical approximations for dynamical systems on networks. Granted, my coauthors and I hashed out this exposition after nontrivial referee prompting, but that's a story for another day. It was certainly worth it, though! (Hence, mad props go out to the referees as well.)

So if you take anything at all from this blog entry, let it be one thing: it's really important for a scientist to be anal not only in calculations and other forms of 'raw scholarship' but also in their writing (down to the last comma).

No comments: