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.
10 years ago