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Worse than Sedona? Initial encounters with Interfolio (#1169)

Topics/tags: Academia, Rants

For too many years, faculty members at Grinnell have had to report their work and accomplishments using Sedona. Just the mention of Sedona was enough to get people to groan. Why? Lots of reasons. Here are a few. Like most reporting software, it forces you to fit the round pegs of your activities into the square holes designed by administrators (and not even administrators at Grinnell). It has no natural way to input publications, so you (or your academic assistant) must retype information that is already available digitally. And the interface is, shall we say, clunky. It’s what you’d expect from someone who hasn’t studied UI/UX. And it’s what you get when you choose software from a small shop. I still don’t understand why we didn’t roll our own [1].

Because of our experiences with Sedona, most faculty greeted the announcement that we were moving to Interfolio with joy. After all, Interfolio is a much larger corporation; surely it would be better than Sedona plus other local hacks. And the first things we heard were promising. For example, we learned that it would important publications from the standard formats, including from EndNote and BibTeX.

I’ve just completed my first extended encounter with Interfolio. And I can report that … it’s just as bad as Sedona, perhaps worse. Why? We’re still forced to fit round pegs into square holes; they’re just different square holes (and perhaps more of them). It still appears to be designed by people unfamiliar with concepts of user experience. Bibliography import is notably incomplete. And, to make things worse, it’s harder to extract data from Interfolio than it is from Sedona. Agh!

Read on for details.

My first experience was not good. Just looking at the software makes me groan. Vitas and Biosketches. The software stores lives? What are they thinking? But my Classicist friend tells me that they don’t mind the mangling of CV. I suppose I shouldn’t, either [3].

My next experience was okay. Kind of. I grabbed a few of my publications in BibTeX [6] format from The ACM Digital Library. I used the only slightly confusing import tools. And … what do we find?

First, it appears that I have to add Required Activity Information.
That includes whether or not it’s Academic. Conveniently, there is no description of what it means for something to be academic. Next up is the Diversity Contribution [7,10]. Intellectual Contributions: Review Type comes next. Our options are Blind Peer Reviewed, Non-blind [11] Peer Reviewed, Editorially Reviewed, Invited, or Not Reviewed.

Do they not know that Blind Peer Reviewed is an ableist term? Sensible people have eliminated its use. See, for example, this ’blog post from the APA. I raised this issue with the Associate Dean, who raised with the Amazing Administrative Assistant responsible for Interfolio, who says that it’s out of our hands; the Interfolio folks have to fix it [12].

Where was I before I went off on that important tangent? Oh, I remember. I was listing all of the extra information I had to add for the paper. There’s also an Invited category. Our options are Invited (duh), Not Invited, and Submitted/Selected. In most of my experience, anything not invited is submitted or selected. And that should be it.

But it’s not.

Interfolio gets the semester of the publication wrong. Presentations from March are listed as Fall. Fixing that issue appears to require that I (1) click on the Edit pencil icon, (2) click on Manage Status, (3) click on another pencil icon, (4) change the semester, (5) click Save, (6) click Add, (7) close another dialog box that pops up for no clear reason, (8) scroll down, and (9) click Save and Go Back. Further investigation suggests that I can skip steps 6 and 7 if I just click the close box for the dialog that appears after step 5.

What happened to drop-down menus?

I guess I could deal with the annoyance if the input worked well. But it doesn’t. Let’s take an older paper as an example. Here’s the lovely BibTeX entry, taken from ACM.

