Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Summertime, Academic Edition

And the living is easy
Clean up their manuscripts

Those with students
Pull out their hair, swearing
At sloppy intros,
Forgotten writing tips

Use spellchecker
Correct your goddamn references
Oh my student
Your paper red ink drips

(with apologies to George Gershwin et al.)

I am indeed pulling my hair out as I am editing my students' papers, so I give you a repost of Cleaning Up (check out the comments to the original post, too).


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, 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?


gasstationwithoutpumps said...

One thing that helps a lot is to require a draft (thesis or paper) at the end of every quarter or semester. When a student is just starting with a research team, their drafts will consist mainly of background materials and thinking about what the problem is. Later on, they'll add their own research.

It is much easier to get students to write as they go, rather than having them go back to fill in the background when the project is nearly over.

Also, if they give cumulative drafts each semester, you can have many drafts of the background and intro, so that you can make the students do the heavy lifting, rather than doing it for them.

Anonymous said...

If you keep doing it for them and even tell them you're doing it much better they'll have no incentive to actually do a good job themselves. Part of it is feeling like crap anyway that no matter how hard they tried you'll still criticize and put things in your world view.

No need to re-write (edit the .tex file) things for a senior student. If anything give them feedback on paper with clear explanations.

It also helps to ask another colleague or postdoc to ruthlessly review the paper and give one two sentences about why the introduction is inadequate.

GMP said...

No need to re-write (edit the .tex file) things for a senior student. If anything give them feedback on paper with clear explanations.

Sure. But if I do this several times and things are not getting much better, I will take over and rewrite. We don't have forever, papers need to get out in a timely manner even if the student doesn't give a $hit about writing it up.

... they'll have no incentive to actually do a good job themselves. Part of it is feeling like crap anyway that no matter how hard they tried you'll still criticize and put things in your world view.

It's not about my world view. It's about writing papers as a professional scientist, not a n00b. My job is not to make students feel warm and fuzzy, it's to train them to think, talk, and write as professional scientists. Ideally, a student will have enough professional pride and stubbornness to try and try to get better until they actually do. I assure you it's not impossible to make me happy when they write, but they actually have to want to become independent scientific writers. Those who take ownership of their skills and are open to criticism can improve remarkably fast.

Funny Researcher said...

My advisor (superb advisor) had a sink or swim mentoring style. Being a early PhD student, he corrected one of my drafts. After that he used to give verbal guidelines and I was on my own. This was good for me because it made me push my self to write good and better and more.

One thing I did was to read papers from authors that I really admired ( writing and science) and wrote with their "pattern" and faked it till I made it.

Thanks to the advisors hands-off approach. I am more independent now in science and writing. I don't think I would have been, had he spoon fed me for long.

Alex said...

A few things:

First, they need to read. A lot. I got very little formal mentoring in science writing, but I started reading science journals on a regular basis my freshman year in college, when I got a subscription to Physics Today. Sophomore year I subscribed to Science. You only pick up style be reading.

As far as basic writing skills, they need to write. A lot. Give them permission to spend a certain amount of time on the internet arguing with people under a pseudonym. Seriously. The process of constructing good sentences on a daily basis is important. Tell them you don't care whether they go to science blogs, argue politics, chat about hobbies, debate Star Trek vs. Star Wars*, critique art, whatever.

Third, write a good paper and a bad paper. I don't mean you need to write a solid 15 page journal article. I mean that you should write a two-pager summarizing something in your research, something that you want them to think about. Then take it and make it worse. Modify it to be a lousy paper. Ask them to compare. Feel free to parody bad habits in the second version.

Finally, my postdoc advisor told me that I should be able to write the intro section to my paper before I start the project. He meant that I should know enough background, and have enough of an idea of the project, that I can introduce it. The project might not actually go in that direction when all is said and done, but at least I know enough to start. Tell your students to do the same.

*Not that it really matters now that Jaybrams has taken over both franchises. Grrrrrr....

Alex said...

