“Educate yourself” & “Do your research”

If you’re a parent on the internet, you’ve likely come across the “do your research” folks.  They’re the anti-vax idiots, the über-natural nuts, the ones who are convinced that formula is toxic and that any amount of crying irreparably damages your baby’s brain.  You find it a lot among fad dieters, too.  The phrase “do your research” is an immediate signal that the speaker has no idea what constitutes real research and should henceforth be ignored.

“Educate yourself” tends to come up in a very different context: diversity initiatives. “How to be a good ally” lists, that sort of thing.  Unlike the anti-vaxxers, the writers of these equity-related missives generally have the facts on their side.  Their motivation is also different: they just want the people who interact with them to stop being ignorant trolls.

However, these phrases share a common fallacy: that more information will necessarily convert the reader/listener to the side of the writer/speaker.  That’s laughably wrong in the case of the anti-vaxxers and “natural” nuts.  Such people seem to believe that they’re the bearers of a secret truth, breathlessly informing you of “facts” from Dr. Google.  It doesn’t seem to enter their worldview that we have already heard all that stuff and have considered and rejected it.

Things are much more complicated when you’re telling us how to be good allies to the underprivileged.  Reading other perspectives is absolutely a plus when it comes to being more tolerant.  But… one must always remember that not everyone is going to interpret the same information in the same way.  I’ve lurked in quite a few diversity-related conversations where disagreement was incorrectly blamed on ignorance, and people who genuinely wanted to help decided not to bother.

The moral of the story is: be careful when you say things like this.  Don’t assume that the reason someone has different opinions is because they don’t know as much as you.

My favorite GIF is about saying no

One of the most wonderful parts about having seen the Paper From Hell through to publication is that the last cord has finally been cut between me and that paper’s second author, a.k.a. my Incompetent Former Research Advisor.  Let’s call her IFRA for the rest of this post.  (She very definitely does not deserve to come second on the author list, but that is a battle that I did not have the power to fight.)

I have not been actively working with IFRA for years—as soon as I passed my qualifying exams, which involve defending an initial research project, I got the heck out of there to work with someone who actually has a clue.  IFRA is aware that I am not fond of her, because once I realized that any recommendation letter from her was worthless, I cut our interactions back to the bare minimum required to avoid being outright rude.

Nevertheless, exactly one day after we received the official “your paper has been published” email, IFRA wrote me asking if I would process a whole bunch more data for her.

Nope.

Nope nope.

Nopety-nope nope nope.

NOPE NOPE NOPE

Nope, there’s nothing about that data analysis that requires me, personally, to be the one who does it.  There is one step that uses a program I wrote, but that is both publicly available and extensively documented.  I would be willing to provide troubleshooting support for that program, but only in the context of someone who’d actually tried using it and had run into problems.  Even if I was the absolutely only person who could do it, the answer would still be no.  I’m not wasting time on data that will never make it to publication (and trust me, it won’t).

Of course, one does not reply to professional emails with reaction GIFs, so I wrote something short about needing to focus on my thesis and left it at that.

Freedom!

(I’d love to be able to give credit to the originator of the nopetopus, but it’s been floating—or running—around the internet for too long.)

Published

It’s official: my first peer-reviewed article has been published.  I’ve been a middle-of-the-list author on a handful of papers already, so the “Publications” section of my CV wasn’t completely blank, but as every academic knows, first-author papers are the only ones that really count.

Yes, the Paper From Hell is absolutely, positively, 100% done.  Forever.  A very small part of me is sad that no one’s going to keep going on the project—my results raised more questions than they answered, and there’s a lot more to be learned from that data set.  That is, if one is willing to wade through all the unusable data, duplicate data, and what-is-the-purpose-of-this? data, and deal with the shocking incompetence and patronizing approach of my former research advisor.  (Pro tip: if you’re going to be patronizing, be right.)

I should be utterly elated to have finally dragged this toxic thing through to the end.  Publication, however, is really quite anticlimactic.  My real sense of achievement came when I submitted it, five months ago.  Once I’d made it that far, I knew I could do the rest.  And most of the rest was waiting.  For all my venting about the referee’s comments, making revisions was essentially just working my way down a list.

So I’m writing this post to help myself feel a bit more accomplished.  To remind myself, as I struggle with the anxiety of working on a new paper (on a project that is way more fun), that I can do this.  I can do this.  I did this.  Hopefully I can do it a little faster this time, though.

Anybody else accomplished anything cool lately?

SUBMITTED!

I did it.  I just sent the Paper From Hell off to a journal for peer review and, hopefully, publication.

It was a struggle to the very end.  After all of the fiddly little formatting details were complete, I had to convince my obnoxiously stupid collaborator to stop stalling and just let me know if she had any objections (she didn’t).  Then the internet connection on my office computer stopped working.  Goodness only knows what the IT staff in our department are doing to the network this time.

But in spite of all of that, and the many years of crap that came before it, the paper is submitted.  There were times when I thought this day would never come, but it finally, finally did.