author = {Davis, Janet and Rebelsky, Samuel A.},
title = {Food-First Computer Science: Starting the First Course Right with PB&J},
year = {2007},
isbn = {1595933611},
publisher = {Association for Computing Machinery},
address = {New York, NY, USA},
url = {},
doi = {10.1145/1227310.1227440},
abstract = {We consider in some depth a common exercise for the first session of a typical introductory
computer science course: The task of writing instructions to make a peanut butter
and jelly sandwich. The exercise, although simple, can engage students and motivate
a variety of topics important throughout the semester. We discuss reasons to use such
an exercise on the first day of class, present lessons students can learn from the
exercise, and give practical advice for the instructor who wishes to make the most
of this exercise.},
booktitle = {Proceedings of the 38th SIGCSE Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education},
pages = {372–376},
numpages = {5},
keywords = {manipulatives, active learning, introductory computer science},
location = {Covington, Kentucky, USA},
series = {SIGCSE '07}

Hmmm. I guess it’s not surprising that it gets the term wrong, since the month isn’t in the ACM data. But also fails to import the DOI, the page numbers, the URL, the description (abstract), and such.

A screen shot of an Interfolio bibliography listing.  Most of the data are arranged with a heading on the left and the data on the right.  The page number and DOI sections are notably blank.

Did I say the experience was good? Well, it was okay. At least it got the authors, title, and conference right. Since I often have a slew of student co-authors, it’s much better to be able to copy and paste one long entry than to type them all by hand. But the rest? It sucks. Bad UI. Incomplete info entry. Annoying extra info to enter.

Speaking of that extra info, it does seem that we continue to have the round peg/square hole issue. Let’s take a look at that.

Conveniently, everything from Sedona was imported incorrectly, at least in terms of the term I did work. But I can’t just fix the date. No, that would be too easy. I have to answer potentially meaningless round/square questions. For example, I served as an external reviewer in Fall 2019, which got reclassified to Fall 2020. When I moved it back, here were the new questions I had to answer.

  • Diversity Contribution: Yes or No)
  • Professional Service Event Type: Conference or Meeting or Workshop.
  • Professional Service Organization Type: Academic Peer Reviewed Journal or Other Professional Publication or Academic/Professional/Research Conference or Academic/Professional/Research Conference - Track or Program or Academic/Professional/Research Conference - Session/Consortium or Academic/Professional/Research Conference - Workshop or Other.
  • Professional Service Role: Reviewer: Manuscript/Paper or Reviewer: Ad-hoc or Editor: Editor-in-chief or Editor: Associate Editor or Editor: Editorial Staff or Presenter or Panel/Round Table Participant or Discussant or Moderator or Guest Speaker/Lecturer or Keynote Speaker or Expertise-related Consultant/Advisor or Trainer or Training Staff or Interviewer or Judge/Evaluator or Chair or Co-Chair or Coordinator or Volunteer Staff/participant or Other Community Service Role or Reviewer: External Program or Reviewer: External Tenure and Promotion or Editor: special edition/guest editor or Other
  • Scope: Local or " State" or Regional or National or International
  • Type of Professional Service: Adjudication or Editorship or Office held or Committee assignment or Chairing panel or Other ```

Yes, we’re forced to answer all of these questions.

What’s the difference between Professional Service Role and Type of Professional Service? I have no idea. Speaking of Type of Professional Service, let’s take a look at that menu.

A list of the 
twenty-four or so roles mentioned above, one per line.

Do folks not understand that menus organized in no clear order are particularly bad user interface design? Either submenus or alphabetical order would be better.

But the folks at Interfolio have skipped their classes in UI/UX design and perhaps even the ones that describe the value in hiring designers. I must admit that most corporate software doesn’t seem to show a value for design; it appears that the people who specify and purchase such software don’t care. They should; the lost productivity from bad UIs far outweighs the cost of software. In any case, the design is ba.

Here’s another fun example of Interfolio’s design incompetency. In the section in which we enter our different kinds of information, they have multiple pages for each section. I have no idea what they were thinking, other than How much information can we cram on one Web page? I’d love to see someone do a study of the usability failures on this page.

A screen shot of an Interfolio page.  In a list of publications near the top, we see 'First Previous 1 2 3 Next Last'.  Below that is a big 'Add' button.  There are closed sections for  'Grants', 'Research Grant: Legacy', 'College Committees', and 'Other Institutional Service'.  Then there's another open list of 'Professional Service'.  That appears to be structured similarly to the paged list above.

