Friday, June 20, 2008

Tell Me About It

For some conferences, I end up being a co-author on a number of abstracts/articles/proceedings because I am involved in various collaborative projects and am working with current and former students who are writing abstracts on research in which I am closely involved. The number is not huge for any one conference, but even so, it can be hard to keep track of who is writing what and whether my input is needed in a minor or major way. Typically, the first author will send a draft of the text to co-authors for comments, and that's how I figure out what, if anything, I need to do to help.

My comments can range from none to numerous, depending on the topic and first author, but if something has my name on it, I almost always want to see the text before it is submitted for review and possible publication. The one exception involves abstracts written by a particular long-time colleague, but even in that case we almost always discuss abstracts we are co-authoring.

On a few occasions, someone has submitted a really bad abstract with me as co-author and has not sent the text to me in advance.

A bad abstract is one in which the text is (a) wrong, and/or (b) poorly written. In one case, by the time I saw the bad abstract, it was too late for me to do anything about it. I wasn't the advisor of the student who wrote the bad abstract, nor even at the same university, but it wouldn't have mattered; the advisor didn't see the bad abstract in advance either. The student explained that no one had ever mentioned that co-authors should be given a chance to see and comment in advance on items submitted for review.

I was very angry. Only with great difficulty did I restrain myself from sending the student a sarcastic list of other common sense things that one should do.

In a more recent incident, a former student -- who does not write well and never has -- submitted an incoherent and error-filled abstract with me as co-author. We spent many many years trying to solve his apparently intractable writing problems, but he clearly didn't even run a spell-checker before submitting the abstract. Was that overconfidence, laziness, or delusional behavior? I don't know, but the problems went deeper than just spelling errors; some of the statements and conclusions were bizarre.

It is fortunate in that case that I was able to see an online list of abstracts on which I was listed as co-author, and I took a look at this one, as I was surprised to see that it had been submitted without being shown to me first. I was then able to upload a revised and corrected abstract before formal review. Hypocritically, I did not consult the first author when I made the revisions. [Yes, I did consider just removing my name, but the work was based on my idea and my work and a paper I had published, so I didn't think that was a reasonable option.]

Am I being a perfectionist and a control freak? My opinion: no on one and yes on two, though regarding my control freakiness, a more accurate term is
quality control freak. I don't really think my reputation for good science and writing would be damaged by a lousy (co-authored) abstract every now and then, but I'd rather avoid the experience if possible.

I previously wrote about a situation in which a highly flawed manuscript was submitted without my seeing the submitted version, and that was very embarrassing. The manuscript was rejected and was never resubmitted in improved form, and now the project has moved on without me. Because the first author, a former postdoc, screwed up, I probably lost my one chance to be part of a publication for a project that I helped initiate.

I have another colleague who tends to submit manuscripts after receiving what my co-authors and I think of as an initial round of comments, expecting to see one more version before final submission. Fortunately the submitted versions have been pretty good, so I have been more startled than upset by his precipitous submissions.

Quite often I review or edit a manuscript that has a co-author whose work I respect and know to be of high-quality, but who cannot possibly have read the manuscript submitted for review. I know we are all busy people and some people publish a lot, but I can't imagine
knowingly letting a manuscript/abstract with my name on it be submitted for review without my having approved the final version, or at least the penultimate version that only needs minor technical changes.

A situation of exactly this sort came up just this week. I was asked to fix the English in a manuscript whose first author is not a native English-speaker. I could not help but notice, however, that every co-author is from the UK, so I asked the first author why my help was needed. The answer: the co-authors
refuse to take the time to read the paper, but are insisting that their names be on it anyway.

In the recent case of the bad abstract submitted by my former student, he has more at stake than I do. He is an early career scientist; this is not a time to be careless with work submitted for review.

A colleague with whom I discussed this situation told me I should let my former student make his own way and succeed or fail depending on his ability to do good science and communicate, or not. That is, perhaps I should not have intervened to fix the abstract and should have let it be reviewed in its original submitted form. I agree with that advice in general, but in practice, it's easier said than done, especially with a former student and especially if I am a co-author.


Anonymous said...