This day also turns out to be National Donut Day, so I think I’m going to celebrate by eating donuts (yes, plural).  And drinking wine.  I hope we have some wine.

Annotated letter to a collaborator

Dear <Person who did none of the data processing, analysis, or writing for this project, and only the bare minimum of data collection, but who is listed as the second author on this paper because she threw a hissy fit about it>,

Thank you for finding the time to look over the paper while on vacation.

[If you’d returned your last round of comments to me on time, this wouldn’t be an issue.]

[Also, you seem to be under the impression that I am requesting another round of extensive feedback.  This is not the case.  I neither need nor want additional “help” from you.  All of our other collaborators agree that this paper is ready to be submitted to a journal.  I just need to know if you have any remaining major objections – it should not take that long to figure out, especially since I carefully listed the changes made since the last draft in my earlier email.]

I put a lot of consideration into your comments on the abstract

[I actually did take your comments into careful consideration.  I think you will find that some points are explained more clearly now.  But you keep asking me to add more sentences about the “goal” of the project, and I am not convinced that you actually know what that is.  In fact, that is why is has taken this paper so long to come to fruition – because I had to come up with some kind of context in which these data were actually relevant.  In any case, you have grudgingly admitted that you “respect my way” of writing an abstract, so I’m just going to move on.]

While your suggestion of comparing to a published <PQR> data set is a good one, I don’t believe any such data have been published, except for a small subset in <Researcher> et al. 2007.  I will take a look at their results.

[Know why <PQR> data haven’t been published?  BECAUSE THEY ARE YOUR DATA.  THAT ARE SUPPOSEDLY FOUND IN THE COMPANION PAPER YOU KEEP PROMISING “WILL BE SUBMITTED SOON.”  Although you have been saying that for years, so perhaps I should not be surprised that you have completely forgotten its contents.]

I’ve made my <useful data analysis computer program> available online at my GitHub site, complete with extensive instructions for installation and use.

[And yes, before you ask, I did acknowledge your funding agency, so you can pretend that you did something with their money when you apply for your next grant.  It would probably help your case more if you, you know, did some actual work yourself.]

All the best,

<Crazy Grad Mama>

Pros and cons of productivity

Pros:

  • Getting stuff done!  The Paper From Hell might actually be almost complete.  I’m starting to feel a bit less like Hercules fighting the Hydra and a bit more like an ordinary person stamping out sparks from a campfire.
  • Positive feedback loop.  Productivity → motivation → more productivity.
  • Not hating work, at least temporarily.  I still don’t love my field of study – I don’t think it’s cool or fun or anything like some of my fellow graduate students – but I can ma-a-a-y-be think about my little tiny sliver of it without cringing.

Cons:

  • Increased caffeine consumption.  This is relative: my vices of choice are tea and Diet Coke, so my daily caffeine intake remains less than your average cup of coffee.  Still, I don’t like the feeling of becoming more and more dependent.
  • Less time to blog.  Self-explanatory.
  • More stuff running through my head.  There’s a fine line between motivation and obsession and I’ve never been very good at staying on the right side.  I pay the price in troubled dreams and bouts of morning anxiety.

Return of the Hydra

One of the reasons that the Paper From Hell was abandoned on a shelf for two years is that it was a Hydra.  The Hydra is a creature of Greek mythology, a many-headed reptilian monster; every time a head is chopped off, multiple new heads grow to replace it.  (If you’ve seen Disney’s Hercules, you’ll know what I mean – although please do not ever use that movie as an actual source of Greek mythology.)

Possessing an equally poisonous (if metaphorical) venom, the to-do list for Paper From Hell could not be conquered by ordinary mortals.  Any attempt to check off an item on that list would inevitably result in at least three more.  And not little fiddly tasks, either (although those were certainly not lacking).  Big, time-consuming, your-results-might-be-meaningless-without-it items.

Eventually, I decided that the toxicity of the Paper From Hell was negatively affecting my research productivity.  Hence the banishment to the shelf.  But I never fully gave up on the idea of finishing it, if only to prove to myself that I could.

Last week, with a renewed burst of mental energy, I took up the Paper From Hell again.  I’ve managed to consistently work on it for a few hours each weekday without falling into the pit of despair, which is a remarkable achievement in and of itself.  Abandoning the old to-do list completely, I read through the paper with a fresh eye, determined to do just the barest minimum necessary to finish it off for journal submission.

But then the Hydra reared its heads again.

Something that should be incredibly straightforward is not.  Something that the research literature treats as a settled problem has glaring flaws.  Numbers that other scientists quote without much thought are incompatible with other numbers quoted by at least as many others.  These numbers are not the topic of the paper; they are the basis of a tool far beyond the scope of my research.

This means more time.  More plots.  More reading, and yet another revision of what my results really mean.  I have to tell myself I am capable of chopping this head off, too, though my sword grows heavy and I am tired.

Because if I can do this – if I can drag this monster of a paper kicking and screaming to publication – then maybe, just maybe, I am capable of finishing my PhD.