Exposure IS training

Aug 29 2014 Published by under Postdoctoral Training, Postgraduate Training

from a Twitt:

Let me explain something to you trainees. You are not undergraduate students anymore. You are not given a syllabus, quizzes and office-hour responses to "Is this going to be on the test" or "What do I need to know".

When your PI gives you a draft of a grant or a manuscript for you to read and provide feedback, this is not ONLY about asking for your help. This is about training you in how this person accomplishes these tasks, what manuscripts look like in nascent form, how a grant should be structured and how you incrementally improve an academic work.

The PI can lead you to water but it is not her job to force you to drink. It is YOUR JOB to drink the water.

Exposure is training.

Another one of the twitts identified a problem I had in writing papers as a postdoc. It boils down to the fear of showing your PI something that is less than perfect lest she think that you are a fool, incompetent and nowhere near the scientist-prospect that you hoped was her impression of you. I used to delay and delay showing anything to my PI until it was looking really good.

Let me tell you a little something. PIs do not lose respect for trainees for sending them crappy drafts. At the worst, they shake their heads ruefully over the shitty training you received in your last stop. Mostly, they just saddle up to train you how to write a paper their way.

They lose respect over other things. A lack of any sign of a manuscript. You can say you are "working on it" but the PI has no concrete way to distinguish the fact you are in Draft XXVII of a master work from the scofflaw who hasn't done much more than write a title page into a Word doc. So show them something.

Another thing that PIs lose respect for trainees over is a failure to make changes in response to what the PI has said or shown them. This is key. You are being trained. If a PI tells you to do something, bloody well DO IT. Don't spend weeks bitching to your spouse, fellow trainees and the Internet about what a taskmaster the your PI is. Just write, edit, change, fix. DO IT.

There are ways to really get on the PI's good side. For example when the draft is on the PI's desk for editing/review? There is no reason you can't also be working on it. And updating your PI on your new drafts.

Write more. I think Comradde PhysioProffe had a blog post or extensive comment on this some time ago in a prior discussion of the topic. Trainees are often blocked from writing because they are thinking to themselves how to be as lazy efficient as possible. "I'm not sure what she wants here so I need clarification before I write a whole bunch of stuff". Or "Last time I wrote four pages and she didn't use any of it in the manuscript!". PP's point was that sometimes you have to write something out to see for yourselves that it is the wrong direction to go in. It is not wasted effort, it is part of the process. The science communicator types preach on about being willing to "kill your babies". I believe this is similar. Do note, however, that often enough some major passage that you decide to leave out of the present manuscript comes back as useful material for the next manuscript (or grant or review article). So writing is rarely a total waste in this business.

44 responses so far

  • E-roock says:

    Also writing clarifies your thought and makes it easier to see your own terrible logic or failure to make a connection. Writing early and writing often (even / especially if it's crap) makes you fix the errors faster. Experience helps you recognize those errors, training happens when someone else might point them out (and never ends).

  • doctor d says:

    Well said DM.
    Early stage investigators should recognize that every task is an opportunity to show what you can do and every opportunity is a test. If you pass you will get more complex tasks and more responsibility.

    But dont wait for the PI to give you a list of tasks. Embrace opportunity and ambiguity. Manage the PI. Tell her what you would like to do and how you plan to do it. As a PI, I don't want to spend my time generating a list of tasks for you. I prefer for you to tell me what you plan to do. I can interject and direct if needed.

    Negotiate a piece of the project that is your space and begining writing. Write the introduction and methods and fill in the data when they are ready. Show the draft to the PI. Prove that you are moving the task forward.

  • Anonymous says:

    What if instead of 3 incrementally better drafts in a month, you give them a "masterpiece" that they barely have to edit in the same amount of time? Seems to me that this is actually *less* work for the PI. One size does not fit all when it comes to writing, and in the same way that I as a postdoc make allowances for the peculiarities of my PI, I should be cut some slack, too, if I demonstrate that I can write my own damn paper with minimal input from him.

    "Another thing that PIs lose respect for trainees over is a failure to make changes in response to what the PI has said or shown them."