(The following is long, sorry!)
Tell ME about it!! You have said so well what I feel when I find out post facto that I am on abstracts or articles that get submitted (or even accepted) before I can get a look at them in at least a near-final form. (Copied from a submitted paper doesn't count.) Annoyed if not downright angry. And then when I tell the co-authors what I resent (the same reasons as you - quality control, and authors are responsible for what is claimed under their name) I get a whole lot more resentment back. I'm supposed to be grateful.

One recent case: a good paper (overall) that got submitted to Science before I could re-read it. Science wrote all listed co-authors saying "you should be aware that the submission had happened" and I wasn't - so I told them so. It was in no way ready. It got rejected, and I got blamed in the end by my local co-authors. At least one of them (who didn't take my outrage too badly) has published often with me and ought to know better. And he refused to let me withdraw my name, although I seriously proposed it because my student and postdoc would remain on the list.

It was resubmitted (revised, with grumbling) to Nature, and is now under consideration after major experimental revisions at Nature Genetics. So it wasn't just me, and I didn't hurt the prospects of the work. I was just angry that they ("we") submitted it without at least letting me check my own contribution, which had been well-mangled by that point.

The converse is true, too. I have a paper that I've been trying to submit for a year now to various venues more or less as is. I keep all co-authors (at four institutions) aware of all transactions - re-writes, re-submissions, ask for suggestions on reviewers and eventual additional experiments, strategy. You'd think a couple of the people in the middle might feel concerned by these requests and write me back with some ideas. No. One died in the meantime, so she's off the hook. But at least four of the co-authors could chip in a little more, and two from an experimental point of view.

I must work collaboratively - it's both in my nature and in the nature of my work. But sometimes it's simply a pain in the ass.

Anonymous said...

An even more pernicious flip side to what you describe is PIs being given data collected by their trainees, and then writing and submitting manuscripts without even showing the manuscripts to the trainees who did the fucking experiments.

This is very, very, very bad.

At best, it is a "business practice" that is guaranteed to result eventually in manuscripts being submitted whose conclusions are flat out wrong. This is because the people who physically perform the experiments are in the best positions to know the strengths and limitations of the data. And, most importantly, they are the ones who have decided which data is "no good" and which data are "interpretable". Without an intimacy with those decisions, one cannot sensibly discern whether the conclusions drawn from selected data are supportable.

At worst, this provides cover for misconduct: cherrypicking, massaging, etc.

Whenever any work product leaves my lab--abstracts, manuscripts, grant applications, seminar slides--it is always reviewed by whoever performed the experiments to be sure that the conclusions are supported by the data.

I always show shit to my trainees before presenting or submitting and say: "Yo, can I say this shit? Is this shit right?" And I make it very clear that I embrace their criticism, and that I will never, ever, ever be angry if they tell me that my conclusions are wrong. But I will be very, very, very angry if they tacitly allow us to submit or present something that isn't correct.

Anonymous said...

My graduate adviser, and now my postdoc adviser, insist on seeing every abstract or paper prepared by current or former lab members - multiple times. Same for papers on which they have collaborated. My graduate adviser has a particularly heavy hand in editing abstracts/papers, and for some lab members, insists on doing the actual submission himself. We can debate how much the student/postdoc learns about the writing process this way, and I've known postdocs who have skirted the issue, believing that this requirement infringes on their budding indepedence as a researcher. However, the PI has a reputation to protect. Everything that carries their name is a direct reflection on them, and the quality of their lab's work. I will never understand why some PIs and co-authors sign off on anything from their lab without reading it first, and how any first author, no matter what stage in their career, would even WANT to submit an abstract full of typos, bad ideas, etc. instead of getting feedback from others - it is a reflection on them, too!

Anonymous said...

How much quality control as an advisor do you do? Do you want to read materials before your student sends unreviewed abstracts and drafts of papers to collaborators or committee members? Or is that just part of learning because it isn't published?

Psych Post Doc said...

I would never submit something without my co-author's ok.

In my MA program one of my fellow students wanted to publish a paper based on a class experiment we had done. I told her I did not have time to help write it so she could leave me off or just make me one of the last authors, but if she put me on I wanted to see it.

She sent it to me telling me she was sending it off as soon as she got my feedback (I was like 5th or 6th author), the paper was a mess. I wrote her back saying I thought it needed a lot of work before going out, she asked if I minded if I were taken off the paper. I agreed.

Turns out she submitted the paper and got a quick, flat out rejection from a very low ranked journal. Basically the editor said "this is nowhere near publishable without a complete re-write". So glad my name wasn't on that.

