Saturday, November 26, 2016

Making Your Papers Credible. Your Need for an Advisor or Protector. The Kindness of Strangers.

Recently, a physician-researcher I know  asked me to read over a paper, since it had trouble with the journals. The problems I found are exemplary, and worthy of note and avoiding:

1. Make your claim credible. If you have weak numbers and statistics, but have found something interesting, present it as such. 

So what I did was the following, writing a new first paragraph of the paper:

We provide tantalizing evidence that the long-term consequences of dislocation, here due to disaster, may be very different than the literature might suggest. Namely, those who are displaced and move away permanently do better than those who stay. The data are not strong statistically, the comparison group and the convenience sampling is not so rigorous as one might desire, and there is reason to believe the leavers are better educated than the stayers. No one has been able to ask this question before, with data, so in part we are writing to encourage further inquiry. We should note that the literature in city planning suggests that those who were displaced by urban renewal and the disruption of their close knit community, thrive in their new environment of suburban homes. (Herbert Gans, The Urban Villagers and The Levittowners)

Suddenly, the work is in an entirely different context. And rather than some sort of narrative about the data, I suggested a table of the information and a discussion of where the results were manifestly strong, with a proviso about statistical reliability.

That I have provided a new first paragraph for the paper and a new context is just what I do, and some other scholars might do. I had a friend who would write introductions for his students' papers, putting the work in context.  I suspect I am quite good at this (I listen for the music, and ignore the details, and so see what is going on), but surely not good enough for my own work! 

2.  You need to find an expert in your area of work to get the papers vetted before you send them out. You don't want to get rejected because your paper looks inappropriate or not a fit for the journal. [Recently, I had this happen twice--two different papers. I sent them off, one got reviewed, but the review was essentially What is this doing here? I have done this more often than is prudent, more as a way of getting something off my desk. It's stupid. I've survived, but I do not recommend following in my footsteps.]

3. More generally, your advisor or someone who takes you under their wing is essential to your career. At the beginning, to acculturate you to the particular field, later, to nominate you for prizes and write letters of reference. Some of us might make it without such, barely. But in my experience there is always the kindness of strangers who are supportive. I recently made a list, keeping in mind that my PhD was finished in 1968, that it was in physics, not the field I have published in (all my "physics/mathematics" books are about models we use in social science), etc--and it was a list that made me grateful for those "strangers" who in fact became friends.

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