Abstract Rules

May 03 2011 Published by under advising, students

A few student-readers, both grads and undergrads, have written to me in recent months about errors that they have made -- not errors in research, but errors in following the (mostly unwritten) rules of what I will call 'research culture'. Now they fear that they have annoyed their advisors so much that they wonder if they should switch advisors, schools, fields, countries, planets.

I can't comment on any particular circumstance because of course a major factor in each case is the personality of the advisor and the specific details of each situation. But I do want to discuss this as a general issue, giving an example of one of these 'violations', and getting comments from readers on how serious you think such violations are.

One example that has cropped up a few times in my inbox and in my own experience occurs when a student submits an abstract or other type of conference paper without showing the text to the co-authors (that is, to the advisor and others involved in the research). And then the advisor and others find out and are angry, whether or not the abstract is accepted by the conference.

Years ago, when an undergraduate research student submitted an abstract with me as co-author and without showing me the abstract prior to submission or even telling me that an abstract had been written and submitted, I was mad because -- when I eventually read the abstract -- I saw that there were serious errors in content and writing. The student withdrew the submitted abstract on my request, before it was reviewed by anyone. I found it hard to believe that this student thought it was appropriate to submit this without showing it to me or the other co-authors, and I was disappointed that the abstract contained such serious errors.

When the student had asked me months before whether it would be a good idea to submit something to a particular conference, I had given a vague yes in reply. The student interpreted this as a green light to submit something without further input from me, but of course I was really only saying "This is, in theory, a good idea, but let's see what you come up with, if anything." Now I try to remember to specify to students, especially undergrads, that I want to see a draft before any submission of work in which I am involved. I am a quality control freak.

[Yes I know that unresponsive advisors who don't give feedback and delay submissions of abstract and papers can be a problem, but that's a separate issue.]

I am also a hypocrite, as I have submitted conference abstracts and papers and added names of people in my group without informing them all before I submitted the abstract. I do this if the abstract is based on a paper we've already written together, or if it is a review of several projects (e.g., for an invited talk). When presenting new material, I am more likely to consult my co-authors.

One could argue (rationalize) that it is not quite so bad for me to do this because I have written 57 million of these things and presumably know what I am doing, but it's not a good idea for an undergraduate to go rogue with their very first conference abstract. One could also mention that I am not relying on my co-authors for letters of recommendation in the future, whereas a student author may well need their co-author's high opinion and good will. That's a somewhat obnoxious justification, but is nevertheless the reality of some of these situations. Really, though, we should all show our co-authors the text prior to submission, no matter what our academic position and no matter how routine the content.

Some organizations (journal publishers etc.) make corresponding authors certify that all co-authors have read and approved a manuscript being submitted, but this may be less common for some conference submissions. Perhaps if an inexperienced student-author encountered such a question during submission of a conference abstract, it would be a signal to discuss the abstract with co-authors before clicking the "submit" button.

So, in the incident I described above, did I forgive the student or was the student's life and career ruined by my rage and the humiliation of the withdrawn abstract? I got over it, had a calm but forceful discussion with the student, and wrote decent letters to accompany graduate applications. The student has recently completed a degree in a graduate program at another university.

Here is my question of the week for readers:

If you were the advisor and a student submitted a conference abstract or paper without telling you (a co-author), would you be mad if the abstract is bad but not mad if it is good, or would you be mad no matter what? And if you were mad, would you be terminally mad, or would you get over it?


35 responses so far

  • EngineeringProf says:

    I would be upset, regardless of the quality of the paper, but I absolutely would get over it. If the student didn't know that it violates etiquette, I wouldn't hold it against the student (though I might have some strong words). This is not a situation of bear-an-eternal-grudge, commit ritual suicide now, you will never be forgiven.

    Incidentally, I am surprised to hear that you seem to be saying you have submitted a paper and listed others (e.g., students of yours) as co-authors, without getting their approval first. I guess the norms must be different in your field than in mine. (The fact that you talk about "submitting abstracts" has me confused and further suspecting that there must be differences between our fields; I'm not sure what "submitting an abstract" refers to. In my field, we submit papers for publication.) In my field, I would consider it inappropriate for anyone to submit a paper and list someone else as an author without their approval, regardless of their relationship. You gotta talk about this stuff and have everyone on board.

    • Science Professor says:

      By "abstract", I was referring to a short submission for a conference, not a manuscript/paper. Conference submissions are peer-reviewed, but are not nearly as important as papers, and are not nearly as important as conference articles in engineering fields.

      • Mr Undergrad says:

        Depends on the field. In my field (computer science), conferences are actually as important if not more important than Journals.

