What Did You Do in the AIDS War, Granddad?
Nowadays, when I am on the podium at an AIDS meeting, I scan the audience carefully, looking for one of those little flashing red dots. The next one might not be a laser pointer, after all. But in the unlikely event that I do survive to old age, a grandchild might sit on my lap, snuggle up to my infinitely expanded belly, look me in the eye, and ask, "What did YOU do in the AIDS war, Granddad?" Christ, I hope it doesn't happen. What can I say? "Well, little Billy, I sure as hell read a lot about what everybody else was doing."
Two more papers for me to review landed on my desk this morning. This makes 91 so far this year, despite my "firm" New Year's resolution to cut back on the numbers. Fat chance! It made me laugh when I attended a non-AIDS conference last summer and heard this guy in the coffee line bitching to his pal that he had had six papers to review that year, and how the workload was really getting way, way too much with all the new people joining his field. I waited for him to get a mouthful of coffee, told him how lucky he was, then gave him a tissue to sponge the coffee off his shirt.
There's a pile of AIDS researchers out there, a stack of journals and an utter gallimaufry of submitted manuscripts. All of them are critiqued by two or three "peers," and then there are research proposals to review as well. So everyone spends a lot of time inspecting everyone else's work for technical merit and interest. Sometimes, a paper from a friend lands on my desk--I just try to forget who the writer is and focus on what it says. I've given friends' papers a hard time, and I know that's happened to me in return (hasn't it, Robin?)--it has to be that way, since it benefits nobody to publish something that has flaws. A hierarchy exists among AIDS-relevant journals--papers for the more prominent ones get (or should get--I sometimes wonder) correspondingly rigorous reviews. Interest isn't really a factor for the bottom-feeder journals. For these, I usually apply a version of the Hippocratic oath: The paper has to "first, do no harm" (i.e., be scientifically sound), but blandness and unoriginality are often acceptable. But honestly, some of the stuff I get to see is just awful on a technical level. The Guinness Book of Records says the longest word in the English language is "floccinaucinihilipilification," which, as everyone knows, means "The action of estimating something as being worthless." All I can say is that I get a lot of opportunities to floccinaucinihilipilificate nowadays. Of course, some truly wonderful papers are written that it's a privilege to review, which helps compensate for the treacle-wading. Overall, a little over half my reviews recommend publication of the paper, usually after a degree of revision. But, in the end, almost everything written on AIDS will find a home, even if only at the Isle of Man Cattle Breeder's Gazette.
I wander downstairs to discuss one of today's papers with Mark M., since he knows more about some aspects of the methods than I do. We chew the cud over a coffee, and I hand-write a couple of pages to be typed up and sent off to the editor. The paper's basically OK, but some points need fixing, and it's way too long for what it says (totally unlike any of my own papers, of course). One more down, God knows how many more to go. The other review can wait until this evening; I'll read the paper with one eye while watching Star Trek with the other.
Now I turn to the finished product and read the journals that have arrived today--two of them. I identify the papers that should interest the people in my lab and have photocopies distributed. Of course, you can lead a horse to water ...! Myself, I read just about all I can find. It's the old adage: "The more I practice, the luckier I get." If you don't know what's going on both inside and outside your immediate specialty, you won't see the connections that might exist between seemingly unrelated pieces of information. A couple of papers today are of interest, so I e-mail a few people within and outside the center. What do these papers mean? What do we each think of them? There's quite a lot of routine exchange of information (and gossip and sick jokes) within the group of AIDS researchers I have "grown up" with; we are friends, not rivals.
The AIDS literature is such a mixture, but its dominant feature is its sheer size. Caxton has a lot to answer for. Still, at least hefting the Journal of Virology around will keep me fit for the next cricket season. An athlete must watch his condition, after all.