Student’s first draft mistakes.

I’m writing, writing, writing. Last week I managed to send out a paper for review!! My goal this week is to send out a second one, the one we discussed so hotly in a few previous posts. The text has been adjusted to address what was in the previous set of reviews, and a couple of figures have been cleaned up, now I just need to do the last once over and it is out the door! A third paper will follow shortly, with any luck- I’ve been hounding my student to get her part written and she has done quite a bit. I find that I am moving a bit from doing everything myself, to editing and re-editing what students write.

Naively I thought that having the student write the first draft would make my life a little easier and take the weight of putting everything together initially off my shoulders a little bit. WRONG. Oh, so wrong. The editing I have to do of the first draft of a student-written paper is almost like writing the first draft myself- but harder. My two students are perfectly competent to put the data down on paper, but the learning curve is steep for putting together a cohesive story, learning how to arrange the data so they are logically presented, and of course the most important aspect of interpreting what the data means in the bigger picture. One of my students had difficulty learning that the discussion is not simply a re-statment of the results…but I think we finally got that cleared up. Also, when they are writing the results section, they tend to want to jump right to the conclusion- instead of logically writing out a one sentence description of the experiment, why they did the experiment, then what they observed in the experiment and what figure that data is in.

Figures are generally well done, with standard error and appropriate statistics- something that I’ve been harping on since the first day. Gels sometimes need improvement- seeing the band in the right place does not alone a publication quality figure make… so nice you can see it- now do it a couple more times (show me three times you can repeat a given result) and get me a figure with minimal background. Figure out what you need to do, if it is affinity purifying your antibody, or blocking more stringently… to show a nice clean blot (I somehow always make a typo on the word blot in favor of the word blog!). They do surprise me from time to time though- one student came up with a table all her own that showed some interesting things after doing some bioinformatic analysis that she never even mentioned to me up front. I make sure to cheer these small displays of initiative, because it is that curiosity, and follow up on that curiosity that is part of what makes a great scientist. I think, anyway.

Ok, manuscripts are calling me (not to mention the two papers I have to review and a bunch of other stuff). When I finish these I’m going to Disneyland (with the kids). Seriously.

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25 thoughts on “Student’s first draft mistakes.

  1. Naively I thought that having the student write the first draft would make my life a little easier and take the weight of putting everything together initially off my shoulders a little bit.

    HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Oh, you make my cry from laughing so hard! Most first drafts I receive from trainees in my lab literally cause me physical pain to read and edit. But it is wonderful to see some of them evolve into decent writers through the back-and-forth draft-edit process.

  2. PP-

    I live to provide humor for you. 😉

    And yes, now I understand why some PIs just write all papers themselves, and don’t bother with letting students write them. Let me be clear though- while I know this would be the most expedient way to do things- I don’t want to do this. There is an important learning process that comes with writing a paper, that I think should be part of good graduate training.

    The amount of red-pen that gets used is indeed staggering. It is rather amazing how quickly one forgets what it was like to write one’s first paper. I just don’t remember my graduate advisor re-arranging all my figures and having to tell me what was a publication quality gel and what was not. This is probably just a senior moment on my part though!

  3. Everyone has to start somewhere, even though reading students’ first drafts are often horrendous and, as PP so eloquently stated, physically painful. There’s nothing more annoying than seeing mentors/PIs writing papers, putting the student/postdoc as first author and allowing them to take the credit for it (where’s the learning process in that) … much like being beaten for fellowships and/or grants by dumbfucks that couldn’t even string a sentence together and had their applications written by someone else. Grrrrrr … don’t even get me started … ok now I’ve hijacked your post. Bottom line … student writing first draft: good practice … “senior” postdoc writing unintelligible first draft: par for the course these days.

  4. I have also noticed that today’s high schools and universities don’t seem to be providing otherwise very smart students with adequate training in grammar, spelling and writing concepts, e.g. topic sentence, verb tense agreement, etc. Just another fun part of the job! However, the students certainly do improve with some practice (possibly at the expense of your sanity – :0)

  5. Yeah, it’s definitely good for the student.

    We keep being told that red pen is too aggressive and we should use another colour so as not to upset our students. er…

    Though I must admit that I still have a copy of a rough draft of a paper I wrote in my third post-doc position, which went to my PI labelled ROUGH DRAFT to check if he thought that there was enough data for the target journal – which came back with ‘I had no idea you were this stupid!’ written across the top in red capitals. Mmmm, talk about non-constructive feedback…

  6. My first draft of my first paper came back with one word–“Rewrite” not the most helpful comment in the world as I had no clue what was wrong with it. We discussed it and apparently it was too boring for where we were sending it. Eventually I learned, but it was a process. I’m really glad that he let me write the paper as opposed to just writing it for me, because I can honestly say that it’s MY paper.

  7. Bugdoc- True so true- I think now that we have this teach to the test nonsense- no one is teaching these kids how to write in high school anymore- and then they aren’t getting it in college either.

    Professor in Training- I agree.

