Philosophical considerations in manuscript preparation

Thought experiments and musings.

Xeno's paradox of manuscript completeness

No matter how many drafts you go through, the number of helpful suggestions make by your co-authors will approach but never quite reach zero.

Plato's allegory of collaborators and the cave wall

Distinguished or influential co-authors have a tendency to invite, introduce or insist upon the addition of other co-authors, typically their staff, old lab-mates or senior scientists they are hoping to impress. Our circumstances are such that we are unable to directly observe the actual contribution of these co-authors, but only see it indirectly, like shadows cast on a cave wall. Or more accurately, as an entries on the authorship byline.

Sapir-Whorf complaint hypothesis

Linguistic relativity holds that language affects the ways in which its speakers conceptualize their world, implying there is no guarantee that two individuals can communicate certain concepts. This why you will occasionally encounter a co-author who will repeatedly say they are "dissatisfied" or "unhappy" with a manuscript, but be unable to articulate what gives rise to this objection or how to correct it. Often they will only be able to say that "It should be fixed", without saying what "it" or the "fix" is.

Relativity and the twin paradox

In this thought experiment, there are two identical twins, one stays on Earth while the other makes a journey into space in a high-speed rocket. You ask both for comments on a manuscript "by the end of the week". The one on Earth sends you their comments within the week, while the second sends you their comments two months later, on a now out-dated version of the manuscript. Clearly the second has experienced time-dilation.

Searle's Chinese Room

A thought experiment which asks whether it is possible to distinguish an intelligent, well-written broad review from one that is randomly packed full of references to a Talmudic melange of subjects.

Revision orbits and attractors

Certain complex systems settle into stable dynamics where they oscillate through a repeating set of states. This is why the first reviews of your manuscript will ask for a section to be deleted, the second set of reviews will lament the absence of the same section and the third set will label it unnecessary. Regrettably, journal editors are apparently unschooled in chaos mathematics and refuse to acknowledge this phenomena.

Parable of the blind men and the elephant

In this tale, a group of blind men touch an elephant to learn what it is like. Each one feels a different part, such as the leg or the tusk, compares notes and learns that they are in complete disagreement as to what they have encountered. Similarly, teams of co-authors sometimes exist in a state where it is unclear what manuscript they are writing or commenting on, even seeming to disagree what the point of the paper is and the findings are.

Revising brain in a vat

In this philosophical experiment, a naked brain in placed in a vat of life-sustaining fluids and wired up such that it receives the same impulses it would as if it were in a body walking around. The question therefore is whether a brain - merely from the evidence of its own sense - can tell whether it is actually in a body or a vat. After 8 hours sitting in front of a computer, refreshing Mendeley, trying to decipher referee's comments and failing to get to the gym for the 3rd time this week, the distinction may be moot.

Lifeboat ethics

In this metaphor for resource distribution, a group of co-authors are gathered on a lifeboat at ocean surrounded by hundreds of potential collaborators. The central dilemma is whether to invite other people on-board, at the risk of over-loading the boat.

Most solutions involve ejecting the data analysts and technicians from the boat, while exhorting the lone grad student at the oars to "row faster".

Schrodinger's citation

Consider a journal submission system as a black box. It cannot be opened or examined in anyway. A manuscript is submitted into the black box. What happens inside the box is unclear but in time a response is emitted, listing many changes that are needed, including requests to include seemingly irrelevant work ("gene conversion in salamanders"), calls to cite vaguely described papers which may or may not exist ("Dubois's work that was in PNAS or PLoS six or eight years ago"), or the need to compare your work against an arbitrary other study ("how do your findings on plastid co-evolution reflect on distemper in muntjacs?"). At this point you wonder what could possibly be going on at the journal or in the referee's head.

Lady or the Tiger

You are presented with two indistinguishable doors. Behind one is a lady who will accept your manuscript graciously, offer erudite comments, correct misspellings and then publish it. Behind the other is a tiger. It devour you and then criticise your choice of controls. You must choose a door. Which one do you pick?

Note: experience says that no matter what your strategy, you will always end up picking the tiger. Better justify those controls better.

Trolley problem of stating results

Envisage your manuscript as a trolley-car headed down a set of tracks towards publication. Looking ahead, you notice that your findings will run into several other researchers (highlight the limitations of their approach and invalidating their results). Your co-author points out that by switching tracks (omitting some discussion, inventing a caveat and focusing on an improbable explanation), you will instead collide with the work of a different but lone researcher. What should you do?

Answer: who is likely to be on your next interview committee?