I needed that today

I started the day feeling discouraged and wrung out.  Both physically—I’ve been fighting a cold—and mentally—I’m always fighting to stave off the thought that I’m never going to finish my PhD.  My one significant accomplishment of late (the Paper From Hell was accepted for publication!!!) had been deflated by the realization that there were small errors in two of the figures.  Very tiny errors, really; little points in the middle of a bunch of other points on a plot.  They have no effect on our interpretation of the data or the paper’s conclusions.  Still, they are real mistakes and will need to be fixed before the official version of the paper is published.

Fixing the mistakes means sending updated figures to the journal when I check the page proofs.  I think you can do that, but I felt so embarrassed about having to do it.  How could I have missed these details?  What is the editor going to think about having to sign off on the changes?

I was feeling completely un-confident about my ability to do anything right.

In a perfect coincidence, that’s when the hashtag #FailingInSTEM appeared in my Twitter feed.  Scientists were sharing their stories about screwing up in ways big and small.  It was such a relief to be reassured that everybody makes mistakes sometimes, even folks who go on to be very successful in academia and in life.

I learned that someone I deeply respect once had to issue an erratum to correct some misplaced points in a published plot.  Suddenly catching a similar issue at the proofs stage didn’t seem so bad.  This is the stage when I’m supposed to double-check everything one last time, right?

Sometime, when I’m feeling a bit more coherent, I’ll write a longer post on how academia promotes a culture of You Should Be The Best Perfect Best Amazing Perfect Researcher and how that’s fed the hungry brain monster of my perfectionism.  For now, let me just say that I wish we talked more about our mistakes.  It helps those of us who feel terrible about ourselves.  It really does.

4 thoughts on “I needed that today

  1. Any mistake feels like a big mistake when it’s your paper. I can only say I’ve done similar things — made small errors on figures, forgotten citations, forgotten to thank the referee — and it was *totally okay* to fix them during the proof stage. It’s a pain to have to remake detailed figures, but I suspect the editor will a) not even know about it, or b) know about it and not think anything of it. I honestly think things like that happen all the time. As long as there is not a significant change to the results of the paper, such that it would have impacted the referee’s reviewing, I think it’s water under the bridge for the journal staff.

    And you can always issue an erratum if you find mistakes later. 🙂


  2. This is exactly the time to be looking for and catching those types of little mistakes, and in my experience they happen all the time. You can absolutely send updated figures!

    For my first published paper I had to send updated plots for every single graph because I had imported them incorrectly from my graphing program and everything looked fuzzy. By that point it had been passed on to the typesetting folks who don’t know or care about the content so this never even involved the editor.


  3. If you think academia is bad you should try programming. You miss one lousy semicolon in the wrong place and all of a sudden everybody’s plots are going every direction…


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