  • Katie says:

    I think the reaction depends in large part on the level of the student. It seems unfair to be "terminally mad" at an undergraduate for making this kind of mistake, especially a sophomore/junior. I'm still a grad student, but I've written letters of rec for undergrads, and my recommendation is always based on how the student reacts to being told that his/her actions were contrary to our "culture." (I suppose this mostly applies to culture that the student would have no way of knowing if I or my advisor didn't teach them - the RA who thought that it was okay to describe a research subject by an ethnic slur did not get a second chance. Someone who submitted an abstract with my name on it without prior approval would get a second chance.)

  • An Onymous says:

    I would be angry, but I'd get over it --all the more quickly since it was withdrawn before being reviewed. I'd look at it as an obviously much-needed learning opportunity for the student, and a prompt to be very explicit about my expectations in the future, and then I'd move on with my life. Who has time to sabotage an undergrad's career?

    I've been forced to submit without co-author input before, but only because they never got around to responding. After letting it linger in their in-boxes for awhile, I send a message saying that if I don't hear from them by a certain date, I'll assume they're happy with it (on the principle that serious concerns would merit a more timely response anyway), and that seems to work pretty well. I don't know if it's accepted etiquette, but with some co-authors it's the only way I'd ever get to publish my work.

  • Christina Pikas says:

    I'm absolutely not cool with someone - anyone - submitting something with my name on it without allowing me to at least read it first. It doesn't matter if it's good or bad or if the person is very senior or very junior. I would forgive it though, particularly for a student who thought they were just showing initiative. It certainly does happen though and for everything from intellectual property disclosures to conference papers.

    There are differences in geosciences (100% acceptance rates for conferences, everyone on a team being an author) and computer science (often 20% acceptance rates for conferences, few co-authors). Folks in the geosciences that I work with think all disciplines work like theirs and so don't get how jarring it is to someone not accustomed to their field.

  • Archie Holmes says:

    For me in depends. In my work, I provide samples to people who use them for their work. In this case, we are listed as co-authors and I feel no need to know about submissions unless something happens (i.e., acceptance). As our efforts get larger, then I move more towards wanting to be notified and involved in the writing process.

  • STP says:

    I had a colleague submit a paper with my name on it that I had not seen in any form. He thought he was doing me a favor by sparing me the time it would take to read/edit the paper. He was not even particularly embarrassed when I pointed out that he had misspelled one of the names of a student co-author. I was very angry, mostly because he should have known better!

    If an undergrad student submitted a meeting abstract with my name on it, I would probably also be angry, but not eternally. If it were a poor/incorrect abstract, I would insist that it be withdrawn, but if it were OK, I'd probably let it go. Then, I would have a discussion with the student about publishing etiquette.

  • studyzone says:

    I would be upset, in particular because the student would have been told point-blank from the time of joining the lab what my expectations were. Some students learn by experience, not by being told something, so it would be a good teaching moment as we discussed my reasons for being upset, then we'd work through it. My graduate PI made it very clear that he had final say on any abstract that was submitted - and had no qualms about denying students' requests to submit an abstract, feeling that the student didn't have enough data to warrant one, or was afraid that a competitor would get wind of a particular project (he, too, was a quality control freak).

  • Namnezia says:

    I'd be pissed. But as it is not my tendency to get mad, I'd get over fairly quickly.

  • WhizBANG! says:

    There are some exceptions:

    1) Co-author of paper or abstract who supplied some technique or material in exchange for authorship, but really didn't do the study. I always send them a copy of what we submit/publish, but I don't necessarily have them preview it for approval.

    2) Student or technician co-authors who participated in some portion of the research but did not do the whole project or write the abstract/paper. For example, a summer undergraduate student may work on something for 8 weeks, but not complete any portion of the study. I may still put them as a middle coauthor, and I will send them the abstract/manuscript when I submit it.

    • Dan says:

      If you have a coauthor who contributed a reagent or technique, don't you think you should let them look over the paper/abstract before submitting it to make sure that you're describing their contribution correctly?

  • Miss MSE says:

    My advisor makes it very clear that abstracts must be run past him, but will submit abstracts based on work he thinks might get done without consulting the student who would be doing said work. In a current case, he submitted an abstract based on the work of one student, who has since gotten stuck out of the country with visa problems. This leaves me to somehow generate and analyze the data for a brand new project in roughly six weeks... yay?

  • fcs says:

    If my name is on something as an author, I would like to see it in advance. The publication venue and format is irrelevant. (In CS, abstracts and posters often get published on the web, in IEEExplore, ACM Digital Library, etc).

