[These are some thoughts as I’m getting ready to teach our first semester graduate introduction to semantics. This fall, I’m also serving as acting Graduate Program Director, while Sabine is on sabbatical leave. So, I figured I should write down some points that I often address in sermons in introductory classes. Let me know if you have comments or disagree with anything.]

Any scientific topic of sufficient theoretical complexity and with interesting empirical breadth cannot be taught from first principles. Teaching and learning of such topics is a messy affair, something that it’s important to get used to. Many of these thoughts are also relevant when one is confronted with a new article at the cutting edge of research or when one is listening to a research presentation.

Ideally, one might start from what is common ground among the students in the class (or one’s readers). But especially when people with different backgrounds and diverse interests come together, there’s actually very little that is truly common ground. So, what to do? One strategy is to pretend there’s more common ground than there really is and let people catch up as fast they can.

Presupposition Accommodation

In a way, when you’re new to a topic, you’re in a kind of situation that is familiar from the study of “presupposition accommodation” (I wrote a survey-ish article about this a while back). Imagine you enter an elevator and two people you vaguely know are in the middle of a conversation. One says “she’s in town for a conference.” The other: “we should talk to her about epistemic modality in Bulgarian”. And so on. As an eavesdropper, you can learn a lot from such conversations even if you never figure out who “she” is. Your task is to piece together what the common ground of the conversation is, without being explicitly informed about everything that’s being taken for granted. In classes and reading new work, that’s very often the case as well. Of course, while in the elevator it might be a faux pas to just barge in and ask who they are talking about, in classes it’s OK to ask clarifying questions about things that seem to be taken for granted. Maybe the question will be deflected and deferred to a later time, a conversation outside class or a TA tutorial, but at least it’s fine to register that you’re not entirely on board with the assumptions being made.

It’s important to get comfortable with not understanding everything, working to figure out the essence of what’s going on, and patiently and actively waiting for the pieces to drop into place. Yes, it’s often disorienting but if you keep at it, the picture will become clearer over time and tools and concepts will become second nature eventually.


In other words, you need to become used to feeling “stupid”. I mean this in an entirely non-disparaging sense: obviously, you’re not stupid. What it is is that you’re not completely understanding a complex topic. Of course, that is in fact the permanent condition of science. The whole point of science is to work at things we don’t understand and make some progress towards understanding, but that progress will then result in even more things we don’t understand. Answers to questions simply beget more questions. On my office door, I have a print out of a short article on this very topic.

When you’re in an almost perpetual state of progressive ignorance, and if you’re always surrounded by other super-smart people, it is very easy to lose sight of the inevitability of the feelings of “stupidity”. Instead, one easily starts to actually believe that one is inadequate and really is stupid compared to the others. This phenomenon is very widespread. I suffer from it myself. It’s important to be aware of it and if possible, turn it into a positive power. Here are two ways of thinking about it:

  1. “In the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.” (Bertrand Russell, “The Triumph of Stupidity”, 1933). Russell’s observation has been substantiated in psychological research and is known as the “Dunning-Kruger Effect”.

  2. Another term for the dynamic is “Imposter Syndrome”. At the last LSA Summer Institute, Penny Eckert and Monica Macaulay gave a presentation on the syndrome and the slides are available. Here is a good blog post with further links on this set of issues.

Coping with boredom

At the other end of the spectrum, a class may at times underchallenge you. You may already (think you) know everything or the pace is such that anything that is new to you takes very little effort to pick up. So, you’re bored. There are three strategies to cope with such boredom and it may make sense to mix these strategies depending on your energy levels, the semester schedule, and what else you have to do.

Coast: You might decide to just take it easy for a while: just do the little that is needed to stay with the class and devote your energies to other tasks. This is legitimate. Faculty may choose to do this as well at times. It can’t be the dominant strategy, though, if it means that you’re not moving forward in your chosen field.

If the material appears too easy for you, there are two ways of deepening your engagement and thereby making it appropriately hard again.

Going meta: figure out how you would teach the material. The easiest way to do this is to actually teach it: in groups with your fellow students, some of whom probably find the material more challenging than you do, work on explaining things a different way from the way it was done in class. And even if you don’t have such an early outlet for your pedagogical insights, presumably in a few years you will definitely have to teach and it’s good to have thought about it beforehand. Pedagogical insights are also very useful for writing papers because the deeper your penetration of the topic is and the better you understand what it takes to convey its intricacies, the clearer your prose will be.

Deep dive: any topic has fractal levels of complexity. We may skate over that in class but you can go deeper. Find current research in the area and read it. Think about using other methodologies to study the relevant phenomena: what is the language acquisition angle on the topic? Is there relevant psycholinguistic work? What is the cross-linguistic picture? How do syntax, semantics, morphology, phonology work together? If you find anything that grabs your interest, pursue it, talk to colleagues and faculty about it. Rinse and repeat.

