Saturday, September 1, 2018

Making Mistakes

Oh the irony.

I made a potentially dreadful mistake last month.  I zipped up and submitted the wrong version of a manuscript last month.  It was the final version for typesetting.  It could have been a fucking disaster---imaging if the original submission rather than revision was published.  I didn't catch the mistake, the amazing Michele Nathan at Psychological Science did.

And the manuscript that I made this mistake on was itself about minimizing mistakes (Click Here For The Paper).  That's right, we made a dreadful mistake in processing a paper for minimizing such mistakes.   Boy, do I feel like a fraud.

One solution is to berate myself, lose sleep, hide in shame, and promise I will be more careful.  This solution, of course, is useless because (a) there are much better things to feel shame about and (b) no matter my intentions, I will not be more careful.

The other solution is to do what we say in the paper.  We use the principles of High Reliability Organizations to deal with the mistake.

Step 1: Mistakes Happen, Record Them

Yeah, it happened.  We know mistakes happen and we are prepared for them.  So, the first thing I did was  open up a little form in our data base called "Adverse Events."  All labs should have a procedure for documenting mistakes.  In my lab, we do all adverse events together so everyone is in on the problem and the resolution.

Step 2: What Was the Mistake

I submitted directory sub2 instead of directory rev1. Directory sub2 was the second version and was originally submitted.  Directory rev1 was the third, and it was in response to reviews.  Obviously, with one second of thought, most of us would know that rev1 supersedes sub2.  We could even check the dates and the log, which were accurate.  But, I happen to be one of least detailed oriented people on the planet.  So, I must have seen the 2 in sub2 and zipped and submitted that directory.

Step 3: The Cause

It is obvious the problem here is a deficient set of naming conventions for files and directories.  We do a pretty good job of naming files in the lab.  We have git repositories, and all repos have the same few directories: dev, share, papers, presentations, grants.  Also, we have good mysql logs of when we submit papers.  So tracking down the mistake and why it occurred was easy.

What we did not have was a firm naming convention for versions within the directory "papers".  Clearly, we need to standardize this convention.

Step 4:  Resolution

In our system there are two workable solutions.  The first is to use successive version numbers on a single name. e.g., minMistakes.1 might have been the first version, minMistakes.2 might have been the second and so on.  Here, instead of calling directories sub2 and rev1 we number successively and use a more informative root name.  We lose where we are in the process though.   Fortunately, we keep pretty good records of things that we do in our database, so there we could record that minMistakes.2 was the first version submitted, etc.  An even better solution is to use git to sort the major versions.  We probably should not be changing directories and just using git tags for major versions and process notes.  That is what I am going to do from now on.

Here is our adverse event report now in our database.

Anyways, with the new conventions, I most likely wont make that mistake again.


Gavin Cooper said...

Ouch, lucky it was caught. I completely agree that using git to manage the major versions of the paper is the way to go.

Just have to make double sure the correct tag/branch is checked out...

Unknown said...

I am wondering if a manual solution would not be best than git in this case, i.e. have the latest version (whatever its name) in the parent folder and all older versions in a "old_versions" folder. In principle, it is like having git for major release, but it let you access older version more easily ?

It would be easier to understand for people not using git (who will forget to commit major version or will commit minor versions).

Maybe you can do both and experiment ?

Unknown said...


Another approach that I use is to put the relevant date on each version.

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