Quite a lot has happened in the Maison des Girrafes during 2011.
Crox Minima started at high school, making her Dad proud, and Crox Minor was Bat-Mitzvah, bringing tears of joy to the eye of this atheist (Jewish Section);
The Maison des Girrafes became a Palazzo
complete with home-made furniture
and scavenged hardware.
As an aside, here is the Cuisine des Girrafes as it is now – I’ve put in another worktop and have been doing some tiling over the holidays, yes, that’s my finger over the lens, sorry:
Several residents of the Parc Zoologique des Girrafes died (some of the older chickens, Aragorn the Angelfish), or were rehomed (one can have too many rabbits and guinea pigs), but we have welcomed Saffron the Jack Russell terrier
whose arrival happened not long before the sudden deaths of our last pair of guinea pigs, and Emma the Seriously Pissed-Off Siamese
whose arrival was soon followed by the loss of several fingers and an eye. Still, I shall have my revenge when my new pet Yentl the baby python
gets a bit bigger.
On the publishing front, my book The Beowulf Effect was bought by the University of Chicago Press; a story of mine was published in the anthology Fables from the Fountain; my novel By The Sea came out as an eBook, and Defiant the Guinea Pig -Firefighter! sold enough copies for my coauthor Crox Minima to have a day at a riding stables, grooming and riding horses with other excited 11-year-olds. (Defiant is still for sale, folks – I had planned to take it down but can’t work out how to without deleting it…)
The diary for 2012 is already filling up – my book The Science of Middle-earth will be coming out as an eBook this summer or autumn (I am going to do a thorough revision as soon as I’ve finished the draft of Beowulf); I’ll be on panels at not one but two Tolkien conferences this summer; and – unbelievably – someone has expressed an interest in my agèd SF blockbuster The Sigil aka the Stars trilogy, which some of you have endured but nobody much liked, or so I thought, so that’ll see me doing some editing and rewriting, possibly.
Something else happened in 2011 that’s been very important for me and the way I do my work. I am now in my 25th year as an editor with your favourite weekly etcetera, but it has only been in this past year that I realised how to encapsulate an editor’s job in one word - decisions.
Manuscripts arrive on one’s desk, or, nowadays, one’s
iGadget screen. One reads them – quickly, because another one will be along in a minute – puts together a few thoughts, maybe consults with colleagues, and then decides what to do, whether it is an instant rejection or a commitment that this is a paper that might fly, so it gets sent to referees. I must have handled thousands of manuscripts over the years. I think I have been right about most of them. Hindsight is a wonderful thing: there are papers that I’ve rejected that probably I should have published (this is why we have an appeals procedure), and papers I’ve accepted which, on reflection, we might not have done. We editors are only human. I would quote the old adage that ‘To Err Is Human, To Forgive Divine”, except that I think Divine is past caring, and that the occurrence of error is inevitable, even were one a robot.
What do I mean by this?
Something I learned long ago – probably the single most valuable lesson from my time at graduate school – is that you can never be certain, about anything. You can acquire data that’s good enough to eat; apply the fanciest, juiciest, raciest statistical tests; and what you end up with is a P value. In fact, you’d still end up with a P value if your data are lousy and your statistics are no more exciting than Student’s t (don’t laugh – Student’s t has been a far truer friend to me and I suspect many others than any number of MANOVAs and Principal Components and Multiple Regressions you can muster.)
And what’s a P? A P is an estimate of probability, a reckoning of odds that your result isn’t a fluke. It says nothing about Certainty or Truth. What P says is that we, the statistical algorithms, have done the best we can with your data. Whether it means anything or not is up to you – no better, really, than licking your finger and sticking it out of the window. Of course, the better your data, the better your modelling of the underlying distribution, and therefore the more appropriate the test, the more the value of P will be a trustworthy guide to the reality of which your data are but a sample. But no matter how good your data are, no matter how much information you gather, that P value will never, ever get down to zero.
What does this leave us? So, I’ll tell you –
bupkes it means that you can never, ever, have enough information on which to base a decision that you know for a fact is certainly correct. Every decision you ever make, as a scientist – and as a human being – can only ever be based on incomplete information. The final judgement is just that – a judgement – and it’s based on intuition, honed by experience. It’s not for nothing that mentors supervisors Jedi masters say such things as ‘Instincts Trust You Should Master Insert Name Of Pupil Here’.
This applies just as much to the relationship that an editor has with a manuscript. You, a scientist, have been slaving away at your problem for years, whether it involves pipetting very small quantities of colourless liquid from one place to another, or trying to make sunshine from cucumbers. You know the issues backwards, forwards, inside out, in depth and thirteen directions from sideways. And then you write it up and send it to a journal where it comes to the attention of an editor who might have at best a passing knowledge of your work and, although they might well be relatively well-informed about your subject area, will not have lived it the way you have.
