Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Cleaning Up

The most common reason that makes me delay returning nearly finalized manuscript drafts to students is the missing/inadequate big picture coupled with painful underciting. I edit the text mercilessly and extensively; generally, on the technical parts of the manuscripts, edits do not take me too long. What does take long is to create a proper and compelling introduction with adequate coverage of literature and the exact positioning of our contribution within the context of the state of the art.

Ideally, the big picture -- why we do what we do and what it is that we did that was novel and why anyone should really care -- gets visited repeatedly during the course of the project, well before there are publication-worthy data. The student reads many, many papers, we talk extensively, investigate different approaches, weigh the pros and cons, take detours and go on tangents, revisit the issues many times... The big picture should never be lost in the advising process and I think that faculty, regardless of discipline, will agree with me on this issue. I think we would all like to think that we try to instill in our students the birds view of the research along with the ability to look into the nitty-gritty details. One without the other is not good training.

But then comes the manuscript drafting part. And this is what baffles me -- even my best students, who are technically stellar and I know have read lots of relevant literature -- give me initial drafts with a measly single paragraph "background", in which barely 10 references have been thrown together to supposedly introduce the work, and with generic sweeping statements that beg for a reference but nothing is cited (we're talking comprehensive papers here, so the number of citations is not constrained). As though it is too tedious to position oneself, and the student can't wait to get to the fun stuff, i.e. their own technical contribution. We have a really big problem when the student really does not understand what the big picture is, even though they might have executed a technical task; this is indeed an advising fail. But I see this sloppy underciting and lackluster introductions even from very good students and often postdocs.

That's where I feel like I am picking up dirty socks and generally cleaning up after my kids. I am the maid whose duty is to tidy up, and I go and do a thorough literature survey to make sure we didn't miss anything among the new developments, that we have paid dues to the important contributions of yore, and to actually explain why we bothered with the work.

Now, I have weekly group meetings and we ofen talk about strategies for writing better papers. I am sure I am totally annoying as I constantly repeat my spiel on the importance of citing and proper motivation. We also often talk about efficient strategies for quickly mapping out the state of the art in a field, through identifying key papers and then following their citation branches, while weighing the outcomes with the offspring papers' age, citations count, prestige of the journal, quality of the group, relevance to our own work, etc. Generally, before a student ever sits down to create the first draft, we talk about the outline -- what's the paper about, what is its message, why is it important? Yet, this particular part -- write thy introduction well and with ample citations -- does not seem to stick. Why, I wonder? Is it because they don't care as they know I will pick up the slack anyway?

I don't remember any formal mentoring from my PhD advisor on how a paper is supposed to be structured, or what it means to write a good paper. As I student, I always thought you just read lots and lots of papers and patterns start to emerge -- the good papers give you a feel for the state of the art and open problems, and then tell you which open problem they solved and how. A good introduction is like a vortex: it starts from a broad view of the field, then narrows it down seamlessly to important and open problems, so that by the time the reader is hit on the head with the "In this paper, we..." hammer, there is no doubt in the reader's mind that what is being presented is new and extremely important.

So yes, even after multiple back-and-forths editing a manuscript with a student and major rewrites of the whole text, in order for the process to ever converge I still end up doing a lot of time-consuming clean-up: a full literature check and multiple overhauls of the intro and abstract in the final version. Because, as the lead PI, if the paper sucks,it's my reputation on the line, not that of the student.

Are there any good tips on training one's students to (a) not be too lazy to look up references, (b) not be careless about putting in the references that they are actually aware of and have read and used in research, (c) try to appreciate the importance of a good introduction, (d) try to actually write a good introduction themselves as opposed to fiddle with it pro forma through multiple revisions and essentially wait for the advisor to do it?

18 comments:

studyzone said...

Well, you could implement something that I experienced as a first-year grad student: this was the first year that NIH mandated that all grant recipients (including grad students and postdocs) complete annual training in research ethics. My orientation program included a three-lecture series, where one lecture was devoted to publications. The speaker (a well-known Ivy League scientist) claimed that underciting was a form of misconduct because the implication was the authors were hiding prior knowledge, or pretending that they discovered something that was in fact already well known. He probably overstated his case, but it certainly put the fear of whatever into me, and I read and cited religiously. My PI's primary comment about my dissertation proposal was that I put in too many citations (so then I had to learn what was truly relevant and what wasn't).

feelthescience said...

I'm a student and I struggle with writing (truth: I hate it like you would not believe). One of my mentors organized a writing workshop to help me and her students learn how to write and give feedback on writing. We're working from Essentials of Writing Biomedical Research Papers by Mimi Zeiger and some of Judith Swan's suggestions. We have weekly meetings where we cover how to write different sections of a paper and turn in feedback on each other's writing. It's made me a lot more aware of how I structure my writing, particularly in the intro and discussion.

Alyssa said...

I would suggest making it mandatory for your students to attend a writing workshop, or taking a scientific/technical writing class.

Anonymous said...

I think no matter what, your students' papers will always feel under-cited to you. I'm a grad student and I "get" how to write introductions (at least I think so), funneling and all that... But no matter what, my advisor or collaborators end up recommending a half dozen or more papers to reference. I think advisors just know the literature better than students, and are better at internalizing which of the recent work is more relevant. Maybe by the end of grad school students will get pretty close to knowing what you know.

As for the rest of writing introductions... I have no idea. I guess I learned how to do it in high school, and I'm pretty good at emulating the styles of others. So my (probably useless) advice is: practice.

Anonymous said...

