Friday, June 10, 2011

More on Manuscript Writing with Junior Coauthors

Thursday was a long but generally good day. Among other things, we got the referee report back on one of our manuscripts. Here's an excerpt:

Sufficient New [Science]: Yes
Well Organized and Clearly Written: Yes
Good Title: Yes
Good Abstract: Yes

[The authors] employ a set of well-know numerical techniques, and also some new approaches... but their combined use is very novel and creative.

The analysis is very carefully performed and presented, with a detailed explanation about how the authors have solved notoriously troublesome problems such as ...

Overall this is an outstanding contribution which pushes forward the state-of-the art.

This is a report from a reputable society journal (the full report is much more detailed, with specific requests for minor revisions). The paper is quite long, it will be close to 20 double-column pages in print (including appendices though), yet the actual peer review took only 3 weeks. That means the referees (a) were not horribly discouraged at the though of reviewing it, which is remarkable for very long papers, and (b) once they got around to reviewing it, they did not drop it, pissed, after page 3, because it was poorly written. Which is totally what I do with poorly written papers and that's why it takes me forever to review them -- I keep going back and getting annoyed and dropping them and picking them up again...

I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to write clear, fluid prose and polish, polish, polish before submission. Because the time you invest in polishing your paper translates into time/hassle saved in the review process and probably saves some health units of your reviewers. Now, if you are in the business of GlamourMag chasing, there are obviously no guarantees even if you write on par with Mario Vargas Llosa (or insert another writer you like). But, in my experience, for society level-journals, there is a high correlation between the tender loving care with which you massaged your manuscript prior to submission and its smooth acceptance. TLC also means that you do not publish before you feel you have a compelling story, and you have dotted all the i's and crossed all the t's. The paper above was about 4-5 months from first draft to submission-ready.

Now, why am I talking about manuscript writing -- again? I am currently working on 3 manuscripts in parallel, trying to get as much done and submitted as possible before I deliver (3 weeks left). These are all very comprehensive manuscripts, so there's a lot of material and it's going slowly.

Today I met with one of my students on whose manuscript I am currently working. We have gone through multiple revisions already and it's nearing completion, but there are still places that were significantly changed from the last revision and, since they are newly drafted, look pretty bad. We were going over the manuscript and I said something like "I completely don't understand what you are trying to say here" and he responded along the lines of "I know you don't understand what I am doing and you don't like my writing."

Then it dawned on me: he thinks I don't know what he is doing technically, which is absolutely NOT true, and that's why I dislike how something is written. Instead, what I have been trying to convey -- apparently quite unsuccessfully -- is "When a person reads this part of your text, it is impossible to understand what you are trying to say and why. I know exactly what you are doing and why, and you still threw me for a loop with what is written -- how do you think someone who is doing only a cursory read of the text will react?"

There is a tangent here on why this student thinks I don't know what I am doing; it may be his ego (he is very smart) and there may be an undercurrent of sexism there. But I can't afford to worry about it now, I just want the goddamn paper done and submitted. So I told him, in my most empathetic voice, that he should not worry. That I know what I am doing and will not ruin his paper by rewriting it, and that I promise that clarifying these points will make the paper easier to read and people will like it and cite it more. That certain subsections ought to be moved to appendices as they restrict the flow of the paper, but that they also ought to be expanded for completeness, so that someone who wants to reproduce his work has all the needed information at hand. So he should go and expand the sections I requested while I work on the remainder of the text.

I should probably delegate more paper reviewing to this student, so he can learn the differences between good and crappy writing. And he should go talk to the student who is first author on the paper mentioned early in this post about how much hammering that manuscript received before submission in order to get the glowing reviews and smooth acceptance.


Anonymous said...

You forgot the third option for why the referee reports came so quickly for such a long paper: (c) the referees didn't want to spend 3 days for reviewing such a long paper and decided to just give it a thumbs up.

GMP said...

Could be, but there are actually fairly detailed comments in the full report and very specific requests for minor revisions. The paper appears to have been read in detail.

Anonymous said...

You should delegate some reviewing work to the student. This might change his mind about bad writing, or it may turn him from professorship altogether. :)

Ace said...

I admire your maturity. If a student of mine tried to tell me I didn't know about my own lab's research or about how to write it best, I probably would laugh in his face. Then I would have been tempted to throw the paper in his face and say "Ok go try to publish this and see what happens you idiot". But I understand that would not benefit you (nor me). Ugh!

Telling him to go learn from XYZ lab member how to write would probably bruise his ego a little, perhaps just what this one needs. How about sending him a few papers that you think are really well-written in your field in an email and telling him to pay attention to what works?

Hermitage said...

Makes me wonder why I try so hard not to be an asshole grad student when said assholes seem blithely breeze through life, convinced of their own self-importance.

Cherish said...

I told the primary author of a paper on which I was a co-author that we needed to rewrite a couple paragraphs. I said that the paragraph, as written, seemed to make claims we couldn't validate. His response was, "Anyone with a decent background in the field would know that we're not making those claims."

I don't think he realized he was implying that I didn't have necessary background to understand what he was talking about (and if that were true, why was I a co-author?), but it made me angry that the situation was only resolved when the second author on the paper stepped in and told him to change it.

GMP said...

Anon at 9:51: it may turn him from professorship altogether.


Ace, trust me, I was totally pissed. I would have gladly thrown the paper in his face with some choice words, but as you know, we as faculty must proceed to be civil. He's not endearing himself to me, that's for sure.

Hermitage, never be sorry that you are not a grad student asshole. I have several great students and postdocs who are very smart AND not assholes. It's a true joy to work with them because their attitude is that we are in fact on the same team, that I may have stuff to teach them, and that when I ask that something be done it should in fact be done. They work hard, publish lots of good work AND don't give me an ulcer, for which I am eternally grateful. I am sure your PI is too.

Cherish, I totally know what you mean. It sucks to be ignored like that. My motto is -- if any one of the authors thinks a statement is misleading, we have to rewrite. I hate idiotic retorts like that "Anyone who has a decent background blahblah" -- what if someone in a related field wants to read the paper? I hate it in papers (presentations) when the writer (speaker) assumes too much about what people have in their working memory or actually care about. That's usually a mark of an immature writer/presenter. Insisting that things are obvious/trivial when they aren't is overcompensation for insecurity.

Namnezia said...

Holy cow! I just wrote the exact same thing on a paper I reviewed last week! I've figured out your secret identity! :)

GMP said...

@Namnezia: LOL!