Where to stop?

One under appreciated feature of almost any paper is the incredibly difficult problem of where to draw line under the work and just stop. Every aspect of science is of course completely interconnected with other things and if you follow every possible tangent or lead everything you write will swell to dozens or even hundreds of papers.

Even something as simple as describing an isolated tooth or bone will have further implications for other branches of work. It could be the first record of something in a formation / time / place, extending the range of a group, or may be in association with another species, or have a pathology with implications for diagnosis of the species or clade or, or, or….. When you’re doing a more complex paper that integrates a number of major lines of evidence then this gets harder and harder as more and more important things have to be cut off somewhere, or at least not followed up to the depth you want.

This means inevitably that the paper will to a certain degree have a truncated feel. If you have an interest in a particular area it’s frustrating to see a paper that leads up to a significant point and then shies away and leaves it unsaid or doesn’t explore things, or give you quite the depth you wanted. Or of course, fails to make the link with something you have said in another paper or work you are very familiar with.

This can on occasion be a real issue with referees on papers. It’s very annoying when they demand you remove what they consider a tangent to the main work, and you consider an important extension of the thesis. It’s even more annoying when they do they opposite and demand you massively expand one section you don’t want to (or can’t if it lies beyond your expertise). Indeed, following up from yesterday’s post and the first half of this paragraph, there are few things more annoying than people complaining that basically you didn’t write the paper they wanted you to write. It’s your paper and you’re probably already compromising on a page length limit from the journal, desires from co-authors, and your own limitations of what you want to write about now and what you have brewing further down the line.

7 Responses to “Where to stop?”

  1. 1 Josephine 22/05/2011 at 10:08 am

    All of this being said, is it not the case that not all reviewers are as harsh as the ones you rightfully critique? This is not to denigrate the bitterness of unfair criticism — is there a worse kind? — but I never fail to believe that some criticism is constructive, and that not all reviewers nit-pick in an attempt to bend you to their own will. Just remember to see the glass as half-full, once you have made all of these (unfortunately) truthful points. 🙂

    • 2 David Hone 22/05/2011 at 10:26 am

      Well of course they are not all like that. There are lots of very good referees, and even the ‘worst’ make valid points that will improve a paper if they are taken on board. But you *do* get reviews whose main substantive point is “Why are you saying this? Say this, it’s much more important?”. Suggesting things to say is good, telling people what paper to write is wrong.

  2. 4 Mike Taylor 22/05/2011 at 12:44 pm

    Yes. Number one task for reviewers: review the paper that the author actually wrote, not the one you wish he’d written.

    (I once had a review that, literally, consisted ENTIRELY of complaints that I’d written the wrong paper. I ask you.)

  3. 5 mAnasa-taraMgiNI 22/05/2011 at 6:09 pm

    These posts on papers and criticism were interesting because I have always been curious about the situation in fields allied to my own. Indeed, it is rather common, even in other areas of biology, to see referees irritatingly asking precisely those questions that were answered in the paper. The dynamics between the referee’s conception of how the paper should have been and the editor’s interpretations thereof seem to be quite important in deciding how much difficulty the paper faces. However, to me it appears vertebrate paleontology is a tighter community than some other areas of biology. So you might face less of the issue of the referee being a competitor who will stall your paper to get his in before you.

    • 6 David Hone 22/05/2011 at 9:24 pm

      Well palaeo as a whole might be a bit closer, but I doubt the sub-fields are any smaller or broader than in biology. Yes there are far fewer of us doing fossils, but then are there really that many less doing theropod dinosaurs than work on any given gene, or molecualr analsyes of bats, or the ecology of tropical nuts or whatever. And of course we still have rivalries and personalitie clashes and theoretical differences to get over.

      It can be an active problem – there is a pretty notorious amount of problems between people working on pterosaurs meaning that actually for some it’s hard to find referees who are not either close colleagues or fundamentally opposed to your style of work. It’s such a small field that a few key people not getting on affects most of what goes on at one level or another.

  1. 1 “Any jackass can trash a manuscript….” « Dave Hone's Archosaur Musings Trackback on 24/05/2011 at 7:44 am
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