    I once worked for someone who would ask for totally unnecessary changes/additions to manuscripts. He would often say, "I could edit this myself, but I'm sure you want to give it a try first." Stupid me would then twist myself up into a pretzel trying to work these changes into an already good manuscript. One time, I decided to take a different approach and say, "Actually, I would love to see your edits. I'm feeling a little lost on this one." When I got the paper back, *less than half* of the changes he'd asked for were in there, and he thought it was a very good paper now indeed! Moral of the story: it's good to do what your PI asks you to do ... except when it isn't. Use your own damn judgment, because it's funny how certain things become unimportant as soon as it's the PI that has to do them.

  • E-roock says:

    I would say you're delusional if you think the first draft you hand to another set of eyeballs is a masterpiece.

  • drugmonkey says:

    If you demonstrate your awesomeness and exceed expectations for promptness, yes Anon, your PI will be amazed and trust you and all that.

  • potnia theron says:

    @anon One size doesn't fit all, except when it does. Everything is a cost/benefit analysis. Thats one of the hardest things a PI needs to learn. Its tough to balance giving everyone, even in a small lab, all the attention they need, with getting everything done that needs to get done. You're sounding a bit bitter about your experience. My experience is that everyone, including me, can use help in writing a manuscript (although well into blue-hair-stage, I can do it easier and faster than I could as a virile and brash youth).

    One of the hardest lessons is that you and your PI are not equal. They're (usually) older and they (usually) have more experience than you. Cutting slack is not a symmetrical two-way street.

  • Spiny Norman says:

    "What if instead of 3 incrementally better drafts in a month, you give them a "masterpiece" that they barely have to edit IN THE SAME AMOUNT OF TIME?"

    >Laughs ruefully.<

  • Kevin. says:

    Maybe in some fields anon can produce a masterpiece on isolation, the writing process is a conversation of the science between trainee and PI. I am not just going to put my name on a paper I didn't contribute to. The PI has to go out and give talks about the research and the familiarity with the specifics comes from this dialogue during the back and forth of the writing. Just think of it as a favor from you to the PI.

    My postdoctoral mentor had such an exceptional writing ability, such a facility with clarity that I knew there was no point to me endlessly reworking what I had written. The sooner I gave him that pile of shit to remold into art the better.

  • Kate Stafford says:

    That's not quite the distinction I was intending to make, though it's an important point. I intended to distinguish between the things that get written in training grants and fellowship applications and so on, and the things that people actually do in practice that provide useful benefits. I have only my own recent fellowship applications to look at, but it seems that written "training plans" get positive reviews for having specific and formalized components - I'm going to audit this class, participate in this career development program, attend that seminar series, mentor an undergrad through the XYZ Summer Program - rather than hard-to-quantify tasks like brainstorming for the grant renewal or going through the nth revision of a manuscript.

  • drugmonkey says:

    You got me thinking about this disconnect as well. A didactic course can outline the basics for a graduate student but....postdocs need more practical training.

  • Anonymous says:

    So lemme get this straight. I should give my PI a crappy first draft as soon as it's ready, which will take him a week or 2 to read and edit. In the meantime, I keep working, making the changes I know need to be made, because, difficult as it might be for some to believe, I am a good writer. In about 3 weeks, I have a paper that's pretty close to ready for submission, and my PI has wasted his time editing a version that I have long discarded, so most of his edits are now useless/unnecessary. But my PI will be very happy with me because a) I am so productive, and b) he has the illusion of having significantly contributed to the paper? Yeah ... that makes a lot of sense....

    To those of you that think a postdoc could not possibly come up with a decent enough manuscript to submit on her own: what the hell kind of magic do you think happens when that person gets a faculty position and starts doing just that? Because I don't see faculty proofreading each other's drafts in my dept. Reminds me of the magic that transformed me into a competent researcher the instant I was awarded my PhD. What bullshit!

  • Kevin. says:

    Your problem is the PI who takes a week or so to get back to you. You should be writing the paper in chunks with fast turn-around. The best is when your boss is abroad and you can use the time change to be working on the paper, together while the other person is sleeping.

    The problem with this is it usually only goes one way, with the trainee getting feedback LNG the way but not the PI. I expect I'll need to find a mentor who will help me look over my Aims and the rest before I get to far ahead of myself.

  • bob says:

    One caution about handing in shitty drafts: it really depends how shitty it is. I suspect a lot of the "I've had a manuscript sitting on my PI's desk for a year" complaining is caused by drafts that are so bad that working on other stuff always seems like a better use of the PI's time.

