Professor Isis on Trainees and Writing

Aug 29 2014 Published by under Postdoctoral Training, Postgraduate Training

At Isis the Scientist blog:

My perception is that graduate students and postdocs have a skewed view of what constitutes scientific productivity. It is very easy at that stage to feel “productive” by going to the lab and generating data because, typically, they feel confident in the experimental skills they’ve established by the time they’re ready to write a paper. Writing is a new skill that they are often less confident in. ... People are more likely to engage in behavior that provides them with immediate, positive feedback. It’s easier to start a new project than to write a paper about a finished one and sitting on a pile of data provides a (false) sense of productivity.

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29 responses so far

  • DJMH says:

    As a postdoc:
    1. Inertia, particularly with nitty-gritty on figure making like scale bars.
    2. Lack of familiarity with (portions of) the literature, making it necessary to read a lot of papers to get background on some concept or area.
    3. Indecision/uncertainty about how to pitch the paper, eg if the data have a few interesting aspects to them, which one to focus on? Especially in *cough* journals with word limits.
    4. Time.
    5. The existence of the internet. (Ok this should be number one.)

  • anonymous postdoc says:

    My impediments to paper writing are:

    -ongoing experiments with months-long daily data collection, especially in undergraduate-assistant transition periods. All hail the undergraduate researcher, because many hands make work light.

    -various fire-putting out daily bullshit, helping grad and undergrad students with issues to increase their productivity and reduce the escalation to the PI (who is also trying to work on papers and grants)

    -other writing with firmer deadlines (grants, jobs, abstracts)

    -ugh entering the references and statistics

    -when I finally find an uninterrupted block of time to focus on writing (like 30 min or more without the above interruptions), it is usually late enough in the day that spending significant effort on the manuscript in front of me requires me to delay spending time with family. Sometimes I can decide to do that, sometimes I can't.

  • drugmonkey says:

    "Entering the references" should not be an impediment, quite the contrary. IMO.

  • RE: "entering the references": It is a huge mistake to write a manuscript without inserting citations to the literature as you go along.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Your "story" is BUILT upon prior work. So how can this not be the primary frame for your Intro? How do you interpret what you are reporting without thinking how it fits into prior knowns?

    How do you make a declaration that hinges on a scientific paper or three without those papers firmly in mind?

  • Comradde PhysioProffe says:

    Yep. That's what I'm sayin'!

  • DJMH says:

    "How do you make a declaration that hinges on a scientific paper or three without those papers firmly in mind?"

    Sure, but plenty of declarations either hinge on a wider literature, so the trick is picking 1-3 papers from the 20-30 that support your point (and do you pick reviews, or primary lit, or both?), or sometimes the point is a fairly unimportant one, and you don't want to interrupt your FLOW. Which you've made fun of in the past but it's true for some of us. FLOW.

    That said, entering references is not nearly as big a problem as finding uninterrupted time chunks. Especially for those of us who sit in noisy labs and don't have a quiet office to escape to.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Those who have trouble sorting 20, 30 refs down the the 3-5 that are most important either need to make more specific points or don't really know those 20-30 papers as well as they should.

    If you need a citation rubric, "first, best, most recent " is a decent place to start your considerations.

  • anonymous postdoc says:

    DJMH has it. Dudes, have a little faith that I have read the literature and I know what I can argue prior to writing and during the process. Its the dicking around on Mendeley to fill in the spots that say (REF) with a selected few references from a giant literature that I find annoying and occasionally slows me down.

    I have read many drafts from other postdocs and PIs with (REF) in them all over the place, so I know I am not alone in my love of not interrupting writing FLOW to enter the details.

    My list was mostly in order of descending importance. Finding time is a way bigger problem.

  • drugmonkey says:

    "FLOW"bies are confessing that they do not think scientifically at all. They make shit up that they kinda sorta half remember they hope is true and then go looking for random cites out of 20-30 that they hope will support their point.

  • DJMH says:

    Ha, it is only that you have an ossified set of 3 cites you go to that causes you to disagree.

  • DJMH says:

    Anyhow you *asked* what slows us down, no need to act as though our answers are signs of our failure-tude.

  • drugmonkey says:

    I have seen [REF] in a manuscript I've received for review more than once. This amazes me.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Ok, serious question for the Flowbies.... Isn't "inserting the references" the kind of thing you can do on those times where your brain is just not cooperating and yet you want to get *some* tangible progress made?

  • GMP says:

    These are common scenarios for me:

    I know the paper I want to cite, it's from group of GG and in journal JJ, came out 2012 or 2013. (I admit I usually don't know the name of the first author, but do of the group leader.) So I know the paper, I know what is says, I know the figure where they showed what I am interested in. I start writing my paper and have good flow, I know what I am saying is true, and I have no intention of going to look up that exact reference now, because why? What's the point?

    Also, for society-level journals in my field, where there is no limit on the number of citation, the introduction is basically where you give the lay of the land. That's where I would do a final sweep and put in a lot of contextual references near the end, which are only tangentially related to the specific work in the paper, but are important for completeness and to do justice to the overview of the field (a more cynical view would be -- make sure you cite something of most people who could be potential reviewers). That's where I would list papers such as "I heard CC talk at a conference last month, will go check if that CNS paper that was listed as in print came out in the meantime."

