Friday, August 8, 2014

A taxonomy of papers

As the years go by, I feel like I’ve seen enough papers go through the meat grinder that they’ve started to fall into a variety of categories, based not so much on content as on the process of getting them out the door. Here are a few I could think of.

The Slam Dunk: This is the paper that you just know is going to make it into Nature. It’s in a hot field, the results are clean, the story is all in place. And kaboom! It slides right in. Yes, these papers do exist. They are pretty rare, though, because most of these actually end up being…

The Face Plant: This is the paper that you just know is going to make it into Nature. It’s in a hot field, the results are clean, the story is all in place. And kaboom! “Thanks for submitting your paper. Unfortunately, we think it’s too boring to even ask anyone else to read it. Perhaps a more boring journal would thus be more appropriate.” This can sometimes lead to…

The Snowball: These papers start life as a nice, baseball-sized lump of snow. And then it starts rolling down the hill, accumulating more and more experiments until at the end, nobody can control it, and you better get the hell out of the way. I suppose some of these papers fall apart under their own weight, leaving behind a set of smaller papers for people to pick up. I guess. Mostly, I just see these things get published with a 75 page supplement under the title “The collected works of Jane Doe, PhD”.

The Van Gogh [via Nikolai Slavov]: This is a variant of the Face Plant in which the results are truly visionary new science that actually matters, and that just makes everyone... uncomfortable. Might even make it to review, in which case you get reviews that say stuff like "These results cannot possibly be true" or "I just don't believe these claims" or "These results are inconsistent with everything we know about X". Yeah, well, that's just, like, your opinion, man! These papers are so depressing. [Wonderful collection of "Van Goghs" from Nikolai.]

The Baby Bird with the Broken Wing: Ah, the baby bird with the broken wing! So frail and delicate, with results held together by the thinnest of threads. If only everyone could see your inner beauty! And so it is nursed back to health with tons of experiments, each aiming to shore up the results and stamp out all those pesky inconsistencies. And so it is nursed back to health. But it may ultimately never fly again. And even if it does, it’s sort of messed up looking. At which point it’s officially…

The Glass of Lemonade: This is the paper where all the results are somewhat ambiguous, every experiment requires months of debugging, every question ends with a new twist. And what do you do when life gives you a bunch of lemons? You make lemonade! The secret to making lemonade is to add sugar. Lots of it. The scientific equivalent of sugar is the z-score, the p-value, and so forth.

The Ugly Duckling: This is the paper that starts out with a simple little idea that just keeps on working out until the paper basically just writes and publishes itself. Sort of like the slam dunk, but it was never intended to be a flashy paper, it just somehow ended up that way. Yes, these papers exist as well. They are so awesome!

The Heart Attack: This is one of the most dreaded types of paper: the paper that has a fatal flaw. You know it, and even worse, the reviewers know it. It’s weird how such projects make it to the stage of being a submitted paper, but it does. Take heart, though, at the following rejection letter a colleague told me they received from the editor of a Nice™ journal [paraphrased]: “We have received the reviews, and based on the reviewers comments, we sadly cannot accept your paper. In particular, they note a serious flaw in your work, and believe that this flaw is irrecoverable. [...] We would, however, like to offer for you to transfer this manuscript to our lesser sister journal…” Seriously, you can’t make this stuff up.

The Frankenstein: This type of paper results from the merger of two projects into one. Often, this happens when two different lab members are working on different aspects of the same topic, and then somewhere, someone decides to put these two papers together. Nothing quite matches up, and if two people are involved, it can definitely lead to some hard feelings. The Frankenstein can also spontaneously arise from The Snowball after it collects enough additional experiments.

The Anchor: This is the stupid little review paper nobody will ever read that you agreed to write 8 months ago and was due 2 months ago and now you are looking at the screen ready to blow your brains out for having agreed to write it. Until you remember that there’s Twitter. Ah, Twitter!

Any others?

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