Behind the scenes with Nature

I just published a letter in Nature.

Well, a letter only in the colloquial sense. More properly, it’s correspondence. It can be seen here. It reads:

Lifetime word limits would unleash woe

If science’s current predicament has taught us one thing, it is that we should beware of perverse incentives (see M. Edwards and S. Roy Environ. Eng. Sci. 34, 51–61; 2017). So let us imagine the cascade of woe that could follow from Brian Martinson’s thought experiment of allocating scientists a lifetime word limit (Nature 550, 303; 2017).

Papers could become shorter and more obtuse, with content moved to appendices. ‘Pre-prints’ might never be published and instead would be squirrelled away on personal websites — dodging peer review. A new type of predatory journal that falsified word limits could stoke demand and become pervasive. Research collaborations would decline.

Supervisors would leave their names off papers, relying on the force of association to boost their reputation. And, graduate students could have their lifetime word limits exploited, particularly if they do not continue with an academic career (see Nature 550, 429; 2017).

As my colleague and mentor Sarah Boon said about her own ‘non-traditional’ piece in Nature, “it’s a relatively short piece that looks deceptively easy to write.” I suspect I had an easier time of it than Sarah, since I had no need for interviews, and the editor’s role in this section is closer to gatekeeping than overhauling.  Nonetheless, there’s a lot that went on behind the scenes, some lessons to learn, and some questions raised. This piece owes a lot to Sarah’s — not only the obvious similarities, but the well-timed publication of her piece is part of what inspired me to submit my letter in the first place.

This letter started life as an angry rant. First on facebook, then slightly tidied up and copied onto my blog. Here’s the first lesson: angry rants don’t have to stay on facebook. If you have something to say about a scientific publication, write to the publisher! This is particularly true if you’re a junior researcher, and if you can easily substantiate your claims.

To change my angry blog post into a reasonably argued letter took me a couple of hours. Much of that was spent looking up the requirements – finding DOIs and formatting citations, and wishing I could publish in the same ‘World View’ column as the original. To be honest, I’m not sure what’s up with that column. Yes, it’s important to have a venue for opinion pieces, but it appears to be averse to citations even where they would be appropriate, and the editorial process is very opaque.

In any case, my original letter rang in at close to 300 words, instead of 150 for the final version. I won’t reproduce the entire text, since the content is fairly close to the blog post, though the tone is not. In particular, it included a paragraph about the utter infeasibility of implementing a word limits system, and a concluding statement encouraging both creative thinking and a healthy fear of unintended consequences.

Here, we come to the second lesson: let it go. When the tentative approval came back, the whole section about feasibility had been cut. And it was better without it. It was shorter and less aggressive, and in any case the feasibility of a thought experiment doesn’t matter as much as its unintended consequences.

I was somewhat amused by our email chain back and forth. The editor addressed me as “Dr.”, even though I am not. I addressed her as “Dr.” – because, even though she did not include it in her email signature, a quick google search confirmed that she was. I wondered how many people didn’t, and I was conscious of the usefulness of “Dr.” as a form of address that is both genderless and unrelated to marital status. (Lesson #0: treat people with respect.)

There were a couple of other points in our editorial back-and-forth. The phrase “cascade of woe”, and the title, are hers. It’s not a word I would have thought to use, but I quite like it. I had pushed for “would” in a couple of places that now read “could”, and I had wanted to include a closing sentence about the need for more creative solutions. Most importantly, I had wanted to use the phrase “disposable grad student husks”, which so many people liked in my earlier drafts. Sadly, this was not to be.

My biggest unresolved question: how serious was the original suggestion? The first response I received said “This shortening has been achieved by making the tone more satirical, in the spirit of the original article.” So…was it a satire all along, and did I miss the joke? My response is “if it was a joke and I missed it, then others must have missed it too.” But this is somewhat self-serving, since I wanted to publish.

My best answer is that the suggestion of lifetime word limits was a serious idea somewhere between a thought experiment and a fantasy, which was written in a satirical tone. I say that it had a component of fantasy because I think that if Martinson had treated it as a serious thought experiment, he would have come up with some of the same issues as I did. He has a fairly substantial career in research integrity; this leads me to think that either he knows something I don’t, he’s frustrated enough to propose his perfect-world solution without thinking of undesirable consequences, or he just wanted to throw it out for fun.

The semi-serious nature of this topic is illustrated in another response, advocating cap-and-trade for word limits. This author suggests auctioning researchers’ love of verbiage such as “it is easily shown that …” as a fundraiser.

I will admit that this correspondence was partially published with the goal of getting my own name out there. That seems important, if I want to situate myself in the field of studying and improving the scientific process. But this publication is also worthwhile to the broader community. I saw a decent amount of uncritical coverage of the original piece, including on Retraction Watch. I think that record is worth correcting.

This brief letter also helped me develop my ideas. In particular, I think that as a bare minimum, creative ideas to improve the scientific process should be feasible, and shouldn’t create more problems than they solve. This sounds simple, but is quite a tough requirement. Feasibility means among other things that it should be scalable and not require a system-wide overhaul. Attempting to assess the consequences of theoretical ideas is often quite tough, but should consider existing power structures & axes of marginalization, subtle systemic pressures, and malicious compliance.

I look forward to further developing these ideas in future posts or publications. In the meantime, I have a piece in Nature, and only spent 150 words.