When I die and am laid in my grave and my soul ascends to the Pearly Gates and the Supreme Being peers at me over half-moon glasses and declares, “Well Stephen, it’s Judgement Day”, I will look him in the eye and reply:
“Dear God, not again!”
Because, as a scientist, my life seems to be a never-ending succession of judgement days.
Lately it’s being getting ridiculous. In the last month I have submitted three grant applications and received 14 to review (for an upcoming research council committee meeting); I have submitted a paper for publication and had three requests to review manuscripts written by others (I accepted two); and I have marked the exam scripts of my final year students and, at the same time, lectured to second years who will assess my performance at the end of term via our online evaluation system.
I seem to be spending more time judging and being judged than getting on with the business of science.
Of course I see the point of it. Science is about accumulating and sifting evidence. As a process, it is entirely a matter of judgement. But I guess what has been getting to me as a result of this particularly intense spate of submissions and reviews is the sheer amount of time that I have to devote to assessing others and being assessed by them.
The grant applications are the worst, irrespective of whatever side of the game you are on. Having sent three applications off in the past month I will allow myself a brief window of hope. I put in some bloody good work and will hope for the best, for now. But I know, from sitting on the other side of the fence, that quality is no guarantor of success in these benighted times.
You might think there would be some compensating relief in sitting in judgement of the grant applications of my peers but this is the most onerous task that I have to undertake in my professional life. I know what the awful consequences will be for those scientists who have put their heart and soul into an application that, on the day, will not make the cut. In this regard the UK system is perhaps more brutal than that which operates in the US: failed applicants are only very rarely invited to resubmit. You either have to try your luck with another funder or re-think the project.
Papers are somewhat easier to handle because, if a manuscript has to be rejected, more often than not the authors have a chance to come back with revisions or additional data, or to lower their sights to the next journal down in the impact factor rankings. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, you know as a reviewer that even if you advise rejection the authors will eventually be able to get published. But even then, we should not forget that each rejection along the way will have to be absorbed as a personal disappointment, more or less intensely felt.
For that reason I never write or submit my review immediately after reading a manuscript. I always leave at least 24 hours after the first read to give my immediate, more visceral reaction time to decay and to allow the steadier voice of reason time to assemble its case.
But one of the papers I had for review in this past week had such an obvious and fundamental logical flaw in the experimental design that the whole thing was invalidated from the start. On this occasion I was still cross with the authors even after the usual day of grace: why hadn’t they seen this problem themselves and put in place the proper controls? The report that I dispatched was crisp and concise. I couldn’t — wouldn’t? — think of a way to soften the blow.
My own paper came back with two reviews, one of which simply requested small changes to the text. We are to tone down some of the wilder flights of fancy in our discussion, which I think we can do fairly easily and without sacrificing the central thrust of our argument. The second review was more favourable but oddly, more irksome, since I got the impression that the reviewer hadn’t read the manuscript closely enough. I may have to live with judgement but I do at least want it to be done well.
Also in this past week I have been giving lectures to second years – aiming to impart to them something of the theory and practice of measuring protein-ligand interactions. This necessarily involves mathematical treatments that some of the students don’t warm to. I am unrepentant and hold to the view that no serious student of biochemistry in the 21st Century can deny the relevance of mathematics. My hardline view may earn me some opprobrium when it comes to their evaluation of my lectures but I shall brush that aside. But I will not ignore any other constructive complaints about my lecturing technique or content.
For now, however, it is my turn to critique: I have been marking the exam scripts of my final year students. From a class of 32 who had three questions to answer from a choice of nine, the two questions that I set received 19 and 25 answers. This shows that most of the students connected with the material on X-ray crystallography that I was trying to get across and provides a palpable measure of gratification that almost overcomes the pain of having to do a disproportionate amount of marking!
Some of these students may be naïve enough to take at face value the idea that they have just taken their ‘final’ exams. They will soon be disabused of this fanciful notion. Judgement is nigh on inescapable in all walks of life (in some of which you will even be criticised for walking).
Judgement may be an intrinsic part of the scientific life and contribute disproportionately to its painful turbulence, but at least we get to see both sides. That, I suppose, should temper the experience.