New Year’s resolutions for the scientist

by Janice Nigro

Sometime immediately after the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, panic sets in. Suddenly, it’s the new year, and just like that I am supposed to adopt some new behaviors that will make life better for me. Then I relax for a moment. I am a scientist. Our job is to solve big unsolvable problems. Or answer big questions we have as humans, like why do apples fall?

I mean, what kind of bad habits do scientists need to resolve in the new year? The very nature of our work is to learn something new every day.

But maybe a twist exists to accomplishing more in the coming year. Here is my version of New Year’s resolutions for the scientist.

Focus. We are enamored of long lists of things we do. But our basic expertise is performing research. Focusing on that solves most other issues we have, such as not enough papers and what our students will do. I sometimes think that focus ironically was the death of my brain tumor project in Norway, but I managed to complete a project that hadn’t been previously done. There were a number of reasons why the project required such focus in that environment, but by achieving that one big goal, I knew the project would eventually take off.

Work more? How about work less? Is it really necessary to accept every invitation to present a seminar? With the ease of travel today, you can find yourself on an international seminar circuit spending less quality time with the people at home. I say try getting off the circuit.

Ask yourself this: what happens if I give up some of the travel and instead consult with someone new in my local environment to come up with an innovative experiment? It may take some effort, but I have found it’s possible to accomplish great goals even with minimal resources.

We have the Internet after all, and sometimes all we need to really do for fresh ideas is simply step away from work for a walk, for a knitting class, or some other unrelated to work activity.

Get more data? The tremendous challenge today is realizing the full potential of the large genomic and clinical datasets we have already generated. We are effectively drowning in data. Maybe we should be thinking of new questions and ways of using the data rather than just generating more of it. We can always move on to new technologies, but we might better serve ourselves by coming up with novel questions or simply addressing some of the more difficult ones emerging with our datasets.

Write more papers? There isn’t necessarily a good argument against writing more papers except if you add the word significant. Write more significant papers – idea and data driven articles rather than just articles. Some scientists publish much less frequently than others, but when they do, it’s a good one. Such articles are frequently highly cited throughout time. Ask yourself which kind of work you want to be known for.

Engage more collaborators? It’s the thing grants are looking for – who are your international collaborators? Outside collaborations can be a tremendous advantage, but sometimes they’re not. I don’t need to elaborate about the organizational frustrations of international collaboration, the results of which can be great, but at the same time exceedingly stressful. Take a closer look at home. The guy without big international collaborations might have to be a little cleverer in achieving his goals. I had to work hard, but I managed to accomplish big goals with a group of local people in a small research environment.

Give feedback as a co-author. As co-authors, we often take the backseat during the development of a manuscript. Be happy that your experiments/data are included in a manuscript, but no matter which number co-author you are, give the senior authors some constructive criticism. Your opinion is valuable, and participating in the process will make you more knowledgeable when it’s your turn as senior or first author.

Pick up a new skill/technique? Breakthrough technology changes data gathering for all of us. While it’s important to be able to use it, it’s more important to know when to use it. Papers are packed with techniques today. Sometimes more thoughtful interpretation will get you farther than a new technology. Your real attribute as a scientist is to judiciously incorporate diverse technologies when they are needed at the right moment.

Give criticism respectfully. All scientists have to take criticism. It’s part of the job. That means we have to give it too. Take a look at how you give criticism. So-called peer review is often empty and overblown. Get to the core of what is good or bad about an article and sum it up in a few words. You will sound smarter and more thoughtful as a reviewer if you do.

Create more diversity. In light of the tabloid news of late, we know we all need to work on unconscious bias. But we talk about diversity in the work place as if the issue is only about gender and race. Diversity is fundamental to expanding our thinking. So really act on supporting those unconventional scientists and small labs, and read papers that have nothing to do with what you might work on, like symbiotic relationships between squid and bacteria or the genome of an octopus.

The development of ideas is not a linear process.

That’s what I have to continue to do in 2018. I look forward to writing for you and hope to engage more of you in conversation about issues confronting us in all areas of science, not only in the publishing business.

Good luck!

©Janice Marie Nigro/janikiInk.com

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