Shriram Krishnamurthi said...

“Quality control freak” is a terrific description of what we need to be. Nice turn of phrase!

As for the rest, well, scientists can be world-class blockheads. I'll refrain from posting my thoughts on my professional colleagues....

Anonymous said...

We had a situation with an interdisciplinary paper where the primary author sent things around to all the co-authors. It was kicked back, but one of the co-authors said he would submit the paper. Before he did, he changed some things that did not involve his area of expertise and didn't show it to anyone. When the paper was rejected (FAIL!) and we saw what he'd changed, there was much annoyance.

Professor in Training said...

I'm in a similar situation right now as I am co-advising two students who are doing their PhDs in my home country and I have only recently discovered some of their abstracts (with my name attached) through Google … oh, and NONE of the abstracts that I am listed on have correctly identified my current institution (I am always listed as being affiliated with a completely different institution as the names are similar).

To make matters even worse, they have been submitting new abstracts to large international conferences with no intention of actually attending them.

For a meeting last month, Student A had arranged for another student to present her poster (Other Student had absolutely nothing to do with Student A's research and wasn't a co-author) and then "forgot" to prepare the poster so just gave Other Student an old poster that was presented at another meeting a couple of years ago.

This week I discovered that Student B was planning to withdraw an abstract from a very large meeting because of the high cost of traveling to the US … even though this student was well aware of the cost when the abstract was submitted 3 weeks ago. Fortunately, I found out about the impending withdrawal before it occurred ... I'll go to the meeting and present the poster in the student’s place.

Anonymous said...

I don't think that it is at all obsessive to want to see a publication or submission with your name on it before it is sent out. In academia your reputation is your power, and publications make the reputation.

The written word also has a kind of permanence that can make mistakes especially embarrassing.

I think it is great that you are posting about this since apparently many people don't understand the importance of quality control and associations of quality with their names on publications.

Unknown said...

I think this is very reasonable. If your name is on a publication, you have the right - and the obligation - to at the very least review it prior to submission. Every author should have read any journal article before it is submitted. For abstracts, this rule may be a bit of overkill for large collaborations, but as a PI you should at least be sent the final draft with an option to comment.

But this is not universally agreed-upon. My postdoc advisor was highly annoyed the first time I presented him with an abstract I was submitting to a conference. He felt I was wasting his time and that, as a postdoc, I should be able to write and submit the abstract without his input. Since he has a very large group of students and postdocs, most of whom are less experienced (or speak English less fluently) than I, this is also a reasonable stance.

The only solution - as always, it seems - is for everyone to articulate their expectations as often as possible, to err on the side of safety, and to try to be tolerant of others' incorrect assumptions.

Female Science Professor said...

I still think you are obligated to send the abstract to your postdoc supervisor and he can read it or not, as he wishes. Perhaps you could make it clear that you are sending the abstract as an FYI and aren't 'wasting his time' by expecting him to comment.

usagibrian said...

Ah, forgive me for going slightly off topic because 1) it's so beastly, unusually hot here and 2) I spent the day turning my brain to pudding reviewing the content of the academic catalog for next year.

It's a tie for my two favorite edits: the Chair who created a new specialization from an old one without telling anyone about it until the first round of revisions, ("No, Dr. Chair, if you change the title of that program after students have enrolled and completed it, I have to create a new designation for it throughout the data system unless your intention was to retroactively change the title of the degree the alumni have already received diplomas for." I am continually amazed by the number of faculty who are incapable of grasping this concept.) and the academic committee that decided to rewrite the transfer of units policy for incoming students that pulled a full 180 degree about-face on our long standing tuition and enrollment policy (I suppose if you're going to exceed your authority, why go small when you can intrude on the exclusive purview of the governing board to set tuition?).

So, no, you're not a control freak, the world is just full of ignoramuses (to say nothing of poor writers--dear FSM, some of the prose trying to pass as English in some of the bits...). Actually looking at text with your name on seems only... I was going to say "prudent" but let's go with "sane" instead.

"Quality Control Freak"--I'm probably going to steal that one. (Or did you want the listing as a co-author?)

Anonymous said...

I am stunned that anyone thinks it is OK to put a person's name on something and submit it without their permission. It is absolutely unethical.

