Manuscripts and Mentors

October 30, 2007

Post-doc Young Female Scientist has an interesting new post up about her efforts to get a manuscript published, and the role of her mentor in this process. She writes:

Submitted paper with overly grandiose claims to a journal where it wouldn’t get in, based on overly optimistic advice of well-meaning PI.

Predictably, paper did not get in.

In terms of where to submit a paper, it is almost always best to first submit to a journal that seems like a “stretch”. There are a number of reasons for this.

If you don’t try, the chance of getting in is zero. You just never know what will happen. Maybe you get lucky and the editor thinks your paper is worth sending out for review, and then you get some reviewers who like the work.

Even if the reviewers don’t like the work enough to support publication, the reviews you get can be extremely helpful in revising the paper for resubmission to the next level down in the impact hierarchy for your field. And if the editor chooses not to send the paper out for review, you haven’t lost much time.

It is the responsibility of an effective mentor to ensure that each of her trainees’ papers is published in the journal with the highest possible impact factor. The only way to achieve this is to aim high. If your paper sails into press at the first journal you submit it to, you have aimed too low.

Had plenty of stamina to revise and plenty of time to send it elsewhere at that point, but no. PI wanted to try an even more ambitious plan, including augmenting paper with numerous uninformative and risky experiments.

Had a bad feeling about this, but wanted so dearly to believe that PI, with much more experience and wisdom, knows more than little MsPhD.

Experiments were done. Not much new could be concluded from them.

This sounds like more of an issue with experimental strategy and tactics than with manuscript preparation, but it’s hard to say. I wonder whether the paper was sent out for review at the first journal it was sent to, and, if so, whether the PI’s “ambitious plan” was rationally based on those reviews. Without that information, it is hard to assess whether the plan was wise or foolish. The fact that the experiments ended up being uninformative tells us little about whether it made sense to try them.

Paper is now much longer, arguably not much better, time has run out, and PI is now talking about sending it ‘elsewhere’ (meaning, the same level of ‘elsewhere’ where it could have been published in its original form many months ago).

You have to take substantial risks if you want substantial rewards. If the paper was accepted at the first journal it was submitted to, then YFS’s post would have been very different. Hindsight is 20/20.

PI won’t even take a strong stand on which elsewhere, although some possibilities suggested a month or two ago were shot down.

The same possibilities so recently shot down are now regarded as perfectly reasonable.

It sounds like YFS’s mentor is somewhat indecisive. There are strategies a trainee can adopt to work more effectively with an indecisive, or even obstructionist, mentor.

Here’s the deal: (1) PIs love data, figures, and publications. If you show a PI nice-looking data, figures, and/or a manuscript, she is putty in your hands. (2) People are lazy. If you present them with a path of least resistance, they take it.

If a PI tells you that one of your ideas will “never work”, and you are convinced that it will, do the experiment on the sly, late at night or on the weekend. If it works, the PI will be pleased as punch that you did the experiment anyway. (Maybe she’ll rewrite history and think it was her idea in the first place, but who gives a damn? Allocation of credit between a PI and a trainee is not a zero-sum game.)

If the PI can’t decide where to send a paper, write up a complete manuscript with the structure and format for whatever journal you think is best. If you put the complete manuscript on the PI’s desk ready to be sent to that journal, her indecision will melt away, and she will send it out.

When you can’t even agree to continue to disagree, and the random changes of opinion occur too late to be useful, one has to wonder why anyone ever thought the apprenticeship model had anything to offer.

Wow! That is quite the non sequitur. It’s like saying, “When Chad Pennington can’t even complete a pass, one has to wonder why anyone ever thought the quarterback model had anything to offer.”

Maybe Pennington sucks. But there are plenty of good quarterbacks in the NFL. Maybe YFS’s mentor sucks. But there are plenty of good mentors in science.

I gave up on it long ago.

This is a shame, because without finding good mentorship, YFS’s chances for ultimately achieving success as a PI herself are greatly reduced.

To all trainees reading this post: If you are not receiving good mentorship from your PI, you must find it. And if this requires moving to a different lab, then so be it. There are good mentors out there. I promise.

2 Responses to “Manuscripts and Mentors”

  1. whimple Says:

    I agree with most of the manuscript advice, however, I think it is also important to write up a manuscript as a cohesive story, and then stick with that story. Don’t keep changing or adding onto the story unless the reviewers specifically instruct you to. Definitely shop the manuscript as high up as you can, but don’t fall into the trap of, “I just need this one more experiment, and then it will get into Science”. A freshly inked line on your C.V.’s publication list is worth so much more than the sum of all the “potential” Science papers that could someday be there. A corollary to this advice is that trying to guess what the reviewers are going to want is a fool’s game. Write it up as best you can, submit it, and see what (if anything) the reviewers really do want.


  2. […] is true, but incomplete. As I pointed out in yesterday’s post Manuscripts and Mentors, PIs are lazy. If you present a PI with a paper as a fait accompli, you will have a much greater […]


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