Guidelines for writing abstracts

Found via Facebook this morning: Guidelines for writing abstracts, drawn up a while ago by Johan Rooryck and Vincent van Heuven after consultation of the Linguist List. I pretty much agree 100% with these guidelines, but about 200% with this one: “Don’t put your examples on a separate page, even when the abstract guidelines allow you to do so: abstract reviewers hate having to go back and forth between pages”. (This is a corollary of the same principle that banishes endnotes from academic publishing.)

My open access policy

MIT, of course, has an Open Access Policy, which I am proud to have played a small role in establishing. Having that policy has guided my personal decisions about venues for publishing and reviewing, but I have noticed that I have not always been very principled and consistent in my decisions. So, it is time for my own personal policy. Here it is.

Kai’s Open Access Policy

  1. Journals: I will only publish in, review for, and serve on editorial boards for journals that allow authors to deposit at least the final manuscript version (“postprint”) in an open access repository (such as MIT’s Dspace or the Semantics Archive), without any embargo (such as having to wait for 24 months before making the OA version available).
  2. Book chapters: I will personally only contribute book chapters, if the publisher allows me to deposit at least the final manuscript version in an open access repository, without any embargo. (I will consider reviewing books or book chapters that are not OA-friendly, because books are a different business from research journals, although I wish that there was more movement towards OA books.)
  3. Books: I will only publish books myself that have a significant open access component, such as making at least the final manuscript freely available, or even the final published version while charging for print versions of course.

For current reference, here are the policies of leading publishers of relevance to our field(s), culled from the MIT Libraries list of publisher policies:

  • Elsevier: With 2011 revision of author agreement, requires authors to opt out.
  • MIT Press: In full cooperation. Allows posting of final published version.
  • Springer: MIT and Springer have established an agreement that extends flexible reuse rights to MIT authors of papers published in Springer journals. Among other rights, the final submitted manuscripts of MIT-authored Springer papers can be posted openly in MIT’s open access repository DSpace@MIT. Authors should sign the standard Springer agreement and do not need to submit an author’s addendum.
  • Wiley-Blackwell: Has indicated it will be requiring authors to opt out.

Obviously, this list doesn’t include some important publishers, such as Oxford University Press. So, before making any particular decisions, I will consult with whoever is asking me to publish or review for them.

Google Scholar Citations

As announced on the Google Scholar Blog yesterday, there is now the option of creating a researcher profile of yourself. Google’s documentation of this service (“Google Scholar Citations”) is here.

Google Scholar Citations is currently in limited launch with a small number of users. This is a new direction for us and we plan to use the experience and feedback from the limited launch to improve the service. Click here and follow the instructions to get started. Keep in mind that this is a limited launch and we may not be able to accept new users when you click. If this happens, we’ll direct you to a sign-up page where you can register to be notified when Google Scholar Citations is available to all users.

I have worked a bit on my profile, correcting some typos (like the spelling of my name … sigh). NB: “If you have substantially changed the bibliographic record (title, authors, journal, etc.), we may not able to match it up with Google Scholar’s index right away. If so, it may take a few days for your citation metrics to include the updated article.” That’s a bit scary so I haven’t gone all out updating the bibliographic details, but I might try it on a test case.

(No) skin in the game

Whenever people (in particular, graduate students) talk to me or correspond with me about topics I have written about at some point in my career, I notice they are confused by my general attitude. Well, part of it is that I have a memory like a sieve as far as details of my own papers are concerned, so I often have to puzzle out things with them as if I was reading someone else’s work. But the thing of it is that I do consider old work of mine to be work by someone else. That work was written by a previous time slice of myself that I do not anymore have any privileged access to or even a strong emotional bond with. So, I do not feel a strong emotional attachment to the ideas and approaches advocated in those papers. I look at them as honest attempts to figure out how things work, but if more recent investigations of the same facts or additional facts point to a different solution, that’s just fine with me. I don’t feel like I necessarily “have skin in the game”, as the sports metaphor goes. So, if students challenge my old ideas, so be it. Let’s follow the facts wherever they lead.

There are some countervailing considerations.

First, at least for a certain amount of time, I believe that authors have an obligation to be the best advocate for their ideas that they can be. This relates to a point made by Geoff Pullum in his “Five Golden Rules (well, actually six) for giving academic presentations”, with which I wholeheartedly agree:

REMEMBER THAT YOU’RE AN ADVOCATE, NOT THE DEFENDANT. It’s your idea that’s being presented, not you. The reason for not feeling nervous is that you are not what’s up for consideration (not even at a job talk; they consider you later!). This isn’t about you (that’s why you shouldn’t begin with an apology: that’s about how you feel). It’s the ideas that are going to get scrutiny. If those ideas don’t survive after today, too bad for them. You can’t work miracles. But for today, you’re there to do as fair a job as you can for them during their twenty minutes in the spotlight. You’re a vehicle, an advocate, a public defender. These ideas might have been unfairly dismissed without a trial. No matter what the ultimate verdict, you will have served the court of scholarly opinion if you defend them effectively.