    Jane B.- Red pen is too aggressive?! Now I’ve heard everything. I don’t have a lot of patience for nonsense like this- And wow, your PI sure was lacking in basic social graces – ….

    Neurostudent- I was so fortunate to have a PI who said- write the first draft, PI used red pen on the first draft, I fixed it… it went back and forth 3 or 4 times. At times I know that I was replacing text that he had edited back to the original-… the funny thing about that is that I was irritated about this at the time, and now I see myself doing this to my own students…

    Anyway, just as you said- this was a huge and necessary learning experience for me, and I honestly think of this as my paper. I have a tremendous amount of respect for PI for working with students this way. I recall being in the lab one morning early- and PI was there too- and he made a point of coming over to me and telling me what a nice paper he thought I had written. This was one of the best moments of my thesis work.

  8. Neurostudent- I was so fortunate to have a PI who said- write the first draft, PI used red pen on the first draft, I fixed it… it went back and forth 3 or 4 times. At times I know that I was replacing text that he had edited back to the original-… the funny thing about that is that I was irritated about this at the time, and now I see myself doing this to my own students…

    This is a universal truth. I caught myself doing it the other day and couldn’t stop laughing about it for hours.

  9. This is so, so, so, so hard for me. I constantly struggle with just doing it myself and giving a student the opportunity to try their hand at it. I know that if I do it myself, it will be done more quickly and will be of the quality I expect. On the other hand, I appreciate that this is an important part of the learning process for a student and, even though it creates a ton more work for me, I need to let them write the first draft.

    Argh! Dr. Isis needs to start smacking her own hand when she tries to take a projet.

  10. You know, I *still* am looking for the student, I SWEAR he or she must be out there, who *will*, by God, make writing papers with them easier than jsus doing it all myself. Call me naive (I hear you, out there!!!), but after all the years of having versions of the same brain-damaging experience you describe (with Undergrads, MS students, and PhD students), hope (fantasy?) springs eternal with each new student I bring into my lab. I’ve tried the “personal statement” approach to get a handle on how they write, but so far that is not a reliable predictor of ability to write manuscripts. I estimate that I have killed fully 1,200,000 neurons for each paper I’ve co-authored with a student, which may account for why I’m still hoping for that student to ride in on his/her white laptop and wow me with, I’m not asking for much here, merely acceptable scientific writing; maybe I’ve just lost too many neural connections to recognize my own folly? Wait, don’t answer that….

  11. Just write the papers yourself. Have the students make the figures. Pre-tenure you can’t afford to slow yourself down teaching students how to write when they can figure that out for themselves as post-docs later.

  12. Juniorprof-

    I often find myself on the giving end of things that I found curious when I was on the receiving end as a graduate student… and god that feels weird! I am sure that you have this experience as well…

    Isis the Scientist and Dr. MCR- I’ve got manuscripts that I am in charge of writing always lurking lately- that leaves students with a little breathing room while I’m working on other things.

    And finally- Whimple- As I said to PP above… I understand why some PIs just write all papers themselves, and don’t bother with letting students write them. Let me be clear though- while I know this would be the most expedient way to do things- I don’t want to do this. There is an important learning process that comes with writing a paper, that I think should be part of good graduate training.

    You can call this naive (and I’m sure you or someone else will) or whatever you like- there are certain things I think are important and they are not going to change because it might be expedient.

  13. Hey, learning to write my own papers (and having them kinda suck at first) made it possible for me to just write all my own papers as a postdoc with hardly any involvement whatsoever from my PIs. By the second one, they barely even ever read the manuscript before it was submitted. It sure got me independent faster! My graduate advisor always worked on my grammar but not so much my presentation of the results. It’s cute to go back to my first couple of papers and see the funny, earnest ways I tried to present my results. I would totally red-pen myself in hindsight.

  14. I just wrote my first paper this summer, and it was pretty intense to say the least. Its interesting/amusing to see the other side of the fence, and I don’t feel so bad about having a rather awful first draft… (for starters I’m mildly dyslexic…)

    I don’t know if it will end up being published, but who knows, at least I got some practice!

    –> So far in undergrad I have not been in a situation to really write a decent paper, and it would be nice to see more opportunities to practice (but heck, who in their right mind would want to edit a ton of undergrad papers to begin with?)

  15. It is not naive to deprive one’s students of the opportunity to learn how to write papers (or grants, for that matter) for the sake of expedience. Believe me, I know how painful they can be–I get to pre-read a lot of manuscripts/grants by students and postdocs in my lab before they are given to the PI. But PIs who treat their students as mere data factories and not junior scientists who need mentoring are shitty PIs. So I applaud you for not giving in to the easy way!

    Having said that, my thesis advisor told me to read not only the target journal’s instructions for authors, but also multiple papers from that journal, to get a better idea of how to put a paper together. My first one was a mess, but by my second one, he was telling me that I was a better writer than he was. Your students will learn too! 🙂

  16. Having said that, my thesis advisor told me to read not only the target journal’s instructions for authors, but also multiple papers from that journal, to get a better idea of how to put a paper together.

    DING, DING, DING!!!!!!

