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Science: Not as Smooth as Its Seams

I was recently introduced to the term “seamful design” which, in contrast to “seamless design,” refers to a way of making things that doesn’t cover up all the messy inner workings — doesn’t remove all signs of the makers and their processes. A seamful design is one that may be more transparent, perhaps making the designers/creators more accountable to their users and audiences.

While my impression is the term has been used primarily in computer science, I got to thinking about seamful design in the process of scientific research. One of the most important products in science is the peer-reviewed journal article. These publications are often how a researcher’s scientific merit is judged and are a big part of hiring, promotions, and reputation-building in general. The genre is basically a write-up of the scientific procedure behind any study or experiment: you review what’s known, describe your questions, describe your methods, and then describe what you found.

But articles are atrociously seamless when it comes to accurately portraying how science is done. Articles are neat, linear, and nicely packaged. Research is messy, iterative, and linked to many other ongoing projects. And they take a friggin’ long time to get published. These realities are barely visible to the reader, and as a junior researcher I find this highly discouraging. After reading a paper I’m often left with the question: “But how did they really DO that?” Or, to paraphrase one of my professors: “What did they actually do on a Wednesday morning?”

Muppets Beaker and Bunsen
Muppets Beaker and Bunsen “do science.” (Source: http://muppet.wikia.com)

The loooong road to a paper

In a nod to seamful design, and because it is somewhat cathartic for me, I will briefly walk you through how one paper I’m about to have published actually got done. Rewind to January 2015: I had just finished some analyses for my job and was presenting them to our group. Note the results were from analyses I’d started several months before, and we’d decided to tack on some extra checks to make sure everything was working well. One faculty member came up to me after the presentation and said, “Wow, those are really interesting findings — you should publish them!” (referring to the results of the extra checks).

I was flattered but didn’t pick back up on the idea until a few months later, as I had other more time-pressing work and school tasks to attend to. First we had to get our idea approved by a publications committee. That happened in March. In May I was finally able to sit down and start drafting the paper. By mid-summer I had a preliminary version to show my immediate supervisor. We went back and forth on it, and discussed who else should be a co-author. By autumn we had sent a draft around to the chosen co-authors, who had some minor suggestions and revisions. All along we’d been thinking about what journal to submit our paper to. There are considerations like prestige or “impact factor,” likelihood of acceptance, and turnaround time. We decided on a target journal and submitted in December 2015.

Two months later we got a set of comments from three anonymous reviewers of the article. To fully respond to their comments we had to run some additional analyses, some of which we didn’t really agree with but it’s the gesture that counts. The results didn’t tell us a whole lot, but since we’d already done the work and we thought it would appease the reviewers, we added the extra results in as supplementary material (like an appendix to the paper). The journal had originally asked for the revision back in 4 weeks, but we asked for an extension because I again was having to work on it amidst various other work and school tasks (note to self: next time avoid needing to ask for the extension! embarrassing…). We submitted our revision in April and then heard June 1 that our revision was accepted for publication. In a month or two the advance version of the paper will probably be available online through the journal website, but it will likely be several months more before it makes it into a print copy. So almost two years after I did the work, the paper will come out.

That account surely doesn’t show all the seams, and granted it was a much smoother process than it could have been. Often the first journal you submit to returns the paper without review. And other times your revisions get rejected so you’re back to the drawing board with finding another journal, and you’ve lost months trying to get into the first choice. I’ve also only been talking about the publication process, less about the stages of designing and conducting the research. But I just wanted to impress how little of the struggle and setbacks (and time!) the finished journal article can portray.

Showing the seams elsewhere in life

I’ve been talking about the genre of the scientific manuscript as an example of not very seamful design. But you can expand the argument out to how we interact with and perceive each other more broadly. For instance, on social media we see these selective, highly abridged versions of each other: a series of Facebook posts, Tweets, or Instagram pictures. It’s what we want to show and put out there, our best bits. Where are the seams? To be sure we shouldn’t advertise every misstep and pain, illuminate every wrinkle and pore. But we’re definitely not getting the whole story, just like a scientific paper doesn’t give you a very accurate picture of what lays underneath. We’re still left asking “But how did they DO that?”

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