As I mentioned in my last post, I've been having some....completion issues. As I sat and thought about this last night, I realized that my completion issues resulted from a lack in my normal zeal for science. I would get part way through the post and realize that I was simply too demoralized to finish. So why am I demoralized?
The main part is that science hasn't been a lot of fun recently. I've had a variety of papers going through the review process over the past year and the crazy blowback I've been getting has really started to take a toll. Don't get me wrong, I'm a big girl. I know how the review process works, but it has definitely seemed stranger and angrier lately. Every paper is a multi-round trench warfare-type slugfest, often lasting double (if not triple) the typical time from submission to acceptance for that journal. (I won't go into all the details because one of my half-finished posts is about the bizzaritude I've been experiencing). The Professor Chaos part of my personality knows that the weird blow back is actually a good sign for my research direction, but the River Tam part is feeling a little battered and bruised.
You might be wondering why my bitter reviewer battles might give me the impression that I'm on a good research direction? Let me digress for a moment. A while back, Drugmonkey made an open meme on creating your own index/law. When I was a graduate student a big name professor told me a story about one of his papers that is now a citation classic. He said that the responses to his work fell in one of two categories: it was wrong or it was trivial. Over the years, I have listened to other big names say similar things and based on this data, I have created the novelty test - a modified version of what the big name told me when I was a young whelp. I present: The Professor Chaos Novelty Litmus Test. The Professor Chaos Novelty Litmus works as follows: if the response to your work contains all of the following three elements (either separately from different individuals or all together from one individual) there's a high probability that your work ranks high in novelty:
1) "This work is wrong". This can take the form of nitpicky details that actually don't affect your results - which you may already have demonstrated in said paper - that are blown up as if you committed scientific fraud. This is the low - but still indicative -end of the "wrong" scale. Or it can take more bizarre turns resulting in weird statements that make you feel like you just had a stroke, like: "The author's logic about the nth dimensional constraint on the ecology of dogs rests on a critical assumption that dogs behave like dogs, but trees don't behave like dogs. This obviously invalidates this entire study on dog ecology." In my opinion, the more bizarre the reason, the more your work has messed with a reviewer's preconceived notions and therefore it is more likely you are truly on to something. Congratulations.
2) "This is not novel because it has been done before by a really big name". The key for this one to count as a positive novelty result is that the paper must not actually exist. There are two forms of this response. The first is an explicit reference to the "original" paper (i.e. you could easily locate the paper that is being referred to), but upon examination, the paper may be on dogs, but that's the end to the overlap. This ranks low on the "not original scale", because its always possible the reviewer honestly didn't understand your paper. On the high end of this scale is the "you have displayed your complete lack of competence in this area because you have missed the fundamental paper that has already published your idea which was published by either big name X, big name Y, big name Z, big name A. But I don't have the time to tell you which one of them did this, or which of their over 100 papers is the one you should care about. I won't even give you hints on journal or year. But boy it makes you look bad that you didn't know about this paper." I used to think this was just sloppy reviewing, but in my cynical older age, I am beginning to suspect that these are actually either conscious or subconscious attempts to throw the novelty of the paper in to doubt when the reviewer actually has no evidence of such...especially since I have on more than one occasion now gone through the multitude of papers by the list of big names and never found that my work had been done previously.
3) "This is just trivial". In contrast to #2 which may not debate the importance of the idea only that its already been done, this is the 2+2 argument. Your idea is so fundamentally trivially true that its not even worth publishing. Variants of this include: Everyone already knows this, its common knowledge, even if there is no record of the idea ever being tested - or maybe even proposed - in the literature. What's important about this critique is that you can go to the top journals in your field and pull out numerous, highly regarded papers published in the last 2 years that clearly ignore this "trivially true" statement about how the world works and in fact are actually operating on an assumption that the world does not work that way at all. You cannot, however, find any papers that actually are using the "trivially true" idea that everyone already knows.
So that's it, the Professor Chaos Litmus Test for Novelty. This is really only an indicator and not a measure of novelty - but the more absurd the responses the higher the likelihood that you're on to something good. Oh, and you get extra bonus points for receiving a review or other response that actually says all 3 of the above points.