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During my bachelor I did a research internship in another country for a few months and contributed to a research project which is now, a few years later, going to be published. The research is in a specific field of computer science, but the responsible professors' main interest is focused in another STEM area. So now his grad student approached me and asked if I would review the paper. I read it and I think the quality is not good. There are many writing errors, the papers to which the results are being compared are quite old (around 6 years) and the datasets used to evaluate the algorithms are from the 90's. This is quite old in a fast growing field like computer science. The techniques which were used are correct, as far as I can judge, but not new.

I know that the professor and his grad student are no experts in this field but I now pursue my masters degree in this specific field of computer science. I recently learned about more modern approaches and I think that their methods are not worth being published in a paper. I wasn't experienced enough to notice this when I was with them in this internship. It would also be too much work for me to fix all these issues I named.

Now I wonder if it could give me, as a computer scientist, a bad reputation to eventually co-author a paper which (I think) is outdated and poorly written. Can I decline being named but allow them to publish it? On the other hand, if I would be named as a co-author, this would be my first publication and maybe this would count as "better than nothing", or people would acknowledge the fact that I contributed to some okay-ish research in my early bachelors. I am not sure yet if I want to pursue a career in science or in the industry.

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    Have you considered offering to rewrite the paper yourself to bring it up to your standards? It might be welcome if you approach it correctly. – Buffy Jun 7 at 11:27
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    @Buffy Good advice in general, but in this case, OP writes, "It would also be too much work for me to fix all these issues I named." – JeffE Jun 7 at 11:35
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    @JeffE, true, but it might not be necessary to fix everything. Just bring it up to a better standard. – Buffy Jun 7 at 11:36
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    @JeffE is right. So far I fixed the typos and grammatical errors which I could spot, that is what I could do – TheCooocy Jun 7 at 11:38
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    One of your jobs as an author is to fix poor writing, so you shouldn't hold that against the draft. – David Richerby Jun 8 at 19:37
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First, if you think the manuscript is not worth submitting even after major revisions, or in other words, if you as a referee would recommend its rejection, then the answer is clear - you shouldn't be coauthor.

However it seems that you evaluate the manuscript as ok-ish, and the main concern is that its content is somehow outdated. I would do what your old group asked you to do: review and possibly improve the paper. Do this to the maximum extent you can - given the fact that your are likely busy with other tasks and research - and then leave the main responsibility to the first author and your old group.

After all, you are still a young student / researcher. This paper could be your first entry in your publication list, and some more time and more papers have to come before you get concerned about your papers being all of the very best quality. A published paper normally cannot be too wrong, and various journals can accommodate different quality or differently tailored papers. So perhaps try to influence also the choice of where to submit, especially to avoid a non-ending revision phase.

At this stage of your career, you can only benefit from a published article. To those who read it, it will show that you actively entered the research of a group even when you were younger than now. To the rest of the community, it will be just a publication. And that is better than no publications.

The main point is how much you can improve it, and if there is space for it. As a "publish as it is" decision seems to be highly unlikely, you must be prepared to work on it further. But again, leave the responsibility to the group from which the research originated.

See it as an opportunity to publish, and not as an annoyance.

The above applies to a salvageable manuscript. For a better and definitive answer I should be a specialist in your field and evaluate the manuscript myself.

Rejection would also fix the issue. Although I always tried to avoid rejection even as coauthor, I don't think it should be your concern at this stage. Nobody will know except the referees, and even they won't blame or remember you.

edit: I want to make clear that the recipient journal should not be a predatory one, or one with such a low reputation that is not worth working to publish therein. The above answer assumed this.

Also, above I wrote " A published paper normally cannot be too wrong, and various journals...". Beside that "normally" means what should be the normality, this doesn't mean that errors and, even worse, frauds, have no room in literature. It must be seen a concern for the whole community and is not related to the OP situation. If the manuscript will be accepted, it will most likely stand as an acceptable paper, indeed. Not to say that the manuscript is in the hands of the OP. With this respect, the paper cannot be too wrong already. Otherwise there wouldn't be this thread.

  • Thank you @Alchimista ! You metioned a good point: the paper is not good, but okay-ish and that might be enough for now. I fixed the severe typos and grammar mistakes. We'll see if the paper gets accepted and if it does then it's at least the start of my career and I can improve on it. – TheCooocy Jun 8 at 12:05
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    "A published paper normally cannot be too wrong" -citation needed – David Ketcheson Jun 8 at 12:05
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    @David Ketcheson. It is why library pay for. Yes normally a published paper cannot be too wrong. At least not to the point of not being part of the normal development of science. – Alchimista Jun 8 at 12:09
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    @Alchimista looks at the recent controversies about errors and lack of reproducability in published papers I'm not so sure about that. – nick012000 Jun 10 at 12:38
  • There are some recent papers about error rates in some research areas. For example, oncology. – Peter K. Jun 10 at 15:55
6

Being co-author on a paper is formal acknowledgement that you endorse the publication of the paper. I would not accept this if you feel there are major errors. Can you request an acknowledgement (in the acknowledgements section) so you have some formal record of your contribution to this work, but without exposing yourself to potential issues of being an author of a bad paper?

