We're a little crazy, about science!

Writing rush

Well today I will be spending the bulk of my time editing a journal paper that needs some work. Okay a lot of work, it’s not great, but I feel like it’s a case of switching fields. Something I know all too well when I jumped from mechanical engineering to neuroengineering. I try to be polite when editing because it’s stressful enough as it is. However, it’s important to remember that it’s the paper being critiqued, not you.

About a year ago now (wow time flies!) we hired a postdoc. I feel like I can say we and not just hospital-PI because I got to be part of the selection process. Yes, really. Which is why I say we work with hospital-PI not for him (he likes to remind us of this as well and recently corrected me when slipped and said I work for him). Our field is very niche, there’s not a lot of labs doing the stuff we’re doing and the field itself is tiny enough that I’ve probably met half or more of the “big names” in the field even though more than half of my time has been spent living in a pandemic.

It’s no surprise then that our postdoc was not an exact fit in the field we do our research in. It’s not a big deal, learning what we do takes time, but it’s not impossible. I point to myself as evidence that it’s not hard to learn the stuff. Point being, postdoc has learned all the stuff that we do and is fully capable of doing the research themselves. The only time I’ve had to jump in to help was with the technical issues that crop up, but outside of that postdoc is doing there own thing and we’ve been on autopilot for a bit now.

That is until recently. Postdoc has their first paper from our lab due soon. I say due, but I mean we hope to have it submitted for review before the end of the year to fit within our timeline of doing stuff. There really are no “due” dates for journal papers, typically the one I recently submitted was for a special issue so that actually had a due date. I thought everything was going well, but it turns out not to be the case.

As it turns out postdoc is drowning slowly. I feel bad because even though I’m not a postdoc, I have the most experience in the lab (outside of hospital-PI of course) so had I known I would’ve offered help sooner. English isn’t Postdocs first language and although they speak it fluently, their scientific writing is not where it needs to be. Combine that with the new field they are in and we’re left with a paper using incorrect terminology and basically a huge mess. Hospital-PI summed it up when he said he wished he could say the paper was in ruins, but it’s not even that far along.

This is where I entered the picture. I’m second author on this paper and even though I’ve reminded Postdoc that I’m here to help they have not really used me to edit the paper opting instead to send it directly to hospital-PI or to our scientific writer. This is a huge breach of etiquette that they didn’t understand. We only send papers to hospital-PI and especially to the scientific writer when they are ready for that level of review. So when hospital-PI let me know I wasn’t doing enough, I finally decided to be more hands on in offering help to Postdoc.

I sent a somewhat strongly worded email letting them know that I’m here to help and to send me the damned paper. Okay, I was extra gentle about it because Postdoc is stressed out as it is, so I don’t want them to feel like they are failing. Instead I explained that we only involve hospital-PI when we have a fully written paper for review because his time is valuable and hospital-PI is normally stressed as it is.

The email worked and I got a copy of the paper the same day, which I thoroughly reviewed the sections that were ready and sent it back to them that evening. Yesterday night I got a revised copy of the paper. It’s still in bad shape, but at least the section I’m trying to edit is coming together. I’m going to have to be very hands on with this paper, I can already tell since the only thing that is done well enough to not heavily edit is the introduction, which if I remember correctly was written by hospital-PI anyway.

This whole experience reminds me of when I first started in the field. You learn the procedures writing style of the field your in and when you have to switch it’s hard. You don’t know the correct words to use, you don’t know the style they expect, and you have no idea what the heck is going on. It took me over a year to figure out what school-PI expected of me and it was only recently that I’ve impressed him with my abilities.

Needless to say Postdoc isn’t there yet, but they will be. It takes time and practice, this is practice. So today I’m going to basically rewrite a few of the sections from scratch. I’m trying to preserve their writing “voice” though so I will probably incorporate a lot of what they wrote back into what I’m writing to make sure that happens. I don’t want to write the paper my way, I want to help Postdoc find his writing style in our field.

I’m not a great writer myself. At least I don’t feel like I am and I doubt many people are. There is a lot of editing that needs to happen before a paper becomes publishable, which is partly why my last paper took forever to submit. However, I do have experience writing in our field and hospital-PI trusts me enough to help Postdoc get the paper into the shape it needs to be.

I should have a new draft for Postdoc later today, we only have a few weeks before we need to have a good working draft, so there’s not a lot of time to waste. Speaking of which, I should stop screwing around and get to work.

Until next time!


2 responses

  1. Back when I was getting my Master’s, I was paired with another student for a group project. We had to read a journal paper and do a report on it, and we agreed to split the work in half: they would do the first section (which was “summarize the paper you read”) and I would take the rest.
    When they sent me their part for incorporation, I saw to my horror that they had not summarized the paper in their own words. Instead, they had tried to cut the most salient sentences from the original and glue them together with a little of their own writing. And the copied pieces weren’t properly attributed, despite being direct quotes. It wasn’t the best summary and probably also counted as plagiarism.
    I think the assignment was due the next day — there was no time to request something better. I had to rewrite most of what they’d given me to make sure we got a decent grade, and then send them an e-mail explaining why. I tried to avoid snarling or being patronizing in the e-mail, but inside I was pretty nettled. What was this person doing, writing such a lazy “summary” in a graduate-level CS course?
    So I felt surprised — and a little guilty — when I got a reply to the tune of “Thank you, this will help me out with my future writing.” And I thought about the fact that they were a student from outside the US, and I realized maybe they really hadn’t known any better! For all I knew they weren’t taught the same writing standards where they came from.
    All of that to say, good on you for being nice to your Postdoc. Hopefully the issues are just transitional and they’ll pick up on the right style quickly.
    Good luck in the OR tomorrow; I hope you get some good data this time!


    November 22, 2021 at 8:42 pm

    • Wow, that sounds a lot like my recent issues with a paper I was working on. Partners can be a pain sometimes! Postdoc is a good person, they are doing the best they can and luckily that doesn’t involve mild plagiarism (so far anyway! haha). In my case the difference between him and the other person I had an actual problem with is that Postdoc actually wants to learn, the person I worked with on the paper I recently had published obviously didn’t care as much. Strangely he was an international student and plagiarized too, I wonder if they don’t teach students not to do that in certain countries, or maybe it was just because it was his first real time writing a scientific paper.

      In any case, thank you and things went smoothly(ish) today.

      Liked by 1 person

      November 23, 2021 at 4:14 pm

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