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I'm a student. A professor recently gave me an open question to think about, and after three months of working on it as a hobby, I think I have something good.

It is not an exact mathematical theorem or anything, but I have the code and some proofs in special cases. So, I'm writing a paper and thinking about publishing it.

Now, the professor isn't active in the research area that this paper would naturally fit in. They did help with the technical details, but have no time to become an expert in this area.

But, all papers in this area have an "Introduction" section of almost a page, citing 30+ papers from the past two years. I have read a grand total of four relevant papers.

How to proceed? I don't think I am capable of doing this in a reasonable amount of time, as I don't really follow what's going on in this research area. And I have other pressing things to do.

I am thinking about writing to some PhD students in my institution which publish in this area, to recruit them as coauthors. Maybe they could even improve the paper. But how to contact them? Is it dumb to say: "hi, nice to meet you, here is my current draft of the paper, do you want in? By the way, you are going to write first section"?

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    Did you also check with your professor? Even if they are not familiar with the technical details, they could help you figure out how to proceed (e.g. they may know someone who could help). Also, if you don't follow what's going on in the research area, it is probably quite important to check with someone familiar with it to confirm that your work is worthy of publication. – GoodDeeds Nov 3 '20 at 21:23
  • Well, I can ask the professor for advice, but they said they can't help with the writing personally. This is usual for papers in this area, as ordering of authors is significant. – confused_student Nov 3 '20 at 21:27
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    As for "worthy of publication", as far as what I have read of the literature, this work would surely have been published two years ago, because it strictly improves one published work. The citation tree doesn't contain anything newer that makes my work irrelevant. As for the appropriateness of the venue, I suppose the reviewers will decide. – confused_student Nov 3 '20 at 21:32
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    Ask your faculty advisor to recommend a PhD student coauthor. Email the PhD student saying “advisor recommending I contact you.” Also ask your advisor for tips on how to quickly read papers for relevance and for purposes of writing a literature review. I train my students to understand the basics of a paper in 15-30 minutes and only go in depth (read fully) 5-10 most relevant papers. – Dawn Nov 3 '20 at 21:51
  • This is very field dependent. In mathematics, the best solution would probably be to: (a) find someone in the field who is both interested in the topic and known to be a decent/generous person (b) ask them for advice on the context of the problem. With luck, you will get guidance towards a minimal introduction for publication. Alternatively, you might gain a coauthor, especially if your work introduces a theoretical advance that can be extended using known tools in the area you may be unfamiliar with. – Zach H Nov 5 '20 at 19:49
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I suggest that rather than trying to enlist someone else as a co-author, you just do the best job you can with what you know and can learn in a reasonable amount of time. If you only have a few references, rather then 30, then so be it. If it is enough to explain what you are doing then it is probably enough.

Use your professor for feedback on what you write. They will probably have some ideas about things you should include. And get advice from them on where and how to submit it for publication. Perhaps a student-oriented publication is best, but you need advice on that.

But if another person hasn't contributed to the intellectual advances you have made, then it isn't really proper to include them as authors.

If you submit it to a reviewed publication then you will probably get feedback from reviewers if it has any merit at all. The feedback will help you improve it even if they don't end up publishing it.

I think that it is unlikely that you have missed anything so important that it would invalidate what you have done. Your professor would probably have caught that already. But a reviewer certainly will.

But, write the paper as best you can including what you think is necessary to explain things to a reader. The practice will be good.

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Introductions are challenging to write. We have knowledge, but we don't also remember where we learned everything. Indeed, stare at a problem long enough, and the reasoning for solving it seems plain. But reviewers and readers want the whole background. And if you are publishing a paper, you practically by definition need to be competent to write the introduction.

How to proceed? I don't think I am capable of doing this in a reasonable amount of time, as I don't really follow what's going on in this research area.

Well, not a lot really proceeds in a reasonable amount of time in academia ... you are not guaranteed to publish your paper rapidly. So if it takes you a few months to work on the introduction, so be it.