  • grad student says:

    I would be interested in hearing what some of these other unwritten rules of research culture are. I tend to be a little bit slow at interpreting social situations sometimes, so while I probably know some of them, I feel like an explicit primer would be interesting and potentially quite useful.

  • GMP says:

    I actually did something similar when I was in grad school -- I was a 3rd year grad student, it was an internal center report, and my advisor had been out of town for several weeks. I submitted the report without my advisor checking it, and I honestly felt that I was doing him a favorsparing him the triviality. When he came back, he insisted I withdraw the report. He looked over it, didn't change a thing except add a line specifying the funding source, and we resubmitted. Still, this sent a powerful message that NOTHING, no matter how trivial, gets sent anywhere without his blessing.

    I have a collaborator who drives me crazy by putting my name on papers without me knowing. I know she thinks she is doing me a favor by sparing me the work, but a couple of times I really didn't like how the paper came out and I wish my name hadn't been associated with it. I have been trying to be more explicit and forceful about requiring that I see every piece of writing that gets submitted with my name on it.

    About FSP's question: when I was a n00b assistant prof, it happened twice that a student submitted an abstract without me knowing; in one case the abstract was decent so we didn't withdraw it, in the other we had to. Both times I was pissed and the students got an earful, but I got over it quickly. Now I periodically mention the issues of proper authorship assignment and etiquette in group meetings, so I think students learn the protocol early on.

  • ruth says:

    I have been that student. I submitted an abstract to a conference at some point without showing my advisor the final version of an abstract. He was unhappy. My reasoning at the time was that the project was nothing new, it was just an abstract, he had suddenly gone incommunicado around the deadline. I sent it in, and let him know. I don't even recall what happened afterward.

    To be honest that wasn't the last time I did something against culture. I don't think I regret either.

  • I have submitted papers without co-author approval in two situations: 1) the co-author was a former student for whom I have no contact information and cannot find on the web. Since it often takes 5–7 years for me to complete a paper, the undergrads who participated in small ways along the way may no longer even be in academia. 2) the co-author does not respond to repeated requests for feedback.

    I have a couple of times had people submit articles with my name on them without checking with me first. This irritates me and makes me much less likely to collaborate with the person in future. In one case, I only found out about the paper 3 years later when doing a literature search on myself—I never collaborated with THAT person again, though the paper was ok when I finally read it and did not distort the work unduly.

  • Dan says:

    When I was a grad student, I learned this bit of etiquette when my advisor ran an abstract by me of some work I had just come in on the tail end of before he was to give a talk on it at a local meeting. That indicated the standard practice clearly to me, and I made sure to run co-authored abstracts by him in the future. I understand SP's justifications for not feeling the need to reciprocate in getting abstract approval with students, but at least for me this was useful as a clear indication of how these things are done. (Plus, it helped me feel like a colleague rather than an underling, which is always a positive thing for budding PhDs.)

  • anon says:

    I would be angry with a student who submitted an abstract without my approval, but I'd get over it, especially if it was a new person who didn't know any better.

    I've had at least one paper published with my name on it without my knowledge (I was a graduate student). One was a review article in which the senior author (a colleague of my advisor's) had lifted some written work directly out of my thesis. I suppose it doesn't qualify as plagiarism if my name is on the paper, but it would have been nice if he at least showed it to me before it was submitted.

  • poor advising says:

    I wouldn't be angry. How are newbies supposed to understand what is and is not appropriate if they've never been told? How are they supposed to understand the 'culture' of their field if no one ever explains it to them?

    I've submitted grant proposals with a proposed partner without asking first because that person worked with me in the past on the same kind of project and I knew she was still interested. She became very angry with me, even though it brought money to her work. However, she must have forgotten it the following year because she did a similar thing to me, except that I had no experience in the topic she was proposing, I had never expressed an interest in working on it, and I was not qualified to do what she said I was going to do.

    Advisors need to be EXPLICIT about what is and is not acceptable. Why they tend to think that students and new faculty members will automatically know what they're supposed to do and when, when it varies widely between institutions and fields, is beyond me. We all need to do a better job of communicating with new staff, students, and faculty members to help them avoid violating unwritten policies and expectations.

  • Q says:

    I learned early on (as in: day 1) that the advisor is the final authority. Nothing should be done without his/her knowledge/consent/input/etc. Absolutely nothing.

    Personally, I'd be pissed if someone did something like this. I might get over it, it's hard to say because (for better or for worse) I tend to hold grudges.

    Another piece of unrelated research etiquette that is driving me absolutely bonkers right now: people taking their lab notebooks with them when they leave. (Yes, I'm being serious.)

