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One of the people in my group does very good work and is very productive. This person generates publishable results but, instead of writing them up, jumps to the next problem. I have been encouraging them for over half a year to start writing one particular paper, and we have had during this time a shared manuscript draft where I sketched the contents of the paper using bullet points, to help them get started. But nothing happens. At every meeting I tell this person how good the results are and why we need to publish them for practical (career/grants) and fundamental reasons - if we don't share the work with the community it's like it didn't get done at all. They agree with me in principle about writing up, but then nothing happens (not even small additions to the text). I got tired of waiting and started writing it up myself (keeping them as first author, I'm last). They seem ok with this, but I'm not, I would rather share the task of writing up. However, at this point I need to capitalize on all the work we've done and it looks like the easiest way to achieve that is if I write the whole thing.

I have heard about this issue (people complete the work but don't write it up, instead jumping to the next project) but this is the first time I have to deal with a situation like this directly. I would like to know if there are strategies how to incentivise this person to write, or if I should just give up and we're both better off splitting the work like that.

P.S.: The relationship with this person is perfectly fine, I insist on writing up every now and then, but don't get too pushy. I'm otherwise very happy with their performance.

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    Are you a team member or the group leader? Apr 6 at 16:27
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    @RichardErickson Group leader
    – Miguel
    Apr 6 at 16:36
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    What is the person's status in your group? and their future plan? Apr 6 at 19:03
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    @Miguel If, as you said, you're the group leader, just say: "please, write the paper". If they don't, you're not, I'm afraid. Apr 6 at 20:39
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    Is this person a graduate student of yours? A postdoc? An established collaborator from another group? Something else?
    – J...
    Apr 7 at 20:53

8 Answers 8

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This person may just like to do one thing rather than the other and might not feel competent in writing. You've apparently given them space to do this. But, it also seems like you don't have a team, per se, but a bunch of individuals doing individual work.

I have two suggestions.

First, if the lack of writing isn't holding anyone else, or the team in general, back in any way then there is really nothing to resolve. They may be hurting their own career, of course, and you can advise them of that, but if the overall work gets done and communication of results to other team members is adequate, I'd suggest you can let it go. If their strong point is the research and they are very good at it, then you may be able to let that happen naturally and solve the publication problem otherwise.

Second, you can opt for a more cooperative team work environment. In programming we use a technique called "pair programming" which puts two people together on every task. They don't form a mini-team and partners switch for different tasks, but it brings two minds together on every task. Note that the two members of a pair have different roles at any given moment and those roles switch frequently.

We have found that this technique translates to many other situations and you might think about employing it. If two people are responsible for some overall team task then each can take a different role in completing it, though they work together at all times. It isn't just a different way of dividing up work. So, your non-writer will often be paired with a person more comfortable in the writing and both can benefit if the person you are concerned with is a "deep diver" into the actual tasks. The learning and skills transfer can go both ways and each can become more comfortable with the various requirements.

In general, though, teamwork doesn't mean dividing up tasks into individual assignments. If you do that then you (a) have a work integration problem and (b) require all members to have equivalent skills in all aspects. Both are sub-optimal.

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I had myself trouble writing up, and I still do. As a graduate student, and later, as a postdoc, I only wrote a few papers by myself, and the people I have been working with didn't like my writing.

What I wish those people did for me was to force me to read/write/present my results for all the conceivable audiences.

"Force" is the key word here. If all the other great advise people gave you here doesn't work, you need to make it clear that 1. you are not writing papers for him anymore, 2. He has to present something written up every week, or you'll just disregard his research results, 3. You're doing this so he can finally learn to write his results and be an independent scientist.

You should make it clear there is no way around it. You need to write not only to publish results, but also to apply for grants, in case you need to keep a research group alive. There is no way for him to skip writing if he ever wants to be a PI.

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    What if they don't want to be a PI, ever?
    – Lodinn
    Apr 7 at 15:16
  • @Lodinn I don't think OP would have asked the question if that was the case. But, for the sake of argument, if that was the case, why is OP still unhappy with his team member? If a team member finds a way to turn himself in a liability for the team, the recommendation is still to correct the issue, which is not writing things up, or, failing that, to fire the guy. Apr 7 at 18:26
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You appear to have tried to work with them to publish their work. That's great! Using gentle approaches, I see two options going forward.

  • First, I would set smaller goals for each regular meeting (e.g., weekly, every other week). For example, outline the introduction this week. Hopefully this works. If it doesn't, you might try to figure out why and mentor the person through their challenges. Do they have language problems (e.g., writing in a 2nd or 3rd language)? Do they have writing anxiety? Is there an external factor limiting their writing? Either help them directly or connect them to outside resources.
  • Second, if option 1 does not work, you may be forced to write the paper yourself. Authorship depends upon your field's conventions (I'm in the biological sciences) and your generosity. If this was a student, I would keep them as first author and be senior author myself because I am suppose to be mentoring them. If this person was a technician, I would probably be first author because I am paying them for their time.

Using harsh approaches, you could fire or remove them from your group for not writing. Document your efforts to mentor them through writing and show you made a good faith effort to train and help them.

Personally, give your comment:

The relationship with this person is perfectly fine, I insist on writing up every now and then, but don't get too pushy. I'm otherwise very happy with their performance.

I would try to work with them and be willing to accept that I might need to do all of the writing.

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Leave a hard, written trace that you are asking to take over the publication and "this person" will be co-author of the work. Check their reaction.

If they will be cool with this, well, you have some writing tasks in front of you, but also some publication coming.

If they are not cool, ask them what are their plans with their future careers. Tell them there are for sure no internal additional fundings available if they do not publish these results... and also external fundings may be difficult to obtain.

