Archive for: December, 2011

LoR Lore

Dec 20 2011 Published by under letter of reference

A veritable flurry of letters about delinquent Letter-of-Reference Writers has appeared in my inbox. Coincidentally, my next piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education is about getting advisors and co-authors to read/edit things we write. With Letters of Reference (LoR), the problem seems to be a bit seasonal, I fear.

So: What to do when someone promises a letter of reference, there is a deadline, you gave them plenty of advance notice (+ reminders), you need that letter from that person (e.g., an advisor), and they do not write the letter (or letters) in time?

A serious example of this involves the need for support letters for graduate or postdoctoral fellowship proposals or other similar cases with drop-dead deadlines and a need for a letter from an advisor. In such cases, it is the responsibility of advisors who agree to write such letters to do so by the deadline, barring any unforeseen health or personal crises.

And if the letter is not submitted and the deadline is looming? The priority is to get a sufficient number of letters by the deadline. If a last-minute replacement can be found -- someone who heroically steps in to save the day with letter -- that person should mention that the advisor (or whoever) couldn't provide a letter, but that this in no way indicates a negative opinion of the applicant (if that is true; an advisor with no intention of writing a letter, for whatever reason, should state so well in advance).

Otherwise, if you can't find a replacement or if a replacement isn't allowed (because you have to have a letter from a particular person), you need to talk to someone -- a friendly committee member, a graduate program advisor, the department chair. That is, you need to talk to someone who can try to exert pressure in a way that you can't. You need allies. Some of us professors like to believe that we are semi-autonomous and can run our research empires how we want, but in reality, we have supervisors who (should) keep track of how and what we are doing; or, in this case, not doing.

Calling in the big guns to try to extract a letter from an advisor may not be the best way to ensure that you are going to get a positive and thoughtful letter, but if a person has a history of not sending in letters on time (despite promising them), someone in a position of authority needs to know this and rectify the situation. That may only be accomplished by alerting others to the situation. Ideally, any complaint would be backed up by documentation.

I appreciate that students and postdocs who need lots of letters from a particular person are reluctant to go this route, so I hope that anyone in this situation has some good back-up letters to alleviate the problem. This is a good idea anyway, as you never know what is going to happen to your preferred letter writers. Professors have health and personal crises, and so, despite the best of intentions, we may not be able to provide the letters you need, when you need them.

If the application in question is for a graduate program, it may be OK if the letter is a bit late. I can't speak for all programs, of course, but it sometimes takes a couple of weeks after the deadline for all the files to be completed. It is annoying for the staff person who has to chase down missing pieces of applications, but I know that some places will try to get a complete file for promising applicants. Some places won't bother, but some will.

Speaking only for myself here, if I am reviewing a graduate application of someone who appears to be quite impressive and who wants to work with me, but there is a missing letter, I may ignore the omission if the delinquent letter-writer appears to be somewhat ancillary and if the other letters are informative and detailed. If the missing letter is from someone whose opinion I want, I might contact them myself.

But that's just what I tend to do. Note that I am not on the admissions committee, so I may look at dozens of applications myself, but I do not have to deal with vast numbers of them.

I admit that, if I am not already impressed with the application, I will not make an effort to obtain a missing letter. The staff member who deals with admissions logistics may make an effort, but I won't make any special effort myself. There maybe cases in which that missing letter would have changed my mind completely so that I became extremely positive about a candidate, but given that there are so many applicants and many more outstanding applicants than can possibly be admitted, I err on the side of assuming that an otherwise-not-awesome application is giving me the information I need. And I don't even look at very incomplete applications (more than one letter missing).

This is where readers can leave a comment and say that if any application to their graduate program is in any way flawed, it is immediately shredded and sent to a landfill. Or, better, it would be great to have some helpful suggestions about how to extract an on-time(ish) letter from someone, particularly if suggestions come from someone with procrastination tendencies or such an insanely busy schedule that they only have time to write these letters on their iPhone while walking to a breakfast meeting. Do repeated reminders and guilt-tripping pleas work? If not, what does?


18 responses so far

Citing Creeps

Dec 14 2011 Published by under citations

As I was working on a manuscript the other day, I encountered the usual decision about which papers to cite for a particular statement. I had a large number of choices in this case, and I just needed to select a few as good examples. I wanted to show that the relevant concept had been studied by many people for a long time, so I picked some old papers and some very recent papers. And of course I picked papers that I thought were exemplary for the point I wanted to make. Mostly I made positive choices -- that is, I selected papers that I thought were good to include. In one case, however, I made a negative choice -- that is, a specific decision to exclude a reference to a paper, not because the paper was bad, but because I loathed the author.

If that paper really had to be cited and it would be inappropriate for me to omit it, I would have included it, despite my feelings about the author. I have, in the past, cited this person's work in my papers. But, in this case, I had lots of choices and it was not essential to cite that particular paper, so I used an unprofessional criterion for one decision. The loathsome individual in question was an abusive person, physically and emotionally, and I'd rather not see his name in one of my papers if there is not a compelling (ethical, scientific) reason to include it.

I thought about this when I got an e-mail from a reader wondering whether s/he should change a plan that involved pursuing/writing about research ideas that had been promoted by someone who was had been arrested for a crime of a truly sickening sort. The crime had nothing to do with the research. It just happened that a person who was doing some interesting research is a criminal and a creep.

Should the research ideas be ignored, not written about, locked up along with the creep?

This is a much more extreme case than the minor one I confronted in my recent citing decision, both because of the nature of the crimes and because this is about pursuing research ideas, not just tossing in a citation in a paper. The general issue is similar, though:

  • How is your research affected if you are sickened by the crimes or other unsavory behavior of another researcher (but not necessarily by the research related to that person)?
  • Does anyone think that citing a creep somehow condones the creepish behavior?

In this particular situation, there is no ethical reason why my correspondent has to follow up on and/or write about the creep's research ideas; it is entirely a choice based on the fact that the ideas are interesting. Even so, the research ideas will inevitably lead to thoughts of this other person who is closely associated with them, and therefore to his crimes. This may therefore affect not only how you feel about the research, but also how others perceive the work, and therefore you.

Context is of course important, but without knowing any specifics of the people, the crime, and the research, what would you do in this general situation? As long as the crime was unrelated to the research, can opinions about the research be considered independently of the researcher?

I just looked up the citation data for the one scientist that I know of in recent years to be arrested for a sickening crime; this person is in a field sort of related to mine, and it was a huge shock when he was arrested and the nature of his crimes revealed. The data show that his citation rate is holding steady at a very high rate, the same as before he went to prison, even though his publication rate dropped to zero while he was incarcerated. I would kill for his h-index (<-- sorry, inappropriate joke!).

I am not surprised by the citation data; he has done excellent, fundamental work in his field over the years, and it would be strange if his major publications were not cited often. I would also not be surprised, however, if anyone who knows of his crimes thinks of them every time they see his name. I certainly do.

So, are there ways in which you are influenced in your research decisions (major or minor) by your feelings about someone's reprehensible behavior outside of the research sphere? Note that I am not talking about ordinary jerks. I am talking about criminals and major creeps whose very name makes you feel sick and angry.


17 responses so far