13 December 2007

Knowing When To Quit

I am a rabid perfectionist. I either do something well or I don't do it at all.

Sometimes, this a good thing. For example, the medical editing part of my job requires unflagging, single-minded, obsessive attention to detail. Being a rabid perfectionist and doing things well or not at all is practically a pre-requisite for the job.

However, this quest for perfection can also get WAY out of hand and make me crazy about things that just aren't that important. For example:

Yesterday afternoon. In the midst of submitting a paper to a journal, I discovered that we would have to suggest reviewers - that is, give the names and contact information of people we think are knowledgable enough to judge the science of our paper.

After I got over being annoyed that the stupid journal didn't put anything about that in their Instructions to Authors (where it bloody well should have been), I dutifully emailed the Boss Lady to ask who she wanted to suggest. And as usual, I told her just to send me names and what organization the people are at, and I would find everything else (email, phone, etc), because that's my job. I find things and I'm good at finding things because the perfectionist in me never lets me give up. It also means, as you'll see, that I don't know when to quit.

Boss Lady picked three references from the paper and told me which authors she wanted to suggest. One I recognized and knew would be easy to find. I left her for last. The other two I had never heard of - one was at a Korean university and the other one was from a reference that was published seven years ago.

Now I don't read Korean, so there was one potential problem. If the website of the Korean university didn't have an English version, we'd be out of luck on that one. Turned out they did have an English version, but a search of the staff directory brought up nothing as did an in-depth review of the relevant department's site. So I googled. Nothing. I PubMed'd. Nothing.

Ticked by having to admit defeat, I gave up and moved on. To the seven-year-old reference.

Right away I had my doubts, because I now know from experience that most biomedical research papers in our field are written by postdoctoral fellows, and postdoctoral fellows usually only stay put for a year or two. My one ray of hope was that this one was at a US university - so at least I know I'll be able to read the website and have a reasonable chance of a decent staff directory.

However. A search of said directory yielded nothing. Perusal of the department website yielded nothing. I went through my whole arsenal (again): google, PubMed. I can find no trace of this author anywhere.

Unwilling to admit defeat twice, I get creative and find the guy's full name and google that (instead of "Lastname, AB"). Nothing. Now truly irked, I put quotes around the full name and google that.

Finally, I discover that this person (and yes, he's a person to me now, not some faceless 'author') was president of his graduate school association from 1996-1997; is quite good-looking; got married last August; lost his grandmother, who emigrated from Poland at 16 and settled in Canada, last April; has a father who is a psychiatrist and emeritus professor at the same university where this guy wrote the seven-year-old paper; and - this is the kicker - he now lives in Africa, where he apparently has no email or other contact with the outside world.

In other words, I discover - three hours later - that we can't suggest him as a reviewer.

Three. Hours.

See what I mean? I just don't know when to quit. Anyone in their right mind would have given up in 15 minutes and asked the Boss Lady for another name.

But not me. No, not me with my single-minded, obsessive blinders on. No, no, I have to be absolutely certain that I have exhausted every single possibility, that I have not overlooked something obvious, that I really, really did get it right, that I am unequivocally giving the Boss Lady the 'perfect' information about something that isn't really that important because the stupid journal will probably just ignore our suggestions anyway.

Maybe someday I'll learn to see this sort of thing coming and figure out how to head it off before it gets ridiculous. Well, I can hope, can't I?

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