  • qaz says:

    Anon - the kind of magic that happens is that at some point the postdoc realizes that everything (s)he is doing is a collaboration with their PI and that they should be engaging the PI in dialog and co-writing (which is a process of write/edit back and forth) the paper with the PI. At that point, grasshopper, you will lose your arrogance and be ready to collaborate with postdocs as your own PI.

    If you look at any successful writer, whether they be scientists, novelists, poets, or speakers, you will find that they actually publish less than about 10% of what they write. I tell my students that until you are comfortable enough in your writing that you can write an entire paper using a totally new structure that might work, look at it, realize it didn't work, and THROW IT AWAY (*), you will not be ready.

    Writing is like any art. The only way to get better is to practice.

    * Actually, it's rarely truly thrown away. Usually there are phrases, paragraphs, sometimes even just ideas, that are worth rescuing. But these were only found by having the writing facility to go try a new draft.

  • GMP says:

    In about 3 weeks, I have a paper that's pretty close to ready for submission,

    This seems to be where the disconnect is. I am sure every one of my trainees thinks that the paper is pretty close to submission when in fact it is nowhere near ready (and gets disappointed when I return yet another version bleeding in red ink).

    There are students and postdocs who internalize feedback very quickly and efficiently, so after we have done maybe 2 papers together (which started with crappy drafts and which I edited heavily) they are afterwards able to give me a first draft that's structurally very close to what we will finally use. These people are a cherished minority. In fact, I have had exactly 2 (1 postdoc and 1 grad student about to graduate).

    However, DM has a point that a student can keep working on the paper while the PI sits on the draft. I always tell my students "I won't be able to look at this until [day of week]. Keep working on it in the meantime and send me an update." It has never been an issue.

    Btw, I have had a particularly hard time writing with some US-born students, who were convinced that they were good writers. They were not; they were inexperienced and writing clunky adjective-laden prose and experiencing all the usual problems that noob technical writers have. What made it worse is the hubris, this unwillingness to take criticism and edit in response to it. It made me hate editing their papers (and I was avoiding doing it) because every round of feedback was like pulling teeth, they were fighting with me over everything. Trainees who fancy themselves more competent than they are can be a real pain in the butt.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Bob- absolutely.

    GMP- absolutely.

  • Even my first drafts are not typically close to a submittable piece of work and I fashion myself a pretty good technical writer.

  • Anonymous says:

    "This seems to be where the disconnect is. I am sure every one of my trainees thinks that the paper is pretty close to submission when in fact it is nowhere near ready (and gets disappointed when I return yet another version bleeding in red ink)."

    Well, but for me it *is* close to submission after I work on it ~3wks. I say this because that is the feedback I've gotten from my PI when I give him something about a month later, and he hasn't even had time to look at the first copy, and it comes back with only minor edits and we submit very quickly thereafter. What can I say? I never thought I was that exceptional, but maybe I am! 🙂

    I don't know how things are done in your labs, but for me the dialog with the PI is ongoing and happens *before* we make the decision to write something up. By that time, it's clear what the story is and someone (i.e., me) just needs to write it. And I write multiple drafts, and start over, etc., and do all of the things that PIs do when they write papers *on their own*. The question is to what degree the PI needs to participate in this process, and for me, when it comes to writing, it seems to be "not very much."

    Do you go into the lab and troubleshoot your postdoc's experiments with them on a weekly basis? Or do you give that person a longer leash because you know that they can get it done on their own? Writing is really not so different.

    I can't wait to become as condescending and close-minded as some of the PIs who've commented here. So much to look forward to!

  • Anonymous says:

    @qaz: "At that point, grasshopper, you will lose your arrogance and be ready to collaborate with postdocs as your own PI."

    How precious! I would be impressed if I thought that the irony here was intentional, but I fear it wasn't.

  • anonymous postdoc says:

    Anonymous is making anonymous postdocs look bad.

    Dude, there is no such thing as a perfect written document. Words are just tools that you use to convey ideas to other human beings. The best way to ensure that your tools are actually doing the job is to test them on other people, like your PI, your trusted and valuable mentors and colleagues, or failing all that, yourself in the future (by putting the document away and coming back to it in a week or three- but that usually takes too long.) If you give a draft to your PI and during their reading, you make more changes, great! - but you still need to beta-test those changes by having someone read it, and someone older and wiser like a PI is basically the perfect person to do so.