That editor might well be in a position to exert a large influence on your career. It’s in your own interest, therefore, to tell the editor as much as you possibly can about your work and why it’s important enough to deserve publication in your journal of choice, rather than an
inferior less well-cited periodical. It will always be the case that the editor will base any decision on incomplete information – that’s a law of the Universe – but you can help to push that P value down a bit. Here are some things you can do to help. This list is not exhaustive, mostly because it’s late, I want to finish this, Norwich City have just lost 2-0 to Spurs and I want to go to bed. (See? What did I say about ‘only human’?)
* Put as much information into your manuscript as you possibly can. Leave nothing out. No experiment, step, protocol, or routine should be omitted, no matter how trivial you think it is. Contrary to popular belief, editors do read manuscripts, even the twiddly bits, and have found from long acquaintance that authors, being rather too close to it, aren’t always the best judges of their own work. Experiments that you think are just by-the-by or which have negative results might in fact be important controls. Referees (if the manuscript gets that far) will always pick up on this. Yes, yes, I hear you cry, journals have strict length limits for manuscripts. But that only applies to the manuscript as published. The manuscript as submitted is the opening gambit in what is likely to be a game of several rounds. It’s easier to take things out than to put things in, and, in any case, it’s better to make sure that wheels are round before worrying about what colour they should be.
* Write a covering letter. This serves two useful functions. The reason that journals such as your favourite weekly etcetera ask you to write summary paragraphs of your work in a covering letter is to put you, the author, on the spot. If your work is important to an audience outside your own specialism, you should be able to justify it concisely in a paragraph aimed at other scientists – and also for the general public. Covering letters for scientific manuscripts are like the proverbial Old Grey Whistle Test for popular music. The second reason why covering letters are important is that they introduce you to the editor in a rather more personal way than just sending the manuscript unadorned. Covering letters aren’t absolutely essential – an editor will never reject a manuscript simply because it didn’t have a covering letter – but to me, at least, a manuscript without a covering letter seems strangely alien and devoid of personality. Did I say that editors are only human?
* Talk to the editor. I’m going to make a big admission here, but I’ve been on vacation for a couple of weeks and have been able to look at my job more dispassionately than usual, but bear in mind that what follows is a seat-of-pants impression rather than anything quantified – but I suspect – only suspect, mind – that I will take more of an interest in a manuscript if the author has contacted me informally beforehand to say that it’s coming. Sure, journals these days do have presubmission inquiries, but that’s not what I mean. In any case, ‘presubs’ have now become rather formal, and (another admission) I don’t like them much as they demand that editors make decisions based on even less information than usual. I’m talking of an email, or a phone chat, or – even better – a meeting in person. One thing that scientists should realise in the competitive and ruthless world of publication is that the editor is (or should be) your friend. You are going to make life harder for yourself if you go out of your way to make editors hate you. Did I say editors were only human?
That’s why we editors spend a lot of time traveling to international conferences and visiting laboratories. Even in these days of distributed working (and you both know how I’m a big fan of such things) nothing, but nothing, beats personal interaction. I always feel – and I think I speak for all editors I’ve ever known – that you get a better idea of what scientists are about when you meet them in person, especially in their natural habitat. Travel is laborious, expensive and time-consuming – but the information one receives is invaluable, priceless, unobtainable in any other way. And you can also spend time giving the kind of advice that’s all there in the standard guidance notes to authors – but which seem impersonal on a page, and somehow inapplicable to an author’s particular case until you’ve gone to the trouble to discuss it in person. Did I say that editors are only human?
And it’s not just a matter of the efficient transfer of information, helping to lower that P value – the perfect manuscript really should be able to do that all on its own. It’s more a matter of refining one’s editorial intuition. This, I think, is why the editorial rôle is valuable. Editors will use experience to hone their intuition, which will – much more often than not – reveal what works. Science is all about measurements and reproducibility, to be sure, but if, in the end, all you have to go on is a P value and a nose for what ‘feels right’, there is immeasurable value in taking your instincts seriously, and learning how and when to trust them.
Have a great 2012 and may all your publication experiences be happy ones.
Update 29 December: And one is never too old to have done things for the first time. In 2011, I changed a wheel on my car for the first time (on Christmas Day, noch); learned how to tile walls for the first time; and made orange marmalade for the first time. That was yesterday – it set beautifully despite my recipe having been somewhat approximate – and I had some with my toast this morning.