Always Phlox Your Teeth Before Bed

Academaze will come out on June 15! Pre-0rders will likely start on May 31st! Of course, I will share all the information here.

Today was a very busy day, plus a day of the monster headache… So nothing serious on the blog tonight.

The book will be under the pseudonym Sydney Phlox. (My publisher recommended I pick a pseudonym that sounds like a real name, so xykademiqz was out.)

I knew that I wanted a gender-neutral first name, so Riley and Sydney were at the top of my list. Why? I simply like them. Also, I am in a male-dominated field and I never write my first name on papers if I can help it, it’s always just first-name initial. If I can avoid being mentally downgraded before the referee gets to the abstract, I consider it a small victory. This is not me being paranoid. I know at least one female NAS member who swears by the same approach, which has served her well for decades. Besides, J.K. Rowling is J.K., and not Joanne for the same reason — people dismiss female writers as, you know, female. If you can get readers to give you a benefit of the doubt enough to read the book synopsis, that’s a small victory as well. (Not that I can write or sell books as well as J.K. Rowling.)

Besides, I really like my real first name, but I can’ use it. And if I can’t use it, why not be named like an awesome city?

[Edit: I can’t believe I forgot Sydney Bristow!]

The blog theme is black an purple, so for a  little while I thought it should be Lily Black or something similar. Then I decided to google possible names of different shades of the color purple.

Phlox jumped out as the best last-name contender of the bunch! [I didn’t want to be amethyst, fuchsia, or patriarch (!)] I urge you to look at the different names for greens, blues, blacks, etc. — it’s fascinating!

Anyway, this is my last name:


Phlox is also a common flower:


Aaaaaand, last but not least, Phlox is a character from Star Trek: Enterprise!

Purple perfection!

How to Write a Manuscript Review

This one was inspired by a recent conversation in my group meeting.

Generally, the outcome of a review of a manuscript in the physical sciences is one of the following options (I am sure it’s basically the same in the biological and social sciences, and maybe even in the humanities, but I have no direct experience):

a) Accept as is

b) Reconsider with minor revisions

c) Reconsider with major revisions

d) Reject

Some journals offer further subtypes, such as “Accept with optional revisions” vs “Reconsider with mandatory revisions (minor)” vs “Reconsider with mandatory revisions (major)”.  Some offer options  to the referee such as “I don’t need to see the paper again” or “I need to see the paper again.” But these are all nuances.

Reviews are advisory to the editor. Again, reviews are advisory to the editor. Whether the review is positive or negative, write it so that the editor can understand what has governed your decision.

Option a), “Accept as is,” never happens after the first review unless the referee doesn’t give a toss. (It’s okay to “Accept as is” after the first or second revision.) As an associate editor, when I get an adulatory but shallow one-liner after the first review, “This paper is great, publish as is,” I roll my eyes. Such a report is completely useless. It offers me no advice, other than the advice that you as a reviewer didn’t take your job very seriously. Don’t be that reviewer. If you like a paper, your one-liner will not help against a scathing three-page report of another referee who hated the manuscript. If you really like the paper, give the authors something they can use to fight for it.

The outcome of a first review is somewhere between b) and d).

When do you choose “Reconsider/accept with minor revisions”?

When you generally like the paper and its conclusion. You think the study is correct, the figures are clear, the conclusions are supported by the data, and the paper is written well. You were able to follow what they did and how, and you have enough information to determine that the technique is appropriate and correctly applied. The minor revisions are usually: missing relevant references (a small number), minor instances of unfortunate wording, some minor tangents that would be interesting to address as they link the paper to the broader field in a way the authors didn’t consider, clarifications in the title or abstract or intro, other clarifications of specific pieces or wording or details in the technique (experimental conditions, theoretical parameters), minor corrections to the figures (e.g., recommendation to choose different colors for better contrast in a 3D plot). Basically, the paper would not be awful to be published “as is” but it could be improved to full awesomeness with edits that are not overly time-consuming.

When do you choose “Reconsider with major revisions” vs “Reject”?

Is there plagiarism/duplication of work? If yes, reject, and provide references where the overlapping work has appeared.

Is the paper topically inappropriate for the journal? If yes, then reject, and explain briefly why it doesn’t fit (these are often caught by the editors, so the paper is desk-rejected).

Is the paper not hot enough for the highfalutin journal? If the answer is affirmative, then reject, but please please explain why you think so. A negative one-line review is just as useless as a positive one. The editor can’t do much with your “gut feeling” that the paper is not cool enough for the journal, especially if that’s your only reason to reject the paper. (Unfortunately, what the gut of famous Prof. Greybeard has to say seems to have more weight than in the case of younger folks). Your gut feeling should in principle be translatable into human speech, such as: all the references are old and there are no new ones, so this work is not timely enough for this journal; most of the references, especially recent ones and/or the ones with similar work, have been published in this other journal instead; the results are straightforward extension of published work and thus of very limited novelty; the results require unrealistic parameters or only occur under a very narrow set of conditions and are thus likely not robust, etc. [see comments for differences among fields]

Are the methods without a doubt inappropriate to address the problem at hand? Then reject. But if the method is one of several and is just not what you would use, that’s not a good enough reason alone to reject the work. Different methods have different strengths and often reveal different facets of the same phenomenon.