    The back and forth with my PI over drafts are some of the most meaningful conversations we have. Our understanding of "the" story (like there is ever only one way to talk about a given dataset!) changes. We talk about next steps. I point out areas that I know are awkward and ask their opinion on how to proceed. It helps that in graduate school I learned, painfully and slowly, that criticism of some text I wrote is not criticism of me, and that someone who wants me to change that text is not bullying me, but trying to help me find better tools to accomplish the job of communication.

    On that note, I am trying to achieve the same zen about reviewers. So far, I am able to admit that my manuscripts have always been improved by reviewers comments overall, even if individual comments are sometimes stinkers. I guess its the same as PIs, come to think of it.

  • Comradde PhysioProffe says:

    This second anon has a clue associated with a greater likelihood of long-term scientific success.

    And there is possibly another factor in play here. It is a lot different to write a paper for Acta Bunnica Hoppica Scandinavica Part C than it is for a widely read journal with competition for page space. For the former, "We did this. We found this. Next we did this. Next we found this. These studies show blah." will suffice. For the latter, it is necessary to properly place your studies in a compelling context that excites both editors and reviewers.

    This is not easy to do. When we are sending papers to such journals, I generally pass a late-stage draft to one of my close colleagues for comments, either at my institution or outside. (And they do the same.)

  • drugmonkey says:

    Everyone knows that Acta Bunnica Hoppica Scandinavica Part C is for losers and real scientists publish in Acta Bunnica Hoppica Scandinavica Part A.

  • Anonymous Postdoc says:

    I have worked with PIs who train students and those that abuse their position of power, lie to funding agencies about their intention with trainees, and generally behave like middle managers at dysfunctional companies. While both types of PI do things like work together on grant applications and papers with their trainees, it is pretty obvious when the activities are exposure that can benefit both parties Vs. abuse of the PIs authority to advance their own agenda. When a substantial portion of a trainee's time is spent on revising papers and grants they are not an author on or ghostwriting reviews for their PI, it is usually pretty good evidence they have the second type of PI. They should escape.

  • Anonymous says:

    @anonymous postdoc: "Dude, there is no such thing as a perfect written document."

    Dude, who the fuck said that? I'm happy for you that you feel your exchanges over papers with your mentors have been so valuable. Not so for me. Maybe I'm just a better writer than you are and need less mentoring in this area. Your reading comprehension skills sure could use some work!

  • Joe says:

    "They lose respect over other things. A lack of any sign of a manuscript. You can say you are "working on it" but the PI has no concrete way to distinguish the fact you are in Draft XXVII of a master work from the scofflaw who hasn't done much more than write a title page into a Word doc. So show them something. "
    ^This.
    Give me whatever you have now. If I am asking a trainee for the paper it is because I want to work on it or because I think we need to get it out very soon. I want to help move it along. I don't want us to get scooped. I want to try to have this published before the grant goes in (so I can keep paying the trainees). If all you have is the intro, then I will tell you points to add and citations. If you give me an outline and figures, then I will give you back ideas for paragraphs for the results and discussion. If all I get from you is "I'll have a draft for you soon" over and over again, then when I have to downsize the lab, you'll be the first one out the door.

  • anonymous postdoc says:

    Anonymous, the reason I argued that there was no such thing as a perfect paper is because there is an inherent assumption in your whining. (There are acutally several inherent assumptions, but you don't seem to be worth the effort of pointing them all out.)

    One assumption you are making is that your papers aren't shitty, in spite of the fact that the only person who apparently ever reads them with any effort is yourself. In fact, you seem to labor under the delusion that because your manuscripts are acceptable to your PI after a cursory glance, that means that your writing was already perfect and could not benefit from anyone's input. This is an idea which I summarized as "the perfect paper."* Publication, especially at very low impact journals, is no mark of writing quality either. The impression you are giving of your manuscripts, based on your comments, are of dashed-off rantings of a single delusional mind which end up poorly cited.

