Saturday, June 9, 2007

Character class upgrade: Scientician became scientist

Yesterday I completed one of the rights of passage of aspiring scientists: I submitted my first journal article. Admittedly, the submission was to NIPS, which is a conference rather than a proper journal, but my eight page paper will be properly reviewed and, if accepted, published in a format more accessible than a Nature paper. Of course, it won't be searchable via Web of Science, but that's why god made Citeseer, and nothing escapes the all-seeing eye of Google Scholar.

Writing those eight pages was considerably more difficult and time consuming than I expected. I churned out text for my Master's thesis at twice or three times the rate at which this paper came together. I think the difference is that while my Master's thesis needed to be basically original and correct, I knew that no one would read it especially carefully. Slightly imprecise statements were forgivable, and less relevant pieces of data and reckless speculation were mixed freely with the essential, solid results. In the months since my candidacy exam, I've come to realize that significant sections of my thesis were in fact already known. Such weakness is not acceptable in a paper submission. I read my drafts with the same hypercritical eye I apply to every other paper I read: all statements are assumed to be not just false but stupid until proven otherwise.

In the end, I think I produced a pretty strong submission. The eight page maximum, which I originally saw as a burden because it implied a certain minimum amount of material, ended up constraining me in the opposite direction. In the last day or two, I spent hours deleting a word here and there or shrinking a figure to force everything into the allowed space. We'll see what the reviewers think. If they don't like it, someone is going to get their kneecaps kicked in. I'm not sure who exactly, because the reviews are double-blind (my name appears as A. Anonymous), but there will be at least one more cripple in the ranks of the world's theoretical neuroscientists and statistical learning theorists.

Speaking of which, I really like NIPS's double-blind review policy. While necessarily imperfect because everyone in the field has a reasonable idea of the particular topics on which each of their colleagues works, at least in principle the papers will be judged on their merit rather than the prominence of the authors. I find this policy especially just, seeing as how neither I nor my adviser is particularly well known in the NIPS community. In my case, the last sentence is obviously something of an understatement...

Finally, I think I officially received my Master's degree (in absentia) yesterday. I am now one small step closer to wallpapering a room entirely with diplomas. I'm afraid, though, that I'm going to be leaning very heavily on receiving fistfuls of honorary doctorates after the first two or three square feet.

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