Now we come to the tough region.

Is the paper correct? Are the methods appropriate? Is it timely? Is it interesting? Does it present something novel about the world that is not obvious?

If the answer to all these questions is yes, then ask yourself if you can envision this paper being edited so as to become publishable. What would the authors have to do, specifically, to make it suitable for publication?

Does the language need considerable attention? Is the discussion of the techniques/methods unclear? Are the conclusions unclear? Can you write down what specifically is unclear?

If the answer is that you just hate all of the paper, that it’s boring or just awfully written, or that there are comprehensive, pervasive changes in every aspect, then please reject outright and try to explain ghat the paper is far from publishable form and that you cannot imagine it becoming publishable within the span of 1-2 revisions, that it would essentially have to become a completely different paper instead because of simultaneous issues with presentation, conclusions, figures, etc. It is much better to reject outright than to 1) torture yourself to try to list all the things that are wrong, 2) make the authors spend a lot of time entering those edits, only to 3) find out that even after all these edits you still think the paper is awful. Rejecting a paper because of pervasive issues is a kindness. For instance, imagine if you were to submit a first draft of paper written by a second-year graduate student. These drafts usually require extensive edits and the advisor has to make several (many?) layers of corrections in order for it to become suitable to unleash upon the world. Similarly, there is no point in wasting the time of multiple referees “editing by peer review” something that’s as far from publishable as an early draft of a newbie student.

So when do you say, “Reconsider with major revisions”? When you can envision a finite number of specific things that the paper needs in order to become publishable. Imagine receiving the paper with those revisions perfectly incorporated; if you would then have no problem accepting the paper, then that’s major revisions. Major revisions usually include: significant gaps in cited literature, missing data/figure(s) in order to support a conclusion, missing critical information that prevents a reader from following the exposition or assessing the correctness of the approach, poorly written abstract or conclusion.

How do you write a useful review? 

Start with a 2–3-sentence-long paragraph (Hyphen happy! Technically, the first one is a dash.) in which you state, in your own words, what the paper is about, how the authors do what they do, and what the main findings are. This helps show the authors and the editor that you have understood the paper.

[edited] Then say clearly, in a single-sentence paragraph,  what your position on the faith of the paper is. Do you feel it’s generally great, but have minor suggestions for improvement or minor but required edits? Do you think it’s inappropriate for publication in the present form, but expect it to become publishable if the authors satisfactorily address the specific problems outlined below? Or do you think the paper is simply not appropriate for publication in This Journal for reasons that are deal-breakers, and concisely explained?

If your are disposed towards rejecting, make sure you state why in a few sentences or a couple of numbered items/paragraphs.

If there are major issues with the paper, give a numbered list of major issues that the authors should address. Be specific about what you want them to do. Remember, if you are a good referee, this should be like a contract: if they do what you ask, you will recommend acceptance. Don’t be that douche who keeps moving the target and asking for new and varied things in subsequent reviews. Follow up by a list of minor concerns, like the typos you caught, unfortunate wording, missing units, etc.

If you have identified minor or optional revisions, list them also in a numbered list. If something is optional to consider and you do not require that the authors comply, but just to seriously consider it, then say so.

Happy reviewing!

(See the comments for some differences between fields, and of course your own advisor is the best guide for what the practices are in the field your work in.)



Academaze” will be available to preorder soon!

Below are a couple of vignettes I drew specifically for the cover of “Academaze” (cover design by Susan Lavoie, to be revealed shortly!). There are other drawings by yours truly on the cover, selected from among the 34 cartoons that make an appearance in the book.

This is one badass plane, if I do say so myself.Plane_v2



Texting with DH

My husband (DH) and I don’t communicate much during the work day, and when we do it’s usually via text messages. Mostly we discuss child pickup or dinner plans, but it can often turn hilarious. Fair warning: Considering that we spend a lot of time around small children, it’s not a particularly highbrow kind of hilarity. Here are a few snippets; expect some swearing and typos.

This one is from a few days ago, Friday. DH picked up the kids and got pizza, as I worked a little later than usual.


This one is from a few months ago, as DH was installing Windows 10 (he’s among the brave early adopters).

IMG_1511 IMG_1512 IMG_1513 IMG_1514 IMG_1515


Btw, the button says the chracteristic “Shiiiit” of a character from The Wire, a phenomenal HBO show that you need to go see now.


