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Rapid reviewing August 12, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, papers, research, work.
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I was on a trip this weekend and forgot that I had agreed to review a conference paper.  Not a problem, though, because once I got the reminder, I figured I’d still have plenty of time.  Except there was a problem: when I got home from my trip, I realized that the review was due at 1 a.m. that morning and not midnight of the next night: it was due 23 hours sooner than I had expected.  I realized this about 2 hours before the review was due.

I am a slow reader, so this immediately put me into panic mode, but rather than wait until morning and send it in late, I decided to see if I could at least get something in before the deadline.

Despite it being a bit stressful, I actually managed to read through the whole thing and get a decent review written up.  In fact, when I looked at it the next morning, I was rather shocked at how long the review was.  I did realize later that there is one minor point I missed, but I think that, overall, I caught some important errors and that my assessment overall wouldn’t have changed.

I have to admit that this was also made easier by the fact that the paper was reasonably well-written.  Reviewing papers and grading have one thing in common: the worse the submission, the longer it takes to review.

Not that I plan to leave all my reviews for the last minute, but it’s a good thing I realized I can do this in less time: two more review requests showed up this morning.

Reviewers say the darndest things June 11, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, engineering, research, work.
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I’m not sure what happened this year, but as the feedback from this past fall’s proposals have come in, I’ve been a bit flabbergasted.  It seemed like last year, the feedback was a lot better.  There were a lot of suggestions for improvement.

This year’s comments were…stupid.  There was nothing constructive about it.  There was nothing that could be used as suggestions for improvement.

Aside from the commentary I mentioned yesterday about my marital status, there were lots of other fun oddities to pick on.

I think the first thing that was frustrating were the contradictory comments.  Reviews like “excellent detail” coming alongside “too technical.”  Some of that is to be expected.

What I wasn’t expecting was a resubmission from the previous year having stellar reviews in comparison with the first year (totally nailed the broader outcomes, which were cited as rather weak the previous year)…yet the ratings didn’t change at all. Huh?

Next there was the reviewer who obviously pasted some of his/her review from another proposal into our review.  Ironically, I think this reviewer also commented on formatting issues in the proposal.  (I apparently didn’t notice that Word puked on a reference.)

Then there was the reviewer who cited some ‘scientifically based’ concerns about a chemical that we were using.  There were supposedly health issues associated with use of this chemical…which had nothing to do with what we were doing.  Worse yet, he was completely wrong.  One only need to look at the CDC website to find toxicity info saying that the claims the reviewer were saying had been “well established for a decade” had never been proven and were probably related to something else.

Finally, I’m really beginning to wonder how many reviewers actually read the proposal at all.  When you’re inundated with questions that were clearly addressed in the proposal (including the above mentioned toxicity issue), you gotta wonder how effective the skimming really is.

Maybe divorce is the answer… June 10, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, engineering, family, feminism, research, science, societal commentary, work.
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I think I am going to change my name.  It’s very annoying.

My last name, anyway.

If I had it to do over again, the one thing I would’ve done when getting married is to keep my maiden name.  Hyphenation was not the best idea by a long shot.

This has been an issue (a lot) because I worked with my husband for so long.  I suspect it will die off as we are no longer coworkers.  However, one of the most bizarre things that has come up is that I recently received some reviews of a proposal that we wrote before he changed jobs.  One of the reviewers noted that as a co-PI, I had the same last name as the PI and so a conflict of interest was a possibility.

Huh?

My university has a clear and very detailed conflict of interest policy, and I’m not clear how this applies.  As far as I can tell, this has nothing to do with conflict of interest as these policies are almost exclusively focused on outside financial obligations.  I checked with the funding agency, and that was all they had listed for conflict of interest, as well.

If he were supervising me or vice-versa (that is, one of us was a subordinate), such a scenario would violate internal policies to the university.  However, even if he is PI and I’m a co-PI, we both reported to someone else.  Further, a PI isn’t necessarily a supervisory role.  Do faculty members who collaborate on research supervise each other or collaborate?  (My experience says there are very few faculty who view their role as co-PI is that of being supervised by the PI.)

In any case, it’s a completely ridiculous comment to make on a proposal review because we could have been two completely unrelated colleagues who happen to have the same last name.  I can think about some of the areas of research I do, and I know of several groups of researchers, particularly in Asia, where many members of the team do have the same last name.  I never once jumped to the conclusion that there was a problem with this.

Of course, it’s obviously my fault for the name, so I should probably fix it.  Do you suppose it’s cheaper to go through the legal name-change process or to just divorce and quickly get remarried?

When is it plagiarism? June 6, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, papers, research, work.
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When I sit down to write a paper, I usually try to start from scratch.  I type up an outline and try to fill it in, and then I begin work on all the different parts of the paper.  While it has been tempting to reuse sections of previous papers, particularly the introductory material, I try not to do that.  If you work in a specialized field, people are going to notice that they’re reading the same thing over.  My writing may be fine, but after the 3rd or 4th time, it’s going to bore even me.