    • Science Professor says:

      That's a good example (lab notebooks). The fact that such notebooks are not the personal property of the student is now included in some research training, but it still seems to be a surprise to some. I am actually fine with students taking their notebooks with them as long as I know where to find them if I need to and if I have a copy of the essential info.

  • a says:

    A former co-worker published a paper with my name on it that I had never seen. I had though read the client report that it was generated from but there were some fairly major differences.
    I was annoyed because I thought that with a bit more effort in the writing (which I would have been totally prepared to do), we could have pushed the paper into a much better journal. So everyone is now short-changed.

  • Dr. O says:

    I would be mad, whether or not the abstract was well-written. Not terminally (if the student was otherwise competent), but pretty angry nonetheless.

    For one, going to conferences in and of itself requires permission. You're (theoretically) taking time away from the lab, and (likely) spending some of the PI's money for travel/conference fees. Even PIs need to submit paperwork to their institution to take time away for conferences. This really shouldn't be a surprise to the student.

    Secondly, the work you do under the mentorship of a PI typically belongs to the PI - at least in my field. You have to ask permission to share that work with others outside the lab.

    Lastly, for the reasons you mention, you should always consult co-authors before submission. Sure PIs (and myself even) often get lax on this for abstracts. But at the very least, I mention to my mentor/collaborators that I plan to submit an abstract on the work prior to submission.

  • Respi Sci says:

    This mistake just doesn't happen with students. When I was a post-doc, a scientist who was visiting us for his sabbatical, submitted and presented an abstract at a symposium held in his home country. While he included the names of all those who worked on the project, he neglected to inform any of us in advance. Even worse, the results he presented was from study sponsored by a pharmaceutical company. You can only imagine their reaction when they saw a published abstract on their test drug and they had not approved the abstract! It nearly cost our lab the loss of the sponsor support.

  • Sally says:

    FSP's scenario happened to me too. I agreed in a general way that it would be a good idea to submit a conference abstract, thinking (but not saying allowed--unwritten rule!) that the student and I would review the abstract together before submission. S/he sent me the abstract very late in the evening, just minutes before the submission deadline. I found the abstract, with its timestamp, the next morning in my email. The abstract had poor grammar and an erroneous description of one of our numerical methods and the title had inappropriate punctuation.

    My feelings about the incident were conflicted. On the one hand, I had been thinking the student had lost steam and decided not to bother about the abstract. I was glad s/he decided to push through both the research and the writing to get it done. On the other hand, the embarrassing abstract is now out there in the official abstract database for the world to see. It makes me cringe every time I come across it. I wish I had had FSP's foresight and instigated a withdrawal of the abstract. I definitely will if it happens again--at the time I thought a submitted abstract was irrevocable.

    I'm not really still mad about that specific incident, but I am keeping a much sharper eye on that student's writing and general behavior.

  • Canadian_Brain says:

    I'd call our lab's rule is only a PI can submit an abstract without asking co-authors, and only if all the co-authors are currently/formerly supervised by the PI.

    For this reason, I'm now roped into giving one of those annoying internal 'research days' talks to a general audience. ugh... c'est la vie.

  • chall says:

    I would never submit anything without sending it to the co-authors to have an opportunity to make comments. That said, I usually have written in the email accompanying it "this is an abstract to be submitted for conference by this date. Let me know by this date -x days if you have comments". And those abstracts would be for conferences were most of the data is on the verge of being published or we have a communication about the research.

    As for sending in papers or grants, I would give more time and wait for feedback since this is bigger impact than conferences in my field.

    I've been on papers that I've only seen after submission and it makes me angry not to even have an opportunity to review the written things I'm then supposedly saying I'm ok with. It's curtesey as well as good research ethics in my book to invite and be transparant with your co-authors what you write in their name.

    As a grad student, it wouldn't have occurred to me to send anything without my PIs permission/looking at it - however well written it was. As for the coauthors in that part of my life, I'd leave it to my PI to send to them and/or know what they thought about the findings since they/PI was ultimately responsible for knowing what was right or not in their lab.

    I would probably not be angry for a long while, but I would explain in no uncertain terms that it it not the acceptable way of doing things and if nothing else, it would save them a lot of trouble and heartache in the end if they did it the "right" way. If I was ok with the abstract I wouldn't retract it (since I think it points to me being lax in my responsibilites) but that's more practical reasoning than actual thinking what's right or wrong.

