Thursday, February 13, 2014

Academic Inmate has a Big Thirsty about publishing and gives us more reason to hate "real" doctors

I finished my PhD about 2 years ago and I am a research coordinator in a very clinical department that needs to change and up its research output (or else).  Right now, I'm running into problems regarding how research is planned out, conducted, and published. I honestly have more research experience than the people I'm working for. The majority are medical doctors with minimal research training but I'm only a "phd" so what do I know? 

I'm curious how different disciplines deal with writing papers. They think that the lead author (one of them) comes up with the basic idea and someone else runs the analysis.  Then, I'm supposed to take their idea, read all the "relevant" articles (which is poorly defined) and write the paper. My usual reaction to that is "you're asking me to do what?!?" Then when the papers haven't been finished and submitted because I'm waiting for the "lead author" to have time to look at it and give feedback and finish any issues with the discussion, I'm accused of being a "poor writer."

My experience led me to believe that the lead author comes up with the idea but is also responsible for a good chuck of the writing. The co-authors contribute as well but it's not "dictated" to them.

I know there are different expectations about publications between disciplines but are there disciplines that actually write papers in this manner?

Academic Inmate


  1. In my field, first author means FIRST AUTHOR, in that you wrote the majority of the article. I believe what you are referring to, in the medical sciences, is often called ghost writing. Someone else writes the article, and the other authors just sign off on the content (sometimes without reading it). There are oodles of anecdotes if you care to check
    As you can imagine, it often bites "first authors" in the ass later, if problems arise.

    1. I'm familiar with ghost writing but I never ran into it before for academic papers. It seems dishonest to me considering that the publications are important for their academic careers. As university employees, the doctors are expected to teach and/or conduct research. Anyways, being a ghost writer wasn't part of my job description and if it was, I never would have taken the job. I have no problem contributing to the paper but I do expect the first author to do a portion of the writing. But it's almost comical when they complain about how little protected time or *gasp* unpaid time they have for writing. My usual thought is "yeah, you and every other faculty member that I know.

  2. Step One: Write dreadful article, full of (preferably subtle) mistakes and distortions.
    Step Two: Get "first author" to glance at it and sign off.
    Step Three: Contact publishers with great concern/write open letter about scientific misdeeds of "first author." Evidence - article in question.
    Step Four: Send "first author" down in flames while gaining reputation as academic gadfly.
    Step Five (done in secret): Cackle with glee.

    1. Rule 6: There is no rule 6.
      Step 7: Profit!

  3. My experience is that the lead author and senior author provide the bulk of the intellectual input to design, execution, and publishing of the project. "Lesser" authors contribute lesser chunks of the effort, perhaps including chunks of original prose for their particular parts of the project. The writing and editing may be divided among all authors according to ability and available time. In the end all are generally happy to have gotten another paper out the door without having done the whole thing themselves.

    I've worked with a few Drs. of the non-PhD variety and find that where research is concerned, some are walking examples of the Dunning-Kruger Effect. That they often lack release time to write is perhaps a blessing, as they turn out things like this purported result section (highly paraphrased):

    "Regarding treatment X, significance was reached in parameter A at 5 days. Significance was reached in parameter B at 3 days. Significance was not reached in parameter C.

    "Regarding treatment Y, significance was reached in parameter A at 3 days. Significance was not reached in parameter B. Significance was reached in parameter C at 8 days.

    "Regarding treatment Z, significance was reached in parameter A at 2 days. Significance was reached in parameter B at 4 days. Significance was not reached in parameter C."

    It was several pages, but you get the idea. I said, are you fucking kidding me? You don't even hint whether the treatment actually improved the patient's health relative to doing nothing. You don't see the problem with this? Based on this, I not only question whether you've ever read a journal article, I question whether you understand why we did this study, and I even question whether you understand what healthcare is about! The best I can say is that this will help the reader catch up on sleep.

    The good non-PhD Drs. I've worked with readily admit to their naivete in statistics, research, and scholarship, and concentrate on contributing clinical perspective and expertise that the PhDs may lack.

    1. What you described, where the work is divided up based on the experience and expertise of the person, is the method that I'm trying to encourage but it's an uphill battle. The department head is still of the mind that they can hire someone to read and write for them. When that approach is described to other people from different departments, and ones that are just as clinical, it's usually meet with surprise and comments along the line that it's not the usual approach and not good in the long run.

      I also try to be very clear about are my strengths and weaknesses and will readily admit when I'm not sure about something since I lack the clinical perspective but some of them think I'm supposed to be an extension of their brain and don't understand why I might be confused. They also underestimate how much time is required for reading and writing. I'm paid hourly and they only have me for so many hours per week. Then they're left wondering why I can't do everything.

