Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Submit it anyway

I’m tired of hearing about poor graduate students whose advisors don’t take the time look over their papers or don’t give timely comments on their work. If it’s about to be submitted for a journal, then it should be important for the advisor and they have an obligation to look at it and give extensive comments in a timely fashion. If your advisor is failing to do that, then they’re doing a bad job of advising in my opinion.

Contrary to anything you might hear otherwise, all authors on a paper are treated equally even though some think they only have "management/guidance" roles. All authors should know the research and should be willing to help. More importantly, all authors get the same amount of credit no matter how much work they individual contributed. So if you are working on a paper and feel like someone's not contributing their part, then say so. If you think you've got a good start, just say so. Publishing helps all authors equally so we, as co-authors, should be willing to write some of the work.

Let’s take a paper with 5 authors on it. The breakdown is usually as follows:
  • Author 1: Main author, did most of the writing and research. Can explain the technical aspects, chug through math, models, data, etc, but has limited scope for the overall picture.
  • Author 2: Generally the main author’s partner in the lab, immediate mentor, or fellow PhD student who helped gather/analyze data. Helped with some of the writing.
  • Authors 3 & 4: These two Authors contributed some technical aspects and offered advice. If you’re ever looking for these two Authors, my money is on them not being in the lab.
  • Author 5: Often the main advisor, grant getting, knows the overall plan for the project but (all too often) doesn’t know the technical details.

Officially though, everyone is equally counted as a co-author on the paper, and that’s the aspect that I disagree with. If Authors 3 and 4 only gave a little bit of advice, then thank them in the acknowledgements. If Authors 1 and 2 have kicked the paper around for a while, Author 5 should have the decency to comment within a few days. Otherwise remove their name! I think it’s fair for you (as the main author) to send the work and say I need comments within X number of days or a very good reason why you can’t do that, otherwise I’ll just remove your name and submit it anyway.

You may be a graduate student but this is why we have peer review. There’s no reason why you need a professor’s name on the paper to get it published. In certain instances it helps. But if your work is good enough, then go for it. If it passes peer review, then it’s good enough and then maybe your advisor will take notice that you’re not messing around and you’re not just a lab minion.


  1. Here's some of the problems, though:
    1) Some advisors will be ticked off by this, rather than impressed (I know mine would)
    2) For a student's first papers, many times the core ideas on which the work is based are the advisor's, and so they can't be removed as an author
    3) A few days? I'd be happy with a few *months*... my grad chair and department chair are both aware of the situation, but nothing's changed, and I'm sitting on too much data to willingly jump ship.

  2. 1) True, and when it comes time to asking for recommendations, that's something to consider. At the same time, you shouldn't have to deal with an advisor that doesn't have time for you.

    2) In this case, it's paper #5 of work that has little influence from prof.

    3) I was going to suggest going to the chair(s). That's a bad situation to be in, for both the department and you.