Anonymous said...

If I am lucky and become a professor, I will do as my advisor and submit all the papers myself.

All papers in the lab are submitted by him (he has the largest research group in our large research department.)

I have heard enough stories about grad students submitting papers without their advisors approval. I blame both the advisors and the grad students. The grad students should not do it, and the advisors should know what is going on with papers close to being finalized.

Anonymous said...

In response to physioprof's comment:
I am an undergraduate in a dept where we're allowed to participate in research and we occasionally mess up an experiment badly enough so it resembles something worth publishing.
Unfortunately (maybe? I don't know that it's unfortunate, just odd), while trying to find some info about something we had done I discovered that my name is apparently on another paper that has been submitted. Now I feel like I'm in a bit of an awkward position; I know about the paper, though I'm not sure i know what I did to contribute. No one else on the paper knows that I know about the paper and while i doubt that they *meant* to keep the fact that there was a paper being reviewed from me, I do feel a bit insignificant, like I was forgotten. I don't think that any good would have come from me reading the paper before submission, but I'd have liked to know about it so I can do things like...put it on my resume/applications for graduate school in a few weeks (I graduate in December and hope to start in January--thus strange timing). but now i kind of wonder...can i say anything about the paper? I don't talk to any of the prospective co-authors and I feel like it might be a little weird to randomly get an email something along the lines of "hey so no one told me about this paper but i found out about it by google-stalking our research for something else i was doing and 1) what did i do for it? 2) will it actually be published? I feel like it would be too "greedy"/eager of me to approach any of them as a lowly undergrad (perhaps I fear they will appreciate my insignificance and remove me from the paper ;) though i very much doubt that) or that I might be overstepping some ill-defined bounds in a PI/undergrad relationship by questioning them.
I've resigned to hope for news eventually about the acceptance of the paper--i trust if it is accepted someone will inform me. It's just a bit frustrating....

Dr. Mary said...

Thanks for a great post! I think we must have had some of the same students. I'm a Full Professor in Biopsychology, and have had some remarkable experiences in the last several years with an apparent lack of common sense in graduate students coming through my lab. I find myself remarking to my colleagues that "Wow- I'd have *never* done/said/presumed that when I was a student/postdoc." On one hand, I was very authority-driven as a trainee, perhaps not sticking up for myself when I could have, but I was also repectful and aware of the importance of hierarcy in my training; there was a reason I had not earned my PhD yet- I needed mentoring and got it, partially by accepting that folks who were funded, tenured, scientists really did know more about writing papers, grants, doing talks, and conducting experiments than I did at that time.

I really like the "quality control" freak statment as well. We have very litte control over what happens in our careers at some level (will I get scored, triaged, or funded on this NIH round?; what kind of political shenanigans will happen in this month's department/division meeting?) that we *must* exert control over the level of meticulousness that goes into work happening in our labs and how that work is presented. The trick is to balance that control with our job as mentors and to pass on, in a contructive way, the importance of it to our trainees. BTW, if you have that list of "other common sense" items you were going to send to your student, I have a couple of folks I'd like to send it to :).

Becca said...

I would like to put in a serious vote for a blog post list of "common sense" advice to trainees.
To me, the checking-with-every-coauthor (and, indirectly, allowing them to help you with anything that might be wrong!) is a total no-brainer. But there are other things that I'm very dumb about- maybe I'd learn something that I should already know! Besides I think it'd be a funny post coming from you.

Female Science Professor said...

In fact, it was not going to be a very nice list, hence my restraint (at the time).

Professor in Training said...

Just came across a blurb in Science about an engineer who made up a few co-authors in addition to not consulting real co-authors on some of his publications. It begs the question: "WHY???"

Anonymous said...

My horror stories: my master's thesis advisor would not let me write up my own data for publication, insisted upon doing it himself. I never heard anything about it again. (I had moved on to another institution for the PhD). Year or two later I see him at a conference, he casually mentions that "our" paper got rejected from wherever he submitted it...without me ever seeing it or knowing it was submitted. Was he even going to tell me if it got published?

But even worse...sometime in the past year or two I googled myself because, why the hell not, on Google Scholar just to see how readily my papers came up. I found a PUBLISHED PAPER with my name on it that I had never seen before. From my first postdoctoral position. And it's not like the P.I. didn't know how to get in touch with me.