04 May 2012

Abandoment issues

Today, I’m pleased to have this guest post by Dr. Al Dove, one of the regulars of Deep Sea News. This started as an excellent question on Twitter, and I said he should blog about it. It didn’t fit on Deep Sea News, so I offered this space. And I’m so pleased he did!

By the way, Al is still looking for his whale shark tags (shown at right), which are somewhere in the South Texas area! - Zen

Time shall unfold what plighted cunning hides:
Who cover faults, at last shame them derides.

Shakespeare – King Lear

This is a post about shame. Specifically it’s about a special type of shame that I suspect many (most?) scientists feel and few discuss. It’s a shame that I have struggled with for my entire career, including grad school. I dared to share a glimpse of it recently in that most public of forums, Twitter, and learned that perhaps I was not alone. Emboldened by social media connections to folks I know both well and not at all, I am taking the next step of exploring my shame publicly, in the hope that we can learn more about this phenomenon.

There exists on my hard drive a folder into which I loathe copying files, but only slightly less than I would loathe deleting them all together. It is a folder called “Aborted Manuscripts” and it is this folder which is the source of my shame. It is a graveyard of stupid ideas and of great ones poorly executed, of unfinished cogitations, of journal rejections, of unresponsive colleagues and of frustrating students. It’s a roadmap documenting 15 years of science (read: “me”) not doing what science (read: “me”) is supposed to do – get published.

I currently have nine folders in my “Aborted Manuscripts” folder, each representing a scientific paper that wandered off, somewhere on the path between brain and CV. They range from a two page stream of consciousness spewed into MS Word after a 20 hr drive from Mobile to NY to escape Hurricane Dennis, to a manuscript that I dearly love but which has been rejected several times for reasons that are still not clear to me even now, seven years later. As I look through them, I am always overcome with a curious mix of emotions: I am impressed with how much work I and others have done, yet disgusted that I/we couldn’t honour that work by getting it across the finishing line. There are tasty kernels of hope - “Maybe there’s life in the old gal yet…” – and bitter pills of realism – “I don’t even know where the specimens are anymore…”, pangs of embarrassment for promises I didn’t fulfill for respected colleagues, and stabs of anger/frustration at promises to me not fulfilled by others, and always a seething undercurrent of shame about not having closed. The. Deal.

When the emotions subside, here’s what I see in that folder, as objectively as I can class them:

  1. Jumping the gun. Sometimes it just wasn't ready to publish; my enthusiasm outstripped either my ability, or the data, or both. More studies were needed and if they were done, which they often weren't, the previous work was contradicted or became irrelevant somehow. These are the ones where I shake my head and smile at my own naïveté. What was I thinking?
  2. My fault. It was a good idea and good work, but some part of the work or the publishing thereof, was mishandled and I have to accept the blame. Usually, but not always, it was an issue of time management; I either couldn't make the time to finish it, or for whatever reason it dragged on so long that it was no longer interesting or I lost motivation. I include in this category the last of my dissertation papers, which was perfectly good but got lost in the haze of moving on to employed life on another continent. I have a couple of others where my failings more directly affect other folks, and these are the true source of 90% of my shame.
  3. Someone else’s fault. I do have a couple where I can squarely blame someone else for not finishing some critical aspect of the work. I bet you they’ve all forgotten about it by now, but I haven’t. Maybe I should.
  4. Rejection. I only have one that is a journal rejection. This one causes me more confusion than anything, because I still don’t really understand why it was rejected. Four times. (Well, two were Science and Nature, so I guess it’s been rejected by “real” journals twice). Sigh.

Faced with the “Aborted Manuscript” folder, a few options spring to mind. I could delete them all, spring clean my hard drive and my conscience and just move on. Or, I could keep them as reminders of the imperfection of real science, and work on just not feeling so damn bad about them all the time. Or, I could try to resurrect one or more and get them across the finishing line. That last one’s trickier than it seems. You have to ask “Am I ready to get back into the mind set of that work?”, “Can I lay my hands on all the necessary data and analysis details?”, “Will my co-authors still want to participate?” and most importantly there is the opportunity cost: “Is this taking away from a more contemporary project that I ought to be working on”. In general, I worry: “By doing this, am I throwing good money after bad?”

I don’t have answers for these questions, nor have I resolved which option to pursue. Perhaps you can help me decide in the comments section below. More importantly though, I’d really like to hear about whether others have “Aborted Manuscripts” folders of their own and, if so, how do you feel about them and what have you done with them? I think this is perhaps an important part of scientific life that we're not talking about, or at least not talking about enough.

Postscript from Zen: I had a few papers that waited about five to six years to be published. So manuscript resurrection can happen! That’s the first and most important point.

I currently have one manuscript that hasn’t yet found a home. I have a couple of projects that never quite made it to the manuscript stage, at least not yet. 

I wrote a bit about how to decide when it’s time to publish a project over at Scientopia’s Guest Blog earlier this week.

There is some information in the research literature about this. This paper by Casey and Blackburn looks mainly at reasons for rejection, but deals with “orphaned” manuscripts a little as well.


InBabyAttachMode said...

Good post! I have a whole bunch of unfinished experiments/ experiments that don't really answer the question but not entire manuscripts. I do have another question, which is when do you decide to send your manuscript to a much lower impact factor journal just to get rid of it?

Namnezia said...

Once something is in a manuscript stage I usually do my best to get it out, even if it has been dormant for a few years, and even if it is in a dumpy journal. I definitely do have several abandoned projects that for some reason or another never got finished and written up. Some will be permanently abandoned, others are just waiting for the right person to come along and take them off the shelf.

Bryan Sanctuary (Dr.) said...

I guess we all have such folders I would never delete them because they are ideas that can be important to us, the authors, and if the manuscripts are deleted the ideas will fade with time. It is very useful to go over old work to revive ideas and provoke new ones.

I do not see the folder as a shame, but more as unfinished work: "I should answer that referee, I should re-write that paper, those ideas are good for another project."

So for me the folder is not abandoned papers and failures, but ideas that are still relevant to me but I have not figured out what to do with them.

Al Dove said...

If we're talking projects too, I have DOZENS of unfinished! Some are just ideas, others lit reviews, others have data but no manuscript. It's when I write a document with a title page and a list of co-authors that I start a new folder in my "Publications" folder. Those, when abandoned, are the source of shame, because they got close but not finished.

Al Dove said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mat said...

My record of shame is 12 years from the point where the data were finished being collected to when I got around to submitting and getting it published.

Kyle said...

Time for the Journal of Not Quite Ready Papers.

Al Dove said...

That can go with @kzelnio's Journal of AYFK? :)