The issue came to the fore as I’ve been reviewing papers for a conference.  While it’s not one I think I will be able to go to (it’s usually in Asia), I have reviewed for this conference the past couple years and really get some interesting things to examine.  However, this year, all of the papers I reviewed has issues with self-plagiarism: that is, they copied verbatim materials from their own previous papers.  Many of the papers I review are now being checked automatically for similarity to other papers, and while the process is supposed to be double-blind (that is, they don’t know I’m reviewing their paper, and I’m not supposed to know that I reviewed theirs), it makes it very easy to figure out who wrote the paper I’m reviewing: it’s the one with huge tracts of text that are identical but never referenced.

As I mentioned, I try to write papers from scratch, but I started to wonder if this was an ethical issue.  After all, if I wrote a paper, shouldn’t I be allowed to copy it?  It turns out that it’s not a good idea.  In particular, most of the papers I’m dealing with will fall under IEEE copyright rules (that is, the authors transfer over copyright of their written materials should the IEEE publish those materials).  Therefore, if you wrote the paper and it was published by IEEE, it’s simply not a matter of copying your own writing but plagiarism of IEEE materials.  In fact, the IEEE communications society has an explicit policy that says,

IEEE Publications has long maintained the policy that verbatim copying of another’s work (plagiarism) is unacceptable author conduct.

The Communications Society values the intellectual contributions of its authors, and vigorously enforces the IEEE policy on plagiarism.  As IEEE modifies its publication policies, it is important that authors who submit their work to ComSoc journals and magazines are informed of these changes.

In November 2002, the IEEE Board of Directors approved a new policy on Duplicate Publication and Self-Plagiarism.  This policy is found in the IEEE Policies document, Sections 6.4.1B(f) and 6.4.1B(h).  These two sections are given below.

(f) Plagiarism is unacceptable.  The verbatim copying or reuse of one’s own research (as indicated in paragraph “h” below) is considered another form of plagiarism or self-plagiarism; it is unacceptable.

(h) Except as indicated in Section 6.3.4 (Multiple Publication of Original Technical Material in IEEE Periodicals), authors should only submit original work that has neither appeared elsewhere for publication, nor which is under review for another referred publication.  If authors have used their own previously published work(s) as a basis for a new submission, they are required to cite the previous work(s) and very briefly indicate how the new submission offers substantial novel contributions beyond those of the previously published work(s).

I know people who do this regularly.  All you have to do is read enough of their papers, and it becomes obvious that the intro section is commonly recycled by several authors.  I really don’t like the practice because it also drives up index values for papers that are simply examples of related work while not being foundational.  On the other hand, it is a pain to rewrite those sections every time.

I’m very glad the Com Soc is being very explicit about their policy.  However, other places are not as explicit, and this is honestly something that no one has ever mentioned to me.  It’s something I would like to see delineated more clearly by all publications as I think it would draw more attention to using ethical practices in paper writing and submission.

When reviewing, I can’t be certain that the person writing the paper is aware of the policies on self-citation, if there even is one for a given organization or venue, so I generally mention that it’s a good idea to change the text.  I’m always curious what the editors/session chairs do with this feedback, though.  Do they take it seriously?  Finally, it reinforces to me that it’s never a good idea to reuse previous writing unless it’s properly attributed, even if it is my own.

I think you have the wrong engineer December 12, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, papers.
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Every few weeks, I get a request to review papers for a conference.  (For those who are sciencey types, a lot of engineering conferences require full, peer-reviewed papers rather than abstracts.)  At first, this was rather cool and accepted the first half dozen that came to me.  Then I started realizing that it was a bad idea, but not simply because, as you expect, it required a decent amount of time.

I started realizing I had no business reviewing some of those papers.  The reviews often request that you assess your own knowledge and expertise in the area.  Unfortunately, many of them didn’t have an option that was similar to, “Ignorant dolt.”  The best I could do was say I had a passing knowledge and try to make constructive comments on the lack of legible text in the legend and poor grammar here and there.  Oh…and finding out that half of their text was copied and pasted from another document.

I have to wonder why they aren’t more careful about screening potential reviewers given most of my requests come from a service which describes my qualifications.  After all, there are several subdisciplines within electrical engineering, and I don’t imagine too many people are knowledgeable about the state of the art for all of them.  Beyond that, my undergrad is in physics, so my knowledge of EE is probably even more limited than your standard engineer.

I guess I’m probably a decent reviewer as long as as you’re only looking for someone who can point out when something is undecipherable.  Maybe I should add that to my skills: unenlightening critiques.

Between a rock and a soft (money) place May 20, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, research, science.
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I’ve been cogitating on another comment that showed up on a proposal review.  The general complaint was that we were funding too many staff and not enough students.

