A Plea

Dear colleague:

Once you are a grown-ass scientist with several years of experience past your PhD — which means that among other things you are not a graduate student of mine, for whose technical writing practices I am responsible and after whom I (grudgingly) accept that it is my job to clean up prior to manuscript submission lest we all be embarrassed — then pretty please with a cherry on top: 

— Don’t send me a manuscript draft in a state where it’s impossible to comprehend what a figure actually represents. What is the quantity you are plotting, for which system/sample?

— Be cognizant that someone is supposed to at least approximately be able to read stuff off your graphs, which means that a total of three ticks with numbers (with no ticks or numbers in between) on the whole goddamn axis is simply not enough.

— Read the goddamn draft before you send it to me. Go over it as you would when you review other people’s papers; notice that there are multiple places where you make pretty strong claims of “common knowledge” that’s not really common and where you don’t actually provide a citation. It pisses me off when there are 10-15 places where I felt a citation was really necessary but it’s missing.

— Read the goddamn draft before you send it to me. Pretty please decide on  the notation and don’t change it 5 times throughout the paper (because you cut and pasted from 5 different papers) and clean up the equations.  It’s not really all that hard. Really.

— Read the goddamn draft before you send it to me. You have to read it in order to realize that, in the part that you wrote, the flow is terrible. It is hypertension-inducing even in the under-caffeinated among us, and in my case a vein might pop. Edit the draft, for goodness sake, I know you can. You are not my student, I should not have to clean up so much after you. More importantly, I don’t want to. You are a grown-ass scientist.




  1. Add in, “please don’t send me a 10,000 word manuscript and tell me that the journal you want to send it to has a 3,000 word limit, asking if I have suggestions on how to edit it down.” Oof.

  2. and please clean up your bibliography database such that superscripts and subscripts are in the right place, there are no more uppercase letters than intended and PLEASE check the spelling of the author names!

  3. Oh man I hope I’m not that person (I haven’t noticed any frustration from my postdoc adviser but maybe he’s just really good at hiding it)???

    Regarding the citation thing… If it’s an early draft and the writing is otherwise alright, is it OK to include requests for a relevant citation from my adviser (e.g. “It is has often been suggested that pink bunnies hop farther than blue bunnies (refs??)”)?

    The reason I ask is because one of the things that I have found most educational about writing with my current adviser is reading all of the papers that he suggests I cite. After all he’s been spending 20 more years reading the lit on the topic than I have so can usually pull the best citation off the top of his head (doing lit searches from scratch often leads to a less than comprehensive or a derivative paper, often because it’s hard to find the original citation due to age or being from a less mainstream journal).

  4. I have a different viewpoint about this. I really have no problem looking at a draft at any stage. I know early drafts are often a mess–hopefully figures and captions, but the writing may be an outline, disorganized, with half-cooked thoughts. I aim to try to recognize drafts for the stage they are at, and deal with them at that stage. Sometimes it helps to send a trusted collaborator an early-stage draft–as a force to get something off your desk; as a starting-point-request for input and discussion, and/or for input on logic.

    I have worked with people who can only look at cleaned-up drafts. I have worked with people who are tolerant with messy sloppy drafts. It’s good to know before-hand. While I think everyone would appreciate a nice clean draft (if the ideas make sense and are organized), I would only send an early draft to someone if I knew it didn’t anger and frustrate them.

  5. Jojo, I don’t think anyone would begrudge a postdoc (the person I was referring to is a professor), as a postdoc is still someone in training (so not fully a grown-ass scientist 🙂 ). I also don’t mind having a placeholder for a reference, that’s perfectly fine especially if you specifically want someone’s input on which references to put in.

    MineralPhys, your comment made me think. It’s not that I never deal with rough drafts, so I have been trying to figure out what ticked me off about this one. I think it’s the point that it was supposed to be a very near-final draft and then it contains sloppy shit like that. This colleague has been dragging feet for way longer than agreed upon and then sends me this, and we have to submit really soon. It’s disrespectful of my time, because now of course I am supposed to clean all this crap up.

    I really don’t mind the high-level discussion on drafts, how the message should best be conveyed and whether things follow from data etc. What pisses me off is the the small, easily correctable stuff, and when I see the person didn’t bother to read the text through at all before firing it off in an email.

    I have a student whose first drafts are pretty polished; he takes a little while to produce them, but they are free of this annoying crap — the references are formatted, the figures look nice even if end up not using them, and he’s done the best to ensure good text flow (he’s not a native speaker of English) — basically, he writes and tries to edit to the best of his abilities and takes care of the brainless stuff (like makes sure notation is consistent throughout). While I end up rearranging the text and rewriting, his drafts never irritate me like this, because they show he cares.

    Also, timescales are very important. As I tell my students — you can take a little while to produce a polished draft, or you can quickly produce a rough draft; I have students on both ends of the spectrum. However, you cannot take forever and then only give me a very rough, sloppy draft. That way lies advisor’s wrath.

  6. Please, don’t “cut and paste” from your previous papers at all. I don’t want to have to scour your old papers to check for self-plagiarism because you’re too lazy to write it properly.

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