  4. Just do what our students do: plagiarize somebody else's paper.

    Seriously, I don't see how anybody but me could write the papers about my research. I continue to learn about my research as I write my papers. There are tons of details and connections and new ideas that come about because I am forced to concisely explain what I did in the lab. Occasionally, I even realize that it was all a piece of shit and I stop writing the paper completely. None of that could ever happen if somebody else is writing it.

    As for a recommendation, maybe you could encourage your school to evaluate your department using an external reviewer. Not just to discuss writing papers but for the whole program. You said it was undergoing some changes to reach the next level of research, right? An external reviewer could help guide that process. Along the way, the reviewer would let everybody know how to publish in the big leagues.

    1. I completely agree with your point about benefits of writing about your own research. What I know about research, I learned by doing it. I've been trying to convey that to them but they don't always hear it. I think part of it is due to a lack of experience with research and the other part due to a sense of entitlement. The go to excuse is they don't have time so they can just hire someone else to do it.

      Funny that you mention the external review. There have been ongoing issues with the university's budget and accreditation so the entire university just a underwent a review process. The clinical departments were rank extremely low and how to write papers is just one thing on a long list of things that are broken. I'm sure there will be changes over the next few years and better employment opportunities for me (part-time contract position are hard to live on). If I stay at the university, I would prefer a research support type role but I'm also ready to jump ship and find work outside of a university setting.

  5. Now I'm thankful that the people with whom I have co-published, have done equal amounts of work and we've all rotated the first author position on those publications.

    However, if first author does, indeed, mean being the person who comes up with the idea and finds someone else to write the paper for them, I'm currently seeking writers to be my second, third, and fourth authors...

    1. Re the last sentence (". . . I'm currently seeking writers . . ."), the Gnome trope is apropos:

      Phase 1. Have neato research idea
      Phase 2. ?
      Phase 3. Publish

      Academic Inmate’s department seems to be following this scheme to the T, and their problems could stem from their apparent unawareness of both Phase 2 and its importance.

    2. You have no idea how close to the truth you are. Someone tried to pull a similar approach with a grant:

      Phase 1: Have neato research idea
      Phase 2: ?
      Phase 3: Get money

      Phase 4: Figure out Phase 2 after the money comes in.

      I was about ready to quit and/or get fired when I put my foot down on that one. But luckily they took the hint (after some very heated exchanges) to figure out Phase 2 before the grant went in.

      Somehow we've managed to get some small grants this year but I've been heavily involved with the development of them which now means I'll be too busy managing the research projects to make me write any more papers for now (yay!!).

    3. Oh yes, I’ve seen that approach to grantwriting. The grant app is just for saying how good my idea is. Those pesky details like how to actually accomplish the idea, and what I’ll do differently when the idea does not work exactly as I thought it would (because it won’t), aren't needed because it’s clearly such a good idea that they have to give me money for it!

      Well done on scoring the grantbux. You are in a shrinking club.

  6. 'Nother scientist here. That department sounds extremely dysfunctional. Research definitely does not happen that way in my discipline. The first author or lead author is the person who is fully responsible for the content of the paper and the research. That's the person whose reputation is on the line. Sometimes, that person is a very junior scientist working in a group or collaboration, but when you have a bigshot involved as well, the bigshot's reputation is tacitly on the line as well. The original idea or intellectual content may be from the bigshot, and the graduate students, postdocs, or research faculty may well be the people carrying it out, but no bigshot can just outsource the whole thing in the way you describe. It sounds like you are being asked to be responsible for changing the culture of the department and dragging a bunch of non-scientists toward becoming scientists. If these people have not trained as researchers, there is very little hope for them, and the department head knows or should know that. I wish you luck, and it sounds as if you need to have one foot out the door of this job...

  7. Academic Inmate, the gist of your follow-up comments supports my hypothesis that 'your' department, or at least its head, is suffering a bit from the Dunning-Kruger effect. If they knew more about the entire research-scholarship process from conception to publication, they'd see problems with their approach and why it would not save them as much time as they currently think. But of course ignorance begets confidence, so to them, it must be your fault. Till they wise up, they can just keep on changing wives in the conviction that one will finally bear them a son.

    You do have some objective evidence in your court: the accreditation report. That means it's not just you (and their colleagues in other departments, but what do they know, am I right?) saying they're doing it wrong. So they can't just do it harder, they must do it different. (He said, pressing adjectives into adverbs, in the manner.)

    If they've been told from higher up that they must change, they may be working through Kubler-Ross' five stages, because their behavior also falls on the spectrum of denial to bargaining. Hopefully they'll get to acceptance soon. In the meantime, maybe they can concede that while they are absolving themselves from the physical act of writing, you're not a mind reader and there is no subsitute for their reviewing the manuscript drafts. The overall process WILL take more calendar days, but the trade-off is they can maintain their billable patient contact hours.

    Disclaimer: I am not a psychologist; I don't even play one on TV. If I'm right about something outside my training, maybe it's not entirely concidental, but my ramblings do not constitute expert opinion.