I think you're being a bit harsh. I found appreciating the big picture and then properly laying it out on paper was one of the hardest things to pick up as a student. Your students are concentrating on the parts they understand and feel confident about (i.e., their own work). Do you really think that is being lazy? As for how they learn otherwise: they learn it from their advisor, as he/she tears the paper up and forces them to rebuild it.

Anonymous said...

GMP, you're not being harsh at all. You said that you have talked to them about this repeatedly. I think for some students, it is laziness, for others, they may be dismissing your advice/requests because they think it's not important, and for others, they simply have trouble internalizing advice/information that isn't intuitive to them. In all cases, it is extremely frustrating and it's fine to vent your frustrations here and look for suggestions.

Anonymous said...

Yes, it is lazy for a student to only "concentrate on the parts they understand and feel confident about". They have to learn how to be good at all parts and can't have their hands held forever. Grad school is the time to learn it.

Februa said...

One of my first suggestions to you is not to spend a moment of your time editing the manuscript if it has been given to you this shoddily. Give it back to the student the next day stating that the introduction and citations are insufficient, and you will look at it again when they rewrite addressing those issues.
Doing their work for them will never help them figure out what they should be doing. If my supervisor edited my work as heavily as you seem to describe, I wouldnt work too hard before giving it to her, believing my hard work is totally unappreciated/totally awful by the total rewrite. So, by giving it back and telling them its not good enough, you might actually save their ego a bit, and save yourself a lot of time.

Anonymous said...

Did you consider the idea that students know that you will tear their writing apart anyway and work through it, so why waste time? Yes, it is laziness on their part, but they know they can't win you so giving up at the beginning. I guess this is ownership issue, where students don't feel owner of their work completely. Just a thought...

Anonymous said...

My adviser did a great job stressing the importance of a paper's introduction. He told me that no matter how awesome our results are, unless the introduction was well written we will be the only two people to ever know about them.

Doc said...

Interesting topic! Several thoughts popped into my heads. First, in the undergraduate science courses my students take, they are actively discouraged from interesting and creative writing, extensive citing, etc. We are effectively undoing 4-5 years of formal education in the graduate sciences.

I also think that Anon at 9:28am has a good point. As a student, the first draft of a paper was rarely completely cited and arguments were not complete because my advisor would, on a whim it seemed, want me to go off in another direction based on what was considered a 'hot' or 'compelling' argument in the media. He was not one for straightforward papers, and he gets relentlessly called out by reviewers for it.

Finally, my best writing advice came from NOT my advisor. I was lucky to work with several other PIs on creative projects for my degree qualifications, and they were almost always more enlightening. I think, though I might be wrong, that they had less stakes in my ability to understand their research or their expertise, so were more willing to teach me how to be better without tearing me apart. Just a thought.

Barefoot Doctoral said...

I found that it was hard for me to have a good idea of the big picture of my graduate work until after it was polished enough for me to talk to people other than my advisor, who gave me an idea of how my work fits into work being done in other subfields. This is something that an advisor has a better idea of, given that he/she has probably worked in fields other than the subfield of the thesis. This isn't to say that the advisor should write the introduction. But he/she should help the students with this broader context, which often goes beyond writing a good lit review.

PQA said...

I was a shitty shitty writer and am now, with much effort, a decent writer (I think). My graduate advisor basically told me to go write a paper and then would give it back to me, say it was shitty, and tell me to try again. To say that this was not helpful is a dramatic understatement.

This is one thing I did that really helped me... I read the introductions of closely related papers to what I am writing and I made outlines of them. I would do this for 3-4 papers. Then sit down and think if I was going to adjust these outlines for my paper what would I need to put in / take out.

Anonymous said...

I've always been good at the "big picture" and introductions, but not at citing others' work. One of my closest collaborators is good at the citing, but not so much at the "big picture" (so we make a good team).

I think the "big picture" and knowing the literature are two separate things. It's far more common, in my experience, for students to know a lot of papers in depth without being able to see how they fit together in a larger narrative. Whereas what I consider my skill---seeing the larger narrative without knowing a lot of the details---seems to be much rarer.

I wish I knew how to teach it, though. I still can't even understand how my students can read so many papers, and then give me drafts of their own papers that look almost nothing like what they read.

GMP said...

Thanks everyone -- great comments!

EcoGeoFemme said...

It's a skill like any other, but so hard to learn. I kind of agree with Anon 9:28, that they won't learn if they don't have a chance to practice and to feel like it's worth their while because they own it. When I was writing my thesis, I liked it best when my advisors gave guidance on what needed to change without just making the changes themselves. Now I don't care so much since everything I'm working on is so much more collaborative and "ours" rather than "mine".

Anonymous said...

There is a different school of thought on introductions: they aren't review articles.

2-3 paragraphs and 10 citations is plenty.

Anonymous said...

I agree the "packaging" is what they usually can't do well. But no matter how much they read, they don't have the understanding of the field that you do so as senior author I think it falls on us to help with that.

When I look back, I learned to write intros by writing reviews. Of course intros are not reviews, but it's like practicing an instrument. You don't play the drills at the concert but thet help you gain proficiency.

My first paper was 18 pages long, with an extensive lit review. You can't publish so long any more with word limits in my field. The next study I did, I again did a comprehensive review. It went into my thesis. I don't know if it's advisable, but I think the process of doing a thorough, written review helped me to learn how to do a shortie version of it and gain confidence in my knowledge of the state of the art. I ask my students to do so for their thesis proposal. Don't know if it works, I'm a new PI, we'll see. But apparently I've become so good at intros now that I found paragraphs from the intro of a 7 page paper plagiarized recently! :-p