I am thinking about writing to some PhD students in my institution which publish in this area, to recruit them as coauthors.

The idea of someone contacting me to write an introduction is, quite frankly, humorous. It's appropriate to contact someone to help develop your paper, but if I was contacted by an undergrad (?) to help with their paper, I would expect that to mean intellectually and editing their text. Perhaps helping with a tricky paragraph or two. But finding 30 papers for them? No.

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    +1. I'd add to this that it really seems like either A) The paper is worth the effort of OP learning the background, and they should put in this effort, or B) It is not, and it's not worth publishing. I have a very hard time believing there is much useful research that requires no background in an area to complete. Maybe it requires fewer references than some magic number "30+". – Bryan Krause Nov 3 '20 at 23:18
  • @Bryan Krause: I agree, and in fact I find it difficult to believe the OP cannot find many background/related publications, as to me this raises a red flag that the topic is so specialized as to likely be of very little interest to anyone. – Dave L Renfro Nov 4 '20 at 8:15
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    @DaveLRenfro It doesn't sound to me like they can't find anything - they just feel overwhelmed by the idea (something I can readily sympathize with) and are frustrated because they have their results; but now need to back-fill an introduction that seems minor. – Azor Ahai -him- Nov 4 '20 at 15:23
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Your professor will not have time to contribute substantially to the writing. You lack the expertise to write the Introduction section in an appropriate manner. This is a situation that calls for a further co-author. As GoodDeeds wrote in their comment, this is the moment to ask your professor for further help. Even if they have no time for writing themselves, they could quite possibly know just the right PhD student who knows how to write an appropriate Introduction, and would be willing to do so in exchange for a co-authorship. This would be more fruitful than you writing PhD students yourself, since your professor is more likely to know the exact career status of the PhD students. Hence, they should know better which PhD student to approach for this.

Write your professor an email outlining exactly this plan: you and they will not have the time or expertise to contribute meaningfully to this, so could they perhaps recommend the right PhD student to fill the gap?

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  • This probably depends on the field and how advanced the PhD student is but if searching for another Co-Author is at all a good idea (I don't really think it is, see the answer by Buffy) then I don't think it should be a PhD student. The PhD student probably did most of the work on their own papers except writing the introduction. This was probably mostly done by more senior members of the collaboration. If what you need is someone who knows the whole field better than you in order to place the work in the right context you are probably looking for someone more senior than a PhD student. ... – Kvothe Nov 4 '20 at 10:01
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    ... If you really want to try to enlist another co-author I would advice this as an opportunity to get to know some professor in your field (who is knowledgeable on the subject of your paper) that you would want to work with. Don't ask them to be a co-author outright, just ask them for advice. If you manage to leave a good impression this might lead to a reference letter or PhD offer. – Kvothe Nov 4 '20 at 10:05
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Don’t look for a co-author; look for a mentor!

Other answers, such as Buffy’s, explain well why it’s generally not appropriate to recruit a co-author for this kind of thing. But I’d like to emphasise a good alternative: try to find someone experienced in the general area who can help advise you on writing the introduction.

Usually, I would expect the original professor who suggested this question should be qualified to help you write it. Even if they’re not an expert in the specific topic, they should be able to judge what’s an appropriate amount of background to give, and help you find more background reading if necessary. If they’re really not qualified for this (which would surprise me) then I suggest approaching some other experienced academic in your institution to ask for their guidance on this, ideally someone who already knows you a bit, eg from a course. To be clear, you’re asking for a favour which will take time they probably won’t get remunerated for — so make sure to ask politely, and don’t take it personally if they say no. But it’s a favour that many academics, when they can spare the time, would be very happy to give.

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    I think this is a great response. Hopefully your advisor knows people in the area and can point you to someone who will be both interested in the result and generous with their time. – Zach H Nov 5 '20 at 19:48

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