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  • Julie T. Kinn 5:30 pm on January 5, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , edit, ego, , , , track changes   

    Constructive Criticism Part II: Taking It 

    Last week I blogged about ways to provide feedback. This week is all about receiving feedback from others.

    If you are currently a graduate student or a recent Ph.D., then you likely have a low enough ego to easily accept constructive criticism (please refer to Figure 1). However, it can still be difficult to wade through pages of red ink, tracked changes and blinded reviewer feedback.

    Criticism can hurt. We work hard on our writing, and sometimes a paper represents the culmination of years of work. As we point out in Practical Tips for Publishing Scholarly Articles, you are much more than just your writing. It’s crucial to understand that other academics aren’t trying to put you down by offering you feedback. This is just part of the process of improving our work and developing our skill sets.

    In graduate school I used to fantasize that my dissertation chair would return a pristine draft of my proposal with only the comment, “Spectacular!” Instead, I always received pages full of comments, questions, and nearly indecipherable scribbles. It took me a couple revision cycles to realize what an incredible gift those edits were.

    When you receive edits from a talented writer, don’t just make the changes: Think about the changes. Well-thought out revisions are like a lesson in improving your writing skills using your own product as a case-in-point.

    Those undergrads will learn soon enough.

    Figure 1. The distribution of writing ego across career path.

  • Julie T. Kinn 10:48 am on December 31, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: american journal of public health, , paper focus, peer, red pen, , smiley faces, tracking changes   

    Constructive Criticism Part I: Giving It 

    I often recommend that writers seek peer feedback. Having a few trusted folks to help edit and give other kinds of guidance is priceless. Also, editing peer work helps you sharpen your own writing skills and allows you to learn about research before the rest of us peons.

    So your friend/colleague/peer, Dr. Smartypants, has emailed you a draft. What next? Before you start tracking changes, follow this essential rule of providing constructive criticism: Ask what kind of feedback Smartypants wants. Don’t waste your time on editing granular word-choice issues it this is a first draft. It’s also extremely annoying to get comments like “incomplete without a section on mid-century slug-removal applications” on a final draft that’s almost out the door.

    Types of feedback:

    1) The 30,000-foot-view.

    If Smartypants has a first draft of a new paper, focus on the general direction of the paper. Think like an editor with limited space in upcoming journal issues. Will this paper contribute to the literature? If not, what can Smartypants add? Suggest additional sources to check out. 

    Also, give consideration to journal choice. As we point out in Practical Tips, picking a journal should be a first step, not last. If Smartypants hasn’t considered this yet, make suggestions. Writing for American Journal of Public Health requires a completely different 30,000-foot-view than does Military Medicine.

    2) Mid-draft revision.

    Smartypants has a draft that is pretty well fleshed out. Your job is to consider the general flow of the outline. Does this paper make a convincing argument or is there a different way to look at the issues? Is there an important section that it missing or perhaps superfluous literature review? This is a good time to suggest major edits regarding direction and content.

    3) Final revisions.

    Smartypants is almost ready to ship the paper to the editor. Now is your chance to grab the red pen and go to town. That’s right… work out all your aggression on poorly-worded syntax. Rip that passive voice a new one! Oh it feels so good to be so nerdy.

    4) Smiley faces.

    Always add a bit of positive feedback, even if the paper is a steaming pile (“nice choice of font!”). Sometimes folks don’t actually want constructive criticism. We all know a couple people like this. [Except me. I know no one like this. All my coworkers are amazing and without fault.] If one of these special academics has asked you for feedback, use gentle and hedging language. I suggest something like:

    “Wow! What a great start. Already seems strong, but perhaps you could add more literature from the last twenty years? Also, in my experience, editors like when authors use spell check prior to submitting. I can’t wait to see a later draft!”

    Helpful hint. If the paper is outside of your discipline or area of expertise, it is not your place to judge how interesting it is. Just assume that the topic is highly relevant and important. This may shock you, but all your friends and colleagues think your area of interest is a stupid waste of grant funding without a real-world application. There, there. Your next symposium at the regional association meeting will show them!

    Tune in next week for Constructive Criticism Part II: Receiving it.

  • Julie T. Kinn 5:00 pm on October 20, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , communication, , late, ping, supervisee, supervisor   

    Keep those Slackers on Track 

    Group work is just fine when everyone contributes fully. Today’s post is about how to knock heads when your co-workers are acting more like cow-orkers.

