Kevin Lafferty at UCSB has written an excellent article on how to give a good oral presentation. It is probably the best piece I’ve seen on the topic.
Last words are our strongest. That’s why the punchline comes at the end of the joke and the conclusions at the end of a presentation. The conclusion slide is the “take home message” that we want our audience to soak up. So we should leave that message in front of them for as long as possible. Even while people are asking questions—let them stew on your conclusions.
But it has become common to end with an acknowledgements slide, usually that has a long list of funders, advisors, students who helped in the lab, etc. And since speakers are usually running out of time, they often skim over the list, almost dismissively, which does little to honor the contributors. In any case, to borrow a famous quote “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.” What we want to learn from your talk is not your assistants’ names, but your science.
A final acknowledgements slide shuts off the conclusions before we’ve had a chance to assimilate them or to write them down—it undermines the message. That is shooting yourself in the foot, or maybe some part of your anatomy higher up and more vital.
The growth of acknowledgements slides is a Powerpoint effect. In the days of slide projectors, slides cost money so no one bothered with acknowledgements. But since images have become free, the tradition from papers of including acknowledgements percolated into presentations. But in a paper, acknowledgements are a postscript that readers can (and usually do) ignore. In a talk, there is no ignorable postscript—the last slide is part of the talk and should be reserved for your concluding take home message.
I argue therefore that you should generally skip an acknowledgements slide entirely. No one will really miss it. If you need to put agency logos somewhere to recognize funders, they comfortably go on the title slide or in the corners. If it is really essential to include acknowledgements in a presentation, either:
A) Make it the first slide following the title. Tell us who was important to the work before you begin the real story. This avoids disrupting the flow of the presentation and shows that recognizing these people is important to you, rather than being an afterthought. This is key in talks within your own Department (e.g. thesis defense seminars) when the people who helped will be in the audience and may actually care that they are recognized. It is also the most appropriate strategy when we give seminars at other Universities. As professors, our job is to produce both science and scientists; it’s our job to advance our students’ and postdocs’ careers and highlighting them for our colleagues is part of that. So highlight them—mention them first, and then weave their names into the talk as you present the strongest possible science story. For example “My student Jane Doe tested that hypothesis in an experiment that…” That’s a real acknowledgement.
B) Alternatively, show us the acknowledgements and then go back to the conclusions slide; leave that hanging on the screen while people ask questions and you discuss the work further. That gives them time to consider your conclusions and to absorb them.
My first principle of writing is that as an author it is your job to make the reader’s job easy. The same is true as a speaker. Help your audience assimilate your core message; that means giving them time with your conclusions. A second principle is to always think about what you are doing and why—does it advance the message? Or are you just doing it because you’ve seen other people do it and so it seems obligatory?
Don’t roll over your conclusions with an unnecessary and meaningless acknowledgements slide, or even worse, a throw-away “Questions?” slide. Your last slide is your take home message; use it for your most important message: your scientific conclusions.
This column is adapted from my response to an author who was writing a review and inquired whether it would be appropriate for the journal I edit. The paper was about a method that is used increasingly in the field, but there are as many variations as there are labs doing it.
There are many specific variants on this method and authors rarely explain their choice for one over another. The scientific problem develops because we don’t know if the different approaches give different answers or whether there is a coherent approach to fine-tuning for different soil types. The uncertainty creates a problem for researchers—which specific version should they use? How should they adjust for their specific conditions? Also, as with any exciting new method, some people will pick it up and use it ignorantly, and as a result badly.
To make this a powerful paper, you need to offer insight that will help inexperienced users. Just showing readers that there is a minefield in front of them may be useful, but it is more useful to tell them how to find a path through that minefield and most useful to actually show them the path.
Presenting information on the existing variants, where they have been used, and by whom, offers interesting factoids for experts in this area, but not for new users who need help in figuring out how to approach this problem. That information will give us a place to start looking, but then this won’t be the paper we end up using and citing. As a reader (and editor) I don’t want something that is largely an annotated bibliography (i.e. just synopsis). I want something that teaches me something new and useful (i.e. synthesis). In the era of Google Scholar and Web of Knowledge, pure synopsis isn’t as useful as it once was—I can find the papers in a few minutes, instead of the weeks it might once have taken. But I can’t read them any faster, and I’m no smarter.
