Archive for: September, 2011


Sep 27 2011 Published by under advising, students

Below are excerpts from an e-mail I received from a reader. After much thought, I decided to "hide" part of the e-mail, even though doing so may make the resulting comments less useful to the person who e-mailed me. Before presenting the e-mail, let me explain why I am not including certain adjectives.

The e-mail is about graduate students/postdocs from a certain part of the world; in fact, I don't think it will be difficult to figure out which part of the world is in question. I can relate to the scenarios described, but have not found these problems to be quite so confined to students and researchers from one particular part of the world. Unfortunately, these problems can be universal (and I am including Americans in that universe), although the person who e-mailed me presents a convincing case for success advising a diverse, international group with the notable exception of students from a particular part of the world.

With that introduction, here is the e-mail and a respectful request for advice:

I seem to have the same fundamental problem in all cases: I ask the {deleted} researcher to do a task. He/she nods. The task doesn't get done. I follow up. He/she slightly evades the question, gives some information about something else he/she has done, or even flat out tells me that he/she has in fact performed the task. I end the conversation, and check again more carefully and see again that the task is definitely not done. I realize that the scholar either (a) decided that I was making a dumb request, and thought it would be more polite to verbally accept the task but not do it, than to object outright, or (b) didn't know how to do the task but thought it was culturally unacceptable to ask the appropriate questions to learn. But I don't know whether it was (a) or (b) and I don't know how to find out. I've tried explicitly laying out options (a) and (b) and asking the scholar in question, but all I get is more evasive but generally polite and affirmative answers. I've tried conducting these interactions verbally and in writing. I've tried being nice, I've tried being firm, I've tried threatening. I've tried explaining very explicitly that I have read about their culture, that I know they feel it is rude to say no or to object, but that here, in American culture, it is much worse to say something that is untrue, and that I welcome well-considered objections or questions. But I just can't figure out how to get honest (by American standards) answers.

.. I don't know how to handle this: how can I trust a researcher with $1M equipment, if every single question I ask is answered with "yes", and if I can't trust the researcher to tell me truthfully whether they have actually performed X task?

How can I break this cycle? I guess the obvious answer is that I'm an idiot to keep hiring {deleted}. But I can't bring myself to believe that.There are many brilliant and extremely hard working scientists in {that part of the world}, and I feel that there has to be some way to enable them to function productively in America. After all, the labs work smoothly enough there in {deleted}, and fantastic science is performed, and fantastic papers are written. How can this happen, if the researchers there aren't honest with each other? They must be honest with each other, but somehow I am failing to ask the right questions to get the honest answers here in my own lab.

Do you have any suggestions? Do you think any {deleted} readers of your blog {from that part of the world} would have any useful insight?

Readers? No matter where you are from or where you are now, if you have any positive or negative experiences with advising or collaborating with students and researchers from very different cultures, do you have any advice?

For reasons related to my incomplete anonymity, I prefer not to address this question directly from personal experience, although I will say that I have had a not-too-long-ago experience with a student -- not from the same part of the world as the one my correspondent describes -- who was unable or unwilling to give (apparently) honest answers to even simple questions and requests. I never did solve this problem, so it makes more sense for me to ask for advice than to give it.

This is not an invitation to bash people from a particular part of the world. The general question is how to deal with advisees who don't give you straight answers, including when it is critical for them to do so.

I didn't include the entire e-mail, but my impression of the person who wrote it is of a caring, thoughtful person who really wants to be a good mentor and who has tried many different approaches to improve the advisor-advisee relationship. I therefore hope that, despite my deletion of {a part of the world}, there will be some constructive advice from other readers about breaking through the cultural communication barrier in the advisor-advisee relationship.

28 responses so far

Author Credit Check

Sep 12 2011 Published by under advising, graduate school, publishing, students

A graduate student wrote and asked for advice; the e-mail is excerpted here:

I was hoping for some advice on dealing with another student in my research group, particularly in regard to author credit on a paper we submitted (where I was first author). We typically put the names from members of our group on our papers, because every member of the group helps out in some way.. This PhD student (who is senior to me) was supposed to help me with the paper, but came to meetings and did little else, avoiding meeting with me separately. Towards the deadline, this student sent out emails saying he was going to work on particular sections, and do an entire review of the paper, but he never completed either and silently let the deadline pass without any contact (without even an apology).

How would you deal with such a situation?  In particular, this bothers me because I helped this student with his [recent] submission .. by contributing ideas, writing and editing, and he did not reciprocate. I'm a new graduate student, and this is my first paper where I'm first author. I'm not really even sure of my role here. Who really has control over author lists on papers? Should I bring it up with our supervisor, and in what way? Does it really matter if he's credited as 5th (or so) author if he didn't contribute anything? I don't want to rat out a fellow student (who may be having problems), but I also don't like the idea of this student capitalizing on the rest of the group's work without contributing to it.
I don't know the dynamics of this research group, but it would be good if there were a way to have a general discussion about this topic with the advisor. Maybe, without ratting out the delinquent student, there is a way to ask questions about how authorship is decided.
If everyone-is-included-no-matter-what is just the way it is, it's not in this student's interests to single out a fellow student as a malingerer. If the slacker student has a systematic problem, the advisor likely knows and will have to deal with it in other contexts.
But other readers may disagree, perhaps reasoning that authorship is not an automatic right but one that should be earned in some way. I agree with this, but I am thinking about what is reasonable for a new graduate student to do in this situation.
The question of who gets to decide authorship order is an interesting one. Of course, different fields have different norms for authorship order, but in cases (such as the one in question here) in which inclusion and ordering relate to contribution (first = primary), some decisions have to be made.
In theory, the primary author should decide, and should be fair about this decision. Also in theory, the resulting decision shouldn't matter if the primary author is a student or a much-published professor, although in the case of a student who doesn't know the "authorship culture" of their fields -- e.g., who is a co-author, who gets a nice acknowledgment, and who is not included -- it's good to have a discussion about this with more senior people, perhaps getting more than one opinion. In some cases, authorship decisions about inclusion/exclusion and order may not be straightforward.
Different research groups, however, may have different philosophies about this, including possibly the one in question, in which all publications are group publications. In that case, it seems prudent to explore how hard-and-fast the everyone-as-coauthor custom is. Are there ever exceptions?
Does anyone have additional/different advice for this student?

26 responses so far