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?


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