Why am I spending all this time futzing with Interfolio? Because it’s time for my triennial salary review. So I have to get the information correct. Or correct enough.

Of course, there’s more to the salary review than just entering the information and writing the essays. You have to put everything together. In the days of Sedona, we’d generate a Word document from Sedona with all of the recent data, add our essay responses to each section, polish our CVs, and submit the CV and Word document to our Review Chairs. Now, we upload our CV, fill in a form for the essays, upload diversity and student research statements, and, um, somehow get the Interfolio/Sedona data gathered up.

How does that last part work? I wasn’t sure. After too many email messages back and forth with the Associate Dean, I learned that we were supposed to generate a CV (quotation marks intentional) for the three-year review period [14] in Interfolio and then upload it back to Interfolio. What about our real CV? It doesn’t appear that folks considered that. I ended up combining the two PDFs into one.

When we worked with Word documents, we had some control over the formatting. We don’t have much control here. But I wanted to see what it would look like for my Review Chair and the Faculty Salary Committee. Amazingly, the Preview Packet button doesn’t show that part of the Packet. That’s another question out to our Amazing Academic Assistant. I feel sorry that she has to deal with all these questions from me.

As you might expect, the PDF previews are also bad. Why do companies write their own PDF preview and annotation engines? Why don’t they test them? A month ago, I pointed out that the search feature works incorrectly; I’ve yet to hear anything back. It also appears that either Interfolio or the Interfolio PDF previewer has stripped some information from my CV [16].

My conclusion? Both Interfolio and the new, supposedly better, Interfolio review process are worse than Sedona and the old process, as hard as that is to envision.

You know what, I’d like to see the Associate Dean or Other Administrator responsible for crap like Sedona and Interfolio (and the associated processes) have to enter the data for all the faculty under review. That is, we’d hand them our CVs, they could enter the data. And I’d like them to have to do the support, rather than dumping it on an already overworked Academic Assistant. Wouldn’t that be great? Maybe we’d eventually get half-decent software. Or at least they’d suffer as much as we do.

Postscript: You should send lots of good thoughts to the academic assistant who has to manage Interfolio, including dealing with the slew of questions from annoying folks like me. And yes, I’ve tried to limit the questions I’ve sent.

Postscript: You may be wondering why I don’t pass all of this work on to one of our Academic Assistants. In part, it’s because I don’t think they should suffer any more than we should; as I said, I think the Administrators, rather than the Academic Assistants, should be the ones who suffer for the decisions. In part, it’s because they don’t know the answers to the round peg/square hold questions and it takes just as much time to get back to them on those.

Postscript: It makes me surprisingly happy to discover that Grammarly objects to both Vitas and Biosketches [17].

Postscript: Were you wondering about all of those steps I was telling you about for fixing the publication semester? Let’s see … I’ve taken some screenshots. I’ve added a short narrative, as well as a few notations on the screenshots.

The semester is incorrect. Click the Edit icon.

An Interfolio entry for a paper.  A red arrow points
to 'Fall 2007', which is the incorrect semester.  A blue
arrow points to a pencil icon.

After what feels like too much time, but is only about eight seconds, the edit page appears. We click Manage Status.

The top of an Interfolio edit page for a paper.  A blue arrow
points to a large 'Manage Status' button.

We click the edit button again.

A dialog box for 'Manage Status'.  A note reads
'Click Add to update status.  Do not edit a prior status
unless it is incorrect.'  The status is listed as 'Complete/Published'
in Fall 2007.  An arrow points to a pencil icon.

It appears we should select a different semester.

A different dialog box for 'Manage Status'.  An
arrow points to a pop-up menu for 'Semester', which
currently reads 'Fall'.

And click Save.