    Anyway, regarding why your PI signs off on things without reading them: two alternative hypotheses occur to me. One is that your PI is sick of your personality and avoids interacting with you in ways that make you even more petulant. The other is that your PI is such a bigwig that he or she has no time to mentor you, which has produced the bitter persona which you are projectile vomiting out onto these comments.

    *If I misunderstood you, perhaps you aren't as great a writer as you believe, Walter Mitty.

  • Grumble says:

    Anonymous writes: "To those of you that think a postdoc could not possibly come up with a decent enough manuscript to submit on her own: what the hell kind of magic do you think happens when that person gets a faculty position and starts doing just that? "

    That's actually a really good question. There are a couple of answers:

    1. That "magic" happens in the process of writing and editing in collaboration with someone who is an expert. That is how I learned to do it. Some of my grad school and post-doc PIs were excellent at this, and I learned a lot. Having been a PI myself now for a number of years, I have yet to see a manuscript draft that is so good that it only needs minor edits from me. Why? Because, as others alluded to above, writing a paper is done in a complex context of the current state of the field (what results and hypotheses are currently receiving attention, what Important Caveats your field tends to want papers to deal with because So-and-so et al showed whatever-the-fuck and that could explain half your results, etc), different ideas/conclusions you need to bring up even if they aren't part of the main point of the paper, different possible reviewers you might get and what they might be offended by, the need to sell the story as something New and Exciting vs the need to be brutally honest about the limitations of your methods, etc etc. Navigating this is not easy, even for an expert. I am more senior and therefore more of an expert. I have a sense for what will work and what will not, and that sense is more developed than that of almost anyone in my field who is more junior.

    On top of that, having spent the last 20 years of my life writing for at least 50% of my working hours (probably more), I am simply a better writer than most (but not all) of my trainees. My job is to help my students and post-docs get their papers into shape so they'll get published, and that means editing the fuck out of them. If you resent that, I'm glad you're not my post-doc.

    2. There are some post-docs (and grad students) who are simply never going to undergo that "magical" transformation. That is because they are incapable of learning from the collaborative writing process. They are unlikely ever to be PIs.

  • Anonymous says:

    @Grumble: None of the discussion that you mentioned in the first paragraph of #1 actually requires a first draft to happen. When I said above that I have an ongoing dialog with my PI and that before I start to write it's clear what "the story" is, I meant things like: what journal are we writing this for; how are we pitching it; what will be stressed and what de-emphasized, etc., not just what do the data show. So I certainly get the benefit of my advisor's experience on this, although frankly, sometimes I more familiar with the state of the art than he is, as I have more time to read. FWIW, my advisor is himself a good writer and his papers are well-cited -- why else would I have joined his lab? When he tells me that he really likes a draft, it's obvious that he's taken the time to really read it, and given his skills, I know that's a real compliment.

    Wrt #2: when you first start out as faculty, it is likely that you will have no postdocs (in my field, anyway) and be able to hire only a few grad students, who are likely not the top candidates in your program. In short, you will do a lot of the writing of those initial papers on your own. I know several recent hires in my dept., and this has been the case for all of them. I don't believe that there's any "magic" that happens when, as a postdoc, you land that first job. You are not now suddenly transformed into someone who can write papers on their own, when last week, it was inconceivable without the help of your advisor. And again, newly hired faculty in my dept. don't collaboratively write their papers with more experienced faculty.

    If some of your trainees are better writers than you and are at the stage where they are ready to apply for faculty positions, why do you still feel the need to edit the fuck out of their journal papers? Surely there comes a time when your trainees can come up with something largely on their own that is close to ready for submission without a lot of back and forth from you? If not, then what are they learning from you?

  • K99er says:

    From someone who is a new PI, these are some things that I've learned...

    1. There's almost always something to be learned from the back and forth with your mentor, whether you agree with their edits or not. Sometimes asking for clarification about WHY a suggestion is being made will bring up a perspective that you weren't recognizing at all.

    2. When you become a junior PI, you will wish you still had that very experienced person who is required to be involved in helping to make your papers better. There are so many favors that you need from your past mentors and senior colleagues when you start your own lab that it becomes hard to also burden them with reading everything you write. Moral of the story: learn as much as you can and treasure those back and forths while you still have them.

    3. Any time the suggestion/edit requires a lot of work, the natural response is to be automatically angry or hostile to the suggestion. You have to fight this response and really think about why the suggestion is being made and what the benefit is.

