So these days all my time is taken up by one ultimate goal, thought, worry, problem, thing which consumes most of my waking hours;
I am writing a paper.
I’ve self-identified as a scientist for about seven years now, but only recently have I had the opportunity to really test my mettle as one. I’m 22, and many scientists my age haven’t got enough original research to publish a paper on yet. I have, and I’m lucky for that opportunity. Writing a paper is an adventure and a great chance to get my life as an academic started on a good note. However, one thing you’re never trained for is something that’s quite stressful when you start out. There’s a constant question that acts like some insatiable beast, requiring feed after feed after feed. It’s a constant niggle at everything you do;
Are you sure?
Now don’t get me wrong; I have every confidence in the work that I’m doing, and although I do make mistakes I’m good at spotting and learning from them. What really gets to me about writing a paper is that during the review process you can be attacked for almost anything – the minutest detail can and will get a paper rejected (I’ve seen that happen). When the question are you sure? comes up in science, though, it’s not about whether you are personally confident about what you’re doing – it’s about your ability (and your data’s) to convince anybody else of what you say. Nobody takes your word for anything, so it’s always a pertinent question to ask.
The issue arises from a balance which all good science comes into conflict with, and which I’ve touched on before; the balance between what is best and what is practical. This is a balance which has been weighing me down more and more heavily since I first started work on this paper. The thing is that as a scientist you are required to be absolutely painfully honest about your research – that’s why the peer review process is so strict at times – but at the same time you have to work on both time and money budgets, the effectiveness of which requires not a little luck. So when deciding how much effort to spend on something, you can really be stumped as to the best answer. There might not even be a best answer.
For me, the problem lies in the fact that I’m a placement student. I have the problem that I have a very strictly limited time to finish; if the paper isn’t ready by November, it probably won’t make the peer review process in time for me to get reasonable responses out. That means I have to rush quite spectacularly to get things done, but then that horrible question keeps on cropping up. Are you sure about that? I may be personally happy with interpreting what the data is showing, but someone else might not have the context to understand some of it so I have to work extra hard to ensure they can clearly see what’s going on.
This comes up so often that what I initially expected to take two months has already been extended to three to take into account proving a few things in case they’re questioned in the peer review process. All of the things are easy to do (and in the end have come out 100% great), but they take time and effort and delay things further, which exacerbates the problem. In a way, I wish I had about three months more time here so I can finish what I started.
Ultimately, whether I publish or not is somewhat irrelevant: the paper will no doubt be the least significant publication in my career, and it will be the experience of getting it to submission which is the really valuable thing. If the science is good enough, then I’ll get what I’ve wanted for seven years now – if not, I’ll just have to take away as much as I can in qualitative information. I win either way, but the pressure of convincing my “peers” (they are actually a level or two above that) is somewhat stressful.