Hmmm. Not sure I’m happy with that title, my students probably could have done better.
I was talking with a colleague about paper writing the other day. In comparing mental notes, we had completely different experiences of how our papers got written as graduate students. I wrote mine. Well, that is a lie. I wrote the complete first draft. That first draft came back to me absolutely bathed in red pen. Yeah- that’s right PEN. These were the days before you could just hit ‘accept all’ on the track changes function and have a nicely edited draft with the touch of a few buttons. I alternately hated (not really, only figuratively of course), and loved, and hated (only figuratively), and loved my mentor as rounds of drafts were turned in and handed back sometimes with words edited back to read exactly as they had been written in some earlier version. In the end I admired my mentor’s technique with this whole thing- because he/she made paper writing a very valuable learning experience for me, the trainee.
I try to
torture teach my students this way now, and I see both the strengths and weaknesses of this approach. The biggest strength I have already mentioned- the learning experience of becoming a better writer and learning the thought process of putting a data, a paper, a story really- together. To build a case, make an argument on paper. The weakness- of this approach is that it can take what feels like forever and a day- as green students cobble together their idea of what constitutes something publishable (with anxious advisers prodding them along). The difficulty, the time and the effort involved for the adviser depends on the language, writing ability, and background knowledge of the student. When English is the second language- having the student write the first draft can mean that the mentor re-writes practically every.single.word. Re-writing at this scale can be incredibly labor intensive for the mentor.
My colleague, on the other hand, never had the experience of putting a paper together and doing the crazy amounts of editing during their graduate training. Oh they may have lightly edited some draft- but the bulk of the text was written at the outset by the mentor themselves. I’m sure that this approach ultimately brings the paper to submission status faster, and students may still learn what pieces of data are needed to put a paper together- but I bet a lot of the learning of scientific writing is lost when papers are written this way. There are clear benefits to the mentor, the student, the lab and the project in being able to publish quickly. What happens though- when the student has to put together a thesis? What happens when they move on to their postdoc and haven’t yet written a whole manuscript from start to finish?
And finally- I wonder how career stage of the PI plays into this… are more seasoned PIs more secure ($s, papers) and not as needy of quick pubs… thus able to let newbie paper writers flounder a little? Does the necessity of as many pubs as quickly as possible that early career stage PIs make them more prone to do the paper writing for their trainees? Or are these factors irrelevant… are we bound to repeat what our mentors trained us to do- do it like they did it. That seems to be how I do it… then again – I think I had a stellar mentor in this respect.