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March 30, 2012 / jpschimel

Why strong labs sometimes submit weak papers

As reviewers, we sometimes get papers that don’t seem up to the standard of a particular colleague. We wonder how such a poorly written or incompletely thought-out paper could come from such a strong group.

Why do these papers get submitted? Our first assumption is usually that the advisor was skirting their responsibility of ensuring that submitted work is ready. We usually have harsh words in those cases. But we must remember that as Professors, we have two responsibilities: one is to produce science; the second is to produce scientists. The latter may be the more important—our highest responsibility is as mentor and trainer and while single papers easily disappear into the morass, the scientists we train create a living legacy.

I’m sure almost all of us have had to deal with manuscripts where we knew it would be much easier to take the data and just write the paper ourselves, rather than try to coax a student’s work into a polished form. But doing that would undermine them; they need to learn how to write good papers, how to manage the process, and how to gauge when a paper is ready to submit.

In Writing Science, I pointed out that “doing science is inherently an act of both confidence and humility” and that getting the balance between them “is one of the greatest challenges all developing scientists face.” Learning that balance involves both over-shoots and under-shoots. For a student to become a fully fledged professional and peer (as they should), they need to establish ability and confidence, and to develop an independent identity. They need room to grow and to become a peer.

Jay Gulledge, a former student and good friend, told me that one of the most important events in his graduate career came while we were driving up the “Haul Road” from Fairbanks, Alaska to our field site in the arctic tundra at Toolik Lake. We spent hours discussing and arguing his experimental design. Finally I said, “OK, do it your way.” I didn’t relent because I was worn out or trying to make Jay feel good, but because he had finally swayed me with his arguments—and he knew it. He described that moment as more important than passing his qualifying—it was the real acknowledgement that he had become a peer and a colleague, no longer just a student.

But for many students (including me) making that transition from student to colleague can be challenging. Most students go through the phase I call “academic adolescence” where we struggle intellectually and often emotionally with the challenges of becoming a professional, adult scientist. As with real adolescence, this phase sometimes involves a measure of rebelliousness and overreach: “I’m sure this is good enough!”

At that point, it may become impossible for an advisor to push further—you may know that the paper isn’t ready, but the student may be unwilling to make the suggested changes. A good first step to addressing this conflict is to get someone in-house to review the paper—someone experienced that they respect (a postdoc, committee member, or a colleague). But some situations cannot be easily finessed, leaving two imperfect options. Option 1 would be to say “go ahead—submit it, but I won’t be a co-author.” But that is a blow to the student, essentially disowning them and saying you care more about your reputation with reviewers than about your student. That’s harsh.

Option 2 is to say, “I don’t think it’s ready, but if you are so sure, submit it.” Reviewers may be annoyed at you for letting the paper go out, but given a choice between annoying a reviewer and damaging a student, support your student, every time.

Sometimes we need to recognize that the message a student needs is one they can’t hear from us now, but they may be able to hear from someone else. Hopefully, external review would open their mind to being able to hear what you had been saying. Even if it doesn’t though, it changes your relationship with them; where you may have been the “obstacle” in getting this wonderful work published, you are now the ally in helping solve the external problem—how to address the reviews and the editor.

As reviewers and editors, we need to remember and be sensitive to these dynamics as well. It’s possible that someone submitted that poorly written paper without final approval from the professor, although that is becoming more difficult as journals require all authors to approve submission. It’s possible that the advisor was negligent in letting an unready paper go out. But it’s also possible that the advisor was being fully responsible in their role as mentor, but had reached the end of their rope.

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