    IME, grad school was one of my most intensive periods of paper reading ever. It was all about getting up to speed and one had to really read everything. Once a body of knowledge has been acquired, the reading process is never so intense.

    So why do trainees write drafts that look nothing like the papers they have been reading? I think there are two structural problems at the least. First, grad students want to look smart (or more honestly are terrified of looking dumb). Second, they’ve just come through undergraduate (and highschool) intervals in which they were constantly berated not to plagiarize.

    so they want to write a unique, personally-stamped-with-brilliance document. trouble is, the research paper ain’t about that!

  17. Mad Hatter: “But PIs who treat their students as mere data factories and not junior scientists who need mentoring are shitty PIs.”

    I totally agree on this, but it seems as though this simply describes 2 types of attitudes in mentors & even in grad students. One being that the purpose of having a lab at a University is to train future scientists with working on cool research almost being a happy side benefit and the other being that the purpose of having a lab is to generate data (therefore the grad students are cheap labor). Technically it seems as though if you put your efforts into the mentoring then the data/publishing should come naturally and would be more sustainable over a long period of time, but it might take a little bit more time to see initial results–maybe it’s just a patience thing: instant gratification vs. delayed gratification. Whether one type of PI is more successful than the other would depend on how you measure success.

  18. undergraduate student-

    Just so you know- I want everyone to have an opportunity to TRY. I don’t make this post as a way of berating any student who gives paper writing a try- NO ONE, I repeat, no one was born knowing how to put out a good scientific paper. It is, like most everything else that we do, practice, practice, practice that makes you a good writer, and gets you to learn the ‘formulas’, if you will, for good paper writing.

    Mad Hatter and Bikemonkey- you have hit upon something very important- the importance of reading, and being able to translate the structure of a paper from what you read in a similar journal and from the instructions to authors.

    Now, as for the whole idealist vs. expedience discussion. Just to be the devil’s advocate- I’m pretty sure that no one ever (an obvious gross generalization, but you get the picture) got tenure for being a great mentor (alone)- but people do get tenure ALL THE TIME for productivity and grants alone – despite the fact that all rotating students run screaming from their laboratories and they are terrible teachers. So- to be fair- it is not all as black and white, idealism and all that- I’m not kidding myself that when tenure time rolls around this will be all about # of papers, and # of grants…and these things will be an order of magnitude (if not more) important than how great a mentor I am, how many students I have graduated and where they have all gone.

    That doesn’t make me happy- but it is a fact of academic life.

  19. The problem I’m having is with students who move on to other lines of work after graduating, without publishing the rest of their work, but who really want to write the first draft… and then don’t. If it’s neat data that advances my lab’s overall research agenda, and it’s sitting around unpublished, it’s a problem. At what point do you think it’s OK to take a stand and start writing, with the intention of them being high-ranked author, just to keep the story complete?? I really don’t know, but it’s becoming quite an issue.

  20. It’s no wonder that undergrads don’t learn to write well since it’s often grad student TAs (who everyone here agrees need much training for writing) who mark their papers.

  21. I gotta agree that any mentor who is taking the data and writing the papers themselves is doing their trainees an enormous disservice. If it’s so important to get it done quickly, then set a hard deadline or sit down together and craft the outline or even write the paper together (I know two PIs who do it this way, though I’ll admit it’s anathema to me). The student must come out knowing how to go from the scientific facts you’ve established to the creation of the story that communicates those facts. If they come out of your lab without that skill, you have failed as a mentor.

    I too cringe when I look back at my very first draft. It was terrible. There wasn’t enough description of the results, the interpretation was there but too starkly phrased, and worst of all I was under the mistaken impression that the order of results should in some way mirror their chronological order of completion. To be frank, I don’t remember what Bruce did with it, though I seem to recall his usual positive take and he probably said, “it’s a good start.”

    It worked though. By the second paper the entire process was quite a lot faster. And when I wrote my first paper from David’s lab, with a since departed postdoc, Haoxing Xu, David was happy at how little rejiggering he had to do.

    As for other things you can do, well David keeps a stack of Strunk and Whites in his office, and every new person in the lab gets one.

  22. Nat-

    Thanks for your excellent and thoughtful comments. I was also very fortunate to have a thesis advisor that allowed me this learning process, which was enormously valuable!

  23. Neurostudent & DrDrA–You’re absolutely right that it’s not a completely black-and-white issue. I was perhaps making my point a little more emphatically than necessary, but I have actually met PIs who write all of the lab’s papers themselves. Not even postdocs, who presumably have written papers before, get to write their own papers. I think that’s absolutely egregious.

    But of course, I’m under no illusions as to what gets an Asst. Prof. tenured, and I’d have no problem with a PI taking over the writing under certain circumstances. A few I can think of are: (1) they’re about to get scooped, (2) there’s a grant renewal deadline coming up and productivity during the last funding period might be an issue, or (3) the student makes no effort to improve. I just don’t think it should be the norm.

  24. Mad Hatter-

    I’ve met those people too, and its probably already clear that I’m not in favor of that way of training people.

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