    4. It is perfectly fine to disagree with your PI on the way things are written. But most of the time, it's not really worth putting up a big fight. The PI has the final say on everything, so save your battles for the most important issues.

  • gingerest says:

    My boss often asks other people to comment on drafts of her papers (and protocols and research plans), and she's the head of our department and kind of famous. It's not as unusual as you seem to think, Anon.
    I have worked for people who do the irritating "make this change" "why did you change that?" thing. Frustrating but easily manageable if you track changes.

  • E-roock says:

    My first interaction with the project director of the P50 that went on to save my butt funding-wise was via this indivual circulating early drafts for comment. I was a post doc at the time, and the note was fwd'ed from my then PI and I gave what I thought was considered commentary on the science. This individual later told me the feedback was useful, now is my department chair, and is supportive of my projects and has given me excellent help over the years. Moral of the story is that sometimes the big wigs get input from the proles too, and it's an opportunity to flex your academic muscle and cultivate a relationship. Just don't send back a copy-edited track-changes doc...engage with the argument. Whenever you do ask a senior scientist in your field to look at a draft and they do provide feedback, it's absolutely vital to thank them and be specific about how it helped (offer to return the favor too). I started doing that to reinforce behavior that I desired (like pet training), and a useful by-product was eventually getting a reputation of being considerate.

  • bacillus says:

    My final post-doc mentor was a well-known sociopath. At meetings people would commiserate with me when they found out who I worked for. People told me that if I could work for him, I could work for anyone. One thing he liked to do to torment his post docs was to make them go through a minimum of 10 drafts of a manuscript before allowing them to be submitted. One X draft MS I handed to him was sitting on my desk the next morning with a post it note exclaiming simply "Bacillus this is shit" I had him figured out by this time, so I incorporated very few of his recommendations into the next draft which he subsequently approved for submission. Although the guy was and remains a complete jerk, my two most highly cited papers were co-authored with him.

  • E-roock says:

    Yikes! That sounds horrible. I maintain that an abusive sociopath who provides substantive feedback is better for your career than a super dooper nice guy who thinks all of your work is brilliant (the "I'm brilliant, so, obviously my trainees are brilliant" fallacy), but maybe fixes your two/toos. The abusive sociopath is better than the negligent absentee advisor too. I just hope we learn to recognize these patterns and create an effective but (at minimum) tolerable work environment.

  • GMP says:

    If 10 drafts is a mark of a sociopathic advisor, then color me a sociopath.

    My former postdoc came with a PhD from a group of a very smart and nice, but really meek advisor, who basically required no or very minimal edits to the student's talks or papers. I remember rolling my eyes when the prospective postdoc interviewed, and the slides looked like shit, and the graphs were completely ineligible.
    I can assure you that he started in my group thinking that he could write and give talks perfectly fine, but shared that he mysteriously couldn't get some papers from his PhD into middling journals; when I offered to take a look, it was easy to see why. They were shit.

    Anyway, our first paper together was really painful. I could see he was displeased by my many, many, MANY edits.

    The second paper together was a different story. The first draft was already quite good, as he had internalized the extensive revisions from the first paper. I think we went through maybe 3-4 drafts and sent it in. All our subsequent papers were like that, 3-4 drafts and submission.

    But that first paper had countless drafts, including figure redux, and I edited it myself very invasively. All that work turned out to be very important. Years later he told me he was extremely upset with me for all the edits I did and made him do, and told me that one particular figure had something like 25 or 26 versions. But he said that he had to admit that the final product was a much better paper. By the way, that paper went on to be very highly cited. And he went on to become a professor.

    I suppose there are sociopaths and then there are "sociopaths," the latter being advisors who make you do edit your paper many many times, and do other things you don't necessarily like or appreciate or want to do, but that just may end up being actually good for your science and your career.

  • E-roock says:

    I would have loved a ten drafts back and forth PI. Instead I got absolutely scathing remarks on peer review ... which on retrospect were directed at the level of supervision in preparing the manuscript. I'm still embarrassed thinking about it. If you send out anything less than the absolute best combined effort of the entire research team, you are wasting reviewers' time.

  • drugmonkey says:

    If you send out anything less than the absolute best combined effort of the entire research team, you are wasting reviewers' time.

