"the story" vs. ?

Pamela Norton pamela.norton at mail.tju.edu
Wed May 9 13:40:56 EST 2001

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Posted and emailed:

In article <B70F2C83.2D60%ravena at alumni.princeton.edu>, ravena
<ravena at alumni.princeton.edu> wrote:

> Dear women-in-bio,
> About 5 years ago, I posted a question about authorship on a paper, and got
> a lot of interesting and thoughtful responses.  Now I have another, maybe
> more subtle, question, again about a paper.

> But what troubles me more, and what brings me to women-in-bio, is something
> that my supervisor seems to think is downright silly.  I'm wondering if it's
> a cultural difference, a gender difference, or something else.  I don't want
> to lead off the paper with that experiment and use it as the rationale for
> the following experiments, because *it wasn't the rationale*.  I actually
> said that to him before thinking very clearly; I said "if I wrote it that
> way, it would be like lying."  He really didn't like the word "lying," and I
> think he felt defensive after I said that.  But that was how I felt, it was
> my first gut reaction, which is why I said what I said.
> He then went and found another male company pooh-bah and asked him the
> question.  This person also said that "historical accuracy" wasn't
> important, and then said that the bottom line is whether having any
> particular set of data there strengthens your argument or weakens it.  If I
> think of it that way, I think a case could be made on both sides; probably
> I'll have to do something like write two versions of the paper in order to
> see what I think.  I'm leaning towards taking experiment A out of this
> manuscript (even though it is the only one of the many experiments in the
> paper that I performed with my own hands from start to finish); as I said,
> we could use the extra space, and it may very well weaken the argument as a
> whole by opening Pandora's box.

I believe that your solution of writing different versions, although
extra work, sounds like the best way to go.

> My position on the issue is formed by clear memories of my student days;
> back then I wanted to know how scientists *really* thought so that I could
> model my thinking on theirs and learn to be a scientist myself.  I was, and
> remain to this day, curious about the actual rationales behind doing
> particular experiments.  Ex post facto picking and choosing and rearranging
> bothers me because it obscures the workings of the creative process, and
> because it divorces the experiments and results from their context.

At the risk of sounding irrational, I have to confess that I have
deviated repeatedly from doing science in a linear fashion. Very often
we get unexpected results, and these require taking unanticipated
directions. I'm not sure that anyone will benefit from revisiting the
confusion that ensues from unexpected results that only made sense
retrospectively after additional work had been done. In these cases, it
makes sense to present the later results first. Of course, I don't
specifically claim that the work was done in the order presented, only
that the results obtained support the conclusions. 

> The fact that the man who disagreed with me went and got another man to back
> him up also makes me a little uncomfortable.  I'm over-intellectualizing and
> writing to women-in-bio at this point in order not to feel "ganged up on" by
> the two of them.  Do other people think this might be a gender difference?
> Would a male scientist react the way I am reacting?  Would a woman scientist
> take the position of my supervisor?

And what about the whole issue of how experiments are presented to the
> scientific community at large?  Is it really ethical to just invent ex post
> facto rationales out of thin air because you think they "make a good story"?
> Do people really do this "all the time" without giving it a second thought,
> as I was told was the case?  Is that how people give seminars, too?  (And is
> that why most seminars are so boring? . . . ah, well, that's probably a
> separate issue for another time)  I'm really just wondering; I haven't made
> up my mind on the issue yet, in spite of what my gut says.  On one hand, the
> notion of "telling a good story" appeals to me and experience tells me that
> people who "tell good stories" are the ones who succeed in science.  On the
> other hand, especially in science, I think it's more important that a
> "story" be true than that it be good.

Based on my experience, I do not believe it is a gender thing. I
suspect that it is a question of experience with the tricky task of
getting papers published. You've hit the nail on the head in this last
paragraph; sounds like your supervisor is trying to make sure that the
story is as good as possible in order to sell it to editors and
reviewers. On the other hand, you might be right about omitting the
data, and keeping it for later, when you have the additional
experiments. Writing the paper both ways should help you to see which
sounds stronger. You might also benefit from having a colleague,
preferably not a coauthor, read both versions, and comment on which of
the two is more effective.

> I'm glad to see women-in-bio is still at it.
> Posting anonymously due to possible corporate concerns,
> Sincerely,
> "ravena"

I hope this helps. Sorry not to see more responses, I would enjoy
hearing other people's opinions.

Pam Norton

Pamela A. Norton, Ph.D.
Jefferson Center for Biomedical Research
Thomas Jefferson University
pamela.norton at mail.tju.edu

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