Your opportunity is to help me identify the critical insights that I should take away from all the papers. You’ve read them and distilled their messages for yourself. Give us the fruits of your intellectual labors. That will make this a review I want to publish.
As reviewers, we sometimes get papers that don’t seem up to the standard of a particular colleague. We wonder how such a poorly written or incompletely thought-out paper could come from such a strong group.
Why do these papers get submitted? Our first assumption is usually that the advisor was skirting their responsibility of ensuring that submitted work is ready. We usually have harsh words in those cases. But we must remember that as Professors, we have two responsibilities: one is to produce science; the second is to produce scientists. The latter may be the more important—our highest responsibility is as mentor and trainer and while single papers easily disappear into the morass, the scientists we train create a living legacy.
I’m sure almost all of us have had to deal with manuscripts where we knew it would be much easier to take the data and just write the paper ourselves, rather than try to coax a student’s work into a polished form. But doing that would undermine them; they need to learn how to write good papers, how to manage the process, and how to gauge when a paper is ready to submit.
In Writing Science, I pointed out that “doing science is inherently an act of both confidence and humility” and that getting the balance between them “is one of the greatest challenges all developing scientists face.” Learning that balance involves both over-shoots and under-shoots. For a student to become a fully fledged professional and peer (as they should), they need to establish ability and confidence, and to develop an independent identity. They need room to grow and to become a peer.
Jay Gulledge, a former student and good friend, told me that one of the most important events in his graduate career came while we were driving up the “Haul Road” from Fairbanks, Alaska to our field site in the arctic tundra at Toolik Lake. We spent hours discussing and arguing his experimental design. Finally I said, “OK, do it your way.” I didn’t relent because I was worn out or trying to make Jay feel good, but because he had finally swayed me with his arguments—and he knew it. He described that moment as more important than passing his qualifying—it was the real acknowledgement that he had become a peer and a colleague, no longer just a student.
But for many students (including me) making that transition from student to colleague can be challenging. Most students go through the phase I call “academic adolescence” where we struggle intellectually and often emotionally with the challenges of becoming a professional, adult scientist. As with real adolescence, this phase sometimes involves a measure of rebelliousness and overreach: “I’m sure this is good enough!”
At that point, it may become impossible for an advisor to push further—you may know that the paper isn’t ready, but the student may be unwilling to make the suggested changes. A good first step to addressing this conflict is to get someone in-house to review the paper—someone experienced that they respect (a postdoc, committee member, or a colleague). But some situations cannot be easily finessed, leaving two imperfect options. Option 1 would be to say “go ahead—submit it, but I won’t be a co-author.” But that is a blow to the student, essentially disowning them and saying you care more about your reputation with reviewers than about your student. That’s harsh.
Option 2 is to say, “I don’t think it’s ready, but if you are so sure, submit it.” Reviewers may be annoyed at you for letting the paper go out, but given a choice between annoying a reviewer and damaging a student, support your student, every time.
Sometimes we need to recognize that the message a student needs is one they can’t hear from us now, but they may be able to hear from someone else. Hopefully, external review would open their mind to being able to hear what you had been saying. Even if it doesn’t though, it changes your relationship with them; where you may have been the “obstacle” in getting this wonderful work published, you are now the ally in helping solve the external problem—how to address the reviews and the editor.
As reviewers and editors, we need to remember and be sensitive to these dynamics as well. It’s possible that someone submitted that poorly written paper without final approval from the professor, although that is becoming more difficult as journals require all authors to approve submission. It’s possible that the advisor was negligent in letting an unready paper go out. But it’s also possible that the advisor was being fully responsible in their role as mentor, but had reached the end of their rope.
A number of years ago, I was invited to participate in a panel about mentoring. I have several real mottoes on that front including:
As a Professor, it is your job to produce both science, and scientists.
Take care of the people who take care of you.
As a mentor its your job to help your students get to the right place for them.
Never let the rules get in the way of doing the right thing.