    If I had a nickel for every time I thought on reviewing a paper: "geez, if this is the standard for submitting a manuscript then I should be sending my stuff out much earlier"....

  • Gumble says:

    @Anonymous: "If some of your trainees are better writers than you and are at the stage where they are ready to apply for faculty positions, why do you still feel the need to edit the fuck out of their journal papers? Surely there comes a time when your trainees can come up with something largely on their own that is close to ready for submission without a lot of back and forth from you? If not, then what are they learning from you?"

    Well, of course, eventually a smart post-doc will be able to write a credible paper all on his/her own. Some even are able to do that when they arrive in the lab. By "edit the fuck out of" I don't mean change every sentence; I mean change a lot of them in seemingly minor ways that make it read better, and sometimes add/subtract/change points and ideas. Incidentally, this applies to my own writing, too: even if I'm writing something entirely on my own, I try to take a break from it for a week or so when I think it's nearly ready, and then go back and... edit the fuck out of it. Good editing pretty much always improves a paper, and that is why even the best writers in my lab get extensively edited.

  • Pinko Punko says:

    There are definitely sociopaths and there are good and tough advisors that edit and go back and forth. I don't think the argument is x edits=sociopath, it is for specific advisors for whom each round of edits is another chance at an arbitrary power trip. I mean I presume many of us can laugh at our great mentors (truly) who still occasionally would change something on one round, and then you make that change, but two rounds later they are changing back to what you had originally (I am sure this is a Ph.D. Comics comic).

  • Comradde PhysioProffe says:

    I think I'm starting to get the heart of Anonymous's delusion. He or she is very confused about the purpose of the back-and-forth editing process and how excellent writing in any field is generated.

    The reason the back-and-forth is important is only partially based on the notion that the PI is a better writer. More important is that they are a different writer who didn't write the original text. Anonymous seems to think that the only value to having someone else edit their writing is if they are a better writer. This is completely nutso. If it were true, then a whole fuckeloade of professional editors in the publishing business would have no jobs.

    Also, the back-and-forth isn't just about making the writing better. It's about trying out different things: ways to present data, analyze it, put it into context, structure the flow of the argument, etc. It's not just about words and sentences, although it is about that, too. This kind of playing around with a manuscript is very difficult for a single person to do, and much easier as a back-and-forth.

    No doubt Anonymous is a serious fucken pain in the asse to write with, but hopefully they'll eventually get some decent mentoring that will up their writing game.

  • rxnm says:

    "Somebody makes Figure 1,
    Then back and forth until it's done."

    Stitch it on your fuckin lab sampler.

    If you hate your PI it's not because of their writing process.

  • bacillus says:

    @GMP. I said that going through 10+ drafts was one manifestation of his sociopathy, and a mild one at that. If it wasn't for the rest of his behaviours, the endles redrafting of manuscripts would not have been an issue. Also, this was back in the pre-word processor days, when the secretary would refuse to type more than 2 drafts of the same paper, so the first 8 or so drafts were written in pencil to make correcting easier. Did I learn from him? Sure. I learned not to be a shithead just because I could be, and my two most highly cited papers are with and because of him. I also like to think that I learned to be a better writer. However, one reviewer from the last MS I got back suggested it be thoroughly edited by a native english speaker before re-submission!

  • drugmonkey says:

    Everyone knows native American English speakers can't write for shit, ppl should be careful with this manuscript criticism/suggestion.

  • Heather says:

    I don't want to go off topic for a blog post that I think I will frame or at least, bookmark for future reference. The title says it all, but the comments say it that much more forcefully...

    I just wanted to ask everyone to refrain, as peer reviewers, from requesting "thorough editing by a native English speaker before re-submission". I am a native English speaker in a non-English-speaking country, and I have received over a dozen reviewer comments to that effect simply because of my mailing address (I started saving them, as they are subject for much eye-rolling and hilarity in my lab each time another comes in. My first name is of rather clear Scottish provenance, after all).

    Sometimes, the suggested changes are ungrammatical. Once, when I expressed my irritation to the editor of a relatively prestigious journal for conveying such a remark, I even received a contrite apology.

    Suffice it to request thorough copy-editing for grammatical and typographical errors, and leave it at that.

Leave a Reply