I Heart Suburbia

Clarissa‘s post “Provincialism” gave me much food for thought. She used to be a big-city person, but now fears she’s become provincial because she is dreading traffic, crowds, and noise in the big city where she used to live and that she’s about to visit with her husband and baby.

I grew up and spent much of my youth in a big city. The apartment where I grew up was on a major street, with a busy bus stop right below. I spent years riding overcrowded public transport. I have smelled enough unwashed armpits for five lifetimes. Having various body parts of strangers shoved in your face and pressed all over  you in scorching 100-degree weather on a bus without airconditioning was just way of life. In a part of my childhood, my parents and my sister and I shared one bedroom in a three-bedroom apartment; my aunt and her daughter were in another, and my maternal parents in the third bedroom. Later, the aunt moved out so I just shared a room with my sister. Whenever my parents and I we would travel anywhere, we’d stay with friends or relatives. I always shared rooms and beds with mother, sister, grandma, cousin, someone. On a daily basis, we always had to be mindful of neighbors and not make too much noise. There were people everywhere, all the time, always around, and they all had to be considered, all the time.

When I moved to the States I thought I’d, of course, always live in a big city in an apartment. Why, that’s the only way to live, and nothing else will do!

Only now I own a big house in a suburb and I drive a car, and I love both the house and the car as fiercely as you can love inanimate objects that make you very, very happy. I am never moving to a big city, where all the people are. *shudder*

One of the best things about living like I do now — in a big house, with lots and lots of space — is how calm and comfortable I feel. I also love driving, it’s one of my favorite activities. If I were to never ride public transport again in my life, I would be totally okay with that. When I travel, I thankfully have enough money to never have to stay with anyone and can go to a hotel and have my space. (Now if only I could do that when I go visit my parents; my mom would never forgive me is I stayed anywhere but with her, even though I am totally putting her out when I do.) A dear colleague recently offered that I stay with him and his family at an upcoming conference. I just can’t. That’s too much togetherness. I need to be able to go to my hotel room and unwind all by myself.

Perhaps this makes me provincial, but I don’t think that’s the right term. Would a curmudgeon fit better? I still enjoy theater and concerts as much as ever, probably more than before because now with kids it’s always such a treat to go out. There is more to do here than we are able to pull off due to work and family obligations, and I don’t think I have become less worldly simply by living in a comfortable house.

Mostly, I never knew just how much I needed space and how much the perpetual intrusion of other people in a big city really bugged me until I got some space. Now that I know what it feels like to have some and to be left alone, I just can’t take the crowds any more. Air travel also bothers me more and more, because it’s so uncomfortable and so crowded; we are packed tightly like sardines. I have traveled extensively all my life, so travel logistics don’t faze me; really, it’s mostly all the darn people. I think I am also getting more introverted with age, in that time around people exhausts me much more than it used to even when I nominally enjoy it.

But will this lifestyle make my kids provincial? Perhaps. Almost certainly so, I’d say. But there’s something to be said for not being squished between strangers in public transport on a daily basis, at least not until the kids go to college. After that, the crowds of the world await them.

Fellow Travelers

There is a whole genre of books and movies that could be termed “deep and meaningful stuff coming out of random people’s lives intersecting by chance.” Sometimes they are well done, but as a concept they are not longer new. To me, the epitome of the genre is the movie “Crash” circa 2004. A cool IMDB list called “Multiple-Storyline Films” collects many examples, among them some excellent movies such as Short Cuts, Night on Earth, Pulp Fiction, Amores Perros, and Babel.

We all meet many people throughout our lives. A few we call family, some more we call friends or colleagues, but the vast majority are people whose lives cross but never really intertwine with ours. Sure, I can imagine a skilled movie director making something out of a mundane interaction between a grocery store clerk and a patron (or, say, between a department store clerk and a patron), but for most of us such interactions are barely noticeable and don’t really add color to the daily routine.

But there is a group of people with whom most of us interact a significant amount as adults; we intrude upon each other’s private lives, yet we are seldom friends.

They are the parents of our kids’ friends. They are the people whom we text when we need our kid picked up or dropped off someplace and we can’t make it. They are the people who have our precious babies in their care  for hours on end, sometimes even overnight. Then the kids grow up or their friendships fade, and the parents fade out of our lives, too. Sometimes we like them, sometimes we don’t really, but we trust them with the most valuable of all our riches.

They travel a really important part of our lives right alongside us and provide real, tangible support. They also share their wonderful kids with us, and their kids make our own family seem bigger and warmer. And then they part ways with us.

Happy trails, fellow parents. Thanks for the playdates and the sleepovers and the snacks and the chauffeuring. Thanks for your hospitality and your warmth. May your kids grow up to be all that they can be.