  • CH says:

    Early grad students are generally new to academia; it is unreasonable to expect them to know all of the "unwritten" rules you have learned in the many years you have spent there. I also understand it is hard to think to specify what specific behavior or response you are looking when you say something that, to you, seems perfectly clear. What I would do (and what I did in the classroom when I taught) is keep a list of "unwritten rules" as you encounter violations of them (though I considered them more miscommunications on my part, not violations). Give the list of expectations to students when they start in your lab. It will surely save you some grief, and it will not make them feel as if they are walking on eggshells, trying terribly hard, but blindly, to avoid breaking an "unwritten rule."

  • Ria says:

    I'm honestly surprised at the number of people who don't think that they should contact all co-authors if they are the PI or the coauthor works in the lab. I did my graduate work in a lab where the PI regularly overstretched the bounds of reasonable conclusions. He had this tendency to submit without checking with his "inferior" coauthors, and there are two papers that have my name on them that I would not have acquiesced to if I had had prior knowledge that he was putting my name on those papers. It's good for a PI to recognize that there may be philosophical or procedural reasons why a trainee in their lab would NOT want to be on a published abstract or manuscript. Also, it's simply rude to a future colleague to consider their input useless (particularly since the trainee/employee often understands the minutiae of the work more thoroughly than the PI). Take home message: all coauthors should be consulted prior to submission, regardless of the relative rank of the individual doing the submitting.

  • Psyc Girl says:

    I would be pissed if a student did this, but I'd get over it.

    FSP, I'd be curious to see some more posts on these unspoken rules -as a nOOb Assistant Prof I am struggling with teaching these things.

    For example, I have a student who just doesn't seem to get that I'm busy and will interrupt me any time to ask inane questions, even when we have a meeting set up (i.e., student stops by at 10am to ask a question when we have a 2pm meeting. And no, it's not an emergency!). I've tried to talk to the Student but they just don't get it (this is one example of many)

  • Janos says:

    I consider my name on a paper as my signature. If it is put there without my knowledge, it is forgery.

    On the other hand, it is perfectly reasonable for someone to send me an email saying "unless you respond by **, the paper/abstract/proposal is going in with your name on it."

    It takes 2 minutes to bring this "culture" to the attention of coworkers.

    I do not see much virtue in alternative arrangements -- "if it is good I won't get mad" or "it's OK with inferiors" "it's OK if the person is really busy." It's an email, or unethical behavior. Why is this complicated?

  • Carrie says:

    I've been on both ends of this stick. As an undergrad doing a summer research project, I submitted a [horrid] manuscript without having my advisor see it first. He was pretty PO'd (rightfully so) and we withdrew the manuscript before it went any further. I was embarrassed and learned my lesson, luckily with no lasting harm done (my adviser and I have had a successful 20 year working relationship since then).

    Recently, I had a co-PI submit a manuscript with my name on it as co-author and I didn't learn about it until the paper was published! I was very upset about this -- the paper was fine but it never should have been published without my consent as a co-author.

  • JOHN says:

    It's great that you can point to your own hypocrisy and question it, and I do agree your experience in having written so many abstracts gives you the earned right take more "liberties" with authorship etc.

    What surprised me was your questions to us regarding how we would feel if a student did such. I am not attacking you, for I too would be enraged and heated and "how could he etc" for a few awhile. But that's just it, .. "How could he?" or perhaps "why, would he?" Sometimes we think our students are expressing themselves and demonstrating a professional level of satisfaction when in fact they aren't. I remember when the concept of an abstract was a hazy thing, where did all these abstracts go? Certainly they didn't pop up on pubmed like our PI's primary articles. Undergraduates are much less homogenous in terms of experience / talent / motivation. etc. Think about it, if two student came to your lab and only had one (JUST ONE) research experience prior to you then it would stand to reason that the student who had a positive mentoring relationship wherein experience was passed down, that student would be 100% (not 2%, not B versus A) 100% more capable then one who had a bad experience. The fact that the student went onward to success suggests his inclinations and talents were there, just not his comprehension or dare I say, "trust."

    Let's put that possibility aside for a second and talk about the student as if he "knew exactly what he was doing and wanted to pull a fast one." The question I would ask myself after a moment of red hot anger, is how I had put them off in such a way that they were inclined (knowingly or not) to move independent of me. Mentors don't need to be buddies, but even a stern mentor who is involved provides a platform the people working under him can rely on structurally.

    If we have the "power" (yes it is power, because you could have written the little fucker off and he never would have gone to grad school) then we really should extend it to the people around us to give them a leg up. You'll never know what possessed him, enabled him, or confused him, enough to allow such behavior. Too bad, because with all that power at hand, you could have. Instead, we (not just you) relieve ourselves here, in a blogasphere.

    Such a pile of rambling poop I hope some of it makes sense.