And secondly, no matter how old the work is, there are two offenses against it that I do get hot under the collar about: not properly acknowledging and citing the work and misrepresenting the work. But that’s actually an attitude I have about anybody’s work. Citing properly and representing previous work accurately is an indispensable part of serious scholarship and science.

How do others feel about their old work? Do you feel like you still have skin in the game?

On citing well

[Crossposted from S&P Editors Blog]

The journal Nature Chemical Biology has an editorial that is well worth reading and pondering for other fields as well:

Unfortunately, the editorial is behind a paywall. Here are the main points in excerpts.

The appearance of new ideas and discoveries in the scientific literature is a reflection of ongoing scientific progress. Individual articles are nodes of scientific knowledge, but citations of published work link together the concepts, technologies and advances that define scientific disciplines. Though information technology and databases have helped us to better manage the expanding scientific literature, the quality of our citation maps still hinges on the quality of the bibliographic information contained in each published paper. Because article citations are increasingly used as metrics of researcher productivity, the citation record also affects individual scientists and their institutions. As a result, all participants in the scientific publication process need to ensure that the citation network of the scientific literature is as complete and accurate as possible.

Many factors may stand in the way of good citation practices. […] Each research group has its own referencing habits, and some may feature their own work too prominently or rely on familiar references without a critical examination of whether a particular citation is the most appropriate in the given context. Some researchers may not cite ‘old’ papers either because these are incorrectly viewed as being out of date or because inertia inevitably may encourage authors to cite the articles that show up more frequently in searches or that have appeared recently.

Researchers understandably are motivated, in both professional and personal ways, to have their scientific contributions recognized through citation by their peers. The community also values the accurate assignment of credit and precedence for scientific discoveries. As a result, even an accidental omission of a necessary citation may create an uncomfortable situation for a papers authors. More problematic, however, are cases where authors deliberately omit relevant citations. Because perceived novelty can be an important factor in determining where a manuscript is published, some authors may be tempted to avoid citing earlier or concurrent work from their own laboratories to enhance the apparent advance of a submitted study. In other cases, some authors may consider ongoing scientific disagreements, personal conflicts or competition a sufficient justification for omitting citations of work by others. Clearly authors need to do everything they can to avoid accidental omission of key references, and should never exclude relevant citations for nonscientific reasons. In turn, all scientists, independent of their roles as authors, referees or editors, need to renew their commitment to guaranteeing that literature citations correctly assign credit for ideas and discoveries and are placed thoughtfully in manuscripts and published papers.

Though editors and referees can help, authors are ultimately responsible for the information contained in their published papers. We recommend that authors take several important steps to increase the quality of their citation lists. First, principal investigators need to teach young scientists the appropriate ways to select manuscript references and mentor them in the ethical dimensions of citation. Second, authors need to put as much care into selecting and accurately citing references as they devote to the rest of their manuscripts. As part
of this process, authors should perform comprehensive literature searches as they write and revise manuscripts, so as to identify relevant work that may need to be cited. Before including references in their citation lists, all authors should have read and discussed the candidate references
to ensure that they are the most relevant choices and are called out at the appropriate point in the paper.

The responsibility for maintaining and enhancing the citation network of a discipline resides with all participants: authors, referees, editors and database managers. Thoughtful attention during the writing and review processes remains the first and best approach for ensuring citation quality and the appropriate assignment of credit in published papers. Yet new publishing and database tools that lead us to an interactive multidimensional scientific literature will become essential. As publishers move toward integrating functionality such as real-time commenting on published papers and creating living manuscripts that preserve the snapshot of a research area through the lens of a published paper, while permitting forward and backward linking, the scientific literature is poised to become a richer environment that will support future scientific progress.

At S&P, we are fully committed to these goals, but could surely work harder to improve the citation practices. One of our criteria for evaluating submissions is “contextualization of research”, as spelled out in our inaugural editorial:

Are the main research questions contextualized in terms of earlier related work? Does the paper adequately cite related work? Could the impact of the paper be improved through modifications that would show the relevance of the results to future work in the same or other fields?

Advice to authors: by contextualizing results appropriately, the author not only increases the worth of the paper to the audience, but also makes the job of the editors and reviewers easier. It will be much easier for us to be sure that a paper should be published if we can clearly see what previous work it betters. Authors would do well to flag, both in the abstract and early on in the paper, the relationship of the paper to earlier proposals, and to indicate in broad terms what the relative advantages of the new approach are. Of course, it is then incumbent on the author to make sure that all such claims are fully justified in the main text of the article.

Another aspect of this is that once the relevant citations have been chosen, the bibliographic detail given in the article needs to be as complete and clear as possible:

  • full first names of authors and editors
  • both volume and issue numbers for journal articles
  • page numbers for everything that appeared on numbered pages
  • DOIs for every work that has a DOI (important both for easy access by readers to the cited literature and for all kinds of automated processes, present and future)
  • URLs for unpublished manuscripts and other obscure sources
  • conference proceedings formatted as specified in the Unified Style Sheet for Linguistics

S&P strives towards citing well, which requires continuous attention from authors, reviewers, and editors.