Wednesday, March 1, 2017

bad organization comments

This recent post on technically bad comments reminded me about organizationally bad comments.

On numerous occasions, and with different reviewers, I have received a comment along the lines of "but what was the result?" or "but what does it mean?" in clearly inappropriate places. Let me explain:

Almost all scientific papers are broken into several sections. First you have a background section to give enough context for what you'll be discussing. Then you have a methods section to explain what you actually did. Then you have the results, then the conclusion.

Environmental reports are the same way. They generally go as follows:

1. Introduction: says what sort of report this is (remedial investigation, phase II site investigation, whatever) and who it's for. If it's for a site with a bunch of different focus areas (operable units, areas of concern, etc), we may briefly describe the overall site and how that particular focus area fits in. We may also outline the report sections (although I personally think this is a waste of space).

2. Site description: we describe the site itself, starting with a basic description of what it looks like, how it relates to the area, etc. We also describe the history of the site, which may be anything from "the current structure was built in 1988 and we have no records before then" to a dissertation on all the investigations and cleanup actions performed. Sometimes the discussion of geology and hydrology of the site gets added here, sometimes it gets its own section later.

3. Methods/investigation: Usually a report is based on a particular investigation. We sampled here, we talked to these people, we collected these other data using these subcontractors.

4. Results: What we found. We may have separate sections for discussion of geology/hydrology based on the investigation, and for the chemical results.

5. Conceptual Site Model (CSM): We may have a separate section tying all the chemistry and geology into a CSM that explains where the contamination started, how it came to be where it is, and where it's going. Or for smaller reports, we just fold that discussion into a conclusion section.

All these sections came to be for a reason. They are building up the pieces of evidence leading to the report conclusion. If you start throwing conclusions in the methods section or geology in the chemistry section willy nilly, the report will quickly turn into a mess where nothing can be found and nothing is properly explained, and random points will be repeated over and over. Also, we include a table of contents so that if you read something in the "methods" section that leads you to wonder what the result is, you can quickly find that section!

Okay, now I think I've vented enough to write a properly diplomatic comment response!