    Collaborations break down when participants aren’t invested to the same degree. Your beloved project about slug habitats may be at the bottom of your co-author’s priority list (shocking, I know). Here’s a few tips to get you started on the right track:

    1. Discuss authorship roles and responsibilities at the beginning of the project. Be clear about expectations, and be willing to revisit the authorship order as needed.
    2. Discuss priorities and potential roadblocks. For example, I have an annual report I produce each year from April to June. Not only does it suck up my time, but it becomes my highest priority.  I know this will likely get in the way of collaborations and I can warn my co-authors.
    3. Discuss the time frame and be flexible. Maybe you would like everyone to turn in a first draft of their sections within two weeks, but insisting on a short time frame may prohibit others from joining your paper.

    After the work has begun, be willing to give reminders and help problem solve. Of course, your tact will vary depending on the co-authors.

    Working with Peers: Start with clear deadlines, but make sure that everyone agrees on them. If your peer co-author is late, it’s okay to send a quick email asking for an update, but best to speak in person. Do not post your frustration on Facebook.

    Working with your Supervisor (or others higher on the food chain): If he or she is late with work, provide an option for other ways to contribute. E.g., “It sounds like this may not be the best time for you to contribute to this paper. Another option is for you to come in at a later date and provide feedback on the semi-final product. Please let me know what you prefer. If you want an authorship role, could you finish your section by the end of the week?” Definitely do not post your frustration on Facebook.

    Working with your Supervisees (or others lower on the food chain): This is a special case. Supervisees may be late with work out of writing anxiety. Instead of just providing reminders and asking about late work, make time to sit down and problem-solve. You might be able to help break down the assignment into small goals. And, yes, go ahead and post about it on Facebook. A little humiliation never hurt (just jokin’).

    Any horror stories you’d like to share?

  • Julie T. Kinn 5:00 pm on September 22, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: feasability study, pilot study,   

    Publishing Crap vs. Flushing it and Moving On 

    “Crap” is not a technical term. Let’s say hypothetically that you have completed a sub-par paper, literature review or study. Given the fast OPTEMPO of academia, we don’t have time to spare on dead-end projects (especially with a new season of Top Chef starting). Often, we feel the push to get started on the next project right away. However, before you decide to flush your paper, consider a few options for publishing it anyway.

    1) Verify that the work actually sucks. No offense, but we academic-types tend to be extremely critical of ourselves and our work. It’s possible that your paper isn’t quite as bad as you think it is. If you are absolutely unable to look at it with a fresh pair of eyes, go to a trusted peer and ask him or her to tell you the truth.

    2) Write a process paper. Let others learn from your experience. Do a quick lit review for “lessons learned,” and you’ll find many valuable articles. If your work can tell a story to help others and advance the literature, then it’s important enough to publish.

    3) Reframe your work as a feasibility study or pilot. Clearly acknowledge the limitations, but emphasize the wins (however small they may be). Did you discover a good way to measure your outcome variable? Did you determine a better strategy for analysis? Write about those lessons and call out for someone to replicate bigger and better (and then do it yourself and cite your pilot in the lit review).

    4) Use the work in a different context. Consider alternative audiences and media. Perhaps you could cut it down to a short piece for your trade publication. Your professional organization likely has several non-refereed publications with short turn-around time. Although not equivalent to peer-reviewed journals, they often have high readership (and you can still list them on your CV).

    There are a couple conditions in which, yes, you should go ahead and shelve that pile of doo-doo.

    1) Your work is misleading or wrong. Perhaps you had a dreaded Type I error . Maybe you discovered a mistake in the data (did you remember to reverse-code those negatively valenced items?).

    2) Your work is outdated. Some disciplines are fast-moving, and you need to keep your finger on the pulse of the literature. If you tested the efficacy of a drug that is no longer used, your study is probably not going to be published.

    There, there… don’t fret! Think of all the valuable lessons you’ve learned from this beautiful growing experience! Now get back out there and come up with another topic.

    • Edward J. 9:23 pm on September 22, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      But, what if the paper (my dissertation) is over four years old? Is that too outdated?

      • Julie T. Kinn 9:35 am on September 24, 2011 Permalink | Reply

        Hey there, Edward!

        It depends on your topic. If your dissertation compared AZT to Treatment as Usual for HIV infection, then you are probably too late to do much with it. However, most disciplines don’t move too fast. Tell us a bit more about your work… maybe the readers want to chime in. I bet there’s some chunks in there you could repurpose.


    • Anonymous 9:16 pm on September 23, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Amen, sister!!!

      • Julie T. Kinn 9:35 am on September 24, 2011 Permalink | Reply

        Thanks, Anom!


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