But I couldn’t bear to just get up there and be sappy about just being a good person, taking care of your people, etc. So I decided to have some fun. I came up with a set of mottoes that, if you follow all of them, would guarantee that you would be one of the most memorable mentors in the history of academe. Remembered, however, for being one of the most evil people ever to blight the University.
Yet, all of these are based on something that either has a grain of truth in it, or on attitudes that some colleagues of mine have seemed to believe had a measure of truth. I hope you find them amusing. But please do the opposite–you will be equally memorable (without the curses)–and you will be more successful too.
Mottoes for Memorable Mentoring
1. Remember that we have graduate students for the same reasons farmers have kids: we need the cheap labor.
2. Credit is finite and a zero-sum game. If you give credit to your students, you lose it.
3. When they finish, your students will become your competitors. Why would you want to do anything that would advance their careers after they graduate?
4. Students need to learn effective time management:
A. Days have 24 hours, don’t they?
B. There are 7 days in a week: weekends are so you can get work done without distraction.
C. Graduate school is so much fun, students don’t need vacations.
Corollary: A student’s standing should be based on how many hours they are in the lab, not how much they accomplish in the hours they do spend there.
5. Academia is rough; you will experience harsh and undeserved criticism. Make sure students are used to it.
6. Make sure that your students know that when they get their Ph.D. they too, will know everything. Until then, they know nothing and aren’t worth listening to.
7. Make sure that students know about the “pot of gold” at the end of the road- i.e. a job. Don’t tell them that you will write a letter of recommendation that will ensure that they don’t get it.
Corollary: Be sure to let your people know they are wonderful, up until the day you fire them.
If you are doing research that is novel and creative (which I hope you are), then sometimes the data, and the story that develops from them, won’t be what you’d anticipated. So how do you write the paper?
You could lay out your starting questions and then discuss how the data don’t address those questions, but rather, different ones. Unfortunately, that would probably produce a paper that is incoherent. That is bad. But, if you rewrite the paper to make it seem like the story you ultimately found was the one you started out looking for, you may have been dishonest. That is worse. So, how do tell the story that emerged without being dishonest about your earlier thinking? Can you write a good paper while treading the knife edge between bad and worse?
The simplest case would be if you falsified your initial hypothesis. This means you get to tell the story you were aiming for, just slightly twisted and perhaps stronger. After all, Philosophy of Science dictates that we are supposed to try to falsify our hypotheses. Because one can never prove a hypothesis, falsifying is absolute while supporting can never be. This also makes a good story; one of the classic storylines is overcoming established authority to change the world. So, if your initial hypothesis reflects the conventional wisdom, and you overturn it, you fit directly into a classic and powerful storyline.
When you do this, though, you must address the real, scientific hypothesis you were testing. It should not be a statistical null hypothesis. Saying that “our null hypothesis was that there would be no effect, but, Eureka, there was” does not make a good story. Equally, setting up an arbitrary “straw man” just so you can knock down is tacky and feels forced. Readers know how they think and what the overall state of thinking in the field is, so trying to impose ideas upon them—“This is how the field thinks, but it’s wrong”—is likely to annoy, rather than educate. Anne Lamott argues that “Characters should not, conversely, serve as pawns for some plot you’ve dreamed up .” When those characters are your reviewers, expect trouble.
The real challenge is when the story goes off in a direction you had not anticipated. Then you need to tread carefully. You need to find ways to A) be accurate in what you say about your initial thinking, while B) finding ways to ground the “new” story in extant understanding and literature, but C) without stating that you’d been thinking that way before you started the work. This is tricky, but doable.
Let me illustrate one approach to solving this dilemma with a paper that I co-authored . The paper was about how resource availability affects soil microbes’ response to the stress of repeated drying and rewetting. We had hypothesized that microbes from resource-rich environments would be tolerant of stress because they had the resources to pay the physiological costs necessary to acclimate and survive. Conversely, we had hypothesized that microbes from resource-poor environments would be sensitive because they couldn’t afford to pay for stress-tolerance. We tested this using surface (rich) and deep (poor) soils and repeatedly stressing them by drying and then rapidly rewetting. As it turned out, dry/wet cycles mobilized otherwise unavailable resources (biodegradable organic compounds) and stimulated microbial growth.