By way of comparison, to get ready for one of my classes this fall I will spend part of the summer (that is to say, an all-nighter right before classes start) doing a project like the one I'm assigning. I'll write two versions, one that I think is good and one that is a parody of what I see all too often. One of their homework assignments will be to explain why one version is better than the other.

Shedding Khawatir said...

I have trouble with this in intros because having spent so much time with the data and thinking about it the purpose and contribution seems so obvious to me that I forget it is not obvious to readers. Writing in a way that makes it obvious seems like assuming the readers are idiots because I'm pointing out the obvious. I'm in a very different field than you , but maybe this applies to some of your students as well? What is helping me is just being able to realize that what is obvious to me as researcher is not obvious to a reader.

Dave said...

"Are there any good tips on training one's students [to write a more thorough introduction]?"

Alex's suggestions are good, to some extent echoing the specific suggestion of gasstationwithoutpumps to have them start writing very early.

One thing I've done -- a bit crude but it does get them going -- is to give them page and reference quotas. "I'm not going to look at this until you add another 20 references."

Once they've added a few references, you can discuss their choices. "Why did you include this one? What's the relevance of this other one?" They might have added some filler, but you can call them on it, and they will be happier to hear your suggestions for better citations.

I agree with the anonymous poster who said you can't just do it for them. Yes, you might end up redoing a lot of it at the end anyway, but you do have to get them to put in a good faith effort first.

klab said...

I want to make two points:

(1) I think it is easy to underestimate the importance of writing together with students. I always have my students sit next to me when I edit their papers - and explain why things are suboptimal. This helps them pick up the style - and me to avoid mistakes. And it helps my own writing style if I practice communicating what is wrong about the writing.

(2) I think that the big picture embedding requires an understanding of the subtle structure of the field, and have never seen a student who did it right. I also didn't do it right when I was a student and I read crazy numbers of papers. I think it is alright for professors to be responsible to much of this. My experience is that by paper number 3 they do pretty well.

Josh Einsle said...

I would like to expand on the point made by klab, in that some of the issue with 'the big picture' is that when you are starting out in a field, no matter how much you talk and read about it, it still takes a while to process what that picture means. I know that the papers I could see the bigger picture are easier to write, where as some of my other projects I still am not sure if they ever really pushed the state of the art along, while they were certainly unique experiments. This is where the role of the group leader comes in for setting the agenda and helping the student contextualize the research.

Psycgirl said...

I've started requiring my students to make a very detailed outline. I have to approve the outline before they are allowed to start writing. I also refuse to rewrite for them but I learned this lesson the hard way. I will, however, literally sit down and write with them, as time consuming as it is. In my area I am much more likely to get the opposite if your problem- long rambling papers with too many citations but no focus

TheGrinch said...

As a noob professor who is trying to build and establish his group, this is something that I am struggling with. How do you get your trainees to write, and write well and quickly enough?

Those who suggest that there is no need to re-write the papers for senior students perhaps miss a point. In my competitive academic field, I simply cannot let my students to take however long they want (or need) to come up with a manuscript with a certain acceptable standard.

Case in point: my first PhD student, who is an excellent and independent researcher. For his first paper, the draft he gave me was so painful that I kept only the figures and rewrote it entirely. For his second paper, I am trying my best to avoid the temptation to rewrite again. We are now at 9th draft, and it is still nowhere near the minimum passable standard. And as the time goes by, I am starting to lose my patience. No doubt, this process is also hard on the student, who I sense nearing his breaking point. I have heard murmuring of protests, of why I am making it so hard being so hard to please, and why am I not "helping."

And not just PhD students, the same story goes for postdocs as well. Though at least they are more independent in executing the work. Keep in mind though, these guys is otherwise excellent, and I really have no complaints.

I really really want them to learn how to write well, as writing well is so important for a successful career as a professional scientist. However, I am also bound by the expectations my organization has for my performance, one of the most important measure of which is the number of papers my group publishes every year. So I cannot also wait forever.

So yeah, I am struggling with this.