In recent months, I have found myself getting involved in varying degrees with the papers being written with members of my group. Some of the papers—by the more senior and experienced members of the group (primarily the postdoc) have needed little real effort on my part, except suggestions for improvements.

On the other hand, some of the more junior members of the group have been struggling significantly in writing papers that I believe can pass muster in getting into good peer-reviewed journals. My question is: how involved should I be in the writing process?

While I am ultimately equally responsible for the contents of the paper, it is not clear how strong a role I should play. Is it better for me to keep hounding the student through draft after draft until things are fixed to a satisfactory level, or do I need to step in at some point? Does the decision calculus change when an important deadline is on the horizon?

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    Could you clarify whether you are a coauthor on these papers in question (and, if appropriate, what kind of coauthor)? In my mind, this makes a difference. – Pete L. Clark May 27 '12 at 18:02
  • I'm the "sponsoring" or "last" author on all of these papers. – aeismail May 27 '12 at 18:13
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    Thanks for replying. This is really outside of my expertise -- in mathematics, we almost always list authors in alphabetical order, and it is far from unheard of for a faculty member to play a large role in a student's work but not put her name on the paper. For whatever it's worth, I feel a lot of ownership and responsibility for any document that I put my name on. For most (but not all) people I have cowritten papers with, I take a lead role in the writing because I am decently good at it, can do it relatively rapidly, and because good writing is important to me. – Pete L. Clark May 27 '12 at 18:32
  • @PeteL.Clark: I am in engineering, which is decidedly different from mathematics in the way we operate. It is very rare for advisors not to be on papers written by their students, because of the funding issue (that is, the PI got a grant which was carried out by the student). – aeismail May 27 '12 at 18:35
  • .AT.aeismail: Thanks again. I suspected things would be different in your field. (That's a large part of why I'm here, by the way: I'm interested to hear how things are in other corners of academia.) Maybe in your field it's well understood that you are in some sense "not really an author" of the type of student papers you describe. For me though, I feel like I am "really an author" of any piece of writing which I either write myself or has my name on it. This may not be the most pragmatic point of view, and I am not necessarily recommending it... – Pete L. Clark May 27 '12 at 21:03

Writing "good" papers is an integral part of being a good academic, and therefore it is, in my opinion, something that supervisors should teach their students.

This means you should be active in teaching them how to write, and less active in the actual writing itself.

Struggling is part of any learning process, provided they are struggling with writing, and not with your reviews. The best you can do is to provide the student with clear goals of how the paper should look, how it should be structured and what it should contain. Looking back at my own first papers, I usually started writing before knowing exactly what the bottom line, e.g. the take-home message, should be. Discussing a plan of the paper, both with regards to content and the writing process, with the student before letting him/her write it is probably a good idea.

When reviewing the manuscript, I think it's important to provide clear, consistent and constructive criticism. Specifically:

  • Clear: If you don't like a sentence, paragraph, figure or table (don't forget these latter two!), make sure you tell the student exactly what you don't like about it. This may require putting intuition aside and thinking through why you're not happy with it.

  • Consistent: Avoid editing ping-pong that lead to the same paragraph being re-written 20 times back and forth. It's probably a good idea to keep copies of previous iterations with your own comments. This also helps the students if you can tell them they've done a good job fixing things from the previous iteration.

  • Constructive: This is kind of obvious, but I can't be reminded of it often enough.

Deadlines are a bummer, but they're as much part of the academic process as the writing itself, so the best you can do is to teach your students to prepare for them adequately, i.e. plan ahead.


As for authorship, in my opinion, teaching a student to write a paper in no way qualifies as co-authorship. It's part of your job as an academic. Co-authorship is something that arises out of having contributed significantly to the contents of the paper.

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    different disciplines have very different conventions for ownership - it's not uncommon for a PI of a lab to by default be on papers emanating from that lab. But as Pete points out, in math (and parts of theoryCS) it's quite different. – Suresh May 27 '12 at 20:32
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    @Suresh: Quite right, I've amended the addendum to point out that it's my personal opinion. – Pedro May 27 '12 at 20:40
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    "Is it better for me to keep hounding the student through draft after draft until things are fixed to a satisfactory level, or do I need to step in at some point?" — Better for you? Probably not. Better for the student? Absolutely! – JeffE May 28 '12 at 21:07

It seems you already know the answer -- it depends on the paper (your level of interest), the co-authors (their ability to work alone) and your time. There are no rules. I saw both advisors that spend a lot of time in technical discussions and advisors that hardly spend time to read the paper. Both were good advisors INHO.

I would say the role of the advisor is like the role of the head-chef in a fancy restaurant: Quality Assurance. If the cooks make great food, all you need to do is to clean the crumbs off the plate before it goes out. If the cooks messed the food up, you need to return the plate back to them and tell them that the fish is still raw; the chicken is blend; and the correct way to do Flambé is by lighting up 95% alcohol rather than 5%-alc beer. Demonstrations are always appreciated.

  • That's a really nice analogy :) – Paul May 27 '12 at 19:22

One strategy for teaching students about the writing process is to get them involved in projects/papers being written by the professor or by more advanced researchers of the professor's group (post docs or 3rd or 4th year students in European system), and over time gradually increase the amount of responsibility that the student has. This works in groups where people are collaborating on the same thing. For a computer science example, you can imagine that people in the lab are developing the same software system.

Start by getting a first year PhD student working with a more advanced researcher. The research is not wholly done by the new student, but the student should be involved in all steps of the process. The new student can learn mostly by observation (watching the paper grow), contributing about 10% of the total effort.

Writing of the next paper could follow more or less the same pattern, except that the new student should take a more active role, say 25%.

For the third paper, give the new student the lead, and keep the more experienced researchers around helping and contributing, but make sure that they do not take over, and let the student work at his/her own pace. Whenever the student gets stuck, the more experience researcher could help move things forwards, to avoid the work stagnating. On this paper the student could do 60-70% of the work, and most of the writing.

Finally, let the student take the main responsibility on a paper and have the more experienced researchers contributing only comments and encouragement.

Doing things in this way requires a bit of bootstrapping, as you need to have multiple papers on the go, written by multiple people, but all around the same topic, but it could work with a single student-single professor set up.

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