    What I am trying to say is that you can have a very thorough, perfectly up to date view of the field, and still just put [REF] in the text or, what I often do, put a note like [GG paper in JJ from 2012?] or [CC's paper on topic xx].

  • Dr Becca says:

    Isn't "inserting the references" the kind of thing you can do on those times where your brain is just not cooperating and yet you want to get *some* tangible progress made?

    Yes, and I absolutely use it that way. But even though it is something that needs to get done and feels super satisfying when it is done, it still doesn't feel like real paper progress, because there's no new content, per se.

    FTR, I am mostly a flow person, but now sometimes if I'm really on a roll, I will insert citations without breaking the flow. I hope that this becomes more and more common as I spend more and more of my day writing.

  • Young PI says:

    I admit I'm slightly jealous because I have no problems writing, and I've never had them. (It can be hard, but I'm very motivated to write once I have figures. I see the story months in advance.) I like writing grants. Where I drag my feet is in the data generation and analysis, because I'm always scared I've made a mistake somewhere or that maybe what I'm doing is super obvious, or I can't quite see how I will demonstrate something conclusively. These are all essential skills, so I'm not proud I struggle here, and reading this makes me wonder if I'm cut out to be PI. Mostly, I get really down on myself for forgetting some basic statistical relationships, the syntax of a major programming language, or not understanding some very theoretical paper that might hold the answers. I'm in computation/theory, so maybe that contributes to the feeling that I never have enough insight.

  • Young PI says:

    Oh yeah--and I add [REF] all the time, or more commonly [X's Y paper], for all the reasons outlined by GMP.

  • E-roock says:

    I typically decide on the references I want to cite during the outlining process. I also save insertion for later, though, because of the reasons mentioned above. Mostly to save it for a time when I don't feel like thinking too hard but I want to make at least some progress. It's also more efficient to do blocks of particular types of tasks. When I write text, I sometimes use plain text editor, a totally blank screen and my notepad (yes, I hand write and outline and scribble pubmed IDs) because tooling around with reference managers & formatting is not particularly productive at the text-generating stage. I've also seen [REF] and such in manuscripts for review. I thought that was because shit rolls downhill and I'm too noob to be reviewing the good stuff. Kinda makes me feel better that this crap gets to the adults' table too.

  • anonymous postdoc says:

    Something else I don't interrupt my flow to insert are statistics. Do the non-flow people just stop everything to find out what the F-statistic and p value on their main effect was? Or do you write "oh yeah coke totally fucked those rats up (STATS)." I am genuinely curious.

  • drugmonkey says:

    I write the main effect and paste in the f-statement. you need FLOW for friggin results now?

  • E-roock says:

    I print out reports from the stats software then hand-write a table (include f stats and p values) or list of results that I want in the ms, sectioned out as part of an outline before I start writing the Results. When writing, I lay out the figures plus my outline (which includes data) on my desk and write. Sorta like a checklist. Then after it's done, double check the values. I think it'd be a waste of time to write out the results section without including (you know...) the results. Maybe it's a waste of time to hand-write beforehand, but it works for me, because it puts in a format where I can be interrupted and easily return to where I was because I check it off as I go. That's just me. It gets polished on editing anyhow but I'd be annoyed at editing a ms that had [FVALUE] all over it. To each their own. I also keep my outlines & notes & drafts bound together for record keeping.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Have any of you FLOWbies ever heard of a dual monitor setup? Just askin.....

  • anonymous postdoc (flowbie) says:

    FLOW for me is about "don't let something annoying get in the way of doing something important." If I have to edit the paper later to add annoying details, at least the paper exists for me to edit.

  • anonymous postdoc (flowbie) says:

    I have a dual monitor setup. It is awesome for entering references, transferring data from one program to another, or when I am working on figures.

    However, when I am writing text I need to have the second monitor display a blank desktop, and I listen to white noise. I think I might be easily distractible.

  • E-roock says:

    I use dual monitor too.... I find especially helpful for creating figures & legends, and lit searching. Or entire document reorganizing after five drafts (my favorite leap off a cliff). But for some reason I can't seem start to anything unless I've created & edited a detailed task list first. Maybe it's from having read Robinson Crusoe at a formative age. I'm sure others have methods that work. Prelim data in a grant is a whole nuther beast, though. I'm still working out the kinks in my system for that.

  • qaz says:

    FLOW is about language and mental state and "being in the zone". The reason one wouldn't go look up a reference or stats when writing in a flow state is because one doesn't want to disrupt the mental zone, not because one doesn't have a second monitor.

    Our term for the initial flow is "vomit draft", with the goal of getting the text on the page, so that you are editing on paper (or screen) rather than in your head. It's too easy to lose track of your paper in your head, so it's better to vomit it onto the page, and fix it on paper later. (I also teach people to rewrite, not edit, but that's another issue.)

    Of course, that's what's worked for everyone I know, and it's how I teach my recalcitrant students, but YMMV.

  • mytchondria says:

    Why would I reference anyone's work but my own?

  • e-rock says:

    I guess my vomit draft is hand-written...

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