I could see this…except for the fact that all but one of the people involved is on soft money.  This proposal was already being trimmed left and right to make it fit into budget constraints, and our choice was to fund 1 or 2 months for each of these five staff (including myself), all of whom are in different disciplines and contributed to the development of the project concept and writing of the proposal…or I can fund another grad student for a year.  Of course, if I had no facilities costs to worry about…

I suspect this is a drawback of doing interdisciplinary research: you need expertise in a variety of fields, and so it may look like a situation of “too many managers, not enough peons.”  On future proposals of this nature, I’ll have to make the point that each of those people is essential and none can be replaced by a grad student.

It’s also leaving me wondering if there is something that explicitly needs to be said about funding arrangements.  For most professors in engineering or science, I imagine they have 9 mos of salary paid, so they often only take a couple weeks to a couple months of summer salary under their grants.  Also, most of them have teaching duties and therefore need to have grad students to do most of the work.  I imagine the reviewers may assume that people applying for funds are probably working under a similar arrangement where they have a base salary and anything coming from the proposal is ‘extra’.

But what about people who are in a situation like I am?  I’m in a soft-money position and I have no teaching obligations (unless I choose to).  Given the choice, I’d rather have a couple months more salary than hire more grad students (assuming there are any available, which is not always true).  If I only get one month salary from a winning proposal and my funding rate is 10% (and I don’t know if it is yet as I’ve only written about half a dozen proposals), then I have to write about 120 proposals to fund myself for a year.  Even if I was physically capable of doing that (I’d like to meet someone who is), I doubt the proposals would be of the quality that would get funded, anyway.

Admittedly, different funding agencies will have different expectations…but not radically so.  Maybe my readers are more knowledgeable about I am on these points. If so, I’d appreciate it if someone would enlighten me.

And I wah-wah-wonder why… May 16, 2013

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I’ve been getting comments back on proposals I wrote last fall.  Most of them are really helpful, but there are a couple major head scratchers.

There was one comment, however, that was just plain funny and managed to make it into the project summary. One of the reviewers simply asked, “Why?!”

As our group was going over the reviews, we came to that one, and the response was, “Obviously, he (or she) must be from a city.”

The project involves developing a product to help with precision agricultural practices.  It’s very funny that I’ve discussed this project with several people who have no technical background whatsoever and, because most of the people I’ve discussed this with outside of work have had some ties to farming (it’s pretty easy when you grow up in North Dakota), they immediately understand the implications of the project.  If we can make it work, they say, that would be really incredible and help save money for farmers, etc.  Given that it’s clear to most people I know without getting into technical details, it should be obvious to everyone, right?

Nope.  I suppose the flip side of this is that our group took it for granted that the benefits of this project were obvious and so we didn’t spend as much time justifying it as we could have.  I suppose the folks shelling out government funding for projects are pretty likely to be city dwellers…probably in big cities, at that.  How many have ever even stepped foot on a farm?  I suppose they have a rather simplified view of the whole growing food process.  And we obviously didn’t take our audience into account.

I can easily see, though, why some academics get the reputation of being stuck in an ivory tower.

self scrutiny March 25, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, papers, research.
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After spending a considerable amount of time griping about other people’s papers, I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t complain about my own once in a while, as well.  I’m currently revising a paper that I and a coauthor submitted to a conference.  It was accepted, but there were changes requested.  I started to work through some of them, but then realized that some of the comments didn’t make sense.

I sat down with a couple people, including the coauthor, and we started trying to figure out what was going on.  After reading through each comment with a fine-tooth comb, we came to the realization that the problem was that we took for granted the method we were using and gave a very succinct explanation.  It obviously wasn’t enough: we gathered from the comments that they resulted in a complete misunderstanding of what we were showing.

In other words, I screwed up because I didn’t explain clearly enough what we were doing.  This lead to some huge misunderstandings by the reviewers, and some of the more…ummm…cynical?  Yes, cynical is a good euphemism.  Anyway, this explains some of the more cynical comments we got from reviewers.

The good news is that, with more explanation, I think we’ll have a much better paper when we’re done.  However, this has made me realize that I really can’t take for granted what my reviewers may or may not know.  It’s best to be as explicit and detailed as possible.

Review season May 7, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, papers, research, younger son.
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Both Mike and I have been getting requests to review papers, and this has led to a lot of foul language around the house…along with frequent reminders from the younger son that our language is inappropriate.

It’s really hard to restrain yourself, however.  As we’re sitting at the dining room table, occasionally one of us will turn our laptop toward the other and ask something like, “What does this look like to you?” or, “What do you think this means?” or, “What the hell were they thinking?”

I have to admit that I appreciate having a second pair of eyes to catch the things that I miss.  I’m sure the authors of the papers we’re reviewing probably will not appreciate it.  Not only do they have the third reviewer going over their papers, they have two of them.  I hope this will result in double the hair pulling and teeth gnashing on their end…because it sure has for us.

Amusing reviewer comments January 28, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, papers, research.
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My husband just received some reviews of a paper on which he is a co-author, and there are a couple real gems here.

First: “Please improve English uses in the paper.”

And later: “Introduction can concise.”

While I appreciate where they’re going with this (and there were more similar comments), I think the pot needs to brush up on some grammar before pointing at the kettle.

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