The same dialog box, with the semester changed
to 'Spring'.  An arrow points to 'Save'.

At this point, I’m not sure what to do. The Click Add to update status suggests that I’m not done yet, and must click Add.

The first dialog box for 'Manage Status', with the
semester now listed as 'Spring 2007'.  A blue box
surrounds the text 'Click Add to update status.  Do not
edit a prior status unless it is incorrect.'  An arrow
points to the 'Add' button.

Nope, that was wrong. Close the new dialog.

Another dialog box for 'Manage Status'.  There are
data entry areas for 'Status', 'Semester', and 'Year', each
marked as 'Select'.  An arrow points to the close button.

I know from experience that I now have to save my changes. Scroll down.

A section of the Interfolio publication edit page.
A sequence of arrows points downward.

Ah, there’s the set of buttons I know. Click Save and Go Back.

The bottom of an Interfolio edit page for a paper.  A blue arrow
points to a large 'Save and Go Back' button.

Wasn’t that fun?

Oh, I forgot to mention. After I click Save and Go Back and wait about five seconds for the updated page, the paper does not appear in the list? Why? Because it’s not on the first page of that list.

A list of papers.

Is it just me, or is that an awful lot of work (and time) to just change the damn semester? [18]

[1] That’s not true. I do know why. Grinnell is highly suspicious of locally written software, even though some wonderful software has emerged from the College [2]. We’d rather use less usable off-the-shelf software, or re-jigger software for our purposes. But that’s a rant for another day.

[2] Also writers of software.

[3] Instead of a résumé, an academic uses a curriculum vitae (CV), a record of life. There are many differences between the two.
Résumés are typically short, a page or two. A CV is generally much longer, because it shows all that you have done, although, in some situations, CVs are restricted. In cases like that, you might write 32 refereed conference papers rather than listing them individually, or have a selected publications section. But more is generally better.

In any case, those with just the wrong amount of Latin end up thinking that vitae is the plural of vita, rather than the genitive. So they refer to one as a vita (life) rather than curriculum (record). To make things stranger, they then use English rules for making a plural, thereby calling multiple CVs, vitas. It makes my skin crawl. Please send us your vita. No, you may not have my life. You may not even have part of it [4].

If you care, the plural of curriculum vita is almost certainly curricula vitarum. I suppose if all of the CVs [5] are for one person, they might be curricula vitae. But I may also have just the wrong amount of Latin for that question.

[4] Today’s inappropriate joke: I suppose that my willingness to sacrifice my time to the College suggests that I fail to reject the request for vita. Las year, we saw just how much I was close to giving up.

[5] Yup, I’m using English-language rules for the plural of the abbreviation.

[6] BibTeX is software that does a variety of things with bibliography entries. Most importantly, it allows you to format them in multiple ways. In contrast to much commercial software, it stores the entries in human-readable format, so that you can edit them with a text editor.

[7] I’m pretty sure that diversity contribution is something Grinnell added. But I’m also pretty sure that this information does not appear for publications in the reports [8] that Interfolio generates, even though it does appear for other parts of the record.

[8] CVs, FARs [9], biosketches, and the ilk.

[9] Faculty Activity Reports

[10] Unlike some, I do not see the inclusion of diversity contribution as an intrusion by the diversity regime, or whatever they call it.

[11] Sighted?

[12] Hmm. Does that mean that Diversity Contribution is also set by Interfolio? I wonder.

[14] Four-year review period, this year [15]. Summer 2017 to Summer 2021.

[15] And next year, and the year after.

[16] Yeah, that’s another question.

[17] I’m glad that some part of this musing made me happy. I suppose I also enjoyed writing it. I almost always enjoy writing.

[18] It’s even more work to take the screenshots, annotate them, write alternate text, and then narrate. Sometimes I make too much work for myself [19].

[19] Often.

Version 1.0 released 2021-10-23.

Version 1.1 of 2021-10-23.