The story we needed to emphasize was about dry/wet cycles mobilizing resources rather than just about stress effects on microbes. To make an effective story about resource mobilization we needed to integrate that idea into the paper’s Introduction, even though it wasn’t part of our specific hypothesis when we designed the experiment. Here is a paragraph from the Introduction:
There is a major challenge, however, in developing a better understanding of how dry/wet
cycles affect soil microbial and carbon cycling processes. The challenge is that the specific
mechanism underlying the Birch effect [pulse of respiration following rewetting a dry soil]
is still unclear. Two fundamentally different mechanisms have been postulated, and they
would likely have opposite long-term effects on soil C dynamics. The first is the “microbial
stress” mechanism, while the second is the “substrate supply” mechanism. …
The alternative, substrate supply, mechanism argues that physical processes associated with
rewetting (aggregate disruption, organic matter redistribution, desorption, etc.) supply pulses
of substrate to microbes.
We hadn’t thought about the substrate-supply mechanism in the immediate context of planning this project, so this is revisionist history. We had thought about it, however, for other related work and it was well established in the literature. So, we grounded the paper in the balance of possible mechanisms, which we could have done with what we knew before the work. We carefully did not say that we had thought about this specific issue before we did the work—rather we discussed what was known at the time. Note that we even used the passive voice “have been postulated” to avoid stating who had postulated it. Thus, I consider this opening to be a good example of balancing honesty and the need to tell the right story. We built the new story by following Anne Lamott’s advice (See Chap. 2 in Writing Science): we listened to our characters and told their story, rather than stuffing them into the plot line we had anticipated.
There are a number of flag-words that often indicate revisionist history in writing a paper. When authors write things like “We used these data to test the hypothesis that…” you can be pretty confident that wasn’t the hypothesis they thought they were going to test when the planned the research! But that is no criticism—quite the opposite, it is a complement. Those authors were being honest about the paper and in avoiding misrepresenting their previous thinking. For the paragraph I wish I’d written differently, look to a future Blog post.
 Anne Lamott. Bird by Bird. See Writing Science, pg. 9.
 Xiang et al. 2008. Soil Biology & Biochemistry. 40: 2281-2289
Some members of the public distrust the scientific peer review process because they assume we’re likely to go easy on our friends and colleagues. That is based on the pervasive misperception that publication is the end point of science.
Seeing a paper all shiny and typeset is always a thrill, and getting it accepted means it becomes an official part of the “scientific knowledge base,” which is an accomplishment. But being published, even in a credible journal ensures neither success nor citation. For example, in one major biochemistry journal, while the average paper from 2008 was cited 9 times, almost 20% had been cited 3 times or fewer, and more than 20 had still never been cited.
Publication isn’t an ending—it’s a new beginning. You may be done with the paper, but the paper isn’t done with you. After it’s been accepted, you no longer control its fate; rather it controls your fate. If a paper is well received, you gain credit, if it’s overlooked, or worse—seen as flawed—your reputation may even suffer.
Hence the title of this blog post: “Friends don’t let friends publish bullshit.”
Truly, few manuscripts are “bullshit,” but the strong language is to make a point. You don’t serve a friend by letting them slide a paper into print that could be better or clearer. You serve a friend by helping make their work better.
In my entire career, I’ve received only one review that said “accept as is” and in that case, neither the other reviewers nor the editor agreed. In fact, neither did I! And I can only remember once recommending a paper be accepted as submitted.
Science is hard to do and hard to explain. It’s also hard to avoid the Curse of Knowledge where we get so close to our work we become blind to what will confuse readers, and to better ways of presenting data and ideas. Our colleagues may not suffer the same curse.
Peer review does more than just filter out bad work; it polishes the strong work and makes it stronger. For me, that has always been the greatest value of the review system and one that I think is underappreciated.
Remember, getting published is not the ultimate goal. Our ultimate goal is to create knowledge and understanding that influence how scholars and students think, and that advance our fields of science. We serve our friends by helping them achieve that goal.