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I'm assuming that this is at a university? At one point, my professor made it clear that producing knowledge in the form of published papers is literally what university researchers get paid for, just like other people get paid for producing food or electronic devices. He gave a rough number - something like 50,000 EUR per paper IIRC. Maybe you should make that clear to the person in your group - make them aware that not writing up a worthwhile paper is the equivalent of growing tens of thousands of dollars worth of produce and then letting it rot because you're too lazy to sell it. That might be enough motivation.

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  • That's not how it works in the US. In an indirect kind of way it is, but this direct correspondence of a paper yielding thousands of dollars to the authors is not how it goes. Instead the money in excess of your professorship salary is from grants. You'll need publications to get those, but the actual chain of causality is not so simple that it makes a good direct motivator.
    – Ian
    Apr 7 at 13:25
  • This figure seems like... A lot. Wish I had this kind of funding :)
    – Lodinn
    Apr 7 at 15:17
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    Ian: It doesn't directly work like that in Germany either - professors mostly get paid by the state through the university, grad students get paid through grants (often also by state authorities), and there is no direct correspondence between pay and output, but the whole system is based on the expectation that researchers produce (published) research, and if they don't, they're not holding up their end of the bargain. Apr 7 at 19:02
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that would be me for many years throughout my career!

There are several potential obstacles they might face. First and foremost, they may be struggling with writing altogether. This is the most unfortunate scenario for you; ideally, this should have been resolved during their undergrad. Making them write reviews seems to be the approach then: it helps both with reading/exposure to how papers are written and sets the scope narrowly. Speaking of which, the second potential issue is something I struggle with a lot personally. That is purely a writer's block; when setting a figurative pen to a figurative paper, my mind inevitably wanders off and starts considering future work. Bullet point outlines DO NOT help.

At least for me, rapidly sketching the outline is the only way to get started. It involves phrasing like "Unorthodox twig arrangement for underwater basket weaving is still facing issues of alignment despite decades of research effort (refs). We propose to (fix this issue) by (making the arrangement even more unorthodox), which will then (lead to peace and prosperity for all of humanity)". Bracketed parts will get replaced later, but it seems important to get the flow of ideas fleshed out at least a bit, as it is hard to remain grounded otherwise. One thing you can and should do to test if this is a problem is to write the main parts yourself, but make them write the materials and methods section entirely. Documenting the experiment is one hell of a lot easier than surveying the implications while still getting the paper written reasonably soon.

Finally, there is a question of motivation. I would strongly advise not to threaten to remove funding unless you mean it (which you seemingly do not). Instead, try to figure out what their goals are and nudge them towards writing by offering some interesting projects on a condition they do the writing. State you would not be able to handle all the workload otherwise. If they agree to that, it would be a lot stronger motivator than "uh I guess I should indeed" kind of reluctant acceptance you have now.

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It is important to realise that some extremely able people who perform outstandingly in some areas are nevertheless unable to write synthetically in the way I think you need. This is not laziness, incompetence or unwillingness: it is a diagnosable condition that I believe to be a form of dyspraxia (I am not a specialist).

I have at least one acquaintance of high standing and performance in the medical profession who is extremely well regarded by their peers but has never published an academic paper because of their difficulty of mentally assembling the material in the time available. They and their intimate working colleagues did not recognise the condition until well into their 40s, because their other abilties had masked it with a multitude of coping mechanisms.

This being the case, your attention should be on finding out if this is the case with your colleague. It is a condition that they may not even realise they have, so a sensitive approach is needed.

The comments and parts of answers that assume you to have merely a motivational or management issue should be disregarded for several reasons: they ignore the possibility of a real and diagnosable condition; they overlook how useful such a productive person is when complemented by others who can write; they are a little inhumane; and they overlook the possibility of legal action for unfair dismissal and similar institutional wrongs.

Think very seriously before proceeding, and ask for specialist health advice first.

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  • Would the downvoter care to explain their reasons? There are some human behaviours that are foolish and even destructive to handle with the “Pull yourself together and get on with it!” approach.
    – Anton
    Apr 8 at 16:58
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Writing up a paper is putting the final effort towards the work and properly finishing it. for academics this is how we are sharing our work and also how we are being evaluated. Not finishing can be a sign of perfectionism or another issue of fearing judgment or failing or very simple not like writing up, which the team member doesn't really need to like writing up. But if the not writing up is happening because of a negative emotions, i.e. fear, avoidance and if the team-member wants to change this then you can assist with identifying the problem and solving it.

In academia they expect from us to do everything, being good at coming up with experiments and research questions, having time management and organizational skills, being good at explaining our research, being good at writing, being good at finding money etc. But in reality, one person doesn't have to be all these in order to be a good scientist.

Also, team leaders not necessary are good at everything or knowing all the ways that each member needs to be managed, guided and inspired.

I would try to understand first what is the reason that the team member doesn't write up. Identifying the reason why something is happening or not happening is the first step to changing something. But for whatever reason this might be happening if the team member wants to make a change and start writing then needs to create a new habit which is the writing up.

A couple of things that have helped me are the following:

  1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wcs2PFz5q6g A neuroscience podcast, this episode is about making new habits, stop others. by Huberman Lab.
  2. https://drchatterjee.com/how-to-build-good-habits-and-break-bad-ones-with-james-clear/ another podcast on how to make good habits and stop bad habits by Dr Rangan Chatterjee.
  3. breaking the activity into very very very small steps that can be achieved and like that can create a positive emotional connection with the new activity and slowly can become a habit. And I guess you might be able to help your team member with that step.

hope at least the podcasts are useful! :)

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