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    I strongly concur with this when there are "major errors". I wouldn't even want an acknowledgement in a paper I thought was actually wrong. However, the question seems to be more concerned that the paper has stylistic issues and may be somewhat out of date, not that it is actually wrong. I'm not sure this advice applies in that situation, especially for a very early career researcher. – TimothyAWiseman Jun 7 at 22:27
  • huh, I somehow missed this answer and posted essentially the same thing, a few days later - my apologies! – Geoffrey Brent Jun 14 at 4:40
3

On the other hand, if I would be named as a co-author, this would be my first publication and maybe this would count as "better than nothing", or people would acknowledge the fact that I contributed to some okay-ish research in my early bachelors.

In general these considerations are probably more important. The "not-too-bad" (although you have assessed the paper as "too-bad") is better than the ideal. Most people don't have ideal situations and need to make the best of what they have.

Potentially publication might give you something to work on further.

If you are unsure about pursuing academic work, it kind of doesn't matter. Most of my work life a single published paper on work I did as an undergrad was helpful in interviews in industry.

2

Another thing to consider: depending on the fine details of the publication in question, it may be possible for you to fix as much as you can before submission, wait for the feedback, and then make additional fixes. I'm not suggesting that you submit a paper with errors in methodology/conclusions, but rather that reviewers may be willing to work with a paper that has a good method / conclusion, but needs to be improved for readability.

No, it's not an ideal submission; yes, it's more likely to get rejected if it's too hard to read. But, spending your time on methods / conclusions while ignoring readability errors might be a way to move forward and take advantage of the opportunity while not devoting more time than you currently have. In other words, can you prioritize your time and submit, knowing that it's a process, rather than thinking your initial submission will be what goes into the publication?

2

Applying known stuff to applications outside of your field is of much value, especially for theoretic fields like Math, Computer Science, or Physics. For such papers its less about being on par with the latest research in the original field, but to identify problems where new methods can be applied. It is often difficult for people from applied fields to understand all the theory and to grasp the downsides or subtle problems that might prohibit the use of a method.

You helped them with this difficult task. It might not be difficult for you, but they seems to value it. Accept the paper's co-authorship and rest assured, there will be people graceful that you shared your knowledge and translated to a way they can understand.
And for the future, always look for possibilities to apply your knowledge. Others might not know about and can profit from it.

1

As you have described the situation, you have been offered inclusion as a co-author in exchange for reviewing the paper. My feeling is that a courtesy has been extended to you, and where no obligation to do so exists. If you feel comfortable enough in your relationship with the actual authors, voice your concerns in as diplomatic manner as possible. You should probably be prepared for any criticisms you offer (positive or otherwise) to be ill-received. Regardless, the paper will - in all likelihood - be submitted for publications, and with, or without you as a co-author. That choice is solely at the discretion of the principle investigator. Additionally, poor quality will not necessarily be a bar to publication: if 'where' it is published is a concern for you, (that is also outside of your control), perhaps you should decline to be included amongst the co-authors.

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I would write them a letter saying that my name should be removed from the excellent paper, because I cannot find in it any contribution that came from me, and therefore it would be dishonest for me to obtain credit from it. In other words, hide your real motive under a generous heap of its precise opposite. If they give you assurances that it's okay, insist that you might be questioned about that paper (for instance in some future interview), which will create an uncomfortable situation for you.

The real reason (wanting to withdraw from a mediocre paper out of embarrassment) will likely create a bad feeling. It is unnecessary "collateral damage" in pursuit of the simple goal of getting your name removed.

In life, try to get things done without collateral damage, whenever possible.

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    I don't agree with such a method, I think that in life you should be honest, but respectful. – TheCooocy Jun 8 at 11:51
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    @TheCoocy There is an objective measure of disrespect inherent in the honest reason for withdrawing from the paper; no amount of diplomacy in wording can diminish it below that. In life, you don't have to be honest about your personal feelings to strangers. Don't lie to your mother, of course; but some researchers you collaborated with once as an undergrad are not your mother. – Kaz Jun 8 at 22:05
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    @TheCoocy If you're in an elevator with someone who is fat and smells, do you remark upon these two observations? Why not, it's honest! – Kaz Jun 8 at 22:09
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    @Kaz No, I keep my mouth shut. Your answer seems to be saying that I should tell the person that they're remarkably slender and smell of roses, and that I'm leaving the elevator because I'm not fit to be in their presence. – David Richerby Jun 10 at 15:10
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    In the world of the paper, the "smile and have a nice day" option is saying "Thanks but I don't think it would be appropriate for me to be an author" and leaving it at that. No need to be hurtfully honest ("Your paper sucks") or deceitfully praising ("Your paper is amazing -- I'm not worthy!") – David Richerby Jun 10 at 17:22

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